The Twins enter their weekend series in Cleveland five games behind the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central race. There are 29 games to go, and the Twins will need a mini-miracle to make the playoffs. Entering the season, there were high expectations for this year's Twins team. The Twins have not met, or come near, meeting their expectations. Maybe expectations were too high, but there does seem to be a consistency with Ron Gardenhire-led teams. When little is expected of them, they tend to surprise us and play well. When much is expected, they have generally disappointed. How much of that blame (or credit) belongs to the manager, particularly when several players don't meet their individual expectations, or there is a rash of injuries?
I am not one that believes that Ron Gardenhire should be fired in the offseason. Believe me, that crowd has been out in full force throughout this season. However, I do believe that it is very fair to at least ask the question about how well the manager is performing in his role.
The Twins have a philosophy of building from within and playing many young players and watching and helping them develop. One crucial role of a Twins manager is an ability to deal well with young players. Yesterday, cmathewson wrote a terrific article at Twinkie Town called Gardy's Love of Veterans. In it, he discussed several scenarios of this. Juan Castro got several hundred plate appearances with the Twins while Jason Bartlett learned 'leadership' in AAA. Castro needed to be traded before Bartlett was given the Twins SS job. And Bartlett ended up traded. Matt Garza was not on the good side of the Twins manager because he threw too many fastballs. He was questioned and called immature (probably true). Again, he was traded.
The perfect current example of this is Mike Redmond and Jose Morales. The manager discusses how Morales needs to work on his footwork and throwing to be a better catcher. Currently, Mike Redmond is the backup catcher, and he has been really bad throwing and hitting. It doesn't take much to see that Morales is the better option. A competiting newspaper's writer asked Gardy about Morales's defense, and he complained that Morales would not go to Instructional League, and that is a consistent trait with young players. He singled out Matt Moses and Todd Walker.
Speaking of Walker, this is not a new trait for a Twins manager. Remember earlier this decade when Tom Kelly was still at the healm and Gardenhire was the 3B coach? Todd Walker was sent to AAA . While there, a newspaper article quoted Walker and several other AAA players said they would much rather be playing in AAA than playing for Tom Kelly because of how he dealt with young players. One of those players quoted in the article was Doug Mientkiewicz who was able to clear things up with the manager. You may recall David Ortiz's words regarding Mr. Kelly in Sports Illustrated? Torii Hunter is another guy who clearly never minds saying something negative about Tom Kelly.
One thing that is clear about Ron Gardenhire, he is all about first impressions. Alexi Casilla was brought up August 31, 2006, having spent less than two months in AA. His role was primarily to be a pinch runner due to his speed. He made a few rookie mistakes in '06 and more when he was given the starting job late in 2007. Those early mistakes put Casilla in the doghouse, a place the Casilla has found frequently over the last couple of years. Every time he makes an error, physical or mental, it doesn't take long for Gardy to provide a good quote about how disappointing Casilla is. Meanwhile, Nick Punto can't get bunts down or hit the ball on the ground, Michael Cuddyer has occasional lapses on the basepaths and Mike Redmond gets to play day games after night games. Luis Castillo rarely ran hard to 1B on ground balls.
Mike Smith got one start for the Twins in 2006. Gardy bashed him after the game, and Smith never got another chance with the Twins. Julio DePaula had a few rough outings after his debut with the Twins in 2007. Carmen Cali got a brief opportunity, but it was made clear that he would never get back with the Twins. Remember lefty Jason Miller. He pitched well in two games, but then had a really bad outing. Did he get a second chance? No. He was sent down immediately to AAA. Did he get a shot in 2008? No, they sent him to AA. I know Adam Johnson is often mentioned when talking about the Twins biggest draft busts. He struggled in his Major League debut (7 games), a year after being drafted. He threw some paperwork at Gardy after being sent down one spring training. In 2003, he got two more relief appearances, that went bad, and he was gone.
How about this year's example? Kevin Mulvey was brought up because their simply were few other options. He has always been a starting pitcher, but a need opened up in the bullpen. In just his second big league experience, he came into a rough situation and struggled. He was sent down after the game, and now he has been essentially traded to (claimed by) the Arizona Diamondbacks. He got his chance, right?
Being in the big leagues, and staying there, is about producing on the field over time. It's about getting chances and taking advantage of them. But it is also about making mistakes and making adjustments. I have been told by several Twins minor league players throughout the system that Ron Gardenhire does have a reputation of being rough on rookies and being big on first impressions. I have been told that hitters and pitchers are almost afraid to make mistakes. That isn't a good environment for anyone to play well and get better.
So, I do not think that Ron Gardenhire should be fired. He has done enough and experienced enough success to warrant another opportunity. No question. However, I for one, would really like to see this situation improved. 2009 has been a very frustrating season, one full of the infamous Gardy Glare, and plenty of eye rolls. For an organization that preaches patience and improvement, it is important that they have a leader that exudes that attitude, that doesn't have a situation in which minor leaguers are scared to be promoted to the big league club and young players are scared to make mistakes. Baseball is a game full of failure. It is hard enough to play physically, much less mentally over a long season.