The speculation over Ron Gardenhire’s future too often ignores the crux of the matter, the reason the Twins, rightly or wrongly, behave differently than most professional sports teams.
To fire Gardenhire, Twins General Manager Terry Ryan would have to call the manager into his office, look him in the eye, and say, “You didn’t win enough games with the teams I gave you.”
Could Ryan do that without experiencing pangs of guilt?
The Twins lost 99 games in 2011. Ryan reassumed the position of Twins general manager in November 2011. Ryan did good work in his first offseason, signing Josh Willingham (a bargain), Ryan Doumit (an ideal fit) and Jamey Carroll (a professional utility infielder), but did not fix the starting rotation, the most important component of any big-league team.
Lacking pitching, the Twins lost 96 games in 2012. Ryan set out to remake the rotation, bringing in Mike Pelfrey, Vance Worley and Kevin Correia, as well as prospects Alex Meyer and Trevor May.
Pelfrey carried an ERA of 5.55 into the All-Star break. Worley’s was 7.21 before he was demoted to Class AAA. Correia has been the best of the lot, pitching a team-high 116 ⅔ innings with a record of 7-6 and an ERA of 4.17 follwing a 3-2 victory over Cleveland on Saturday. Scott Diamond is 5-8 with a 5.32 ERA, and the Twins have the worst team ERA for starting pitchers in all of baseball, at 5.23.
Ryan’s moves doomed the 2013 Twins to another season of failure.
His unwillingness to spend big money on free-agent pitchers fits with his philosophy of avoiding the kind of huge contracts that have embarrassed or hamstrung other franchises. His insistence on building through the draft and by developing young, affordable, controllable pitchers is logical. His plans should make the Twins contenders again by 2015, when an excellent crop of prospects should be surfacing or beginning to produce in the majors.
But he can’t say he gave Gardenhire a fighting chance this year.
In most organizations, managers are hired to be fired, to be named as scapegoats during or after a disappointing season. Rightly or wrongly, the dynamic is different in the Twins front office.
Tom Kelly survived eight consecutive losing seasons. When Carl Pohlad, pushed by temporary executive Chris Clouser, considered firing Kelly, the manager asked for another chance to turn the team around, and was granted a reprieve.
Gardenhire’s circumstances aren’t identical to Kelly’s. Kelly was saddled with bad teams and low payrolls as Pohlad decided to play “studio baseball” in the Metrodome.
Gardenhire’s teams have been given more competitive payrolls, and he manages in a wonderful ballpark. What he and Kelly have in common is losing because of lousy pitching, and working for a general manager who does not believe in blaming his manager.
Gardenhire will have to pass a low bar to be retained: By the end of the season, Ryan will have to believe that the manager has not lost the clubhouse or retarded the development of the team’s young players following a season in which most of the young players struggled.
If Ryan fires Gardenhire, he will have to believe the guy who supervised so many winning teams, the guy who was the American League Manager of the Year in 2010, has failed to create a conducive learning environment, or a professional workplace.
Ryan would have to balance those judgments against a 32-year working relationship that began when they were both employed by the Mets in 1981.
More importantly, Ryan would have to believe that the 2013 Twins failed more because of the manager than the general manager. That would be his biggest mistake since 1995, when he traded Scott Erickson for Scott Klingenbeck.