Minor league firings don't seem to indicate major Twins shakeup

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 9, 2011 - 11:58 PM

The Twins fired the manager and hitting coach at Rochester but said the moves had to do with wins and losses, not player development.

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Former Twins catcher Tom Nieto managed Class AAA Rochester to its first back-to-back 90-loss seasons since 1903 and 1904.

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DETROIT — After the Twins fired the manager and hitting coach from their woeful Class AAA Rochester affiliate Friday, major league skipper Ron Gardenhire probably summed it up best.

"That's what seasons like this do," Gardenhire said before the Twins played the Tigers. "They end up costing people jobs. And that really stinks in this business, so we all feel responsible."

The Twins fired Rochester manager Tom Nieto and hitting coach Floyd Rayford but retained pitching coach Bobby Cuellar. That trio was retained after the Red Wings finished 49-95 in 2010, but after a 53-91 finish this year -- marking the first consecutive 90-loss seasons for Rochester since 1903-04 -- the Twins decided changes had to be made.

Twins General Manager Bill Smith said the decisions were based on Rochester's on-field performance, not the fundamental lapses Red Wings players have had after reaching the majors.

"In the minor leagues, our goal is player development, but there is a winning element," Smith said. "No.1 , you want your players to know how to win. No. 2, we owe it to our affiliates to put a competitive product on the field. They're trying to market and sell 70 home games, and that's a challenge when your team's lost 190 games in two years.

"We're not living up to our end of the bargain. And I'm not talking about Tom Nieto. I'm talking about we, the Minnesota Twins, are not living up to our end of the affiliation."

Nieto, a catcher on the Twins 1987 World Series champions, could not be reached for comment.

Twins minor league director Jim Rantz said the Twins wanted to notify Nieto and Rayford soon after the season, giving them more time to latch on with other organizations.

"I wish them nothing but the best because they are good, solid baseball people," Rantz said. "It wasn't all their fault. There was a lot that happened with our Triple-A team with all the moves and injuries we had."

The Twins had no other announcements regarding their minor league field staff, other than the fact that Jim Shellenback, their pitching coach at rookie-level Elizabethton since 1994, plans to retire. This is likely a sign the rest of the Twins minor league field staff is returning.

Rantz said the Twins are definitely open to hiring a new Class AAA manager from outside the organization. Class AA New Britain manager Jeff Smith likely will be retained after bouncing back from a 44-98 record last year to finish 72-70 this year.

Inside the Twins clubhouse at Comerica Park, there was speculation that the new Rochester hitting coach would be Tom Brunansky, the former Twins star who had success in that same role at New Britain with prospects Joe Benson, Chris Parmelee and Brian Dozier.

When Danny Valencia, Trevor Plouffe and other young Twins struggled with fielding and baserunning earlier this year, Gardenhire wondered aloud whether the minor league clubs were being forceful enough with their instruction.

And when injured Twins went to Rochester for rehab assignments, some returned with a perception that two years of constant losing had sapped the desire for Red Wings players to do extra work on hitting and fielding.

"I don't think hard work or lack of it had anything to do with the losses," said Plouffe, who played in a combined 153 games for Rochester over 2010 and '11. "It was tough for Tom [Nieto] to throw a team out there with all the guys getting called up every year, and that's part of what we're going to have to deal with at the Triple-A level because we are a team that relies on our farm system."

The Twins have used the disabled list 24 times this year, so the turnover at Rochester was extraordinary.

"It's tough on a Triple-A manager and coaching staff when, at the end of May, arguably their nine best players are in Minnesota," Smith said.

And it's tough for a whole organization when that group can't help the major league team win, either.

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