Phil Miller covered three seasons of Twins baseball, but that was at a different ballpark for a different newspaper. Now Miller returns to the baseball beat after joining the Star Tribune as the Gopher football writer in 2010, and he won't miss the dingy dome for a minute. In addition to the Twins and Gophers, Miller covered the Utah Jazz and the NBA for six years at The Salt Lake Tribune.
As expected, four of the five players outrighted to Rochester 10 days ago have declined the assignment and elected to become free agents, and the fifth will likely do so once he becomes eligible next month.
Pitchers Josh Roenicke and Shairon Martis, outfielder Clete Thomas and infielder Doug Bernier are free to negotiate new contracts with any team. Bernier, who spent the second half of the season in Minnesota, is expected to agree to a new minor-league deal with the Twins, though the team says no contract has been formalized yet.
Righthander Cole De Vries, a former Minnesota Gopher, was also outrighted to Class AAA after the season. Because it was his first outright assignment, however, he cannot become a free agent until he becomes eligible as a six-year minor-leaguer, effective five days after the World Series ends.
Roenicke spent the entire season with the Twins, posting a 4.35 ERA in 62 innings. Thomas, called up from Rochester in early June, batted .214 with four home runs in 290 at-bats.
The Pirates on Saturday sent former second-round pick Duke Welker to the Twins to complete the Justin Morneau trade.
Welker, a righthanded reliever, appeared in two games for Pittsburgh last season, pitching 1 1/3 scoreless innings. The 6-foot-7 former Seminole State pitcher, drafted in the second round in 2005, had a 3.57 ERA with 65 strikeouts and 31 walks in 63 innings for Class AAA Indianapolis in 2013. He is expected to compete for a spot in the Twins' bullpen next spring.
"He's got a good slider he likes to use a lot," said Alex Presley, the outfielder who was also acquired Aug. 31 in exchange for Morneau. "He's a two-pitch guy who runs it up there 96, 97 [mph]. He's had one of the better years of his career this year, and he's building off that."
The Twins and Pirates agreed at the time of the trade on a group of players that the final player traded would be drawn from. The choice of which one to send to Minnesota was Pittsburgh's general manager Terry Ryan said.
The process of winnowing the Twins' 40-man roster began Wednesday with the outright assignment of three pitchers and an outfielder to Class AAA Rochester.
Righthanders Josh Roenicke, Cole De Vries and Shairon Martis were demoted to the Red Wings, along with outfielder Clete Thomas, reducing the Twins' roster to 36.
Roenicke, a waiver pickup last winter from Colorado, was the only one of the four to spend all season in Minnesota, and he posted a 4.35 ERA with one save in 62 innings in the Twins' bullpen. But the 31-year-old veteran slumped in September, allowing runs in each of his final six appearances. By being outrighted after having accumulated three years of service time -- he's played for four major-league teams over six seasons -- Roenicke can elect to become a free agent. Had he remained on the roster, he was eligible for arbitration.
Thomas was promoted from Rochester in early June, and eventually became the Twins' regular center fielder once Aaron Hicks was injured, and then sent down at the end of July. But his playing time was reduced significantly after the Twins acquired Alex Presley in the Justin Morneau trade with Pittsburgh. Thomas, 29, batted .214 with four home runs and 13 RBIs in 92 games, though he did not drive in a run in 49 games after July 28.
De Vries, 28, is a University of Minnesota alum who was injured in spring training and appeared in only four games for the Twins, posting a 10.80 ERA. Martis, 26, had a 5.59 ERA in six games.
Terry Ryan and Ron Gardenhire aren't saying. And in the absence of information, opinions are all over the map.
Everybody in the Target Field press box was guessing about whether Gardenhire will manage the Twins next season, a question that fortunately should be answered as soon as Monday. I heard confident predictions that he'll be fired, that he'll turn down a one-year contract, that he'll definitely be back. My own guess is that he signs a new contract, but that's as I type this; I've switched my opinion three times today.
But one thing was pretty clear in the Twins' clubhouse this weekend: The players seem pretty solidly behind their manager. Nobody ever goes on the record with calls for firing the manager, of course, but the current roster seems pretty loyal to Gardenhire. There's no evidence of a whisper campaign against him, no sense that he's lost the clubhouse in the least. If that's true, even amid 291 losses over three seasons, it's pretty remarkable.
Glen Perkins was particularly emphatic about his support.
"I don't think there's anyone else we want leading the team. There's no better guy," the Twins' closer said. "I've said it a thousand times -- this isn't his fault. He's doing the best he can with what he's given, and Terry [Ryan] is working hard to give him more."
His evidence, Perkins said, is on the field; it may not look like it given the record, but the Twins never stopped trying to win.
"He still gets us to work, he still gets us to care," Perkins said "You can't tell me our record would be better with someone else."
Brian Dozier, Joe Mauer, Scott Diamond, Brian Duensing and others seconded Perkins' sentiment.
"He's had my back, every single game," Diamond said.
"I respect Gardy more than anybody, he's a phenomenal manager. He knows how things should work, as far as winning," Dozier said. "I wouldn't want to play for anyone else."
We'll see on Monday if he has to.
One more clip from Perkins: As I wrote for the paper, he took the field before the game, in part to thank the fans on behalf of the team. But he also wanted to say, he explained afterward, that he understands and shares their frustration.
Some of the team's critics aren't just frustrated, they're angry. Perkins knows that very well, partly because he's active on Twitter. But also because he has been that angry fan himself.
When he was attending Stillwater High School in the late 1990s, he was constantly frustrated with the Twins, he said. "Actually, I've been an angry fan of every team here, at one time or another," he said with a smile. "I'm an angry Vikings fan right now."
I didn't ask about the quarterback. But I asked what he would tell those angry fans, most of whom want sweeping changes and more accountability. "Well, I'd say that we're working hard to turn this around, we're doing everything we can. And I'd say, thank you for supporting us," Perkins said. "Hopefully we'll continue to get their support."
He's sincere, he said, when he expresses his belief that a turnaround isn't as far off as many fans believe. The Indians, after all, had three 90-loss seasons in the last four, lost 94 games just last season, and now are heading home for a playoff game.
When better times arrive, Perkins said he wants to be part of them.
"Bobby [Cuellar, the bullpen coach] was saying today how much fun it is to work here, how great the people are. And I said, 'Imagine how fun it would be here if we were winning,' " Perkins said. "I think we'll get it turned around. And the fans on the fence, I hope we keep them, because I was one of them once. I was a diehard."
There are still plenty of those around, as the Twins' attendance of more than 2.4 million this year demonstrated.
"I definitely don't think the fan base here is apathetic," Perkins said, "and that's a good thing."
There are 240 bottles of champagne on ice in the visitors clubhouse this morning, waiting to be sprayed on postseason-bound Indians later today. In the Twins' clubhouse, there are leftover items cleaned out of a closet and dumped on a table for any player who wants them. Need some spare blood-red batting gloves, or a Johnny Goryl bobblehead?
So the atmosphere is a little different on the two sides of Target Field today. The Indians are on the field taking batting practice, knowing they have at least one more game to play, either Monday in a tie-breaker, or Tuesday in the wild-card game. Cleveland is a game up on Texas and Tampa Bay in the wild-card chase, and can clinch home-field advantage with a win. They had hoped to clinch by now, and save starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez for a postseason start, but with the Rangers and Rays still within striking distance, they're forced to use him today.
The Twins? With the season about five hours from ending, they cancelled batting practice. They're packing boxes, exchanging phone numbers, discussing offseason plans. They're wondering about their manager's fate, but also their own; after a season like this, there's no doubt that a large number of these players won't be in this room next year.
As for the manager: Ron Gardenhire swears he and Terry Ryan haven't discussed next year yet, though the Twins are scheduling a press conference for tomorrow. We'll know soon.
Josmil Pinto isn't playing today, as there is no reason to risk making his bruised hand worse. He's had a strong September, and goes into the offseason with plenty of positive experience.
Here are today's lineups as the Twins try to avoid their second straight 96-loss season:
Count The Twins' clubhouse is full of boxes these days, boxes and dreariness. September has been brutal, and it's clear most of the team is looking forward to a break from the daily defeats. When Saturday's game ended, four players dressed and left the clubhouse less than 10 minutes after the finish.
From talking to the players, it's clear many of them are just as curious as everyone else about what's going to happen Monday with their manager and the coaching staff. It's a pretty loyal bunch, so much so that Ron Gardenhire said players have come to him to apologize for their, and the team's, poor play this month.
Saturday's game was another example of a pitcher throwing well, but not for long enough. Cole De Vries retired the first 11 hitters he faced, but then put seven of the next 11 on base, giving up five runs in five innings. On Friday, it was Liam Hendriks, pitching pretty well in relief, but only for 4 2/3 innings, and only after the Twins had fallen behind by seven runs.
One player who has made a good impression this month is spare catcher Eric Fryer, who walked twice and drove in Minnesota's only run on Saturday. "He's tough, a tough kid," Gardenhire said. "He's very professional."
Back tomorrow for the final Twins game of the year. One more chance for the Twins to prevent Cleveland from celebrating on their field, and to make a one-game improvement on last year's 96-loss season. Or to finish packing those boxes and just put this year behind them.
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