Startribune.com digital sports editor Howard Sinker used to cover the Twins and now shares season tickets with friends in Section 219 of Target Field. He blogs about baseball from the perspective of a long-time fan who loves the game, doesn’t always believe the hype and likes hearing what others think. Howard sometimes talks about sports with Cathy Wurzer on MPR's Morning Edition.
I covered the firings of the two managers before Tom Kelly was hired by the Twins. Billy Gardner was cut loose in 1985 and conducted a one-liner filled exit interview with me 'n' Patrick Reusse, who was working in St. Paul at the time, in the Super 8 motel room in Roseville where he lived during the season. Little more than a year later, Ray Miller waxed bitter about his firing in the downtown Minneapolis high rise where he lived during his brief and flawed stint with the Twins.
You could see those coming too, even if both of them were in some denial about what led to their job loss.
Ron Gardenhire went out differently. I really think that every word he spoke on Monday afternoon, after Terry Ryan announced the change, was from the heart. For him to stay on as manager of the Twins would have been the wrong thing on many fronts. This is a team that needs a new voice, especially if that voice is intended to be heard for as long as Gardenhire's and Tom Kelly's were. This is a voice intended to be heard in 2025 as well as 2015, if Ryan and the Twins make the right choice.
I was among the first to write this season that a change of manager was needed. If you think I was happy to write that, you're mistaken. I was as happy to make that case as Ryan was to tell Gardy that he was gone.
Gardenhire's spring training tryout with the Twins came in 1987, the last year I covered the team, and he lost out on a reserve's job (as did Ron Washington) after the Twins traded for Al Newman. Gardy played in 10 games that spring. He made five errors and didn't hit much. Kelly made no secret that he was looking for a glove more than a bat -- and Gardy was cut at the end of camp (on the same day the Twins traded with San Francisco for Dan Gladden).
I saw a lot of those fringe guys come through spring training. None of them came back and made an impact, other than Gardy. When the curmudgeon Kelly resigned, Gardy was the folksy, cheerful replacement. He was a voice the Twins needed and he was the right manager to guide the group that he took over, which is a very different group than the one that led to Gardy being thrown overboard.
This group needs a voice more strident than folksy. If you want a leader for a core of self-starters who are going to demand the most from each other, Gardy is among the best choices to manage. That's not a description of the current Twins, who act way too content with being on the periphery of other teams' success. As constructed by Ryan, this wasn't a team good enough to contend -- and I got the sense that didn't bother players as much as it should have.
So why not sack Ryan, too?
Well, if that happened, whom in the organization would you trust to find his replacement -- much less a new manager? Starting pitching isn't the only area in which the Twins have little depth.
The choice of a new manager and the revisions made to the current roster will, basically, be a referendum on Ryan. He has done some things for the minor-league organization to help it recover from the fraying that took place between his general manager stints. But the real challenge is whether that will soon pay off at Target Field.
In addition to hiring a new manager, I hope Ryan hires a top assistant to work with him. The next year or two will be a test of his abilities to construct a winning major league team, and if the troubles continue, his job should be the next on the line. So I want the coming changes to include someone who could well be the Twins' next general manager.
Worst case is that change needs making in a year or two.
Best case for the Twins is that the right moves are made and Ryan is replaced when he damn well pleases -- and well down the road.
I will be as direct as possible here.
When I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I said that if Ron Gardenhire could keep the Twins together and finish the season in a way that showed some improvement over the last three seasons of almost 100-losses apiece, I’d like to see him get a shot at managing the 2015 Twins.
Based on the first eight games of the post-All Star home stand, I can’t see that improvement happening. The Twins have stumbled to a couple of victories and bumbled their way to a half-dozen defeats during a stretch of games that could have kept them relevant.
None were against teams with the eight best records in the American League. In other words, the players who were making pleas to keep the roster together for the season’s final months, couldn’t back up their talk with any kind of action in games against flawed opponents.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. Words have become hollow at Target Field. And with other distractions coming along – Vikings training camp, Gophers football starting soon, the Lynx and Minnesota United chasing titles in basketball and soccer, even your local high school teams – anything that comes from Target Field will be increasingly ignored.
I went to the Lynx game Friday night and didn’t even bother checking on the Twins afterward. Twitter told me everything I needed to know. Later, I walked by the game replay on FSNorth and saw Kevin Correia's best toss of the night, when he hurled his chewing gum after a grooved pitch that Chicago's Jose Abreu smashed for a three-run homer in the first inning.
I’m not going to judge whether the best of the young pitchers should be called up soon instead of being targeted for 2015. What I do know is that I’d have a hard time justifying exposing any kind of promising young talent to what’s going on with the Twins right now. There’s too much bad out there. Let Yohan Pino be exposed to that instead of Alex Meyer.
Let Parmelee, Fuld, Fryer, Colabello and the other borderline major leaguers finish out this season and start fresh without them (and some others) in 2015. That must be ownership’s commitment to fans who have been sickened into apathy by the last four seasons. Just saying "losing sucks," a Jim Pohlad line from a couple of years back, doesn't win anything except wondering if he really means it.
A fresh start includes hiring a new manager.
In addition to not being very good, the Twins over and over again are showing that they’re not very baseball smart. I saw it in Wednesday’s victory when Brian Dozier, who is usually better than that, shoveled a gloved-hand throw over the first baseman’s head on a play he had no business even trying. I’ve also seen it in grooved pitches and taken pitches and poorly focused at-bats and base-running mistakes. You can get by with some suspect players if their mental game props up their physical limitations, but second-tier players making beer league choices equals no hope.
The endless loop of mental mistakes, which hasn’t improved as players have gotten more experience, is on the manager and his coaching staff. When I teach my college students, there are times when the repeated mistakes of a student wear me down to where I don’t see them. So if Gardy is worn down by what he keeps seeing, I get it.
Gardy has been given his chances to make things better – and his successes before 2011 earned him bonus chances that wouldn’t have been given to others. It hasn’t worked. If he gets a job managing elsewhere, which many of his supporters contend would happen, so be it.
That’s not a reason for keeping him.
I don’t know if Twins management has fully accepted the level of casual mocking that their team gets. It’s not just the always-angry on social media. It’s the people I know who have stopped going to games and those who are questioning whether to keep buying tickets – whether it’s to single games or season packages. Without the All-Star Game as incentive and with another sorry season concluding, many people aren’t going to keep buying in without an overhaul.
I asked around on Twitter for people to share their thoughts about the Twins.
There was this:
@afansview I hate to say this as a fan, but at this point I'm almost rooting for them to lose just to drive the point home to the Pohlads...— Matt Krier (@matthewkrier) July 26, 2014
@afansview The Twins are making me look forward to the NFL exhibition games.....— Big Steve (@darbywisdom) July 26, 2014
@afansview - I don't think it will hit the front office like it has is fans until it hurt them where it matters most- their pocket books.— Ex Twins News (@Ex_Twins_News) July 26, 2014
@afansview no apathy here. Frustration at about 8. Mix of feeling cursed due to injuries, and tired of seeing more AAA filler for 4th year.— Matt Kummer (@mattkummer) July 26, 2014
There's more, which you can find on my feed.
And there was this, from an email by Twins fan Max Athorn, who wanted to go beyond 140 characters to address stuff:
"This season, for some reason that I am still not entirely sure, I have actually paid closer attention to them than I have during the last three awful years. I have paid attention to the roster moves, read the blogs, read the scouting reports, and watched the brutally uncompetitive 3-1 losses (that are way different from the occasionally competitive 3-1 losses). I love the Twins, and to that end, I love these Twins just as much as I've loved any Twins in the thirty years I've lived. But now, as things just seemingly refuse to get any better or worse, to such a bizarre degree that they are just simply the same-ol' same, I have been more inclined to re-evaluate my position."
Among the follies of this season was starting out in spring training believing that Pedro Florimon would be the starting shortstop; Aaron Hicks was ready for center field (without any kind of serious Plan B; Danny Santana has been a lucky stopgap that spared us another Darin Mastroianni-type); the pitching staff would be better, and a couple of returnees named Jason would help with their experience. That’s not hitless in four tries.
That’s four strikeouts on 12 pitches.
It doesn’t matter if I thought Hicks was ready, Florimon would be fine or Jason Kubel and/or Jason Bartlett could play a role. It was the organization’s call and it failed miserably. Perhaps the surprise of 2014 should be that the Twins didn’t become ignorable more quickly. But giving Gardy and his staff credit for that is a C-minus paper in a year of failing work. It’s not enough to pass. Because Terry Ryan was out of the general manager’s office at the time fighting his cancer battle, it was even more important for the field staff to fight for the right moves during spring training.
Here's more from fan Max Athorn's email:
"As the weeks and months of mediocrity in Minneapolis drag on, there is one thing that we have learned that Ron Gardenhire is NOT: He's not an innovator. He can't pull any tricks that he hasn't already pulled. He has no secret weapons and no master plan. Finally, a couple of days ago, I realized where it stands for me: I feel the same way about Ron Gardenhire as the Twins feel about Matt Guerrier.
"The Twins loved Matt Guerrier, and I think most Twins fans understood why. This past week, though, it became clear that Matt Guerrier just didn't represent the same stability and success that he once did.
"My favorite part about the Twins broadcasts are Ron Gardenhire's press conferences. (Let that set in for a minute!) Actually, I truly enjoy watching him. I think he's funny, I think he's thoughtful, I think he's empathetic and articulate and I think he knows a lot about baseball. I like that he's a little erratic, and I like that he's curmudgeonly; I like his loyalty to his pitching coach and his most hard-working players. I like everything that I know about him.
"The Twins' failure is not Ron Gardenhire's fault. But it becomes increasingly clear to me, that the next time the Twins are riding a September winning streak into the playoffs, it won't be because of Ron Gardenhire."
Gardy’s contract runs through next season, so there would be a year of severance for him as a reward for the better times. That’s fine with me. I don’t know whether the next manager is sitting in the Twins’ dugout, another team’s dugout or a broadcast booth. I do know that I can’t imagine a scene in which Gardy returns and the team has any credibility with many, many of its fans.
It’s time for a change. I’ve been cautious in reaching that conclusion -- frustratingly so to some of you, I know – but I think that gives my conclusion extra weight.
We're halfway into the baseball season and this is what's certain:
(1) The Twins aren't good enough right now to be postseason contenders. The ugly combination of inconsistency on the field, some bad decisions off the field and yet another run of injuries has pretty much done them in. I tried building a case for being on the fringe of postseason contention earlier this season, but I'm done pretending about that.
(2) The "pace" you're on in baseball means nothing. The Twins' record at this point in 2014 is within a couple of games of where it was in the last three miserable seasons, when the only end-of-year question was whether they would lose 100. This team could lose 85 games and grab on to that as a positive ... or threaten yet again to lose 100. Neither would be a surprise.
(3) Because we've been focused on so many others things: Joe Mauer's lack of production, the Aaron Hicks silliness, some horrible roster management and an outfield defense that is second-to-everyone, we haven't focused on yet another season of injuries that has turned the job of managing the Twins into more of a chore than simply making the most of a bad ball club.
That last thing is what I'm talking about here.
The list of players who have missed time for one reason or another is pretty much a list of the players who make up the team: Joe Mauer at first base (now for the second time), Brian Dozier and his stiff back at second, Danny Santana and the mysterious bone bruise at shortstop and center field, Trevor Plouffe and his rib cage at third; Josh Willingham and his wrist in left; Aaron Hicks and his shoulder and psyche in center, Oswaldo Arcia and his wrist (and extended April recovery time) in right.
I'm leaving out pitcher Mike Pelfrey. He just doesn't count in the current scheme or things -- and quite likely in any future scheme for the Twins.
It's like the Passover story out there, a full-fledged plague of game-missing injuries that has spared only Kurt Suzuki, whose addition to the roster was pretty much scorned and whose solid play has been desperately needed during the first half of the season. When you watch the Twins, it looks like Suzuki gets hurt more than any other two players combined, but he hasn't yet cashed in an injury card while (so far, at least) while putting up better offensive statistics than at any time in his career.
Where am I going with this?
About this time last year, I was pretty much thinking that Ron Gardenhire's time with the Twins was done. His past work with the Twins was being done in by a hopeless looking roster filled with guys who were the return of trades made at the wrong time or forays through baseball's unemployment line. You know, the Alex Presleys, Pedro Hernandezes and Clete Thomases of the game. There was a resigned tone to Gardy's lineups, his demeanor and often to the way his team played.
That's what has been different about 2014, which has been a season where much of what counts as success has been fueled by out-of-the-box moves.
We can rightfully make fun of the Jasons (Kubel and Bartlett), but that resulted in running with Chris Colabello for as long as possible, a player who had no more reason to succeed, even if for a short time, than Kubel. (The Kendrys Morales signing has much of that action moot, as long as the Twins manage to make Morales a part of their future.)
We can wonder what's up with Hicks -- all the more with Byron Buxton in the future -- but choosing Danny Santana to be the center field option was a pretty sweet call. Gardy was quick enough to pull the plug on pretending that Eduardo Escobar was an outfield fit, but found that Eduardo Nunez can play out there when needed. And how much of a risk was it really to try Chris Parmelee in center field when your outfield is already the worst in the majors? Throw him out there and see if the ball sticks in his glove.
We can lose our focus on the team by talking about Mauer, but we're not going to do that here. He was having a wretched season until a couple of weeks ago, then started hitting at a Mauer-like pace and now he's out until after the All-Star break. But Mauer's health issues and lack of offense made it more vital that some of the things Gardy has been forced to try actually worked out.
So if you'd like, you can add a dollop of snarkiness to the season by counting down to Gardy's 1,000th career loss or scan the dugout and beg for a replacement, but I'm not going to join you there. My takeaway at the halfway point of this season is that Gardy has done a good job with the hands he's been asked to play -- surviving 7/2s from the dealer at the poker table and too many 16s at the blackjack table.
Yeah, I guess you could call it battling his managerial tail off.
The challenge for the rest of the season is to make sure the Twins stay at something close to their current pace instead of going on another skid toward toward 100 defeats. If he can do that, I want Gardy to have the chance to run this team when it becomes as good as we expect it to become.
The question for some of us when the Twins started playing was how long the 2014 season would hold our interest began to treat them as a secondary topic in our summer. This was about the time it started happening last year, when the Twins won half of its first 30 games and then went into a tumble for the rest of the season.
That could very well happen after these first 42 games of 2014.
But I’m finding these Twins to be intriguing – from the front office through the bottom of the roster. That doesn’t mean it’s all been good, but it has been interesting enough to bear watching and reacting to what’s going on.
Let’s talk about Ron Gardenhire.
First of all, I’m done bashing the Jason Bartlett thing. It’s the winner of the Bonehead Move of 2014 competition (with the horrible front-office management during the Cleveland series two weeks back a close second). The Bartlett fiasco resolved itself quickly and without causing even more embarrassment. We’ve acknowledged it, made fun of it, laughed about it, cried about it – and it’s time to move on. Right now, I’m more inclined to give Gardy praise for the way he’s handled a roster that has very, very few reliable parts.
Here’s the deal: No matter how good, every team has a few players whose best performance comes when you limit their playing time – a guy who is valuable when he gets 200 plate appearances becomes a liability when you try to use him all the time. (For a historical lesson, see Punto, Nicholas Paul.) What’s interesting about these Twins is that, among the position players, a majority of them on the roster are players who fall into that category.
In fact, my list of players who need that sort of management is more than twice as long as the list of players who don’t.
The “don’t need to manage” list includes only Joe Mauer, Brian Dozier, Trevor Plouffe and Kurt Suzuki. And I’m not 100 percent sold on Plouffe, which is still an upgrade over past seasons, and Suzuki will need some time management simply because he’s a catcher and not A.J. Pierzynski. (A cynic could argue that Mauer and Dozier are the only automatics on the current roster and I would listen.)
Every other position player on the roster isn’t, right now, a player who want to see get 500 to 600 plate appearances – and Gardy has so far done a pretty good job of making lemonade from the ingredients he’s been given. Compare that to 2010 (the season before the stinking started) when the lineup was pretty much a lock, load and repeat affair – especially during the second half of the season.
Trying to figure out, for example, whether this is a day when the lineup can handle a faux outfielder or two (Nunez in left, Santana in center and/or Colabello in right) … or whether this is a left-handed pitcher that Kubel or Parmelee can handle … or measuring how much he can get out of Pinto in his first full year … or how long he can roll with Escobar at shortstop. These are daily questions to which the answers will be a moving target. You can sometimes bat Suzuki fourth right now, but can you keep him fresh enough to handle that role late in the season if you need him?
The puzzles will only continue when Josh Willingham and Oswaldo Arcia make their returns. Will Gardy do what I hope he does and bat Willingham sixth or seventh until he shows he can handle more? How much will Arcia play and whose playing time will suffer for it? Would Gardy chance that Chris Parmelee is a better bench option that Jason Kubel when the roster is healthier and part with the veteran when moves have to be made? Should he?
Does Danny Santana become your starting shortstop/back-up center fielder when Eduardo Escobar starts to fade? Is Chris Colabello really a major leaguer or will he remembered mostly for his April of excellence? That’s a painful question because of how much we’re predisposed to like the story of his ascent to Minnesota. But still it has to be asked.
Do the Twins have the strength to admit that their deal with Mike Pelfrey was a mistake and relegate him to long-reliever status or try him in a set-up role when whatever tweak he suffered a couple of weeks back becomes untweaked? How long is
Do the Twins look for a veteran upgrade in center field if they keep winning as often as they lose and last week’s orchestrated criticism of Aaron Hicks “wears off?” Maybe someone who can bat leadoff so Gardy can do what he’s mentioned and move Dozier to third spot in the order?
Here’s the deal: If Gardy can somehow manage this collection to a .500 finish, he becomes a Manager of the Year candidate – not a winner but an “also receiving votes” candidate -- based on where people thought this team was going when the season started. Don’t ask me to bet on .500 right now, because I’m not taking that action. But the wheels are still turning and the vehicle hasn’t gotten stuck in the mud.
I’m calling that a victory while fully aware that 2013’s OK start (18-17 through 35 games) was followed by a 10-game losing streak that turned the season into a waste of our time. I will bet against things falling apart as completely as they did last year. How many of us noticed that white-hot Detroit is 15-4 in its past 19 games, with three of those losses coming in its five games against the Twins?
Keep this in mind: If the second quarter of the season are a repeat of these first 42 games, we could be having some interesting chatter about the rest of 2014. You interpret that the way you want. OK?
The Twins couldn't have been as bad as they were during last week's sweep by Oakland, which rightfully caused alarm about whether the 2014 season was spiraling downward in a hurry.
The Twins likely aren't as good as they were last weekend, when they combined excellent starting pitching, some good hitting and a minimum of mistakes to sweep Kansas City, a team that has yet to find its hitting stride and exhibited some buffoonery in the field.
As one of my Twitterpals put it:
@afansview Well the beatings did continue this weekend.....:)— Rob Lien (@rlien33) April 14, 2014
Yes, they did, just with the roles reversed.
So now we're left to wonder what the settling point will be for the Twins in a season that, throughout the American League, has done nothing to shake itself out in the first couple of weeks. Oakland is the only team more than two games above .500, and nine of the 15 teams are at .500 or within one game either way. This has not been the season of the hot start, or the dreadful one, for the Twins and their rivals.
I won't tell you anything new here: The Twins' starting pitching should be better, the offense should be more functional than it was during the worrisome days of spring training, when it even had Ron Gardenhire and Rob Antony wondering what was up. (Remember that when you hear all the pronouncements now about how spring training doesn't mean much in its winding-down weeks.)
Here's my quick list of things to follow for now, a list open to your additions:
How long with the Twins stay with Mike Pelfrey if he continues his 2013 form? If the rest of the starting pitching is functional or better, I hope the Twins won't let Pelfrey get battered every fifth day if continues to struggle. He could swap spots with Samuel Deduno, or create the opening for Alex Meyer, who has been solid for Rochester in his first two starts. Two bad outing is no time to make that judgment. But another month of struggles would be cause for flipping that switch.
Pedro Florimon at shortstop. I'm a bit puzzled by the rush to judgment on Florimon, especially with the prospect of the mediocre-fielding Eduardo Nunez being raised as the alternative. There should be enough offense in the Twins lineup to tolerate a weak bat in the No. 9 spot, especially if Florimon plays the slick defense that is the major part of his game. A pitch-to-contact staff needs all the help in can get in the field, within reason -- and Florimon has reason to be out there for his glove alone.
What happens when Willingham and Arcia return? I don't know the answer to this one. What happens when the Twins have their full complement of heavy bats-and-suspect gloves at their disposal? That's going to be a daily puzzle for Gardy, and one for which he'll be second-guessed no matter what he decides. That's not a bad thing, and it's better than not having any options.
Jason Bartlett. Still don't understand it.
Gardy's weekend leave. If you have an issue with the manager leaving for the weekend to attend the funeral of umpire John Hirschbeck's son, that's your problem. It's not up for debate here.
That's my list. For a bit more, check out Michael Rand's video about five pleasant early-season surprises for the Twins.
Stay warm out there.
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