In many ways, Ron Gardenhire’s present situation reflects the paradox faced by the 2013 Minnesota Twins.

After two straight 90-loss campaigns, the long-tenured manager has been put on notice. He enters this season without a contract extension in place. Several of his assistants have been reassigned or released, and it’s been made clear that his performance will be under stringent evaluation. If we don’t see tangible improvement over the last two miserable years, it’s a good bet that Gardy will be shown the door.

It's no secret that the manager is loved and revered by the organization, so they’re not eager to see that happen. They’re also not eager to field a third straight cellar-dweller that struggles to draw fans in the latter part of the season. They’ve been vocal about these things.

But actions speak louder than words, and the organization’s actions during the offseason hardly conveyed urgency to impel a sizable step forward in the short term. One year after shedding about $15 million from their payroll, the Twins cut roughly the same amount this winter, passing on the opportunity to meaningfully bolster their beleaguered starting corps and opting instead for cheap, unreliable targets like Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey. Terry Ryan traded two established, valuable starting outfielders for young pitchers who largely won’t help until further down the line. No moves were made to address weaknesses in the infield or on the bench.


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Without question, the Twins are in excellent position to return to contention down the line. Their farm system is as strong as it’s been in many years, and the benefit to their frugal approach is that they have almost no contractual obligations beyond this year. That flexibility will allow them to extend successful players as needed and sign free agents to fill holes at the appropriate time, with blockbuster type deals potentially on the table.

Of course, none of that does much good for Gardenhire, who probably won’t be here to help usher in the next wave if this thing doesn't get turned around quickly. For him, the “appropriate time” is now (many impatient fans probably feel the same way), and the pressure to get things on track is immense. While I’m willing to believe that his managerial performance won’t be judged solely on wins and losses, another 90-loss season – especially if it includes a familiarly horrendous start – would almost have to spell the end.

Luckily Gardenhire, much like his team, is in good position to take people by surprise. Although the Twins will enter the season with as bad a rotation as you’ll find in the league, there are a number of intriguing reinforcements in the wings, such as Scott Diamond, Samuel Deduno, Kyle Gibson and Rich Harden. Even newly acquired prospects Alex Meyer and Trevor May are long shot contenders to make a late-season impact. Whereas the issues for last year’s unit snowballed as injuries and ineptitude piled up, this year the rotation could improve considerably over the course of the campaign.

If the Twins can somehow manage to get respectable production from their crop of starting pitchers – admittedly a bit of a stretch, all things considered – they can certainly be a competitive ballclub, albeit not a championship contender. The lineup has a chance to be as good as any in the division, with a pair of (finally) healthy former MVPs anchoring a group that offers plenty of upside. It’s not difficult to envision the Twins being above average offensively at six or seven positions, depending on your level of optimism regarding Chris Parmelee and Aaron Hicks.

I can’t help but feel like the Twins’ run-scoring potential this year has been widely undersold, even by a general manager who apparently didn’t see fit to provide much help during the offseason. If Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau have the kind of years they’ve shown capable of when not burdened by health issues, while key young cogs like Parmelee and Trevor Plouffe take the next step, the thought of watching those efforts go to waste at the hands of an ill-equipped pitching staff is painful… probably more so for Gardenhire than anybody.

In many ways, this is the perfect season to evaluate the manager. He’s got a moderately talented roster with low expectations. It will take every bit of his savvy to steer away from the wreckage of the past two seasons – both on and off the field – and keep this club relevant into the later months. Ultimately, that’s the goal for this Twins team, and while it’s not all that ambitious, I’d see it as a satisfactory outcome in what has plainly been established as a bridge year.

The Twins may not be aiming for the World Series, but they need to show progress. They owe that much to fans who have been subjected to the horrors of these last two years. If it doesn’t happen, the responsibility will fall on Gardenhire’s shoulders, whether it’s his fault or not.

On the flip side, he’s sure to get the lion’s share of credit if we see significant improvement and a record approaching .500, which in my mind is well within the realm of possibility. I tend to think a manager’s impact in baseball is generally exaggerated, but in this situation, with this collection of arms and this overall level of inexperience, Gardy may have to work harder than ever before. Or, as he would put it, battle his tail off.

Because now his tail's on the line.


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