Seeking to escape AL Central cellar, Twins fire Gardenhire as manager
On the heels of their fourth straight season with at least 90 losses, the Twins have dismissed manager Ron Gardenhire and his entire coaching staff. While the team made six postseason appearances during Gardenhire's 13-year tenure, they hadn't done so since 2010, as Minnesota finished in the AL Central cellar for the third time in the last four years.
The 56-year-old Gardenhire is the third manager to have been fired in September, joining the Astros' Bo Porter and the Diamondbacks' Kirk Gibson; the latter was just let go on Friday. The Rangers' Ron Washington, the only other manager to have left his post since the start of the 2014 season, resigned due to a personal matter.
Gardenhire's 13 seasons represented the second-longest tenure among current managers, behind only Mike Scioscia's 15-year run with the Angels. He compiled a 1,068-1,039 (.507) regular-season record with the Twins, but went just 6-21 in the postseason. He's just the fourth manager to last through four straight seasons of at least 90 losses, joining Connie Mack (Philadelphia A's, 1940-43), Zack Taylor (St. Louis Browns, 1948-51) and predecessor Tom Kelly (Twins, 1997-2000).
Gardenhire's dismissal represents the first time the Twins have fired a manager since 1986, when Ray Miller was dismissed midway through his second partial season. Kelly took over in the middle of that season, guided the Twins to a World Series victory the following year and again in 1991, and remained on the job through 2001 before retiring. Gardenhire spent 11 seasons (1991-2001) as the Twins' third base coach under Kelly before succeeding him. Prior to that, he played in the majors with the Mets (1981-85) — later referring to himself as a "futility infielder," a term that independently caught on with a certain graphic designer moonlighting as a writer — and then managed three years in the Twins' system (1988-90) before joining Kelly's staff.
Thanks to a productive farm system that produced MVPs Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau and All-Stars such as Michael Cuddyer, Torii Hunter and Brad Radke — not to mention astute trades that brought in Francisco Liriano, Eric Milton, Joe Nathan and two-time Cy Young winner Johan Santana — the Twins emerged as an AL Central powerhouse on Gardenhire's watch, winning at least 90 games five times, with a high of 96 in 2006. Despite modest payrolls, the team took home six division titles from 2002-10, though only in 2002 did they advance beyond the first round; they were ousted by the big-spending Yankees in 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010. The last two of those were sweeps, as was their 2006 ouster by the Athletics.
While the Twins struggled to maintain their top-end free agents during the first half of Gardenhire's tenure, they beefed up payroll on the watch of general manager Bill Smith (late 2007-late 2011). As they moved from the Metrodome into Target Field in 2010, their payroll shot from $67 million (24th) in 2009 to $90.2 million (10th) in 2010 to $113.3 million (ninth) in 2011 and $100.4 million (11th) in 2012 before the lack of on-field success forced the team to cut back under Terry Ryan, who has served as the team's GM on both sides of Smith's tenure (1994-2007, and from 2011 onward). In 2014, the team's $92.4 million payroll ranked 17th.
Indeed, much of the team's ongoing problems owe less to Gardenhire's management than to Smith and Ryan. Trading Santana and Liriano netted poor hauls, as did Carlos Gomez (acquired in the Santana deal), who was sent away for just a year of J.J. Hardy. Other deals, like Matt Garza for four years of Delmon Young, or Wilson Ramos for a year and a half of Matt Capps, were equally wasteful.
Free agency hasn't gone much better. Relatively low-cost deals for Josh Willingham, Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey didn't pan out, and the largest free agent deal they've given out in franchise history — Ricky Nolasco's four-year, $49 million contract from last winter — yielded disastrous results (5.38 ERA, 0.0 Wins Above Replacement) in its first year. That offset the initial success of the three-year, $24 million deal they gave Phil Hughes. Meanwhile, Mauer's eight-year, $184 million deal, which runs through 2018, has become a burden. Mauer's $23 million annual cost occupies a larger percentage of the total payroll as the team cuts back, and it's much harder to recoup value on a dollars-to-wins basis with him playing first base instead of catching.
That said, the failures of players such as Gomez and Liriano to thrive on the Twins' watch but find success elsewhere have often implicated Gardenhire and his staff, as has the team’s poor track record of handling injuries, suggesting that communication has been an ongoing problem. Worse, his teams have become significantly out of step with today’s game, from a de-emphasis of power in favor of small-ball tactics to a disdain for platooning to an emphasis on pitching to contact at the expense of strikeouts. It's hardly a coincidence that the Twins have ranked dead last in the AL in strikeout percentage in each of the past four seasons. Gardenhire and the front office have to share the blame when it comes to the team's dismissal of statistical analysis as a means of finding advantages that can help make up ground, the way other small-market teams such as the A's, Pirates and Indians have done in assembling playoff-bound teams in recent years.
Better days should lie ahead for the Twins. In Brian Dozier, Trevor Plouffe, Oswaldo Arcia, Danny Santana and Kennys Vargas, they've begun assembling an inexpensive core of position players. Strong prospects are on the way, notably Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario, as well as power pitchers Alex Meyer and Trevor May, though it was a lost year for Buxton and Sano due to injuries and Rosario due to a drug suspension. As the team turns over its cast, it makes sense to have a new manager in step with the times at the helm, just as Gardenhire was when the team turned the page from the Kelly era. Via the St. Paul Press' Mike Berardino, Ryan did say that the new manager would have to be more on board with statistical analysis:
Terry Ryan said a willingness to embrace modern analytics will be "a piece" of the puzzle in manager search. Major piece? "A piece."— Mike Berardino (@MikeBerardino) September 29, 2014
As to who that will be, Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, who spent the past season supervising the team's base running, bunting, infield instruction and positioning, is considered by many to be a leading candidate. The St. Paul native served as Kelly's bench coach back in 2000 and 2001 and at the time was seen as a potential managerial successor, though he withdrew himself from consideration when Major League Baseball tried to contract the team. Molitor has also worked with Buxton, Sano and Rosario as a special assistant and roving minor league instructor.
Terry Steinbach, who served on Gardenhire's staff as the bench and catching coach, is another prominent candidate with local ties; he’s been mentioned in connection with the Diamondbacks' opening as well, as have two other former major leaguers mentioned by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune's La Velle Neal III, namely Joe McEwing and Jose Oquendo. The contracts of all of the coaches, including pitching coach Rick Anderson, hitting coach Tom Brunansky, bullpen coach Bobby Cuellar, first base coach Scott Ullger and third base coach Joe Vavra, will expire on Dec. 31. Some could be brought back once the new manager chooses his staff.
In the end, it's difficult to disentangle Gardenhire's missteps with those made by the men above him in the hierarchy. But given how much the game has changed over the past decade and a half, and how the organization's stability had begun to look like stasis, there's little dispute that the time for change had arrived.