September 30, 2014

Twins fire Ron Gardenhire after 13 seasons as manager

Ron Gardenhire and Terry Ryan

Ron Gardenhire will not join Connie Mack and Tom Kelly as just the third manager in baseball history to keep his job following four consecutive 90-loss seasons, as the Twins fired him Monday after 13 seasons on the job and nearly three decades in the organization. In a rarity for a fired manager Gardenhire attended the press conference announcing his dismissal and was in relatively good spirits while answering questions, even cracking a few smiles.

Gardenhire and general manager Terry Ryan seemed to be in agreement that it was time for a change, although last month Ryan said publicly that Gardenhire would return. Yesterday the GM hinted that ownership pushed him to make the move, which apparently may or may not include firing Gardenhire's entire coaching staff depending on whether the new manager wants to keep anyone around.

Gardenhire took over for Kelly in 2002 and had immediate success, winning 94 games and taking the Twins to the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade. They went on to win six division titles in his first nine seasons at the helm, but the competition in the AL Central was more often than not underwhelming during that time and the Twins went just 6-21 in the playoffs with five straight first-round exits.

His early teams were good but not great in a window of time when that was enough to capture a weak division, but then that window closed and later the team fell apart. They have a grand total of one 90-win season since 2007 and combined over the seven-year span of 2007-2014 the Twins went 613-685 for a .472 winning percentage that ranks 23rd in baseball. Only the Astros have a worse record than the Twins since 2011.

I started writing about the Twins in August of Gardenhire's rookie season as manager in 2002 and to say I've never been a fan would be an understatement, so I certainly don't think he's performed well in recent years. However, for better or worse his impact was hardly enough to be responsible for four straight 90-loss seasons just as it wasn't enough to be responsible for six division titles in nine years.

Because they're the day-to-day face of the team managers receive too much praise when things go well and too much criticism when things go poorly. Collective front office decision-making is far more important to the overall well-being of an organization. Ultimately talent trumps all and while a good manager can certainly help develop that talent and utilize that talent properly, squeezing a few more wins out of a team pales in comparison to building the team in the first place.

To believe differently is to think managers have more value to a team than the very best players even while they're consistently paid less than mediocre middle relievers. Gardenhire's firing was justified, but it has little to do with whether another manager could have avoided four consecutive 90-loss seasons with sub par talent and a lot to do with whether Gardenhire is the manager the Twins want leading them for the next 5-10 years when the talent improves.

And it will improve. This team will be better in 2015 than it was in 2014 and better in 2016 than it was in 2015. They have too much high-end talent in the minor leagues--and some high-end talent already faring well in the major leagues--for that not to happen, so even though the next manager may have to deal with low payrolls and shaky front office decision-making the combination of an impending influx of young talent and minimal expectations should make it an appealing gig.

Basically, there's nowhere to go but up. And after 13 seasons of a .507 winning percentage with almost zero postseason success and historic ineptitude for the past four years it would be hard for even his biggest supporters to argue Gardenhire is the best manager to maximize that ascent. He wasn't the biggest problem, but he was too often part of the problem and is not the best possible option for the solution. Of course, the Twins' ability to identify that best option is another issue.

Ryan has been the Twins' general manager for two stints and 17 total seasons, during which time their combined record is 1,278-1,406 for a .476 winning percentage and one playoff series win. With a GM originally hired in 1994 and numerous long-tenured assistants still at his side--including Bill Smith filling a different role after flopping as GM--the front office responsible for getting the Twins into this mess remains largely intact.

Like the difference between a fresh coat of paint on a car versus overhauling the engine, the front office's performance always outweighs anything a manager does. Now their duties include finding a better manager in addition to putting all the roster pieces together well enough to re-emerge as contenders. Gardenhire's firing was about the future, but there's every bit as much reason to be skeptical that Ryan and his assistants are the best option to lead the Twins there.


For a lengthy discussion and debate about everything related to the Gardenhire firing, check out our emergency "Gleeman and The Geek" episode recorded after the news broke.

September 24, 2014

Twins Notes: Hughes, Perkins, Vargas, Liriano, Worley, and Arcia

Phil Hughes Twins

• With one start remaining Phil Hughes has an incredible 181-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 202 innings. Not only is that by far the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in baseball this season, it's the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in baseball history among all pitchers with 150 or more innings:

                    YEAR     SO/BB
PHIL HUGHES         2014     11.31
Bret Saberhagen     1994     11.00
Cliff Lee           2010     10.28
Curt Schilling      2002      9.58
Pedro Martinez      2000      8.88
Greg Maddux         1997      8.85
Pedro Martinez      1999      8.46

That's a helluva list to sit atop.

Hughes is 15-10 with a 3.61 ERA in 31 starts. The rest of the Twins' rotation is 31-58 with a 5.60 ERA in 126 starts.

UPDATE: The good news is Hughes finished his final start with the all-time K/BB ratio record intact. The bad news is thanks to an ill-timed rain delay he might finish one out short of $500,000.

Glen Perkins tried to pitch through what was initially believed to be a minor neck injury, but after several bad outings in which he clearly wasn't right physically the Twins sent him for more testing. He was then shut down after being diagnosed with what they're calling a forearm strain and nerve irritation. It's unfortunate, because not only does Perkins head into the offseason as a question mark, his attempts to pitch through the injury ruined his strong season totals.

As of August 25 he had a 2.44 ERA and 64/9 K/BB ratio in 55 innings, but then Perkins allowed 10 runs in 6.1 innings to inflate his ERA to 3.65. During that span he gave up five home runs in eight games after giving up a total of seven home runs in his previous 116 games since the start of last year. Everyone acts like playing through injury is to be commended, but it usually goes badly for player and team. Perkins says he learned his lesson about "trying to be a tough guy."

Kennys Vargas and Jose Berrios were named the Twins' minor league player and pitcher of the year. Vargas hit .281/.360/.472 with 17 homers in 97 games at Double-A as a 23-year-old before being called up to the majors on August 1. Berrios split his age-20 season between high Single-A and Double-A--with a late cameo at Triple-A--posting a 2.76 ERA and 140/38 K/BB ratio in 140 total innings. Last season's winners were Byron Buxton and Andrew Albers.

• Vargas' early success for the Twins has been hugely fun to watch, although his horrific 58-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio through 48 games is a massive red flag and surprising considering his solid walk rates in the minors. Vargas was handed the cleanup spot after one week in the majors, which is very rare in Twins history. In fact, here's a list of Twins with the most starts in the cleanup spot through 48 career games:

KENNYS VARGAS     44
Kent Hrbek        20
David Ortiz       19
Justin Morneau    16
Todd Walker       14
Chris Parmelee    13
Tom Brunansky     12

Vargas also has nine homers through 48 games, which is tied with Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, and Josmil Pinto for the third-most behind Marty Cordova and Tom Brunansky with 10 apiece.

Francisco Liriano is in the midst of a 28-inning scoreless streak and now has a 3.32 ERA with 170 strikeouts in 157 innings for the Pirates after posting a 3.02 ERA with 163 strikeouts in 161 innings for the Pirates last season. His rotation-mate, Vance Worley, has a 2.93 ERA and 75/22 K/BB ratio in 104 innings. Add it all up and Pittsburgh has gotten 417 innings of a 3.15 ERA from Liriano and Worley for less than the Twins paid Mike Pelfrey.

Terry Ryan brushed off questions about Worley's turnaround in June, saying:

Give him a little time to see what he does over the course of starts. We'll talk about that in October. See how it goes.

Well, it's almost October. Also, just a reminder: Before selling Worley to the Pirates at the end of spring training the Twins sent him outright to Triple-A, which means they could have stashed him there all season without even taking up a 40-man roster spot. They gave him away for no reason other than they were convinced he had zero value. Worley, still just 26 years old, now has a 3.35 ERA in 382 career innings for non-Twins teams. And even Carlos Gomez is impressed.

Oswaldo Arcia has the seventh-highest Isolated Power in Twins history among all hitters with 750 or more plate appearances:

Harmon Killebrew     .258
Don Mincher          .239
Bob Allison          .225
Josh Willingham      .214
Jimmie Hall          .212
Justin Morneau       .207
OSWALDO ARCIA        .202
Tom Brunansky        .202
Kent Hrbek           .199
Torii Hunter         .198
David Ortiz          .195

Arcia has 33 homers, which is the fourth-most in Twins history through age 23 behind Brunansky (80), Hrbek (40), and Zoilo Versalles (34). He can't control the strike zone, can't hit lefties, and can't catch much in the outfield, but Arcia's power potential is special. And on the subject of his terrible defense, here's a fun little tidbit: Arcia played 77 games in center field as a minor leaguer, including some at Double-A. Think about that.

• Ultimate Zone Rating calculates the Twins' defense has been 85 runs below average since 2011, including -48 for the infield and -37 for the outfield. Obviously the Twins' pitching has been awful, but if you take awful, low-strikeout pitching and put awful defense behind it you have no chance.

• Post-trade performances: Josh Willingham has hit .243/.361/.400 in 23 games for the Royals to almost exactly match his .210/.345/.402 line in 68 games for the Twins. Sam Fuld came back down to earth, hitting .211/.270/.320 in 48 games for the A's. Kendrys Morales has continued to be terrible, hitting .206/.274/.335 in 53 games for the Mariners. Kevin Correia has continued to be Kevin Correia, posting an 8.03 ERA in 25 innings for the Dodgers.

And since the Twins decided not to trade him and gave him a two-year contract extension instead, Kurt Suzuki has hit .256/.291/.383 with a 15/3 K/BB ratio in 37 games.

Pedro Florimon, who began this season as the Opening Day shortstop, was claimed off waivers by the Nationals when the Twins took him off the 40-man roster. He's a good defensive shortstop, but Florimon hit .205/.266/.300 in 210 games for the Twins. The only players in the history of the Twins to log more appearances with a lower OPS than Florimon are Jerry Zimmerman and Jim Kaat. Kaat was a pitcher.

• Across baseball this season there have been more than 1,700 games started by pitchers younger than Kyle Gibson. He might be inexperienced and he might be inconsistent, but he's not young.

• By my calculations the Twins have as many as 19 players on the 40-man roster they could cut, although my guess is that they'll keep half of them.

• It's official now: If the Twins don't fire Ron Gardenhire he'll be just the third manager in the history of baseball to keep his job following four consecutive 90-loss seasons.

• Last time the Twins won 90 games in back-to-back seasons was 2003/2004. Since then they have a 789-828 record for a .488 winning percentage.

October 25, 2013

Link-O-Rama

• Watching the evolution of the most popular girls names since 1960 is very fascinating and a little freaky. And there's a boys version too, although it's not nearly as interesting.

• Remember that "Twin Cities ladies you've probably dated" article from last week? There's a "Twin Cities guys you've probably dated" follow-up version, but as expected it doesn't include a "Blogger Guy" because none of us have ever actually had a date.

• Bloggers must be the coolest people in Japan.

• Twins Daily just posted their annual "Offseason Handbook" for the low, low price of $6.95, which includes a lengthy interview with Terry Ryan that I found maddening.

• Wednesday night Minnetonka police shot and killed a man less than a mile from my house.

• I took Time.com's "which state matches your personality" test and it said Wisconsin, which makes sense because I've always hated myself.

• I swear this is a headline from 2013: "Mase denies beef with Cam'ron."

• And in other 1990s rapper news, Ja Rule wants to write a cookbook of microwave recipes that he learned in jail and he broke that news to "Chopped" favorite Geoffrey Zakarian.

• I'm going to tonight's Jason Isbell concert at Varsity Theater. If any AG.com readers are going, let me know and I'll buy you a drink.

This week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode was recorded while sitting outside in the rain with a bunch of people staring at us and I sang a cappella Boyz II Men during the mailbag segment.

• My future wife sang another song, mashing up "The Middle" by Jimmy Eat World and "Cough Syrup" by Young The Giant:

I'm committed to linking to her videos until she marries me or becomes super famous.

• What should the Twins do with Trevor Plouffe and will they actually do it?

• On a related note, Plouffe doesn't seem too broken up by me saying he shouldn't be a starter.

Meatsauce from KFAN is hosting "Singles Night" at Xcel Center after a Wild game next month, which sounds like something I'm going to have to attend.

• I've become obsessed with reading about other people's dates and locally the woman behind "Meeting Flannel" is writing some really entertaining stuff.

• And of course Christina Walkinshaw remains the queen of date blogging. Are there any other good date recappers I should be reading and/or following on Twitter?

• My favorite excerpt from Maureen O'Connor's article in New York Magazine titled "There Is No Difference Between Online Dating and 'Real-Life' Dating":

Though most adults have never used a dating website, 30 percent of those who dated sometime in the last decade admit to using social media to research potential dates. One in five have asked someone on a first date online. Though only one in three "single and looking" adults use dating websites, half have used the internet to flirt.

I use the internet exclusively to flirt.

• Aw, dang. They're not even going to blow up the Metrodome, it turns out.

Thanks to Dodgers.com now you can carve Vin Scully's face into a pumpkin for Halloween.

• Congratulations to Lenovo for becoming the first people interested in buying a Blackberry in at least five years.

• I had a college teacher from North Carolina and it was one of my favorite classes just because I liked hearing her talk, so I'll sign off on a study rating "southern" as the most attractive accent.

• I dare you to find a sexier picture:

aaron kfan coors

Well, maybe this one from earlier in the night.

Giddy up.

• Multiple people sent me this same GIF, which tells me I've properly established my persona.

• I do my "manfluencing" every Sunday night at Cub Foods. Also: Men are dumb and predictable.

• Speaking of which, the manager at Cub Foods in Minnetonka is campaigning for us to record a podcast there and I'm actually thinking about it. Gonna give Knollwood some time to step up.

• I want to be at Thanksgiving dinner when the researchers' parents ask what they've been up to and they explain figuring out that men walk slower when they're on a date with women.

Good news for "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and Chelsea Peretti fans.

• I think Bill Withers is probably the most underrated musician of all time and Jesse Thorn got him to do a rare interview.

• My favorite quote from Esther Povitsky's chat with Lauren Greenberg: "I've been having to see a lot of doctors and dentists lately because I'm Jewish."

DMX and Snoop Dogg combined for one of the sweetest tweets you'll ever see.

Francisco Liriano was named Comeback Player of the Year by The Sporting News.

• Very proud to say I'm a part of this, although I guess it means I need to start writing.

• Some of this week's weird and random search engine queries that brought people here:

- "Paul Molitor speaks Spanish"
- "Jim Thome net worth"
- "Doug Bernier new and exciting for the Twins"
- "What kind of diet should an 87-pound person be on?"
- "Best workout for a 29-year-old on an elliptical machine?"
- "Joe Nathan hot tub commercial"
- "Lean Cuisine diet success"
- "Link-O-Rama qualifications"

• Finally, this week's AG.com-approved music video is "Alabama Pines" by Isbell:


This week's blog content is sponsored by Twins Daily's new "2014 Offseason Handbook" featuring everything you need to prepare for the Twins' winter moves for just $6.95. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

October 9, 2013

How much payroll space do the Twins have and will they spend it?

ron gardenhire and terry ryan

During their final season at the Metrodome in 2009 the Twins had a payroll of $65 million. Their spending rose to $98 million in 2010 as they moved into Target Field and then increased again to a franchise-record $113 million in 2011, but the payroll declined to $100 million in 2012 and fell even further to $82 million this year. And now, unless the Twins do some unexpected free agent shopping this winter, their 2014 payroll could resemble those final Metrodome days.

Heading into the offseason the Twins have just six players with locked-in contracts for 2014:

Joe Mauer          $23.0 million
Josh Willingham     $7.0 million
Kevin Correia       $5.5 million
Glen Perkins        $4.0 million
Ryan Doumit         $3.5 million
Jared Burton        $3.3 million

TOTAL              $46.3 million

In addition to six players with locked-in salaries totaling $46.3 million there are also three players eligible for more than the minimum salary via arbitration, with the following rough estimates:

Brian Duensing      $2.0 million
Trevor Plouffe      $1.5 million
Anthony Swarzak     $1.2 million

TOTAL               $4.7 million

None of the three arbitration-eligible players are in any danger of costing big money for 2014, but the Twins could non-tender them to avoid handing out modest raises (which they already did with Josh Roenicke). If all three are tendered 2014 contracts the Twins' total payroll commitment would be around $51 million. Toss in the required $500,000 minimum salary for the remaining spots and the baseline for a 25-man roster would be approximately $59 million.

Since spending $113 million in 2011 the Twins sliced $13 million off their payroll for 2012 and another $18 million off their payroll for 2013. And this offseason they'll need to add at least $23 million in new contracts just to avoid lowering the payroll again. To get back to their 2011 payroll they'd have to add $54 million this winter, which ... well, sadly that notion actually seems sort of absurd at this point. (Also absurd: Grousing about Joe Mauer's salary limiting them.)

Revenue is skyrocketing across MLB, with huge lump sums going to every team before a game is played thanks to national television and internet contracts, and the Twins enter the offseason with plenty of money to spend and plenty of roster flexibility. And coming off three consecutive 95-loss seasons there's no shortage of obvious weaknesses to address. Will they actually spend significant money? Early indications from Terry Ryan suggest they won't, which isn't surprising.

Josh Willingham's three-year, $21 million deal is the largest free agent contract in Twins history. To put that in some context, last offseason alone 17 free agents signed deals for more than $21 million. There's no doubt that Ryan would prefer improving via trades rather than free agency and perhaps he has plans to add salary that way, but in the meantime the Twins have gradually gone back to Metrodome-style spending while the rest of baseball goes the opposite way.


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October 1, 2013

Ron Gardenhire signs two-year contract extension with Twins

ron gardenhire extension

With his contract set to expire Ron Gardenhire made it clear during the season's final weekend that he wanted to remain with the Twins and they wasted little time making that happen, signing the manager to a two-year extension that also includes his entire coaching staff returning intact. Gardenhire joins his Twins predecessor Tom Kelly as one of just five managers of non-expansion teams since 1945 to remain on the job following three consecutive 90-loss seasons.

For all the advancements made in evaluating just about every possible aspect of baseball during the past decade managers remain largely a guessing game. Stuff like bullpen management, lineup construction, and small-ball tactics are among the key elements of a manager's job that are ripe for meaningful analysis, but there are so many parts of the job that go totally unseen by outsiders and are difficult to quantify by insiders that any overall evaluation is incomplete at best.

Because of that the writer-voted Manager of the Year award often goes to managers of surprising teams that out-perform preseason expectations and within a few years those same award-winning managers are regularly fired when the magic wears off. And even when a consistently successful, longtime manager wins Manager of the Year the follow-up season tends to show that regression to the mean is a whole lot stronger than our ability to judge managers.

Gardenhire is a perfect example of the fickle nature of evaluating managers. For the better part of a decade he was viewed by baseball's collective media as a top manager, finishing second or third in the Manager of the Year voting in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2009. Finally in 2010 he was named Manager of the Year. The next season the Twins went 63-99, followed by 66-96 and 66-96. Did he forget how to manage between 2010 and 2011? Was he never that good?

I honestly think no one really knows, about Gardenhire or most other managers. So much of the job is about things few people can possibly evaluate and so much of the praise or criticism aimed at managers simply revolves around a team's record that the entire process is impossibly murky. I've never viewed Gardenhire as a particularly strong manager based on what I can analyze, but it's entirely possible that those things are overshadowed by what can't easily be analyzed.

I started this blog on August 1, 2002, exactly two-thirds of the way through Gardenhire's rookie season as manager. In the 11-plus seasons and 1,837 games since then I've criticized him plenty, believing there are choices he consistently makes regarding relatively fundamental strategy like platooning and batting orders and reliever usage that cost the Twins runs and games. There have also been players whose specific treatment from Gardenhire rubbed me the wrong way.

And yet his overall record is above .500 even after three consecutive terrible seasons, as recently as 2010 he was annually voted one of the elite managers in the league, and for the most part his players seem to like playing for him. All of which is why, despite frequent criticisms of Gardenhire and a general belief that he's mediocre overall I've never called for him to be fired and news that he'll be back for two more seasons doesn't generate a strong feeling either way.

I've always been much more interested in and concerned with the general manager and the front office than the manager and the coaching staff, and ultimately the Twins' fortunes in the short and long term hinge far more on Terry Ryan's performance than Gardenhire's performance. With that said, it's odd to see so many people who heaped praise on Gardenhire for winning when the front office provided good teams now quick to absolve him of all blame for losing with bad teams.

It's become popular to say that no manager could have kept the Twins from being a disaster for the past three seasons and that's certainly very possible, but that doesn't preclude Gardenhire from also having done a poor job. Nor does it mean he's the right choice to continue managing a team that figures to struggle again in 2014 and is counting on a foundation of young players to climb back to respectability. I'd love to offer a definitive opinion either way, but who knows?

I likely wouldn't have brought Gardenhire back, not because I think he suddenly lost whatever managing ability he had while winning six division titles but because 12 seasons in one place is an eternity in manager years and sometimes a new voice (or voices, to include pitching coach Rick Anderson) is needed. Gardenhire took the job as an enthusiastic, inexperienced 44-year-old and he keeps the job as a grizzled 55-year-old with the second-longest tenure of any manager.

My hope is that Ryan and the front office made the decision to re-sign Gardenhire based on his recent performance and the current clubhouse environment rather than out of loyalty or fear of change. This might be the only organization to even consider keeping a manager after 291 losses in three seasons and it's hard not to see in Gardenhire a man beaten down by all the losing, but as a team rebuilding around young talent the Twins need that 44-year-old version back.

For a lengthy discussion about the decision to bring back Gardenhire and whether Ryan will spend any money this offseason, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


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