December 14, 2008

My Week In Las Vegas: Interviewing Gardenhire

During the winter meetings last week in Las Vegas each of the 30 big-league managers were ushered into the media room two at a time to hold informal, half-hour press conferences that were open to any media members interested in attending. Managers of large-market teams like the Yankees, Mets, and Red Sox draw huge crowds consisting of dozens of newspaper reporters and several television crews, but for small-market managers the gathering is usually single digits.

Ron Gardenhire's session Tuesday afternoon was well-attended for a small-market team, especially given that the Twins weren't really involved in many juicy rumors that would have drawn reporters from other cities. LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Phil Miller of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and Kelly Thesier of were in attendance, along with Mark Gonzalez of the Chicago Tribune, a woman from Japan, and two other non-Minnesota writers. Oh, and me.

At my first winter meetings two years ago in Orlando, Gardenhire's press conference probably featured more questions posed by me than by everyone else combined. Unlike the real reporters who speak to Gardenhire a hundred times per season, sitting across from him for a half-hour at the winter meetings likely represents my only interaction with the Twins' manager, so my plan was to once again dominate the question-asking load this year.

Just like last time my notebook was filled with questions, but one by one they were asked by Neal and Miller. In fact, by the end of the session probably three-fourths of my prepared questions were posed by someone else, which suggests that either I've become more mainstream or the local beat writers have become more blogger-like. Or maybe a little bit of both. Whatever the case, each of my questions were posed to Gardenhire one way or another. And he even answered some of them.

One of the great things about the manager press conferences at the winter meetings is that there is a stenographer on hand to provide a word-for-word transcript, which in Gardenhire's case included 37 questions and six pages of dialogue. Most of the other manager sessions were only 3-4 pages, so we definitely asked a lot of questions for a small group. Reprinting the entire session would be a bit much, even for a blog, so instead I'll go over some of the highlights.

Prior to arriving at the winter meetings Gardenhire was in North Dakota attending an agricultural trade show and made headlines for indicating to a local reporter that Delmon Young was the odd man out in the Twins' crowded outfield. Gardenhire said that Denard Span, Carlos Gomez, and Michael Cuddyer "need to play every day" and "those three guys should be your outfield and then you go from there." That caused a big stir back in the Twin Cities and led to all sorts of speculation about Young's future.

Not surprisingly, before the winter meetings press conference officially began Gardenhire tried to make light of his comments about Young, joking that he "got it all stirred up in Fargo ... talking to farmers." He went on to say that the Twins "are pretty blessed to have four very good outfielders" and did plenty of backpedaling on the topic, but also stated that his original comments were not taken out of context and dropped more hints that Young remains the odd man out if "somebody came after us strong" via trade.

Gardenhire expressed remorse for creating a situation where Young had to answer questions about his status on the team and also defended him by saying that he "played the last two months with a bad ankle and came to the ballpark every day." However, Gardenhire went on to say that Young "is a little more stubborn than some of the guys" while "we want him to flow into our program." He then went into further detail about Young's stubbornness:

You have to understand, Delmon is one of these kids that's come up and has been the best player from when he was probably this little all the way up. And the two people that have been probably the biggest people in his life, his father and his brother, pretty talented, pretty knowledgeable baseball people. That's who he listened to, and our goal was to try to break into that and get him to understand what we are about.

Gardenhire noted that he "got along fine all year" with Young and "liked the heck out of the young man" while calling him "a very talented young player." However, in reading between the lines and comparing how Gardenhire talked about Young to how he talks about most other players, it seems fairly clear to me that the Twins were less than thrilled with him both on and off the field. Whether that means they'll end up trading him remains to be seen, but there's no doubt in my mind that he's being shopped.

At the time of the press conference the Twins hadn't yet re-signed Nick Punto, but Gardenhire made it very clear that they were trying to do so with the intention of handing him the starting job at shortstop. Gardenhire called Punto "a gamer" who "brings a lot to our baseball team" because "he can catch the ball, he can run the bases, and all of those things that I like to see." In fact, asked specifically about trading for Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson, Gardenhire replied: "We have a shortstop in Punto."

I've always been curious about Gardenhire's assessment of defense and all the Punto talk gave me a chance to ask him about how the various shortstop options compared with the glove. Gardenhire said that Brendan Harris "is very consistent catching the ball" but "his range isn't as good as other guys." Matt Tolbert is "kind of a good range guy" with "a little erratic arm" but "is a young player still learning and probably the hardest worker." Not surprisingly, he praised Punto most:

We have talented people that can play, but none of them are as solid as Nick Punto out there playing every day and knowing what to do and knowing how to control the game from shortstop, which is what I did. I ask my shortstop to do a lot, and that's control the game. I want him to take charge in the infield and that's why Nicky does a pretty good job, because he takes charge.

I've long suggested that Gardenhire likes light-hitting middle infielders because he was one, so it was interesting to hear him note that Punto does "what I did" at shortstop. Also noteworthy is that he didn't mention Alexi Casilla when discussing the shortstops defensively. Asked if using Casilla at shortstop would be an option if the Twins failed to re-sign Punto, Gardenhire explained "that could happen" but "the way it was going along when we had Casilla playing healthy at second base" was his preference.

Gardenhire was asked several questions about Jose Mijares' role for next year and refused to say that he has a bullpen job locked up despite emerging as the team's top setup man down the stretch. With that said, when asked if Mijares needed more time in the minors Gardenhire explained that "he had command of three pitches" and "took the ball in some very big situations" because he "didn't back off an inch" and "showed no fear." In other words, expect Mijares to be on the Opening Day roster.

Asked about Boof Bonser's status Gardenhire indicated that he's penciled into the bullpen, but would still be an option to start if needed. My feeling is that Bonser has the stuff to succeed as a reliever long term despite his 5.88 ERA in 35 bullpen appearances, so it was good to hear that Gardenhire agrees. "Boof wanted to be a starter, but in the end he enjoyed taking the ball and blowing some people away," Gardenhire said. "Hopefully he'll accept that, because that's where he's at right now. He's valuable."

Gardenhire said that Philip Humber is in the "same situation" as Bonser, because he's a career starter who is out of minor-league options and will probably be working in a "long relief, spot starter" role if he makes the Opening Day roster. "We know these guys are out of options," Gardenhire said. "Going to have to make a lot of tough decisions." Simple math suggests that if the Twins add a reliever between now and then Bonser and Humber may be battling for the final bullpen spot, with a trade for the loser.

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