Monday, February 27, 2006

On the Spot: Ron Gardenhire

While many Twins' hitters are entering make-or-break years, there's another guy on the club for whom the 2006 season could prove crucial: the manager. Not necessarily from an organizational standpoint, but from the perspective of the fans. I don't think Ron Gardenhire is in any danger of losing his job, but his performance as manager of this ball club this season could dictate how we fans see him. He has had a relatively comfortable ride up until this point, inheriting a very well-built team with a savvy GM, but last year he got his first taste of serious adversity and it will be very telling to see how he and the team respond in the 2006 campaign.

Overall, Gardy has done a pretty good job as manager of the Twins. In four seasons at the helm, he has guided the club to a 359-288 (.555) record and three division titles. Last year, despite having the worst offense in the league, the team finished above .500 and was within spitting distance of a playoff spot for much of the season.

Despite this seemingly outstanding performance from a numerical standpoint, you will find a number of critics of Gardenhire in the Twins' fan base (i.e. FIRERONGARDENHIRE). Why? I know my view of the man took a severe turn for the worst in Game 2 the 2004 playoff series against the New York Yankees, in which the Gardy's incredibly bone-headed managerial decisions eradicated any hope the team might have had of advancing to the American League Championship Series.

His errors included sending closer Joe Nathan out for a third inning in an extra-inning affair when he was clearly out of gas and there were fresh options remaining in the bullpen, including Jesse Crain. Even though the rookie Crain had been excellent during the season, apparently Gardy wanted to stick with experience in this situation (despite the fact that this was Nathan's first season as a closer and his post-season ERA prior to 2004 was a pedestrian 81.00). Gardenhire wasn't entirely consistent in this experience-first attitude though, as in the very same game he had allowed rookie Jason Kubel to go to the plate against arguably the greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, with one out and runners on second and third in the 8th inning, with the game tied 5-5. Kubel was 0/4 at that point in the game and he predictably struck out on three pitches. Lew Ford (who had hit .299/.381/.446 in 569 at-bats during the season) was left on the bench the entire game while Kubel ended up going 0/6. I did, and still do, put the team's inability to get that win (which would have put them up 2-0 in the best-of-five series coming back to the Metrodome) entirely on Gardenhire's shoulders. That is just really bad management.

The grudge with Gardenhire is certainly not over one single game though. It is well-documented in the realm of Twins blogs that over the years Gardy has had a penchant for poor lineup construction and has been totally oblivious to the concept of platooning, as evidenced by the fact that Jacque Jones amassed 454 at-bats against left-handed pitchers the past three years despite hitting .238/.295/.363 against them during that span.

Regardless of his game management issues, I do not hate Ron Gardenhire. I think he is a good fit as manager of the Minnesota Twins. He is relatively cheap, he's a pretty good guy, he's fairly low-key, and he generally maintains a good relationship with his players. With that said, my opinion of the man will be greatly shaped by what he does in the upcoming season. The AL Central is poised to be more competitive than it has been in a long time, and Gardenhire is going to have to make a lot of key decisions that will likely have a major impact on the team's ability to win.

Which pitcher will take the fifth spot in the rotation? How long will he stick with Tony Batista and Jason Bartlett if they struggle? How will he utilize his bullpen, particularly the LOOGY if they choose to carry one? How will he handle possible personality clashes with all the new faces arriving in the offseason?

These issues will definitely be worth keeping an eye on in the early months of the season. I believe Gardenhire will have more control over the team's success this year than he ever has before. Let's hope he is up to the task.