TWINS WINTER CARAVAN: Gardy looks forward to 2011 after offseason of change
Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire is no different from any other major league manager when it comes to change.
With free agency, Gardenhire has often found himself in a position of looking at a lineup that has been turned over from the year before. What does set him apart other managers is his ability to adapt and put a consistent winner on the field.
Gardenhire was selected the 2010 American League Manager of the Year by the Baseball Writers Association, and he picked up his 700th career win last season in just his ninth season as manager. He and his coaching staff have been very effective at managing change through each off-season.
Gardenhire and hitting coach Joe Vavra, along with pitcher Jeff Manship and catcher Drew Butera, were at the Twins Caravan stop at The Lodge in Baxter. With the news of signing Jim Thome and Carl Pavano fresh, Gardenhire commented on having the two back with the Twins.
"I think the amount of time (for the signings to happen) was surprising but they also had a lot of offers and a lot of things to think about," Gardenhire said. "You know that is going to be the case, but I was on the phone off and on with them and they wanted to know how things were going."
"Thome and Carl are both fired up. They both wanted to be back here and they turned down money from other places to come back because they love the Twin Cities, and they really enjoyed themselves last season."
Although the Twins have been relatively quiet in the free agent market this offseason after the signing of Japanese infielder, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Gardenhire said that with Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan returning from injuries it's like bringing in two high-profile free agents.
"With Morneau and Nathan you are talking about an MVP and an All-Star closer," Gardenhire said. "You get those two guys back, that's like signing two free agents. Getting them back on the field in our lineup will be huge but also getting them back in the clubhouse is big. We're looking forward to getting down (to Florida) and getting those two guys back."
As the Twins entered their first season at Target Field in 2010, they fielded a lineup that had more power and less athleticism. What Gardenhire and his coaches learned early in the year was that Target Field played big, and that a return to an athletic team was key to long-term success.
The Twins did have four players with over 20 home runs, and Morneau had 18 when he suffered his season-ending concussion in Toronto in July. However, the Twins had just two players in double figures in stolen bases. Denard Span was 26-30 in stolen base attempts, Orlando Hudson was 10-13.
The Twins finished 31-23 in one-run games, but Gardenhire admits they left a few wins on the field with their inability to move runners up.
"We knew coming into the season that we would have to see how the ballpark played," Gardenhire said. "It played big and you realize that you need more speed in this park because the ball doesn't fly out as good as other places.
"I thought last year we hit some balls where guys should have scored and we just didn't get there. You end up getting to third but not home on a lot of plays. We wanted to get more athletic on the infield and we wanted to get more speed. If Alexi (Casilla) and Nishi (Nishioka) take off, we are going to be a lot more athletic at those positions."
The Twins were the high bidder to be able to negotiate with Nishioka, and they were rewarded when he signed a multi-year deal with the team. He's a player that fit Gardenhire's wish list with his speed and range.
"He's a great kid and he loves to play," Gardenhire said. "When you look at his style of play, he plays a little bit like Ichiro in that he slaps the ball and races out of the box. He can fly. He hasn't stolen a lot of bases, which is something that I am going to look into whether or not it was the manager over there not letting him run.
"I'm going to talk him, in my best 'Japenglish,' to try and talk him into running and stealing bases. He's got two gold gloves over there and has range so it should be fun."
Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the off-season for fans has been the depletion of the Twins bullpen. Gardenhire understands the angst.
"Take a look at the history the last few years and that's normal," he said of fans' reaction. "People get all pumped up and fired up about what we don't have but when it comes down to the field we get it done.
"We've got some great arms and I have lot of confidence in Rick Anderson and myself in being able to put together a bullpen. We've been able to handle that pretty good over the years.
"We lost some good people in Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Brian Fuentes and John Rauch, but getting Joe Nathan back is really big."