Ron Gardenhire: Too much of the credit, too much of the blame

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For a few years there, I saw it as my personal mission to the spread the gospel of Ron Gardenhire, then manager of the Minnesota Twins. From 2002 to 2010 or so, Gardy had an amazing run. The team won the American League Central six times in nine years.

And they won those championships with players who were, bluntly, not very good. In 2002, they won 94 games with an offense that couldn’t score (ninth in the American League) and pitching staff without a single starter throwing 200 innings. 

In 2003, none of the five starters who made at least 20 starts had an ERA less than 4.49, and only Torii Hunter managed 20 home runs. They won the division again.

In 2008, their rotation was Nick Blackburn, Scott Baker, an almost unpitchable Francisco Liriano, my buddy Glen Perkins who was soon in the minors reestablishing himself as a reliever, Kevin Slowey and Carl Pavano. They won the division.

In 2010, their closer Joe Nathan blew out in spring training, their former MVP Justin Morneau had a concussion and missed half the season. They won the division.

Twins fans would often to write to me then to say that the team was winning IN SPITE of Gardy, not because of him, and I believed that to a point. I sometimes think that, strategically anyway, managers in general hurt their teams more than they help — meaning that if they would fall asleep in the dugout they might do better than some of the ill-advised maneuvers that they try when wide awake. Gardy was an old-school type, meaning he would occasionally spit on advanced metrics and would talk a lot about the intangible value of Nick Punto.

But the team seemed to fulfill their potential year after year, at least in the regular season. Yes, they were playing in an often lousy division. Yes, it helped in many of those years to have 19 games with the Royals and Tigers and Indians. Yes, in the postseason they would collapse at the first hint of wind. But, honestly, they won six division titles. You look at those teams. Other than 2006 — when they had a legitimately great team with Joe Mauer and Morneau at full power and the good versions of Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano — show me a Twins team that you could win with in Strat-o-Matic. You telling me some other manager is getting more out of Christian Guzman and Boof Bonser?

Anyway, the last four years have been entirely different. The Twins have lost 92-plus games every year and have been general non-competitive. It hasn’t helped that Joe Mauer has aged five years at a time or that the Twins thought it was a good idea to give Ricky Nolasco a billion jillion dollars. But whatever. The Twins fired Gardy Monday, and it makes me sad, obviously, but it’s not like you could blame them. This is the deal with baseball managers. Maybe Gardy did get too much of the credit when the team winning. Now comes the time when he gets too much of the blame.

I suspect Gardy will get another shot with a team, though you never know about these things. Lately the theme seems to be to hire 1980s and 1990s All-Stars — Matt Williams (five times), Robin Ventura (1992), Brad Ausmus (1999), Don Mattingly (six times), Walt Weiss (1998), Ryne Sandberg (10 times) and so on. It makes you wonder if the days are gone when teams will hire scrappy middle infielders who couldn’t hit. Teams seem to be shifting toward player-manager types, once good players who the young players grew up watching.

Gardy comes from the Tom Kelly school — he was the valedictorian of the Tom Kelly school — where managers grump and demand and instill and bunt too much and occasionally fall in love with limited but gritty players. When you get the right players, the Gardy style can still win a lot of games. When you get the wrong players, the Gardy style can still lose a lot games. It’s almost enough to make you think it’s really all about the players.

Ahoy, San Diego: 2019 Winter Meetings Preview

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Over the weekend the baseball world will descended on San Diego, California for the 2019 Winter Meetings. Let’s talk about what’ll go down there in the next week.

 

Free Agents

So far this has been a much brisker offseason than the past two, during which it seemed like no one signed between November and February. This year, however, we have already seen top-30 free agents Zack Wheeler, Yasmani Grandal, Cole Hamels, José Abreu, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Moustakas, and Michael Pineda sign, and a handful of others have inked pacts as well.

Still, there’s a lot of work to be done. Top free agent Gerrit Cole has had some heat around him lately, with the Yankees reportedly hot on his trail, and New York has at least had a conversation with San Diego native and resident Stephen Strasburg as well. Beyond them, Anthony Rendon, Madison Bumgarner, Nicholas Castellanos, and Josh Donaldson are all looking for new employers as well.

At the end of October Rotoworld’s Matthew Pouliot ran down the top 111 free agents, from highest-ranked to lowest, to help you get a jump on who is available.

 

Trades

Free agent signings notwithstanding, we are in an age in which a lot of teams are in cost-savings mode. For that reason some big, MVP-caliber names are reportedly on the trading block, including Mookie Betts of the Red Sox, Francisco Lindor of the Indians and, perhaps, Kris Bryant of the Cubs and Nolan Arenado of the Rockies. Beyond them, there has been chatter about the Dodgers dealing Joc Pederson, the Tigers dealing Matthew Boyd and the Pirates and Rockies shopping anyone worth a bag of balls.

Whether any of those big names switch teams, it’s already been a pretty active trading season so far, and it would not be at all surprising of the transaction wire is humming in the next week. We, of course, will have near-instant breakdowns of every deal that goes down, so make sure you keep a window open with this site on it and hit refresh early and often.

 

Managers on Parade

 

Trade deals and free agent negotiations take place behind closed doors, so we can only talk about those once they happen. One of the major public activities of the Winter Meetings is when all 30 of the managers meet and greet the press.

We have a boatload of new managers this year, all of whom have had their happy little press conferences back in their home cities so far. The press availabilities at the Winter Meetings are a bit more in depth and, quite often, feature managers giving more detailed answers to their philosophies and their plans as they prepare for the 2020 season.

New at the little tables and under the bright lights this year: Jayce Tingler with the Padres, Mike Matheny with the Royals, Gabe Kapler with the Giants, David Ross with the Cubs, Derek Shelton with the Pirates, Joe Maddon with the Angels, Carlos Beltrán with the Mets, and Joe Girardi with the Phillies.

And, yes, the tradition like no other continues this year, as I will be ranking all 30 of the current managers on the basis of handsomeness. Here’s last year’s rankings. The new rankings will go up first thing Monday morning. It’s the silliest thing I do all year and, for better or for worse, it’s the thing I’m best known for. What a life I have.

 

Hall of Fame Vote

The Modern Baseball Era Committee — formerly known as the Veterans Committee — will meet on Sunday to vote in, or not vote in, new inductees for the Hall of Fame. For the past two weeks I’ve been profiling the candidates. Here are those profiles:

Committee members get four votes each. If I had four I’d give them to Whitaker, Evans, Simmons, and Miller, but you never know what the real voters will do. We’ll have the results up on Sunday evening once the vote is made public.

 

Major League Baseball vs. Minor League Baseball

One thing a lot of people don’t know about the Winter Meetings is that it’s put on, primarily, by Minor League Baseball as an organization and the vast majority of the people on the ground at the Winter Meetings either run or work for or are trying to sell stuff to minor league teams. Almost every team’s owner comes and brings along some staffers. Coaches, trainers, scouts, and other team employees who spend most of their year out in the bushes as opposed to back at the big club’s home base attend meetings and hobnob with one another.

Normally that’s all pretty routine. This year, however, it probably won’t be thanks to Rob Manfred’s plan to contract 42 minor league clubs and rearrange a great many more of them across levels and leagues.

As we noted earlier today, that scheme has set off a political firestorm and is no doubt the top agenda item and point of concern for every single minor league official and employee at the Winter Meetings. There are, reportedly, already meetings going on in San Diego about all of this. Expect some news about it at any point in the next week. At this point I’d expect anything from Manfred totally scrapping the plan, to him doubling down on it, to reports of general acrimony and possible legal action and everything in between.

 

The Boring Business of Baseball 

Outside of the transactions, the Hall of Fame stuff, the managers and the minor league contraction intrigue, we’ll likely have more mundane Winter Meetings business. Most people at the Winter Meetings aren’t there for transactions. They’re there to network, seek jobs and discuss the business of baseball like any other industry convention. Ever year we hear about a rule change or a proposal for future rule changes at the Meetings. There is no single rule change that everyone is talking about at the moment, but something will likely pop up. Sometimes we’re completely surprised with that kind of stuff.

 

The Rule 5 Draft

The final event of the Winter Meetings is the Rule 5 Draft, which will take place at 8am Pacific time on Thursday morning. You likely have no idea who most of the players who will be selected, but by next summer you may very well know some of them who are either picked or who were made available this week. Max Muncy could’ve been had by anyone a couple of years ago, went un-picked and all he’s done is rake like crazy for the team with the most wins in the National League. Given that even the combined minds of 29 front offices didn’t think he was worth a roster spot last year, you’ll be forgiven for not having any idea about the guys in this year’s Rule 5. But, if you want to at least attempt to be prepared for it, here’s a good place to start.

So, yes, there’s a lot to be done. I’ll be on the scene at the Hyatt Manchester in San Diego — and maybe a few other places around town — bringing you all the best hot stove business we have to offer and, as usual, some more fun odds and ends from baseball’s biggest offseason event.