Monday, January 25, 2010

Is Ron Gardenhire Underrated?

The 2010 season will mark Twins' manager Ron Gardenhire's ninth season at the helm. The tenure has been very successful to date:
  • Five AL Central Division titles
  • One division tie
  • 709-588 record (.547 winning percentage)
The detractors will point out that Gardy has managed to win just one playoff series, and that came back in 2002. Still, winning five titles in eight seasons is quite an accomplishment.

The Twins have been remarkably stable over the past 20+ seasons, and only two men have called the shots from the dugout. The team has employed only three general managers in that timeframe. Compare that to other teams like the Houston Astros who are working on their fifth permanent manager since 2000.

Gardenhire's replacement, Tom Kelly, was the Twins' most successful manager of all time. He leads the team in wins (1,140), losses (1,244), and World Series championships (two). The last category is the only one which is significant. TK was the Twins' skipper for 15 full seasons and posted winning records in just five of those. Of course, he did win the whole thing both times he qualified for the post-season. His tenure was marked by eight consecutive losing seasons from 1993-2000, with the string broken during his final season in the dugout - 2001. Gardenhire was hired after Kelly's retirement and took the group developed under Kelly's final years to three consecutive division titles.

Gardy's run began in 2002 and he captained the ship to back-to-back-to-back titles with essentially the same core of players. The core (Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, Corey Koskie, Brad Radke, Doug Mientkiewicz, etc.) was joined by such luminaries as Johan Santana (midway through 2002; in the rotation full-time in mid-2003), Justin Morneau (2003), and Joe Mauer (2004). The 2006 team came out of nowhere and won the division on the season's final day in a magical scene at the Metrodome. Perhaps Gardy's best bit of managing was in 2008 when he guided an inconsistent team to a great stretch run, only to lose the divisional tiebreaker game to the Chicago White Sox 1-0.

The 2009 campaign was similar to 2008, but was accentuated by injuries (Justin Morneau missed the season's final weeks), guys playing over their heads (Delmon Young, Matt Tolbert, and Nick Punto were money in the final two weeks), and guys playing out of position (Michael Cuddyer moved to first base and looked Gehrig-esque at times). The Twins won a classic tiebreaker game against the Detroit Tigers at the Metrodome before bowing out against the eventual World Champion New York Yankees.

Still, despite all the division titles and the national accolades, one gets the feeling Gardy is somewhat under-appreciated here in Minnesota. Twins' fans take note of TK's two world titles, and rightly so, in evaluating his managerial career. It is also true that he was dealt bad hands for many of the losing seasons in the 1990s, yet seemed impatient in working with young players. He retired at age 50, looked like he was 75 when he did so, and has resisted all other managerial inquiries to date. Still, there is little doubt that Tom Kelly is the best baseball man and top manager in Minnesota Twins' history.

Ron Gardenhire should not be over-looked, however. True, he infuriates many Twins' fans with his seat-of-his-pants approach. He is as likely to play percentages as he is to have Mike Redmond hitting third on Sundays when Joe Mauer gets a day off. However, one cannot argue with the results. The division title teams were all quite unique in a sense - Cuddyer is the only common denominator to all five titles - and Gardenhire's steady hand had much to do with the wins. Yeah, we'd like to see him win a few Division Series along the way (2006 was wide-open, and it's still monumentally disappointing that they were not able to get past Oakland in the ALDS), but the Twins are contenders year after year.

Due to the almost slobbering national praise Gardenhire gets from the likes of Jon Miller, Joe Morgan, Ken Rosenthal, etc., it's hard to argue that Gardy is underrated. In town, however, he will continue to be less-appreciated than other Twins' managers until he wins that elusive World Series title.

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