Minnesota finished a disappointing 79-83 this season, but it’s hard to blame Ron Gardenhire. The most successful manager in franchise history, Gardenhire has led the low-budget Twins to the playoffs four times since taking the helm in 2002. The team’s third base coach prior to stepping into Tom Kelly‘s shoes, “Gardy” is the only skipper to lead Minnesota to five consecutive winning seasons.

David talked to Gardenhire about managing in the Metrodome, putting together a winning line-up, and the importance of Torii Hunter and Johan Santana.

David Laurila
: You became a big league manager six years ago. In which ways have you changed since that time?

Ron Gardenhire
: I think I’ve learned to adjust. When I first came in, my whole thought-process was that we were going to run, run, run, as best we possibly can. As you go along, situations dictate when you can, and when you can’t. Your team changes; that’s the one thing I’ve noticed, especially here in Minnesota–my teams have changed over the years. We’ve gone away from having speed to having a little more power in the middle of the lineup, so you don’t run as much there. I think you just have to keep making adjustments as a manager.

DL: Does the Metrodome have any impact on how you manage?

RG: It can. In the past it was a good speed field. It was a field with Astroturf, with fast turf, a good speed field where you could do some bunting, some drag bunting, some running, and you played a fast game. We got away from that when we got some pop in the middle of the lineup, but we still like to try to run as much as we can. The Metrodome, you know, is what it is. It’s a football field turned into a baseball field during the summer, and we’re looking forward to our new stadium. That’s a ballpark that’s probably going to be a left-handed hitter’s ballpark; a type of thing where there’s a shorter right field than a left field, and we’ll look to build our team toward that.

DL: Have the Minnesota Twins changed since you came on board? Not on the field, but organizationally?

RG: Well, I think we’ve had to go to our system an awful lot lately. I think we’re in an area where we’re pretty thin as far as position players, although our pitching is the same; it remains strong. But I think we’ve hit our organization pretty hard as far as position players, so right now I think we’re a little thin, period, and we’re going to have to make some adjustments. But I think our theory has remained the same: develop from within, bring your players up, and use your system.

DL: The Twins have a new general manager for the first time in 13 years. What impact will that have?

RG: That remains to be seen. We’re going from Terry Ryan, who’s been knee-deep in the stands, constantly scouting, constantly watching, constantly going over opposing teams and their players, and evaluating. From there we’re going to Billy (Smith), who’s been in the office, doing a lot more office work, and overseeing; putting together our academy in Venezuela, and situations like that. He’s a baseball guy; he’s been in this his whole life, so he’s going to be surrounded more by people who have done what Terry does.

DL: How would you assess the 2007 Minnesota Twins’ season?

RG: I think we’ve been really, really inconsistent. We’ve been way too streaky. You always try to tell yourself to stay on an even keel, and we’ve been one of those teams that will win four or five in a row and then lose seven or eight in a row. We’ve been too streaky, and fundamentally we haven’t been very sound. We’ve made a lot of mistakes, not being able to get runners in, not being able to get them over; all of the little things that we kind of prided ourselves in. We’ve just had a hard time doing that this year.

DL: Do you feel the streakiness was a result of the lack of fundamentals?

RG: I think that goes along with it, absolutely. You get a man on second and you don’t get him over, it starts to creep into your head, and as much as we preach it, as much as we talk about it and work it, even in BP, sometimes it just gets to the point where guys are trying so hard that it just doesn’t work out. I think injuries played a big part in it. We had too many people hurt–too many of the big guys have been hurt in the middle of the lineup–for us to be consistent offensively. That’s where we’ve really hurt ourselves–offensively.

DL: What is your approach to lineup construction?

RG: Well, you take what you have. At the beginning of the season we had Castillo leading off, which was great. We had Bartlett, who handles the bat, hitting behind him. You have your best hitter, a guy who doesn’t strike out much, a big on-base percentage guy, in your third hole, like a Mauer, who’s been very good there when he’s been healthy. Then you have your power guys and on down. You try to stretch your lineup as deep as you can, with as much balance as you can, with a little speed at the top and a little speed at the bottom, to get to the big guys.

DL: Do you feel that you need speed at the top of the lineup, as opposed to someone who gets on base a lot?

RG: It depends on how much power you have in the lineup. If you want to be able to run, and do a lot of things, speed is important. And it can be a lot of fun, because you can do a lot of damage with it. You can irritate the opponents; you can take their minds off the hitters and run around the bases. I like that kind of game. If you don’t have it, you have to ad lib.

DL: Do you feel that the team could use an upgrade at the top of the order?

RG: Losing Castillo hurt, because he was our leadoff guy. He was a guy who would start off a game and you’d see maybe 10 pitches. He’d foul balls off, go deep into the count; he wasn’t afraid of doing those things. We’ve got guys who have been trying. Bartlett had done okay there, but I think he’s better suited for the second hole. It’s hard to just go out and find a leadoff guy, no matter how you’re trying–trades, the market. Everybody is always looking for guys like that, so yeah, it would be great to find a high-percentage on-base guy, a guy who can do what Luis did, and put him at the top.

DL: How much value do you place on home runs?

RG: Well, if you have home run hitters, that’s all good and fine. Everybody would love to have them, but not everybody does. You know what, you like to see home runs, but I think that what you have to do is manage according to your baseball team. We’re not a big home run team, although we do have a few guys who hit home runs. We’re more of a team that likes to run around the bases, do some stealing, some hitting and running–things like that.

DL: All teams recognize the importance of defense, but looking around the league it’s clear that some stress it more than others. How do you view it?

RG: Pitching and defense is going to give you a chance to win each night. Because we’ve been very good at catching the ball, and pitching; that’s where our fundamentals have really affected our team. We haven’t been a team that scores a lot of runs, so if we execute and get the runs in when we’re supposed to, early in the game, then our pitching and defense come into play. That’s how you win baseball games.

DL: How do you view the middle of your infield right now?

RG: Bartlett I like a lot at shortstop. Obviously we’re going to be looking for a second baseman. Maybe Nick Punto can step over there and offensively get back on track. He can definitely catch the ball; he’s as good of a defensive infielder as there is. It would be nice to have him come back and have a banner year next season, and play second base, but it’s going to be open in spring training. It’s something we’re looking for: a second baseman, a third baseman; a left fielder, a DH, one of the two. A little of that depends on which way we go with Kubel. We have some holes, but we also have a plan.

DL: If you do move Nick Punto to the middle of the infield, would you like to have markedly more power at the third base position?

RG: Oh, I think that everybody would. I mean, it’s a corner position, so you’d like to have a guy who is able to catch the ball and drive it. Those are dreams. Everybody likes those kinds of things, and it would be nice, but there aren’t that many available.

DL: Can you address Jason Kubel?

RG: I like him, I like what he’s done. He’s come along since the All-Star break, playing with more confidence and swinging with more confidence. I moved him up and he’s getting more fastballs with some of those guys behind him. You know what? He’s snapping the ball around pretty good. His legs are getting better. They’re staying underneath him a lot more now in the outfield. I think he’s coming on, and the projections of him being a very good hitter in this league–he’s starting to show a little bit of that.

DL: Can you touch on the development of some of your young pitchers?

RG: I think, with Garza–great arm, great stuff–he’s learned a lot. He’s learned to use his breaking ball and not just throw, throw, throw; he’s learned to pitch a bit. He still has to control his emotions a lot better than he’s done lately. But that’s a great arm, with a chance to be a top of the rotation type of guy, if he can get it all together. Baker has come a long ways, from being one of those guys that’s a human rain delay, walking around the mound instead of getting the ball and attacking the hitter, pitching to contact, and learning to use his team. And not being a bobblehead either. That’s going with the catcher, understanding that he has to work with the catcher, not against him. I think Bonser has had his ups-and-downs. We’ve talked about how to get him get deeper into games, and about taking care of himself a little better. But he’s definitely got a good four-pitch mix and can be a good starter in this league. Slowey has come along really well. I think he’s learning to pitch in this league; learning to slow the ball down. He’s always been able to locate it, but at this level you better be able to slow it down and put some spin on it, and I think he’s done that over his last couple of starts.

DL: What about your ace, Johan Santana?

RG: Well, he’s a stud. I know that all the talk is about him going somewhere else, but that’s not the talk in our city or in our clubhouse–it’s everywhere else. We hope that we can keep Johan forever. You don’t get any better than him, I can guarantee you that. Year in and year out, he’s a great athlete, a great competitor. He’s the anchor. We need to keep him around here for a long time, and I’m sure we’re going to try.

DL: Two word question: Torii Hunter?

RG: The franchise. He’s the face of our organization–he has been. He’s meant a lot to our fans, to myself; I’ve had him as long as I’ve been here. So yeah, he’s the face of this organization.

DL: You’d like to have him back next season?

RG: Absolutely. There’s no one to replace him in this organization right now. We have young Mr. Spann [Ed. note: Denard Span], but he’s not quite ready, they tell me. How do you replace Torii Hunter with everything he’s brought to this franchise and organization? How do you do it?

DL: Are you ever able to step back, away from the game, and just look at it as a fan?

RG: You know what? It’s hard, because you’re so involved in your day-to-day, trying to figure out what’s wrong with your club, or what’s going right with it. When I get home, and relax on the couch, and watch another ballgame, I realize that I probably beat myself up a little more than I should, because things happen everywhere. That’s why it’s such a great game, because you never can predict what’s going to happen. You go out there and put people in positions and hope they do their job. That’s what it should be, but if you care enough, you’re going to beat yourself up.

DL: How do you think you’ll watch the game of baseball after your managerial days are over?

RG: Hopefully as a fan and a great second-guesser. I know that’s the best part of being a fan: you can second-guess everything. I try not to do that when I’m watching a game, but its human nature.

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