Those of you who spent the last four years screaming at the television every time a Twins player botched a rundown, got picked off a base or committed another egregious fundamental mistake may be happy to learn the Twins are finally doing something about it.
Whether the problem can be fixed as easily as the Twins think remains to be seen.
TwinFest and related events last week brought together Twins players, staffers and officials for the first time since the merciful end of last season’s 99-loss fiasco. Lacking a miracle second half or fortuitous collapse by somebody else, Twins officials were finally forced to examine what has become an epidemic in the organization — players rising through the minor-league system without mastering fundamental skills like bunting, advancing a runner or hitting a cutoff man.
That assessment was already under way when Terry Ryan returned to the general manager’s chair after four years as a special assistant, replacing Bill Smith.
No more pouting players?
By the end of the season, Manager Ron Gardenhire was fed up with minor-league call-ups pouting and accusing coaches of picking on them whenever somebody pointed out a mistake. Veteran players noticed the same thing. “You can’t say anything to these kids,” pitcher Carl Pavano said before a game in September. “You try to tell them something and they shut right down. Must be a generational thing, I guess.”
Gardenhire correctly guessed the reason: Coaches, managers and instructors in the Twins system had stopped correcting mistakes when they happened, whether in a drill or during a game. Sometimes they waited until the end of the day, Gardenhire said, which is too late. Other times, they never said anything. In spring training, Gardenhire and former manager Tom Kelly routinely halt drills when things go awry. But hardly anyone else did.
“I know that because you can tell,” Gardenhire said Friday after the Twins’ annual media luncheon. “When I send my coaches out to correct something, the player says, ‘Why me?’ or, ‘They’re on me again.’ What’s supposed to happen is, you explain it, and the player says, ‘Got it.’ “
Minor league director Jim Rantz agreed with Gardenhire. Over the winter, it’s been talked about up and down the organization. “Don’t let it slide. That’s the thing we’re going to concentrate on,” Rantz said. “Our guys are going to get it done and get it right before they move on to the next drill.”
Both the major- and minor-league camps will start three days earlier than usual to drill fundamentals. Most minor-league staffers will be in the big-league camp for 2-1/2 weeks, watching how it’s done, before workouts for minor-leaguers begin March 8. Gardenhire said the big club will use the same 10-day teaching plan it’s had for years. Those extra three days will be tagged on the end, just before the first exhibition game March 3, to review any rough spots.
Ryan thinks minor-league problems are fixable
That Ryan, who spent much of his time last year observing Twins farm teams, chose not to blow up minor league staff showed his conviction that the problem is fixable.
Only Class AAA Rochester, where manager Tom Nieto and hitting coach Floyd Rayford lost their jobs after a second consecutive 90-loss season, saw significant changes. Gene Glynn, formerly a coach with the Rockies, Expos, Cubs and Giants and most recently a Minnesota-based pro scout for Tampa Bay, replaced Nieto, while ex-Twin Tom Brunansky moved up after one season as Class AA New Britain’s hitting coach. Glynn is a stickler for fundamentals.
Nieto was saddled with unprepared call-ups and too many veteran minor-league free agents who stiff-armed attempts to be coached. The Twins signed nine or 10 so-called “AAAA” players last winter for Rochester because they lacked upper-level prospects for depth. (The designation is industry parlance for older Class AAA players who aren’t good enough to stick in the majors.)
The Twins teach rundowns and middle-infield techniques differently from some teams, and Gardenhire griped in spring training that the newcomers showed little interested in learning. That will no longer be tolerated.
Health outlook seems substantially better
That’s just one of many issues the Twins need to resolve before the end of the spring. Health of key players is a big one.
At TwinsFest over the weekend, Joe Mauer looked fit and excited after a forgettable year. Saddled by left knee problems and ill health, Mauer played only 82 games, 31 at positions other than catcher (first base, DH and the outfield). Mauer said he didn’t fully recover from a bout of pneumonia until November, almost two months after he played his last game. He said he started throwing and hitting off a tee about a week ago, and expects to participate in camp drills from the first day.
“My knee’s been feeling great,” Mauer said. “The last year and a half, trying to compensate for that took a toll on my whole body. I don’t think it’s going to be an issue.”
At that moment, Gardenhire, ever the jokester, walked by and loudly coughed out a common expletive that suggests the speaker is telling a tall tale. Mauer laughed. “This is the best I’ve felt in a long time, and I’m excited about that,” he said.
First baseman Justin Morneau (concussion, wrist surgery) and center fielder Denard Span (concussion, migraines) are cautiously optimistic they’ll be ready to go, too. Gardenhire did Span a favor by naming him the starting center fielder, hoping to avoid a situation where Span returned too soon to protect his job from speedy young Ben Revere.
That Morneau attended TwinsFest at all was an improvement over last year, when Smith told him to stay home in Arizona while working through post-concussion syndrome. Morneau didn’t play his first spring game until March 8, then batted only .227 in a season shortened by injuries, illness and another concussion.
The other big question is whether ex-Dodger Jamey Carroll, who turns 38 next month, can be the everyday shortstop. Ryan insisted that lousy fielding sabotaged the pitching staff last year, and Carroll’s steadiness should help. Although most of Carroll’s major-league experience is at second, the last two years he started more games at short (118) than second (76), committing eight errors.
“I think I proved I can play shortstop,” Carroll said. “A lot of teams called looking at me as a shortstop, which I take as a compliment.”
A last-place team has plenty of holes, and the Twins plan to bring 65 players to camp to try and fill them.
“I do believe last year was an aberration,” Ryan said. “But the best way to prove that is to have a good April, and a great spring training.”