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After another awful season, expect Twins to make big changes

Everyone involved with the team concedes the on-field product stinks. The question is what they plan to do about it. 

Four years of spectacularly awful play in a publicly-funded stadium eroded the Twins' credibility with its loyal and largely forgiving fan base.
REUTERS/USA Today Sports/Bruce Kluckhohn

Nothing poisons attendance like ineptitude. If you’ve been to Target Field for a Twins game in the last three months, the evidence smacks you in the face.

Four years of spectacularly awful play in a publicly-funded stadium eroded the club’s credibility with its loyal and largely forgiving fan base. Joe Mauer has been booed and heckled. Thousands of seats, many belonging to season ticket holders, sit empty every night. The Twins announced a paid crowd of 29,445 for last Wednesday afternoon’s home finale, but only about 10,000 showed up.  Fan message boards teem with angry comments demanding manager Ron Gardenhire, general manager Terry Ryan or pitching coach Rick Anderson be fired — all three, in some cases — while ripping the Twins for being cheap, stupid or both. UPDATE: Twins let go entire coaching staff.

First base coach Paul Molitor, the Hall of Famer from St. Paul and presumed manager in waiting, put the predicament facing the Twins plainly and succinctly. Molitor sees enough promising kids rising from the farm system like Kennys Vargas and Danny Santana to believe better days are coming, perhaps soon. But you can’t sell hope when your fans are this fed up. After four consecutive 90-loss seasons, Molitor said the Twins best not go that route this winter.

“I wouldn’t tell them too much,” said Molitor, leaning on a bat near the Twins dugout last week. “People don’t want to hear it. They want to see it. But I think everyone here believes it’s true.”

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Give the Twins this: From team president Dave St. Peter to the clubhouse kids who launder the uniforms, the Twins concede the on-field product stinks. No spin, no massaging. The question is what they plan to do about it. St. Peter confirmed that club will look at everything, including staff changes.

“I give our fans a tremendous amount of credit for giving us their support,” said St. Peter. “I don’t think they expect a world championship every year, or a playoff team every year. But they expect a team that at least plays relevant baseball in August and September. We’re trying to get back to that.”

This season has been such a disaster it’s hard to know where to start.

Ryan spent $84 million on Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and Mike Pelfrey last winter, yet the starting pitching outside of Hughes remains unsightly. Last year’s rotation posted the highest earned run average in baseball (5.26) while pitching the fewest innings. This year’s starters finished last again (5.06).

Nolasco not only pitched poorly (6-12, 5.38 ERA) but irritated coaches and his teammates by spending more time in the clubhouse during games than the dugout. When callup Trevor May needed pitching advice, he sought out Hughes instead of Nolasco, even though Nolasco sits next to him in the home clubhouse. That’s telling.  

“We need to get Ricky back to the way he pitched for the Dodgers last year,” Ryan said. “He’s got three years left (on his contract). There’s work to be done but we can certainly still salvage this thing. We’ve got to get a few people back to the point where we know what we’re going to get from them.” 

So now what? Twins executives and owners talked through the weekend. Expect any action to happen quickly, perhaps today.

Standing pat won’t cut it any more. Season ticket equivalents dropped from a club record 24,500 in 2010, Target Field’s inaugural season, to 17,000 this season. That’s still better than most teams, but the downward trend is worrisome. Without the All-Star Game as a carrot to keep season subscribers in the fold, club officials expect a significant falloff this winter unless the Twins do something dramatic.

Principal owner Jim Pohlad fired Bill Smith three years ago to bring Ryan back, and more changes can’t be ruled out. Anderson left Target Field after Wednesday’s 2-1 victory over Arizona concerned for his job. “If they feel they need to make a change, they’ll make a change,” Anderson said. “That’s their right.”

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Gardenhire, meanwhile, sounded much less certain about his future than this time last year, right before the Twins re-signed him for two years. Gardenhire maintained some humor on the last homestand, claiming at one point he let his beard grow out because he feared putting a razor so close to his throat. Gardenhire and Ryan will discuss his future in Detroit, where the Twins finish the season. That said, Gardenhire wants to return.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I’ve always said this is my home. I love this organization, I love the area, the whole package. Why wouldn’t you want to be here? It’s as good as it gets. But I’m all for whatever is best for the organization, too.”

Ryan isn’t going anywhere. Not even the Twins are callous enough to fire a cancer survivor seven months removed from surgery. Ryan said last week that his appetite and taste buds aren’t back to normal yet, but remains up for finishing the rebuilding task if the Pohlads want him back. Considering how badly Ryan’s underlings mangled the roster while he recovered, they dare not entrust this to anyone else.

Gardenhire and Ryan are so like-minded they might as well be surgically attached. It’s hard to imagine Ryan firing Gardenhire unless the Pohlads demand it. But Ryan has no such relationship with Anderson, who joined the major-league staff with Gardenhire in 2002 after manager Tom Kelly retired.

Former Twin Vance Worley’s contention that the Twins failed to fix a flaw in his delivery last year, and Worley’s success in Pittsburgh after the Twins dumped him (8-4, 2.85), falls on Anderson. But Anderson also helped Hughes refine his mechanics and set a major-league record for strikeout-to-walk ratio, leading him to a 12-victory improvement over last season with the Yankees. Pitching and hitting coaches often take the fall as the last step before firing the manager. If the Pohlads decide somebody has to go, Anderson looms as most vulnerable.

The thing is, firing a coach or the manager doesn’t sell tickets. Major acquisitions do. When the Minnesota Wild landed free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter two years ago, it dramatically changed the perception of the franchise, energized the fan base, and boosted the team’s revenue and outlook. Even Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher couldn’t believe they pulled it off. The Twins need an equally bold stroke.

More than anything, the Twins lack an ace starting pitcher who dominates teams and counsels young players. Scouts view Hughes as a cut below that, a No. 3 on a contending team. May, Alex Meyer and Jose Berrios are the only pitching prospects in the farm system close to ready, and none projects as an ace. Even if they make it, someone needs to show them the way.

Among free agents, Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer of Detroit, Oakland’s Jon Lester and Kansas City’s James Shields fit the requirement. Offers for Scherzer and Lester, both 30, and Shields, 33, will involve years and dollars far beyond Minnesota’s usual threshold. But nothing short of landing one of these guys will assuage Twins fandom. If agents, peers and industry pros see as much promise in the Twins system as Parise and Suter did the Wild’s, it gets Ryan a seat at the negotiating table. The rest is up to him and the Pohlads. And “we tried out best” won’t be good enough.   

 “We’ll continue to search,” Ryan said. “You always have to keep your eye out, especially for starters. It’s a tough commodity to find. It’s been one of our biggest problems. Not that we don’t have other problems. We do. If you can fortify your pitching, a lot of those other things go away.”