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Spring training redux

Under Ron Gardenhire, the Twins have made a lot of controversial decisions coming out of spring training. When you examine some of these decisions carefully, you see that he places altogether too much emphasis on a few events in spring training, which lead to poor decisions. Ultimately, it all works out in the wash. But with the small margin for error, I wish he would learn to take the same attitude to spring training that he takes into the 162 game season--don't sweat the details on personnel decisions. Sweat the details on the field.

In 2003, Gardy gave the right field job to a guy who had not played right field much in his career over a couple of guys who had excelled at the position. I'm talking about giving the job to Michael Cuddyer when both Bobby Kielty and Dustan Mohr had arguably earned the job the previous year. Cuddyer was given the job because he had a very good spring hitting against mostly minor league pitchers. We all know what happened. Cuddyer flopped, was sent down after a month, and Kielty and Mohr did a nice job picking up the pieces until Kielty was sent to Toronto for Shannon Stewart. The Twins had a poor April in part because Cuddyer was an out machine at the plate and an out sieve in the field. And neither Kielty nor Mohr were allowed to get into a good groove at the position in part because they both sat through April on the bench.

In 2005, the Twins went north with three catchers because Joe Mauer put an ice pack on his knee after one of the spring games. Though Mauer came back to play several spring games in a row, Gardy insisted on keeping Corky Miller on the team for extra depth at the expense of Michael Restovich or a left handed bat off the bench. The other reason Gardy wanted to keep Miller is he was out of options and he didn't want to lose him by sending him down. Part of his evaluation came because Miller had a couple of good spring training games hitting against mostly minor league pitching. Worse, Gardy insisted on playing Miller in three games in which Mike Redmond could have started. Miller went 0-12 with three passed balls and several other questionable defensive plays. By the time the Twins outrighted him, he was so worthless that no one claimed him off waivers and he passed through unscathed. Meanwhile, the Twins were offensively challenged on the bench for the month of April and had to outright a good offensive player (Resto) to keep Miller. Resto was claimed off waivers and his story is a sad saga of bouncing around the league looking for a job.

In 2006, the Twins send Bartlett out because he made a couple of mistakes in spring training, and despite the fact that he had a good spring otherwise and he arguably earned the job with his play down the stretch in 2005. But playing every other day in spring training, he didn't carry himself like a starting shortstop on a couple of cutoff plays, plays that made Gardy so mad he decided to send him down to teach him a lesson. Also, Gardy liked the way Jason Kubel swung the bat in a couple of games during the last week of spring training and gave him the job despite the fact that his main competition--Michael Cuddyer--had the best spring of any Twin before pulling an abdominal muscle while diving for a ball in the outfield. Kubel starts most of the early games and gets one hit in 24 at bats while Cuddyer sits and waits for an opportunity.

Personnel decisions are always tough, and the Twins like to set up situations in spring training that call for even tougher personnel decisions. For example, the Twins set up two three-way competitions for jobs. These competitions tend to favor guys who can play well every third day while guys who need more reps struggle. Given the penchant for tough spring training decisions and the fact that spring training performances need to be taken with a huge grain of salt, I would expect that they would have a fairly rigorous process for sorting out who actually won the competition. In addition to the numbers, I would think the decisions would take a lot of factors into account, such as injuries, the play of the player in the previous year, and so on. I would think the general manager would have as large a say in the decision as the manager.

But that is not what I see in this pattern of decision making. What I see is the manager makes the decision based on a couple of isolated events in spring training. Once the manager makes the decision, he can't be shaken from it. The general manager and the field staff can try as they like, but, to quote from the movie "Little Big Man", "Nothing is worth the reversal of a Custer decision." I would love to hear otherwise, but everything I have seen during Gardenhire's tenure suggests that he makes these snap decisions based on a few isolated impressions--like seeing Joe Mauer limping with an ice pack on his knee--and he digs in. He doesn't give in until it is obvious that he is wrong, and by that time it is too late. When the media question him about these controversial personnel decisions, he gets churlish and barks out irrational answers to their quite reasonable questions.

Some might say, "Big deal, April is just extended spring anyway. It all comes out in the wash." Well not in this division anymore and not with the schedule the Twins play the first 18 games. They needed to be ready to come out firing with their best 9 on the field and their best 25 on the team. Anything less might put them into hole that they never dig out of. My fear is that in settling for less than their best, Gardenhire and Ryan have just needlessly made a tough task an almost impossible one.