Mackey: Twins rarely make changes to field staff, but they might soon
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Manager Ron Gardenhire and his coaching staff are not the main reasons why the Minnesota Twins have lost 90 games in back-to-back seasons.
The Twins' front office and ownership mostly agrees with this assessment, both publicly and privately. Lack of pitching and a barrage of injuries have led to the demise of an on-field product that finished above .500 in nine out of 10 seasons from 2001 to 2010.
But according to people with knowledge of the organization's thinking, Twins higher-ups are considering making rare changes to the field staff -- a group that includes seven coaches, three athletic trainers, a strength coach and others.
There's a feeling within the Pohlad family two atrocious seasons cannot pass without change of some kind, sources said, especially with attendance figures dropping at Target Field.
Twins ownership looked long and hard at making changes to the coaching, medical and athletic training staffs last offseason. Discussions about these changes began when Bill Smith was still general manager, and they continued well into last offseason after Terry Ryan took over on an interim basis.
This time around, the contracts of all field staff members are set to expire when the season ends. The only exception is Gardenhire, whose contract runs through 2013. The coaches all signed two-year extensions following the 2010 season.
Had the Twins parted ways with staff members last year, the organization still would have been on the hook to pay those salaries in 2012. That wouldn't be the case anymore.
It's possible those contracts played into the decision-making process last offseason. It's also possible Ryan, who began his second stint as GM just one month before baseball's winter meetings last year, wanted to get a better feel for the environment around him before implementing any major changes.
Jim Pohlad told 1500 ESPN last month Ryan has the final say on any potential coaching changes. But Ryan almost certainly wouldn't make any decisions without consulting closely with Gardenhire, whose job appears safe on the surface.
Pohlad and Ryan still view Gardenhire as a good field general and an asset to the organization. The vibe internally is that Gardenhire, much like Tom Kelly in the late 1990s, simply doesn't have talented enough players -- specifically pitchers -- to win with.
Around the league, many of Gardenhire's peers still view him as one of the best managers in baseball.
Gardenhire is, however, extremely loyal to a coaching staff that has been with him since the day he took over for Kelly and has helped navigate the ship for six division titles. Not only has Gardenhire remained loyal to his coaches professionally, but he also considers them among his best friends.
Pitching coach Rick Anderson and third-base coach Steve Liddle have been with Gardenhire since he took over in 2002. Bench coach Scott Ullger has been on the major-league staff since the 1990s, first as a hitting coach, then as third-base coach. Jerry White was named first base coach in 1999. Bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek joined the organization in 1978.
The only significant change was Joe Vavra replacing Al Newman on the staff prior to the 2006 season. When the Twins offense struggles, it's common to hear fans calling for Vavra's head, but under his tutelage, the Twins have scored 780 runs or more in four out of seven seasons.
Anderson's staffs led the league in fewest walks issued almost every season until 2011.
Rick McWane has been the head athletic trainer since 2006, and this is his 24th season in the Twins organization. Assistant athletic trainer Dave Pruemer has been with the big-league club since 2006 as well, and he's been in the organization for 18 years.
Assistant athletic trainer Tony Leo is in his second season with the big-league club and 15th season in the organization. Strength and conditioning coach Perry Castellano has been with the Twins since 2007.
The 53-year-old Liddle -- who is well-respected by players and contributes greatly to in-game strategy -- has told people he is strongly considering retiring after the season.
There is a feeling among some people in the organization that relationships between coaches and players -- professionally more so than personally -- have started to grow somewhat stale over the past two seasons. It's a notion that isn't necessarily surprising, considering how many games the Twins have lost lately.
Issues not directly related to on-field performance have popped up as well. Two players recently blew off a Twins caravan lunch meeting with team community relations staff members. Injured players have, at times, shown up to the ballpark an hour or two after healthy players do, which has irritated some veterans in the clubhouse. And multiple players have cut corners on team dress codes -- a detail that caught Ryan's eye on a recent road trip.
Compared to what reportedly took place in Boston at the end of last season, the aforementioned annoyances behind the scenes with the Twins are fairly benign. But bad habits can lead to bigger problems.
If the Twins do make changes to the coaching staff, it's likely all three Triple-A coaches will receive strong consideration for jobs -- pitching coach Bobby Cuellar, hitting coach Tom Brunansky and manager Gene Glynn, who has acted as somewhat of a second bench coach with the Twins in September.
Pitchers who work with Cuellar generally rave about his attention to detail. He is considered by many as a major league-ready pitching coach.
Players who have come up through the minor leagues the last two years have also praised Brunansky, who hit 271 big-league home runs, most of them with the Twins. Glynn is considered a smart baseball man with a calming, positive influence.
Coaching changes, should they take place, won't change the fact that the Twins have zero major league-ready top-end starting pitchers, nor do they know who will start at second base and shortstop in 2013 -- two of the most important positions on the diamond.
This is, after all, the same field staff that helped lead the Twins out of the doldrums of the 1990's.
But after 11 years and now two 90-loss seasons, the Twins are trying to decide if it's time to shake things up.