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Updated: May 20th, 2013 3:52pm
Zulgad: Blaming Ron Gardenhire for Twins' struggles is missing the point

Zulgad: Blaming Ron Gardenhire for Twins' struggles is missing the point

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

The Minnesota Twins returned from a 10-game road trip this month with a respectable 16-15 record and having just taken three of four from the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. The Twins went 5-5 on the trip and continued to be a pleasant surprise after losing 195 combined games the previous two seasons.

The theory from at least one media member was that the Twins didn't look like a contender but they did appear to be a club with a chance to be competitive on a nightly basis.

That optimism might have been a bit premature.

The Twins completed a nine-game homestand on Sunday with a 5-1 loss to Boston. The Orioles won two of three, the White Sox did the same after losing the opener and the Red Sox cruised to the sweep. This left the Twins 2-7 in the nine home games and dropped them into last place in the American League Central with an 18-22 record.

Here is a new theory regarding the Twins: They might have seen .500 for the last time this season.

If that is the case, and the struggles continue, we are getting very close to the conversation turning to the job security of manager Ron Gardenhire. The assumption from many after general manager Terry Ryan shook up Gardenhire's long-time coaching staff last Fall was that the manager would be the next one shown the door if things didn't improve.

As much as some might want to see this move made, it's been the belief here for several months that Gardenhire isn't in as much trouble as some might think. Despite a few performances in recent days that were difficult to watch, that opinion has not changed.

The reasoning behind this isn't primarily based on the fact Ryan was the guy who promoted Gardenhire to replace Tom Kelly and likes and respects him. That is part of it, but the more important issue is that Ryan is fully aware that he is asking Gardenhire to manage a team that, at best, qualifies as a work in progress.

For anyone who wants to pull the plug on Gardenhire, just look at the center field situation and then realize that is completely on Ryan and not the manager.

Aaron Hicks is a top prospect but if this was a contending team there is no way he would be on the big-league roster. Hicks was clearly overmatched when he was asked to start the season leading off and is considered to have made some strides since being dropped in the order.

Still, he is hitting .139 with three home runs and 15 RBI and often appears to be lost when batting lefthanded. His average from that side of the plate is .118.

So why does Hicks continue to play on a nearly daily basis? Because Ryan has left little to nothing behind Hicks when it comes to the depth chart for major league-ready center fielders in this organization.

Denard Span was traded to Washington during the offseason for pitching prospect Alex Meyer and shortly thereafter the guy who was going to replace Span, Ben Revere, was dealt to Philadelphia for pitchers Trevor May, the key to the deal, and Vance Worley.

Ryan did not make a mistake in making these deals - the Twins had to get young pitching into the organization - but he also left Gardenhire in an extremely difficult situation.

Examples of what this season is about for the Twins extend beyond center field.

If the Twins were attempting to compete for the AL Central title, there is little doubt that veteran journeyman Jamey Carroll would be playing on a consistent basis at second base. Instead, Brian Dozier was getting the majority of time at that position until his .128 average over a 10-game period earned him a seat on the bench on Saturday and Sunday.

Dozier has made the transition from shortstop to second base and while his .212 average leaves plenty to be desired, the Twins must find out if the 26-year-old is an everyday player in the big leagues or if he's destined to be a utility player or not even that.

The Twins will never admit to this - much like a franchise will never say it's rebuilding - but the way Ryan has gone about building the 2013 roster is almost to attempt to conduct tryouts that will establish that some players belong at this level and some simply don't.

The key is to learn as much about these players as soon as possible because Ryan and Gardenhire have to know this type of losing has to come to an end after 2013. Ryan and then-manager Tom Kelly oversaw some brutal baseball in the 1990s without losing their jobs but that was a low-revenue team that was stuck in the Metrodome. Few actually cared about the club.

Much more is expected of an organization that these days makes far more money playing in Target Field but also has a bigger payroll and an expectation that a down cycle won't last for numerous seasons.

At some point soon, the Twins are going to have to apply the philosophy they are using with Hicks and Dozier to the pitching staff and start taking longer looks at some of their minor leaguers.

If Ryan was right, eventually Meyer and May are going to be top-end members of this pitching rotation. Of course, that won't be this season. What the Twins need to do in the short term is figure out if a guy like Sam Deduno can contribute or if his control issues are simply too much for him to overcome.

Deduno is going to be 30 on July 2 so getting him up here sooner rather than later to begin making a decision makes sense.

Righthander Kyle Gibson, who had Tommy John surgery in September 2011, is going to turn 26 this summer and is in the conversation with May and Meyer as being a key part of this rotation in the coming seasons. Gibson took a no-hitter into the eighth inning on Sunday for Triple-A Rochester against Lehigh Valley and finished with a three-hit complete game shutout in an 11-0 win.

Gibson has been up-and-down this season in terms of his performances but considering where things might be headed for the Twins in 2013 it shouldn't be costing anyone sleep if goes through a few rough games in the big leagues.

The Twins appeared to take a step toward shuffling things on the pitching staff Monday by sending lefthander Pedro Hernandez to Rochester and recalling lefty reliever Caleb Thielbar. Hernandez made six starts for the Twins and gave up three runs on nine hits with 107 pitches thrown in 4.1 innings on Sunday against the Red Sox.

The Twins saw what they had in Hernandez and now have done the right thing and moved on toward looking at other pitchers. This is the type of plan the Twins have put in place for 2013 and it's why any angst directed at Gardenhire isn't completely fair.

Certainly Terry Ryan knows this to be the case.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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