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Updated: February 18th, 2013 9:05pm
Zulgad: Presence of Terry Ryan as GM is good news for Ron Gardenhire

Zulgad: Presence of Terry Ryan as GM is good news for Ron Gardenhire

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

After giving his season-opening speech to the Minnesota Twins' full squad on Saturday, manager Ron Gardenhire was asked if he had added any new wrinkles to his message.

Gardenhire smiled.

"I've got a couple," he said, jokingly. "You lose 96 games, you get wrinkles."

Actually, Gardenhire has lost 195 games combined the past two seasons. He also is entering the final season of a contract that was not extended at the end of last year. Add in the fact that much of Gardenhire's coaching staff was overhauled after a second-consecutive last place finish in the American League Central and one could conclude that Gardenhire's 12th season might be his last as the Twins' manager.

So why was Gardenhire able to make light of his situation?

One reason might be because of his belief in the same guy who informed him that he wouldn't be getting a contract extension last fall.

Terry Ryan, in his second go-around as the Twins' general manager, is fully aware that Gardenhire did not forget how to manage after winning a second consecutive division in 2010. That marked the Twins' sixth division crown since Gardenhire took over for Tom Kelly following the 2001 season.

At the time, Ryan looked like a very smart man for promoting the team's third base coach after Kelly decided he had had enough.

While Gardenhire will be under pressure to turn things around in 2013, he also knows that Ryan believes in him and, maybe even more importantly, appears to have ultimate say on baseball matters within the Twins' organization.

Don't agree? Consider this.

Ryan's return to the role of executive vice president and general manager in November 2011 -- a move that came after he spent four years as a special assistant to Bill Smith -- involved one caveat. Ryan's title carried the interim tag along with it.

Ordinarily, this would have been the call of a team that wanted to see if the veteran baseball guy still had it. But in this case, club executives made it known that it was Ryan who wanted to see how things went before he removed the designation from his own title.

Ryan had stepped down on his terms after the 2007 season and now he was returning on his terms.

After a season of getting up to speed, Ryan was back this offseason to making moves that took plenty of guts but could prove to look very good down the road. This is not to say Ryan had a poor winter a year ago. Josh Willingham, Ryan Doumit and Jamey Carroll all made immediate contributions - Willingham had a career-high 35 home runs and 110 RBI - and a reconstructed bullpen proved to be far more effective than the 2011 version.

But the projected starting pitching staff fell apart, and Jason Marquis was such a bust that the Twins released him in May after signing him in December.

A general manager looking to save himself would have evaluated the Twins' following last season and decided the easiest fix would have been to fire the manager.

Ryan put much of the blame on himself, decided that changes were needed in Gardenhire's coaching staff and kept the manager around for at least one more season.

There is little doubt the toughest conversation Ryan had with Gardenhire after the 2012 season was when he told him that several coaches would have to be let go. Bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek, third base coach Steve Liddle and first base coach Jerry White were released and hitting coach Joe Vavra and bench coach Scott Ullger were given new duties on the big-league staff.

Despite the fact the Twins' biggest struggles had come with their starting pitching, though, Ryan did not make a move with Gardenhire's pitching coach and good friend, Rick Anderson. Ryan promoted Triple-A pitching coach Bobby Cuellar from Rochester but decided to name him as the Twins' bullpen coach.

Could this create some interesting friction when a young pitcher goes to Cuellar instead of Anderson? Absolutely. Ryan knows this, but he also likely knew that keeping Anderson around was the most important thing for his manager.

Ryan and Gardenhire's second-most difficult conversation in recent months had to have come in December. After having traded Denard Span to the Washington Nationals for pitching prospect Alex Meyer, Gardenhire assumed his Opening Day center fielder would be the speedy Ben Revere.

But teams began to approach Ryan about Revere and he decided to listen. When the Philadelphia Phillies offered righthander Vance Worley and top pitching prospect Trevor May, Ryan decided he had no choice but to accept.

Acquiring Meyer and May should give the Twins plenty of hope for 2014 and beyond when it comes to their starting staff, but only Worley figures to be a regular in the rotation in 2013 and that might not end up doing Gardenhire any good.

The center field job is now a three-way competition between prospects Joe Benson, Aaron Hicks and Darin Mastroianni, who might be best suited to serve as a fourth outfielder. None of the three is a sure thing for this coming season.

If this was any other general manager making these moves, Gardenhire might examine the situation and start looking at where he might land next. But Ryan has proven before that he has little interest in taking the simple way out or making the easy move.

Sometimes that can cause indigestion for his manager, as is likely the case with the Revere trade, and sometimes that might help keep the manager around when others want him gone.

Case in point: Kelly is in the Twins' Hall of Fame, but he also retained his job from 1993 through 2000 despite finishing under .500 each season.

This is not to say Gardenhire will survive several more losing seasons, or even one more, but one should not assume that Ryan is going to be in a hurry to make a change if things don't go well at the outset of the 2013 season.

And make no mistake, Ryan will be the one calling the shots when it comes to his manager's future. That figures to be good news for Gardenhire. 

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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