MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Target Field was supposed to be the great equalizer for the Minnesota Twins, a golden goose that would allow the franchise to consistently spend the kind of money many believe it takes to compete with the likes of the Yankees, Red Sox and Angels in the American League.
Three years after they moved into the breath-taking venue on the edge of downtown Minneapolis, these Twins more closely resemble the hapless teams that lost games by the dozen under the Metrodome’s shabby roof in the mid-1990s than a model franchise that was supposed to take off when the doors opened to Target Field in 2010.
They just wrapped up a 66-96 season, the second straight miserable year. After the first one, the normally patient and loyal owners fired GM Bill Smith and some less drastic changes may be in store.
When Smith was fired last year, owner Jim Pohlad brought former GM Terry Ryan back to the job on an interim basis and hopes that Ryan will decide to stay for the near future. Ryan has yet to announce a decision.
Manager Ron Gardenhire’s coaching staff, a close-knit group that has been together for years, could be shaken up as the front office tries to get some fresh voices into the clubhouse.
And players could be on the move as well, with pretty much anyone outside of Joe Mauer, who has a no-trade clause in his contract, likely to be discussed in deals that would replenish the Twins’ dilapidated starting rotation.
“When you lose 90-plus games two years in a row, there shouldn’t be too many untouchables on the club,” Ryan said. “You’ve got to find a way to get better.”
Perhaps the most startling aspect of the 2012 season is how many things went right for them this season. Mauer and Justin Morneau stayed healthy for the entire season, with Mauer bouncing back from a nightmare 2011 to contend for another AL batting crown. Josh Willingham, Trevor Plouffe and Ryan Doumit delivered career seasons, Ben Revere emerged as a consistent table-setter, Scott Diamond fulfilled his potential as a starter of the future and closer Glen Perkins and setup man Jared Burton gave Minnesota a formidable back end of the bullpen.
Still, the Twins finished 40 games under .500, 22 games behind AL Central champ Detroit and with the worst record in the American League.
“That just stresses the importance of the rotation,” Ryan said. “We’ve had some guys that have had very good years. And unfortunately we’re still losing 90-some games.”
The rotation was a disaster from opening day. Scott Baker was lost before the season began with Tommy John surgery, Carl Pavano battled injuries for most of the year and only pitched in 11 games, and Francisco Liriano was traded. Jason Marquis and Nick Blackburn were both designated for assignment after struggling and youngsters Sam Deduno, Cole De Vries, Liam Hendriks and P.J. Walters vacillated between mediocre and ineffective.
With the payroll over $100 million and starting pitching never cheap, the Twins will likely have to trade some of their established players to address that area. They have a surplus in the outfield, where Denard Span’s name has come up in discussions for the past two years while others like Willingham and Morneau likely could draw interest from contenders.
“Of course, you’d love to be able to keep all your players and get starting pitching, but that’s really almost impossible,” Gardenhire said. “There aren’t that many free agents out there that are going to be able to step in and do what we want them to do, and that’s fill out the first few spots of our starting rotation.”
It also may be nearly as difficult for Gardenhire to keep his coaching staff intact. Bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek, who had been with the team for 32 seasons, was let go on Thursday, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis reported. The team did not immediately comment on the move.
“I have all the faith that they can do the job,” Gardenhire said. “But some of these things aren’t going to be left up to me. It’s going to be left to ownership and Terry.”
For what it’s worth, Morneau wants to stick around and thinks the team is a lot closer to returning to relevance than some may think.
“There’s been a lot of positives you can look at,” Morneau said. “I don’t feel like we’re that far off. We dug ourselves such a big hole at the start that we were running uphill the whole way. When you’re playing catchup it eventually wears on you.”
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