Ron Gardenhire has become a staple in Minnesota. He has been the Twins manager since 2002. In his time as the club's skipper, the Twins have gone 932-851. They've been to the postseason six times under his supervision. Yet, Gardenhire is in the final year of his contract with no guarantees of an extension.
That's what happens when a team goes a combined 129-195 over the past two seasons. The Twins' fall from grace was fast, and it was hard. In 2010, they won 94 games and took the American League Central crown. The next year, they struggled to avoid 100 losses. Much of this has to do with injuries, but with the team healthy this year, Gardenhire will have to find a way to pull off the impossible. He'll have to finish with a winning record.
Baseball is not always fair. Even if the Twins finish with a losing record this season, it's probably not Gardenhire's fault. At least not entirely. The club does not have much talent, their pitching is suspect, and if they have even one significant injury, they can forget about the whole season. That's why Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau need to have big-time bounce-back years and stay on the field throughout the season.
Joe Mauer played in just 82 games in 2011. Coincidentally, the Twins lost 99 games. He came back and played in 147 games - a career-high - and the Twins still lost 96 games. Just having Mauer back on the field is not enough. The Twins need him to get back to his old self. They need him to produce at an All-Star level again consistently. And he's getting there.
The trouble began when Mauer underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in December of 2010. He was able to get back on the field for the start of the 2011 season, but his knees were weak. He may have rushed back (but fans certainly didn't want to hear that, they crushed him for not playing), and ultimately Mauer had to miss time to get healthy. The weakness in his knees, and trying to play through that weakness, led to back stiffness as well. All said, Mauer played about half a season and hit a disappointing (for him) .287/.360/.368.
The funny thing is, Mauer may not have recovered in the public eye yet. He took a beating in the media and with the fans in 2011, but he came back strong in 2012. He appears healthy this year too. Yet, it hasn't seemed to be enough. Perhaps, if Mauer duplicates his 2012 season, he can get back in the good graces of Minnesotans and help save Gardenhire's job.
Last season, Mauer hit .319/.416/.466. He finished in the top-20 of AL MVP voting and made his fifth All-Star Game. His on-base percentage led all of the American League. He proved he was back, and he'll need to keep that up this year.
Justin Morneua's problems have been a little more difficult. He suffered a concussion in July of 2010. That concussion has caused long-term lingering problems for Morneau. He suffered two more concussions and has not been able to get back to his old self.
In 2010, Morneau played in just 81 games. In 2011, he played in 69 games. However, last year as Morneau fought his way back and started feeling normal again, he played in 134 games. He still hasn't been able to get his production back to his All-Star levels or his MVP level, but the Twins had to be encouraged by how many games Morneau was able to play and the progress he has made.
The 31-year old first baseman won the American League MVP in 2006 when he hit .321/.375/.559 with 34 home runs. He went on to make four-straight All-Star Games after that season, but then the injuries started. The concussions limited Morneau to the point of literally not being able to see straight or play in a game. He had headaches, blurred vision, and all the symptoms that go along with post-concussion syndrome. There were even questions about whether Morneua would be able to play again. But he did play again.
Last year, Morneau hit .267/.333/.440 with 19 home runs. He admitted during the season last year that he was not back to 100 percent. If he can get there this year, the Twins may have two players contributing at an All-Star level. And that's exactly what the team, and more specifically Ron Gardenhire, needs.
Gardenhire is the winningest (based on winning percentage) manager in Twins history, but even in the small-market of the Minneapolis/St-Paul area, once a fan base gets a taste of success, they can't handle failure. If the Twins have a third-straight losing season, there is a good chance Gardenhire's contract does not get extended. For his sake, and for the Twins' sake, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau will need to stay healthy and have big years.
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