Gardenhire, Yost put '13 in rearview, excited about '14
Twins, Royals managers given reprieves as clubs use offseason to bolster rosters
How much does experience in the dugout count?
The 2014 American League Central race could help answer that question.
Ron Gardenhire and Ned Yost, who respectively rank fifth and seventh among active managers in career wins, dangled in the proverbial wind at the end of disappointing 2013 seasons. Loud segments of fans in Minnesota and Kansas City clamored for change, and timing did not seem to be on the managers' side.
Both Yost and Gardenhire were in the final seasons of their contracts, which made them especially vulnerable. But rather than yield to public pressure, Kansas City's Dayton Moore and Minnesota's Terry Ryan, the general managers who had hired them originally, doubled down by giving them two-year extensions.
And look at their teams now.
A year after dealing away Wil Myers for James Shields, Moore has moved decisively to improve a lineup that was 11th in the AL in scoring last season, with 148 fewer runs than Detroit, the three-time defending AL Central champion. The Royals outbid the Yankees for second baseman Omar Infante, whose .795 OPS last season was better than guys like Dustin Pedroia, Howie Kendrick, Ian Kinsler and Brandon Phillips, after trading left-hander Will Smith to Milwaukee for right fielder Norichika Aoki.
Aoki pencils into the leadoff spot with Infante right behind him, allowing Yost to drop Alex Gordon all the way from leadoff to No. 5, behind Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler.
In Minnesota, the challenge has been rebuilding a rotation that had a 5.26 ERA last season. It has been the worst in the Majors over the last three seasons, which goes a long way toward explaining how the team that won the Central six times in nine years has been a combined 96 games under .500 in 2011-13.
"It's not fun," Gardenhire said. "You know, you go through your career through the Minor Leagues [and] are pretty successful. I had success at Minor Leagues, good players. When you're winning baseball games, it's all the players out on the field … I'm just happy the Twins have given me an opportunity to come back and kind of right the ship and fix it."
Ryan has invested $84 million over nine seasons to import Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes while re-signing Mike Pelfrey to pitch alongside Kevin Correia, and he's not done yet. The Twins have only about $76 million committed to 12 players (including arbitration estimates) and continue talking to other free-agent starters, including Bronson Arroyo.
"Well, I mean, we've gotten beaten up for three years now," Gardenhire said last week, before Pelfrey agreed to a two-year, $11 million deal. "You know you need pitching. We're trying to get pitching … We said we were going to get better, and that's our goal is to get better. We started that process, but by no means is it done. We're still working hard at it."
The Twins are also looking to add a veteran catcher to share the load with Ryan Doumit and prospect Josmil Pinto as Joe Mauer moves to first base on a full-time basis. They pursued A.J. Pierzynski before he signed with Boston.
Down the road, the Twins expect major contributions from outfielder Byron Buxton and third baseman Miguel Sano (35 home runs between high Class A and Double-A last year), both of whom rank in the top three on Jonathan Mayo's MLB.com ranking of baseball's top 100 prospects. But the job for Gardenhire, like Yost, is providing immediate improvement.
The Royals had their sights on Carlos Beltran before signing Infante.
"It was disappointing, I think," Yost said about unsuccessfully recruiting Beltran. "Quite frankly, we were really close with the money that he ended up signing [three years, $45 million]. He wanted to be a Yankee. We wish him the best of luck."
Had the Royals signed Beltran, they would have considered trading Butler for a second baseman, like the Mariners' Nick Franklin. But by going to four years and $30.25 million to land Infante, they got their middle-infield upgrade without having to move Butler, the 2012 All-Star who played all 162 games last season and has an .823 career OPS.
Infante's addition also allows Yost to use Emilio Bonifacio as his top reserve, not a regular. The speedy switch-hitter can play all over the field, and seemed to come into his own after being acquired from Toronto on Aug. 14.
It has been 28 seasons since the Royals reached the playoffs, and few of those brought the anticipation that followed Moore's trade for Shields a year ago. Yost's team got out of the gate 17-10, but crashed in May, with a 4-19 stretch that crushed the optimism it had created.
Yost points to the absence of 23-year-old All-Star catcher Salvador Perez as a critical factor. The Royals were 2-7 when he traveled to Venezuela after the death of a grandmother who helped raise him.
Kansas City was 43-49 at the All-Star break, but rallied to win 86 games, going 43-27 in the second half. That's .614 baseball, which projects to a 100-win season. That's how good players like Perez, Hosmer and Gordon were.
Kansas City is losing Ervin Santana to free agency, but has added lefty Jason Vargas to replace him.
"I'm looking for us to continue doing what we did from the All Star break on," Yost said. "As a young club going into last year, you knew -- at least I knew, or I felt very strongly -- that there would come a point where it would all come together for us. And fortunately or unfortunately, that point didn't happen until the All-Star break."
Yost knows the team he is going to manage in 2014, just as well as Gardenhire knows the Twins. Brad Ausmus will be learning on the fly with the Tigers.
Moore and Ryan hope that change -- at least in the dugout -- isn't always for the better.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.