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Ron Gardenhire’s second chance back in AL Central

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Tigers pick former Minnesota fixture to lead rebuild, which could be a mess if he hasn’t changed

Minnesota Twins Announce They Will Replace Ron Gardenhire as Manager Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The most AL Central manager is back where he belongs.

The Detroit Tigers put the “hire” in “Ron Gardenhire” on Thursday, selecting him to replace Brad Ausmus as manager of a rebuilding club, pending completion of a contract.

Back when we were discussing the void Justin Verlander left in the division after the trade to Houston, Esteban Beltre’s Two Left Hands floated Jason Kubel as a Most AL Central starter, saying:

He left the Central, immediately realized he was scared of everywhere else and not playing the Sox 18 times a year, and came back here to die.

Gardenhire followed the same path. He went 1,068-1,039 over 13 seasons at the helm of the Twins from 2002 through 2014. Then, like Kubel, he spent one year with the Arizona Diamondbacks, serving as Torey Lovullo’s bench coach this past season. It was interrupted by prostate cancer treatment, but he returned to action in late May, and so I presume this job means it’s all systems go.

Gardenhire is back in the division as a classic pick-the-opposite-of-the-last-guy move. After foundering with a manager with zero experience they hoped to groom, the Ilitch family careened to the other extreme — a manager with both four-digit win and loss totals.

That familiarity breeds some strange reactions. On Twitter, Josh was trying to put down a small panic that stems from Gardenhire’s days atop the Central, and pays too little attention to the four consecutive 90-loss seasons that ended his Minnesota run. Sure, Gardenhire beat Ozzie Guillen — whom Gardenhire should thank for the pro bono PR work over the years — but he also had a losing record to Robin Ventura, who got waxed by every other AL Central manger.

It also lends the idea to the Detroit crowd that he’s a safe and known choice, but those are mutually exclusive from this point forward. If he’s the Gardenhire that was known in Minnesota, he won’t be safe.

The argument over Gardenhire seems to reflexively resort to knowledge of analytics, which worries Bless You Boys and frustrates the reporters who don’t care. Dusty Baker reflects both sides of the argument, and the selling points for 162 games trump high-leverage decision-making at this point in the Tigers’ rebuild. The Tigers are trying to sell him as a changed man ...

... and maybe he has. Clint Hurdle and Ned Yost were laughingstocks at one point, and now look at them. For a team that’s trying to rid itself of all veterans, it’s probably a good time for an experienced manager who is eager for a second chance.

Here with Gardenhire, though, treating it as generic analytics acceptance understates the issue, because his ingrained baseball preferences led the Twins into a dead end. Maybe if he trusted the numbers, the Twins wouldn’t have pissed away two MLB shortstops, resulting in the Tsuyoshi Nishioka-sized problem they deserved. The same can be said for Gardenhire’s belief in pitching to contact, which led the Twins into serving up homers to a league increasingly insistent on maximizing contact.

But the bigger problem at the end of Minnesota’s run was awful injury management. As Mike Bates wrote at the time for SB Nation:

Perhaps the hardest thing to swallow, however, is how frustratingly, consistently bad the Twins medical staff seemed and how the club and its players never seemed to learn from their experiences. Of course, it's not fair to blame Gardenhire for the concussions suffered by Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Denard Span. It's not his fault, necessarily, that Carl Pavano hurt his shoulder, Francisco Liriano's elbow snapped, or that Scott Baker broke down. But when these injuries occurred, players consistently tried to play through them and/or come back too soon. The results were consistently disastrous, and did long-term damage to these players' careers as well as the Twins.

The problems festered all the way through to this year. Resurgent in Pittsburgh for the Pirates, Vance Worley revealed that the Twins used him on Opening Day in 2013 while he had elbow soreness. Mike Pelfrey, Ricky Nolasco, Jared Burton, and Glen Perkins all tried to keep pitching through injuries, and were ineffective. Joe Mauer tried to play through back pain for most of the first half. The fact that Gardenhire and his staff didn't work to get out in front of these problems, and address them with their players, based on their experience, was inexcusable.

The last four years of Gardenhire’s Twins run were an abject disaster despite Hawk Harrelson’s insistence that a Gardenhire team never beats itself, and for reasons that were more rooted in basic communication than advanced statistics. Maybe they would have finished below .500 even if Gardenhire made every correct decision, but his mistakes accelerated the disaster and derailed some careers in the process.

This isn’t to say that Gardenhire will fail in a similar way with Detroit. Maybe working under Torey Lovullo in Arizona enlightened him, and maybe a different front office will be able to steer him away from unwise depth-chart decisions. At the end of their Minnesota run, Gardenhire and Twins GM Terry Ryan seemed to enable each other’s most stereotypical tendencies.He might have needed a change of scenery three or more years before the Twins gave him one.

It’s hard to count on an old dog learning new tricks, although Gardenhire is the median age among the division’s managers, younger than both Ned Yost and Paul Molitor (and just one year older than Terry Francona). For the boring, safe, retready AL Central-ness of it all, this decision will require him to be somebody we haven’t yet met if it’s going to work, so I’m looking forward to watching this unfurl. If his worst Minnesota tendencies follow him to Detroit, the Tigers can only blame themselves, because Gardenhire’s decline happened right in front of them.