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Gardenhire could fall in Cubs' lap next season

Proven Twins manager could be available and has had success developing young players

Phil Rogers

On Baseball

10:33 PM CDT, September 24, 2013

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Two years ago, when the Red Sox were opening their state-of-the-art spring training facility only 5 miles away from the Twins' good-enough one, Ron Gardenhire noted how little things change around the Lee County Sports Complex.

"I'm glad I got a new chair,'' Gardenhire said. "Boston must have been selling the old stuff. Not much remodeling here.''

Gardenhire could find himself in plush digs next spring. The Cubs are moving into their $99 million complex in Mesa in February, and it's not too far-fetched to see Gardenhire as the manager when it opens.

Joe Girardi's possible free agency is the main reason Cubs President Theo Epstein says it's too early to say definitively manager Dale Sveum will return for the third year on his contract. But Girardi is not the only potential upgrade that is being weighed within the baseball bunker.

Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer want to find a manager who can win while developing young players, and few organizations (the Rays, A's, Braves and Cardinals, maybe) have done a better job of that than the Twins over the last two decades.

When Gardenhire replaced Tom Kelly in 2002, the Twins were becoming competitive again after the breakup of their core that won the World Series in 1987 and '91. His first team was led by a 26-year-old Torii Hunter and included a 25-year-old A.J. Pierzynski and two talented 23-year-olds in Johan Santana and Michael Cuddyer. It was an instant hit, winning the American League Central, and would win the division six times in a span of nine years.

That seems like ancient history at this point. The Twins are in their fourth season at Target Field in the Twin Cities, and this is their third straight 90-loss season. Attendance has fallen by almost 1 million since 2010, and while the thin roster is the issue owner Jim Pohlad is considering changing managers.

Gardenhire has been a talking point for Twins fans since the Yankees swept a 94-victory Twins team in the Division Series four seasons ago. That gave the Twins a 1-6 record in posteason series under Gardenhire, with the lone first-round success so long ago that it was chronicled in Michael Lewis' book, "Moneyball.''

Patrick Reusse, a Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist who has been an authority on the Twins' franchise since it played games at the old Met, has been saying since early summer that Gardenhire is a dead manager walking. General manager Terry Ryan consistently has defended Gardenhire, however, saying to blame him for the roster he put together (including $23 million man Joe Mauer), and not the manager.

A showdown between Ryan and Pohlad moves closer every day, and no one seems to know what will happen when push comes to shove. It's possible Pohlad will allow Ryan to stick with Gardenhire but only in a lingering-death type scenario, with the dreaded one-year extension, a pat on the back and a mandate to "go get 'em.''

Will Gardenhire take that option? He's very loyal, so he might, but probably not before weighing the chances he could last past 2014 with an over-matched roster against the job offers he could get elsewhere.

Girardi, without question, is the guy Epstein truly covets. But are his family's Midwest ties and the prospect of more ugliness with Alex Rodriguez enough reason to leave the Yankees?

That's debatable, highly debatable. You don't just walk away from the Yankees, do you? But the Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo recently quoted an unnamed Yankee official saying the chances of Girardi staying were "70/30.'' That's a long way from 100 percent, isn't it?

When September rolled around in 2011, it seemed highly unlikely Epstein would leave the Red Sox to try to capture baseball's Holy Grail with the Cubs. But it no longer seemed unthinkable this deep that September. That's where the Girardi-to-the-Cubs scenario seems at this point. Although to be fair, I think Epstein was clearer in the signals he was sending than Girardi has been. It shouldn't surprise anyone if he quietly accepted a contract extension at any point.

It's at that point that Gardenhire's availability could determine whether the Cubs stick with Sveum or make a change. Or something else could be in play that nobody has picked up on.

One way or another, the next couple of weeks will be interesting.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers