Gardenhire quells talk of rebuilding
Manager hopes Twins end up keeping Santana, Nathan
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Coming into this offseason, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire knew that his ballclub would be in for its fair share of changes.Center fielder Torii Hunter was expected to leave via free agency, which he did. The Twins were expected to try to extend the contract of ace Johan Santana or trade him if that wasn't possible. So far, the team is in the process of working on a trade. It's all the impending departures that have led many to speculate whether the Twins are in the midst of a rebuilding process -- a notion that Gardenhire quickly shot down during his managerial interview session at the Winter Meetings on Wednesday. "Everybody keeps talking about us trying to shelve everybody and clean house to get ready for our new stadium, but that's not the case here," Gardenhire said. "That's why we haven't parted ways with Santana up to this point. We need to get back people that are going to help us win right now in the Major Leagues." Santana's future was the hot topic of discussion during Gardenhire's 30-minute session, just like it has been for the entire week at the Gaylord Opryland Resort. It's created plenty of buzz despite the fact that no move had actually been made. "Nothing has happened and nothing is imminent," Gardenhire said when speaking to the media around 10 a.m. CT. "He's still my starting pitcher. That's what I know about Johan Santana." Gardenhire now must sit and watch as his team waits for a Santana deal to materialize while other teams within the American League Central division continue to make strides. The Tigers certainly did that when they completed a deal with the Marlins for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. The deal has made Detroit a clear favorite in the division and created even more of a case that the balance of power in the AL Central has now shifted away from Minnesota. "It's tilting, isn't it?" Gardenhire said of the balance of power in the division. "It's not a good thing [for us]. There are some very good teams in our division. Detroit obviously has really, really improved themselves and they were pretty good to start with. But you have to see as you go along. Everything looks different on paper. You have to start playing the game to see where you stand and how you match up." Trying to predict how the division will shake out is difficult enough, but an even tougher task right now for Gardenhire is figuring out his own lineup. The Twins still have plenty of holes to fill this winter. There is the opening in center field now that Hunter is gone, and third base also remains a question mark. The club has options for the middle infield spots with Nick Punto, Brendan Harris and Alexi Casilla all in the mix, but Gardenhire isn't certain how he will sort out the positions. "I've got first base covered," Gardenhire said. "But I'm not real sure from first base over." Improving the offense was a top priority for the Twins this winter. Adding outfielder Delmon Young to the mix gives the Twins another power bat for the middle of the lineup and helps to ease the loss of Hunter. Exactly where Young will fit into the outfield has yet to be determined. Gardenhire said that he will talk with right fielder Michael Cuddyer and see what his thoughts are about shifting to left field. Gardenhire is expected to have even more new faces to work with by the time the winter is over. If Santana is indeed traded, the Twins could be looking for more veteran starting pitching. Gardenhire acknowledged that the team might look to bring in some experienced arms to compete for rotation spots with their array of young arms. A permanent shortstop, such as David Eckstein, could also be added to the mix. And then, there is the topic of the team's closer. Joe Nathan, who like Santana will be a free agent after the '08 season, has also been the subject of a few trade rumors this week.
Indications have been that the closer could be dealt if Santana goes, although the closer himself predicted this week that he would still be in a Twins uniform when the season started."I would be silly to say 'No, I'm not worried,' but it's not something that's been talked about a lot," Gardenhire said of a potential trade involving Nathan. "If something gets heated up about that, it obviously would be a package that would probably have to bring somebody else in to do that job." Subtracting key players like Santana and Nathan from his roster is something that no manager would prefer to do. But last season the Twins felt the effects of the speculation that often comes with would-be free agents. And while it might be tough to watch players leave, Gardenhire doesn't seem too willing to go through that sort of escapade again. "That's a concern," Gardenhire said. "Everywhere we went from the All-Star Break on last year, the focus wasn't about baseball. We'd like to kind of alleviate a lot of those issues where we don't have to deal with it and we can play baseball." Watching all these changes hasn't made for an easy winter for Gardenhire, but he knows that the pressure has weighed more heavily on rookie general manager Bill Smith. All of the focus this week has been on Smith and what he might do in regards to Santana. Despite the pressure, Gardenhire said he knows that his GM will do what is in the best interest of the club -- whether that means keeping Santana for the time being or not. "There is no panicking going on here," Gardenhire said. "We're waiting for the right situation. We've heard ultimatums from teams and I just get salve and rub it on my wrist from getting slapped. "But we're doing just fine. Whatever happens, happens. One thing I know is that if Johan Santana is my Opening Day starter for next year, I'm a lot better off than most teams."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.