FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Twins have long prided themselves on franchise stability, and manager Ron Gardenhire has been a major part of that since joining the organization more than 20 years ago.
Gardenhire, who got his start as Minnesota's third-base coach in 1991 before taking over as manager for the retired Tom Kelly in 2002, is currently the second-longest-tenured manager in Major League Baseball, behind Angels skipper Mike Scioscia.
But Gardenhire enters the 2013 season in the last year of his contract, as Twins general manager Terry Ryan declined to offer him an extension after Minnesota finished with the worst record in the American League each of the last two seasons.
So this year could be crucial for Gardenhire, who has led the Twins to six division titles in his tenure as manager and won the 2010 AL Manager of the Year Award after finishing as the runner-up five other times.
Gardenhire addressed his contract status and more in a question-and-answer session with MLB.com:
MLB.com: With the struggles over the last two seasons, what kind of expectations do you have for this club this year?
Gardenhire: Well, you just try to let it play out. You always try to be an eternal optimist, but you have to let it play out. If everybody is healthy, then you have a chance to compete. Health is key every year. The last two years, we've been beat up. We lost our big boys, we lost our pitching. Hopefully, we can stay healthy and see what happens. It makes a big difference out there when the guys who are supposed to be out there are out there.
MLB.com: Do you pay attention to where others have your club picked to finish in the division?
Gardenhire: That's just the way it's always been -- people go and pick the best teams on paper. We know we never paid attention to it when we were winning divisions, so we definitely don't pay attention to it now. We've been picked second or third in our division and won the division by 10 games. So you just let them do their thing. That's their job to guess. But really what happens in baseball is that it's won on the field and not anywhere else.
MLB.com: Last year, starting pitching was your club's weak link, but there are some new faces in the rotation this season such as Mike Pelfrey, Kevin Correia and Vance Worley. How much do you think they can help this year?
Gardenhire: They're getting better as we go along. You saw Pelfrey really throw it well the other day, and Correia, too. These guys have track records. They know how to pitch. Now it's just about going out there and getting it done. You can sit there and say, "This guy has done this and this guy has done that." But what has to happen when we start the season is that they have to get it done.
MLB.com: As a manager, what was it like to see both Denard Span and Ben Revere get traded about a week apart this offseason?
Gardenhire: Well, we knew we needed pitching in this organization and that we were going to have to move some people, and it was probably going to have to be good players. And Denard was hot on everybody's list. So when we traded Denard, I kind of thought, "This is who the people want. We're going to have to give up a really good player to get a really good one." And then with Ben, Terry told me, "We might have to do this, too." And my first question I asked him was, 'Who is going to play center?" So we just wanted to give [Aaron] Hicks a chance here in Spring Training to see what he could do, and [Darin] Mastroianni and [Joe] Benson. And fortunately, Hicks has really taken off for us.
MLB.com: The Twins' farm system seems improved, especially with the additions of Alex Meyer and Trevor May in the trades with the Nationals and Phillies, respectively. But how tough is it knowing they're not big league-ready yet?
Gardenhire: The great thing about it is that they're not too far away. They could compete up here if we brought them up here. But the right thing to do is to let them get going and get some innings under their belts. And see we'll see if they can take off down there and see what happens up here. When needed, we're going to have some pretty talented people to come up here and help us.
MLB.com: Do you think the offense will be your best asset this year, with veterans such as Joe Mauer, Josh Willingham and Justin Morneau in the middle of the lineup?
Gardenhire: We hope so. That's our lifeline, offensively -- those middle guys. You have to have table-setters, and it has to go up and down the lineup, because you can't have just the same guys doing it every day. If everything is working well, you need to find other ways to score runs. Not just home runs. You should be able to run yourself into some runs. Hopefully we'll have enough speed to do those things. And hopefully we can do small ball when needed, and do big ball and let the guys whack 'em.
MLB.com: The Twins have had trouble defensively over the last two years. Do you feel like it's improved?
Gardenhire: Yeah, with Morneau at first, and [Brian] Dozier and [Pedro] Florimon in there, with [Jamey] Carroll and [Eduardo] Escobar behind them. Those guys can all pick it. And [Trevor] Plouffe is much better over there. And in our outfield, Willingham will catch the ones he's supposed to catch. That's why we have a guy like Hicks out there who can cover some ground. And [Chris] Parmelee actually moves pretty decent out there. So with Mastroianni backing up, we have options.
MLB.com: How is the bullpen shaping up behind closer Glen Perkins and setup man Jared Burton?
Gardenhire: We've got some veterans and some kids. We've got arm strength, too. We've got guys who can throw it 92, 93, 94 mph, and so that'll be fun to watch. We know if you can get six or seven innings from your starters, there's that gap you have to bridge to Burton and Perkins. And they can't throw every day, so people are going to have to step up and pick them up every once in a while."
MLB.com: How important will it be to get better performances from your starters this year, considering they had trouble going deep into games last year?
Gardenhire: We ended up beating up our guys in that bullpen. You can't play 162 games and have your starters go four and five innings. It just doesn't work that way. We need to get it to maybe three innings out of our bullpen, and then you can get away with it. So we've got to figure out a way to get our starters deep in the game.
MLB.com: It's well-known that you're in your last year of your contract with the Twins. Is it something you think about?
Gardenhire: You can't worry about things you can't control. Like I've said all along, I've been very lucky here to run this ballclub, and hopefully I'll stay and get that opportunity. I know it's what we do on that baseball field. It's about performance and how we're moving forward as an organization. That's my job. How we move forward is that we want to win baseball games. We want develop players and all those things. That's my job since Day 1. We've had a couple of tough years, and I'm accountable. This is my baseball team. That's the way it should be. So I'm not worried about contracts. I'm worried about my baseball team.