Much has been said during the off-season about the Twins’ lack of leadership. Although there may be some truth to that argument, I believe this situation is much more nuanced than that.
I find the topic of leadership one of interest, not only because of how much it is being discussed these days, but also because it has been a topic I have researched, studied and practiced for a whole career. So, here is my take on the Twins and leadership.
There are many levels of leadership in an organization such as the Twins – owners, senior management, field manager, coaches, players. Owners demonstrate leadership in how they set the expectations for the senior management. Senior management lead in the choices they make for lower level managers, etc.
One could argue that the two most important leaders in a major league baseball operation are the general manager and the field manager. They certainly are the most high profile positions when it comes to evaluating the success of the franchise. While some of the chatter about leadership the past few months has involved discussion of those two positions, most has been about team leadership or lack thereof from key players.
Once the tone is set by Twins’ ownership and senior management, including Gardenhire, leadership from the players can play an important role in the success of the team, but the tone definitely is set from the top. Ownership made a change in general manager and Terry Ryan has been public about some of the changes he wants to see. He has set the tone.
From all the public comments Ron Gardenhire has made this year, he seems to have decided that he needed to change his approach and is asserting himself more vocally and boldly. That may simply be because last year’s disaster was so embarrassing that he does not want anything like that to happen again, or it may be that he realizes he needs to be more directive with younger players and not assume they have absorbed all they have been taught coming up through the system. His previous style of practically deferring to veteran players who he knew would do the right thing did not work last year and so he is going to be more vocal and directive.
Since Gardenhire has clearly set that new tone this year, player leadership will emerge to compliment his new approach. With several new players on the team and some dominant personalities gone, it will take a little time for it all to work itself out, but before long we will see players settling into their new roles.
From outside the clubhouse, it appeared that Michael Cuddyer and Joe Nathan were key leaders in the past. I think it is important to emphasize the point about “outside the clubhouse” because none of us know what really goes on behind the scenes. We are thus left to speculating based on reading between the lines of comments made by management and players as reported by the media.
Leadership by players can take many forms. In sports, it is almost a worn out cliche that the best kind of leadership is leadership by example. One can find many stories throughout the history of baseball that illustrate the importance of this kind of leadership. Their play showed how it is done and others learned from that success trying to emulate it in their own work to be better.
In the last decade or so, it appears to me that more emphasis has been put on vocal leadership than in the past. Leaders are now quite often identified as guys who speak out, call out teammates who are not playing up to their potential, and assert a dominant role by their dominant personality. I think there may be some truth to that kind of leadership being important in today’s game, but I also think players who lead quietly by example are critical to success.
It would be interesting to know who really commands the most respect in the Twins’ clubhouse. Was Cuddyer really the acknowledged leader among peers or was he just the public face because he was most comfortable talking to and with media? With Cuddyer and Nathan gone, who now do the players look to as the most respected guys?
I have a feeling the real, most highly respected leaders might contain a few surprises to us fans and even the beat writers. My reason for that is I think some of the more introverted players may have more influence than we think. We might get occasional glimpses or hints of who the real leaders are by comments made by players in answer to less direct questions. Maybe even some of the tweets provide insight that might not be obvious if you are not looking for it.
From some of this year’s evidence, it appears Jamey Carroll has quickly gained respect and may become a key leader. If that is true, it will be very good because on the field one of the positions that requires leadership is shortstop. In my opinion, it was as much the failure of leadership at shortstop as it was poor play and errors that led to such a bad year for the Twins last year. Alexi Casilla has all the physical skills to play shortstop well, but he does not, apparently, have the leadership skills needed. It may be largely a language issue with him, as I’m sure was a factor for Nishioka, but it is more than that. It requires a take charge personality that exudes quiet confidence and Alexi seems to be more of a good follower than a leader. He is, therefore, better suited to second base, if he is going to be a regular.
Catcher is the other most important leadership position on the field. Mauer does that well when he is able to play, but may not be a forceful enough personality or extroverted enough to do that much off the field. The other players who played so much behind the plate last year may have done alright calling the games, etc., but the inability to hit made them liabilities as complete leaders. This year it will be interesting to see if and how Doumit emerges as a leader.
Although I have no way of knowing this for sure, I suspect Jason Kubel may be missed more in the clubhouse and on the field by some players than Michael Cuddyer. The reason I say that is he led by example. He apparently said very little, but always showed up and gave full effort. I think the younger guys noticed that and those with less than big personalities will emulate that, or at least I hope so.
I’m going to be bold and predict that Denard Span, Matt Capps, Jamey Carroll and Glen Perkins are going to be important leaders this year. They will each lead in their own way. For example, Perkins is their new union representative, and that demonstrates that players have some level of respect for him.
In addition, I think Morneau will lead again if he is able to play well, otherwise he will not be a dominant voice on this team. It will take a full MVP year for Mauer to assert himself and even then he may never be a clubhouse leader because of his mild manner and introverted personality. His value off the field may be in how well he relates to and works with the pitchers and pitching coach, Rick Anderson. Both Mauer and Morneau have publicly stated more than once that they believe they lead best by example, so they need to be in the lineup regularly and playing well.
One more player to watch is Josh Willingham. He is said to be similar to Cuddyer off the field and if that is the case he could emerge as a leader.
With spring training games now underway, the players are no doubt feeling their way into their appropriate roles for this year. I am looking forward to this year in part to see who the players look to for leadership from their peers.