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July 31, 2000

AL Central Notebook

On Tom Kelly

by Christina Kahrl

On Tom Kelly

I think Tom Kelly is getting a bad rap for his dealings with young players from malcontent underachievers like Todd Walker. Yes, Kelly is abrasive, and probably in an unnecessarily public way. Yes, his focus on defense is probably excessive, but I can't see that he's cast off too many players that would have been truly useful. How useful is Todd Walker when they can have a dramatic upgrade offensively with a replacement-level player? Jay Canizaro may not have great range, but he makes routine plays and he at least knows where to run on cutoffs, something Walker couldn't even do.

If you look at TK's history, he's had Chuck Knoblauch and Marty Cordova as Rookies of the Year. Young guys like Matt Lawton, Cristian Guzman, Corey Koskie, Brad Radke and Eric Milton all seem to be able to play for TK. Mark Redman should get some serious consideration for AL Rookie of the Year in 2000, certainly more than Terrence Long. I think TK has some serious flaws, but in the grand scheme of things, I think he has had many more successes with young players than failures, and certainly no more problems with young players than the average manager. He gets a lot of bad press because of people like Walker, but because the Twins are such a small market, and not a particularly good team yet, you don't really hear about the successes.

I wonder if the book on TK will change when this team starts to really compete in late 2001 and 2002 almost exclusively with players developed internally, while Todd Walker is hitting a soft .335 with a low OPS in Coors Field.

Doug Hennessee

I'm inclined to agree with your defense of Tom Kelly, up to a point. Has he discarded that many useful players? As far as position players go, no, I don't really think so. Players like Marty Cordova and Todd Walker are easily replaceable, and hardly the kind of players that any organization misses.

What is less defensible is Kelly's apparent skill at gratuitously taking offense and burying players. Last year's handling of David Ortiz was infantile at best. Keep in mind, I'm definitely of the opinion that if you're given the choice between baseball talent and a manager's way of doing things, you can always find another manager.

Totally indefensible is his overreliance on a few familiar old men. Ron Coomer is the current example, and while Coomer is a useful major-league player, he is not a good regular.

Where Kelly does not deserve any slack is in his handling of pitchers. The only break you can cut him on this front is that the entire organization has done a bad job over the last decade or so when it comes to developing pitchers. The number of pitchers rushed up to the majors by the Twins is pretty amazing. As I wrote in Baseball Prospectus 2000:

"Consider the pitchers who have come up with the Twins in the last ten years or so: Pat Mahomes was starting in the majors at 21; Brad Radke, Scott Erickson, Denny Neagle, Eddie Guardado, LaTroy Hawkins, Paul Abbott and Mike Dyer were all 22. Frankie Rodriguez and Jose Parra were both 22 when they were acquired and fitted for major-league uniforms."

Generally speaking, there just aren't that many starters just past the age of 20 ready to pitch in the major leagues, and bringing guys up as early and as often as the Twins have is a bad idea. Again, this is as much an organizational problem as something specific to Tom Kelly. Redman is hardly cut from the same mold; he's 26 and has spent most of the last three years in Utah.

Like any manager, Kelly has his strengths, and in his case, they're ones I like. He always makes a point of using all of his position players. Unlike, say, Johnny Oates, Kelly likes to give everyone a chance to start a couple of games, and he keeps his bench fresh with relatively regular use. The closest thing to an unused player on the current team is Jason Maxwell, a minor-league veteran who belonged in the majors years before Kelly finally gave him the opportunity. I'm also impressed that he's managed to use Johan Santana as much as he has, despite Santana's obvious need for more minor-league work. A contrast would be fellow Rule 5 pick Derrick Turnbow, who the Angels barely use. Kelly has managed to let Santana stay relatively fresh without letting him get routinely drubbed.

Kelly's major challenge as a manager is going to start next spring, as the first of the Twins' crop of good young outfielders comes up. If next year's Twins feature Bobby Kielty and Matt LeCroy and Luis Rivas in a lineup with an improving Guzman, Ortiz and Jacque Jones, plus older players like Koskie and Lawton, well, while that isn't a great team, it is a young one with a decent-looking future.

If anything, I hope the Twins don't get too cranky with Terry Ryan. The system has some talent in it (we haven't even touched on Mike Cuddyer, Mike Restovich and B.J. Garbe yet), and Kelly needs to be judged in terms of how he handles the better talent, not the Todd Walkers of the world. As you point out with Chuck Knoblauch, there's reason to be hopeful.

Tom Kelly is kind of a litmus test: he's easy to pick on because he barely takes the time to befriend the media, which leads to slanted reporting and "controversies" like the very earned demotion of somebody like Todd Walker. By contrast, there are several managers who do little more than cultivate a friendly relationship with the press, and spend considerably less time sorting out who to play and when and why than Kelly does. They end up getting paid a lot of money, and even when their teams manage to lose hand over fist they remain almost ludicrously well-regarded (Mr. Baylor, Mr. Garner, please take your seats).

Chris Kahrl can be reached at ckahrl@baseballprospectus.com.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

Related Content:  Don Kelly

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