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Last-place Twins shakeup Gardenhire's staff

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - For decades the Minnesota Twins have been known as one of baseball's most patient and loyal franchises, sticking with managers, coaches and members of the front office in the belief that stability is a key to long-term success.

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Two straight last-place finishes in a gorgeous new ballpark appear to have gone a long way toward changing that approach.

The Twins fired longtime bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek, third base coach Steve Liddle, first base coach Jerry White and head athletic trainer Rick McWane on Thursday while reassigning bench coach Scott Ullger and hitting coach Joe Vavra in a significant shake-up of manager Ron Gardenhire's staff.

Owner Jim Pohlad, President Dave St. Peter and GM Terry Ryan planned to address the changes at a news conference on Friday, but the message was delivered a day early. Gardenhire campaigned to keep his staff in place earlier in the week, but 195 losses in two seasons gave him little bargaining power.

``I have all the faith that they can do the job,'' Gardenhire said on Sunday. ``But some of these things aren't going to be left up to me. It's going to be left to ownership and Terry.''

Pitching coach Rick Anderson was the only coach on Gardenhire's tight-knit staff to retain the job he had. Ullger will oversee outfield instruction while Vavra, who joined the staff in 2006, will work with the infielders.

Changes to a manager's staff are commonplace in the big leagues, seemingly in every city outside of Minneapolis. Aside from Vavra, the entire coaching staff has been together since 2002, an incredible run of stability that presided over six AL Central championships, one run to the ALCS and the misery of the last two seasons.

Stelmaszek has been with the organization since 1978 and joined the Twins coaching staff in 1981, becoming a beloved figure in the clubhouse and notable prankster.

But the stability may have also played a role in the decision to shake things up, with the front office looking for some fresh voices in the clubhouse. Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, who has worked with the Twins minor league system for years, has expressed an interest in joining the staff, while Triple-A Rochester coaches Tom Brunansky, Bobby Cuellar and Gene Glynn have all been mentioned as possible replacements.

McWane's firing came as little surprise. He has been with the organization for 24 seasons and served as the head trainer for the previous eight years, but several former players have grumbled about what they perceived as substandard treatment and diagnosis of injuries in recent seasons.

It's the second straight offseason where the once-patient Pohlad family has made significant changes. Jim Pohlad fired GM Bill Smith after 99 losses in 2011 and replaced him with Ryan, the man credited with building the organization into an AL Central power.

The Twins finished this season 66-96, 22 games behind AL Central champ Detroit and the worst record in the league, and more changes could be on the way.

Ryan made it clear that most players outside of Joe Mauer, who has a no-trade clause in his contract, could be discussed in deals that would replenish the Twins' dilapidated starting rotation.

``When you lose 90-plus games two years in a row, there shouldn't be too many untouchables on the club,'' Ryan said. ``You've got to find a way to get better.''

Perhaps the most startling aspect of the 2012 season is how many things went right for them this season. Mauer and Justin Morneau stayed healthy for the entire season, with Mauer bouncing back from a nightmare 2011 to contend for another AL batting crown. Josh Willingham, Trevor Plouffe and Ryan Doumit delivered career seasons, Scott Diamond became a mainstay in the rotation and closer Glen Perkins and setup man Jared Burton gave Minnesota a formidable back end of the bullpen.

``That just stresses the importance of the rotation,'' Ryan said. ``We've had some guys that have had very good years. And unfortunately we're still losing 90-some games.''

The rotation was a disaster from opening day. Scott Baker was lost before the season began with Tommy John surgery, Carl Pavano battled injuries for most of the year and only pitched in 11 games, and Francisco Liriano was traded. Jason Marquis and Nick Blackburn were both designated for assignment after struggling and youngsters Sam Deduno, Cole De Vries, Liam Hendriks and P.J. Walters vacillated between mediocre and ineffective.

``Of course, you'd love to be able to keep all your players and get starting pitching, but that's really almost impossible,'' Gardenhire said. ``There aren't that many free agents out there that are going to be able to step in and do what we want them to do, and that's fill out the first few spots of our starting rotation.''

For what it's worth, Morneau wants to stick around and thinks the team is a lot closer to returning to relevance than some may think.

``There's been a lot of positives you can look at,'' Morneau said. ``I don't feel like we're that far off. We dug ourselves such a big hole at the start that we were running uphill the whole way. When you're playing catch-up it eventually wears on you.''

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Follow Jon Krawczynski on Twitter: http://twitter.com/APkrawczynski

AP NEWS
The Associated Press News Service

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The Associated Press
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