Friday, September 14, 2007

A Brief History of the Terry Ryan Era

There have been two times in my life when something has caught me so far off guard that I was unable to formulate a proper emotional response. The first time, I walked around in a daze for 48 hours after finding out that people found a way to collapse a skyscraper by flying jumbo jets into the sides of it. The second time occurred today when I was thoroughly shocked by the jarring news that Terry Ryan had stepped down as the Twins General Manager. I do not mean to equate the importance of Ryan’s departure with one of the deadliest American events of my generation, except that each occurrence was deeply stupefying and completely unexpected. Moreover, with so many lingering questions- Was he fired? Was he fed up with tightfisted ownership? Is he trying to avoid a forthcoming implosion? Will he leave for the next attractive job elsewhere? How active will he be as an advisor?- closure can only come in the form of a Bill Smith breakthrough. Now, for the first time in twelve years, the Twins face the task of developing a new identity and making difficult personnel decisions without the greatest sub-.500 executive in the history of the franchise.

The practice of deifying and demonizing general managers is as well established as the hero worship and vitriol thrown at the players themselves. Nonetheless, an even-handed evaluation of Ryan has to recognize that his track record for following his convictions to successful results has outweighed his weaknesses through his tenure in Minnesota. Despite the unevenness of his last two seasons, Ryan has earned the undying admiration of Twins fans who saw him right a sinking ship with an uncertain future. Looking back at his history gives us an idea of what we can expect from the Twins in the future.

When Ryan took the reins of the team for the 1996 season, the Twins were at something of a crossroads. The ’95 team featured several holdovers from the 1991 World Series Champions, including Kirby Puckett, Chuck Knoblauch, Kevin Tapani, and Scott Erickson. Nostalgia aside, this core was not getting the job done for the Twins, as they narrowly missed the playoffs in ’92, and experienced a steady decline into three straight losing campaigns thereafter. Ryan’s job was to rebuild the franchise from the ground up, refashioning the Twins into a legitimate contender instead of letting the sink to the status of long-term laughingstock. Using his scouting chops and a penchant for player development, Ryan set out to build a sustainable contender, not a flash in the pan surprise that overspent for post-peak free agents who would eventually cripple the team’s flexibility. To the credit of the ownership, Ryan was allowed to make some unpopular decisions that would hurt the team in the short run.

From the beginning, Ryan knew that two steps forward would require an immediate step back. As soon as he took over the team, Ryan initiated his practice of signing retread free agents to see if any of them could provide value on the field and, eventually, a healthy return on the trade market. Therefore, Dave Hollins, Greg Myers, and Roberto Kelly found regular playing time for the Twins in 1996. Ryan also started stocking his minor league cabinet from his first days in office. He made the most of the amateur draft, snagging future major leaguers Travis Lee, Jacque Jones, Mike Lamb, and Josh Bard. Unfortunately, the Twins managed to sign only Jones, although his contributions alone made that year’s draft a success. Ryan also made the most of other modes of player acquisition, pumping up the value of Dave Hollins before trading him to the Mariners for a minor league first baseman named David Ortiz. Before the season was finished, Ryan also snagged Venezuelan pitcher Juan Rincon as an amateur free agent. Although all of these players were far from contributing, Ryan had laid the foundation for a strong franchise within his first year.

Over the next five years, Ryan continued to use these same mechanisms to build up the farm system, creating a source of cheap talent for a cash-strapped major league team. He drafted relatively well, snagging Justin Morneau, Mike Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, and J.C. Romero, among others. He signed a handful of scrapheap free agents every year to see if any of them could make good enough to return value in a trade, occasionally digging up a bargain and improving the team’s future at the cost of its present. More often than not, the return on these retreads was someone like Steve Hacker or John Barnes. He did make out better a couple of times, though, acquiring Joe Mays for Roberto Kelly and Lew Ford for Hector Carrasco. Getting this sort of eventual Major League talent on the cheap makes it possible for mid-market teams to stay in races with teams who can spend more money, but give up draft picks and prospects while doing it. Finally, Ryan made two large trades as part of the rebuilding process where he surrendered well regarded players for packages of prospects. In one, he gave up Rick Aguilera for Kyle Lohse and Jason Ryan. The more well-known trade, of course, saw him send Chuck Knoblauch to the Yankees for Christian Guzman, Brian Buchanan, Eric Milton, Danny Mota, and cash. Trading players who still have much to offer is different than trading free agents that nobody wanted a few months before, but each situation requires the general manager to properly evaluate the opposition’s farm system, and Ryan has proven himself extremely adept at that skill.

Slowly but surely, Ryan had been turning over his roster, trading the retread free agents for prospects and letting the home grown talent take over at the Major League Level. By 1999, 37 year old Terry Steinbach was the only import in the everyday lineup, and the only regular over 27 years old. The pitching rotation was even younger, with 26 year old Brad Radke and Latroy Hawkins as its most veteran members. As the core of young talent including Radke, Milton, Guzman, Torii Hunter, Doug Mientkiewicz, and Corey Koskie developed together, the Twins started becoming slightly more hopeful. By 2001, that hope had turned into more solid results, as the team had its first winning season in 10, going 85-77 before fading from the playoff chase down the stretch.

By the time Ryan had positioned the Twins to become contenders, some things had changed and others had stayed the same. Ryan now had surplus talent at some positions, so he started trading some of his own players to build organizational depth rather than trading his beloved scrapheap free agents. In 2000, he traded Todd Walker for Todd Sears, a trade meant to give the Twins another power bat that the big league roster was lacking. In 2001, Matt Lawton and Mark Redman were jettisoned during the Twins’ pennant race for Rick Reed and Todd Jones, respectively. Ryan also continued dealing from depth to acquire prospects, giving up Brian Buchanan to the Padres for minor league shortstop Jason Bartlett. While Ryan’s resources had changed a bit, his tendencies stayed remarkably similar. He continued signing free agents that nobody else wanted, like the re-acquired Hector Carrasco, Quinton McCracken, Mike Jackson, and Mike Fetters. The difference was that he had built up enough organizational depth that he could use these players if they were effective, or throw them away immediately if they were not. For his last big move before the Twins made the playoffs, Ryan drafted Joe Mauer over Mark Prior, a watershed moment because of Mauer’s impact, but also because it was the last time Ryan ever drafted a position player who would become a regular during his tenure as GM.

Once the Twins finally scaled the mountain in 2002, conditions started to change for Ryan. Building a minor league system was becoming increasingly difficult, as the better records meant worse draft position, and the influx of homegrown talent translated into less opportunities to pump up the value of cheap imports before trading them for prospects. Instead, Ryan was forced to trade potentially useful young players like Javier Valentin and Matt Kinney to bolster weaknesses in the farm system. After a second division title, service time also became a pressing concern for Ryan. As his Minnesota-bred roster reached arbitration and free agency, it became much more costly to maintain, and he had to start making difficult choices about who to keep and who to let go. Remarkably, Ryan has almost always let the right players walk at the right time, getting the most out of them before they become expensive, then saying goodbye when their decline phase sets in. Still, giving up so much depth for nothing more than the occasional compensatory draft pick eventually starts to show up for a team, and it is not surprising that the Twins depth of the early 2000s is severely compromised today.

The cash-induced exodus started with Eddie Guardado and Latroy Hawkins at the end of the 2003 season. In reality, though, the attrition started a year before that, when Ryan was concerned enough about his middle infield situation that he made room on the 40-man roster for Rule 5 pick Jose Morban by releasing the injury-prone but established David Ortiz. It seemed as if the Twins were in dire straights after the 2003 season, as letting Guardado and Hawkins walk did not fully alleviate their financial situation. To further cut payroll, Ryan decided to go with young players in the starting rotation and at catcher. In doing so, he traded one year of Eric Milton for Carlos Silva and Nick Punto, and one year of A.J. Pierzynski for Francisco Liriano, Boof Bonser, and Joe Nathan. As well as Ryan has scouted other teams’ farm systems throughout his career, the Pierzynski trade is the high water mark. Along with the nearly free acquisition of Johan Santana, it demonstrates Ryan’s strengths in the same way that releasing Ortiz displays his weaknesses. If those three moves define his tenure as GM, it remains clear that Ryan is a star who did tremendous good for Minnesota.

Due to Ryan’s ability to trade his expensive, established players for Major League-ready replacements, as well as a sudden influx of top-level star talent in the form of Joe Mauer, Johan Santana, Joe Nathan, and Justin Morneau, the Twins saw little decline after the attrition of 2003. All the while, homegrown talent continued leaving, and without the high draft picks to replace them, it was back to the scrapheap for Ryan. Dustan Mohr, Doug Mientkiewicz, Christian Guzman, Corey Koskie, Jacque Jones, and J.C. Romero all left Minnesota between 2003-2005, each requiring a replacement that the Twins could not afford. Instead, Ryan turned to players like Tony Batista, Juan Castro, Jason Tyner, and Eric Munson in the free talent pool, moves which nearly uniformly failed, and have been the focal point for Ryan detractors. Ryan never stopped signing unwanted free agents to build depth, but as his homegrown depth left for more money elsewhere, these players were pressed into regular service. In the past, their failures could be masked by replacing them with the prospects acquired by trading the last round of retreads. Since no playing time existed for those retreads from 2002-2004, the prospects were never acquired, and the best replacement for Tony Batista was Nick Punto.

Despite the difficulties associated with mid-market attrition, the Twins were able to make a stunning run to the division title in 2006 on the backs of their top-end stars. The players that carried them were all in Minnesota because of Ryan’s deft management- it was Ryan who made the close call in taking Mauer over Prior, Ryan was the GM who drafted Morneau in the third round and brought him patiently (maybe too patiently) through the system, Ryan stole Johan Santana, and Ryan made the memorable trade that brought Liriano and Nathan to Minnesota. At the same time, the scrubs part of the Twins new stars-and-scrubs arrangement were quite disappointing. It was clear that Ryan had to find a better DH solution than Rondell White and a better third baseman than Nick Punto if the Twins were going to compete in 2007. But bad luck intervened, as injuries forced Brad Radke into early retirement and Francisco Liriano into Tommy John surgery. Instead of entrusting the rotation to Johan Santana and some combination of young players- Carlos Silva, Boof Bonser, Scott Baker, Matt Garza, Glenn Perkins, Kevin Slowey-, Ryan chose to spend his limited free agent budget on Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson, both of whom flamed out terrifically. Simultaneously, Ryan resisted dealing from this tremendous starting pitching depth to fill either of his two major offensive holes. That under-aggressiveness was a major factor in the team’s inability to restock its farm system, as well as its inability to fill holes at the Major League level. Obviously, it would not have been as simple as wishing an above-average third baseman onto the roster for $3 million, but Ryan definitely made a mistake by standing pat in the face of his two biggest weaknesses.

Immediately before his departure, Ryan was struggling with juggling the extensions of his five biggest stars not under long term contracts- Johan Santana, Torii Hunter, Justin Morneau, Mike Cuddyer, and Joe Nathan. It is unreasonable to think that the Twins could retain more than three of the five, and there is nobody I would trust more with the decision of who to keep than Terry Ryan. With any luck, his advisory role will help him guide the Twins through the period of transition between now and the opening of the new park in 2010. All indications point to the franchise’s reorganization being about free agency and contract negotiation, which means that the successful player development track and scouting department will stay intact. These successes should be Ryan’s legacy rather than a couple of free agent mistakes in the face of a tight budget and a flawed roster. Losing Terry Ryan as the Twins’ GM is indeed a sad day, but it need not be a disastrous day. If the Twins respect his successes and try to replicate them, they can remain a competitive team outside of a major market. If they make the right decisions for the next two years, they may even build on his legacy to something greater.

Monday, September 3, 2007

TWIT: No smoke, no mirrors

Weekly Roundup

What happens when the luck that brings about consecutive winning weeks despite sub-par performances abruptly runs out? How does an ugly sweep in Cleveland and a series split with Kansas City at home sound? The sadly funny part of the miserable week is that the Twins actually managed to score a few runs- not a lot, but about 4 per game instead of their customary 2- and still dropped five out of seven. If you want to put some perspective on how bad the week really was, consider the optimism that ran rampant coming into the week as the Twins looked to be closing in on the Indians and threatening to make the division competitive, regardless of how poorly the Tigers chose to play. Instead, the Twins have sunk back to 9.5 games out of the divisional lead, and having no real chance of playing another meaningful game this season.

The secret about “the secret”, for those of you who entertain yourselves with clich├ęd contemporary metaphysical quackery, is that positive thinking can operate as a zero sum game. For instance, if you really believe you’re going to get a parking space close to the front door of your office, then you also believe that everyone else is going to be walking. In this week’s Cleveland series, it didn’t matter how much Twins fans believed the team was starting to come around, because Cleveland has had even better vibes emanating from the city all year. Instead of God or luck, these games were to be decided by skill, an ungrateful fate for the Twins. The Indians proceeded to demonstrate three different ways to win games: chipping away at Carlos Silva steadily on game one, putting a close game out of reach against an inferior reliever (Carmen “the great” Cali) in game two, and building up an early lead against Johan Santana in game three before holding off a late charge by the Twins. It would be nice if the Twins were able to duplicate some of those game types, but they all require timely hitting, sometimes including extra base hits, and that’s just not what this team does.

On the other hand, the week did feature one luminous bright spot, Scott Baker’s very good game. No, he wasn’t perfect, and Baker’s nerves were clearly frayed by the time he issued a five pitch walk to start the ninth. Nonetheless, Baker’s game is the type of event that generates interest and enthusiasm for a team that has faded from the pennant race. In his autobiography, fan pleasing former owner Bill Veeck writes about the importance of giving the fans something to root for, no matter what the team’s position in the standings. Sometimes that means promoting a rivalry, sometimes it means playing the spoiler, and sometimes it means publicizing milestones and personal achievements. With the best pitcher alive on the roster, the Twins could certainly try to get their PR machine behind Johan Santana’s final month push for the Cy Young, although the Twins bats would also have to get behind him, and that’s a far more precarious proposition.

Biggest Success

Some notes on Baker’s 24 up, 24 down start:

-With five ground balls and 13 fly balls, Baker actually set himself up well for a low-hit game. Even though grounders are typically preferable to fly balls because of their non-proclivity to turning into homeruns, there is a much higher likelihood of groundballs turning into hits (almost always singles). By keeping the ball in the air, Baker is walking a tightrope of low-BABIP, but a larger risk of giving up round-trippers. It’s not the worst tightrope to walk, as Johan Santana has walked the same one two a pair of Cy Youngs. With the organizational focus on throwing changeups, don’t be surprised to see more fly ball pitchers coming through the Twins system in the future.

-Remember how Johan Santana’s terrific game score of 93 came up just short of Eric Bedard’s stellar 15 stirkeout start earlier in the year? Scott Baker took a different route to the total score of 93, but arrived at the same destination. By completing the extra inning and finishing the game, he made up for his deficit in strikeouts to Santana, and the two base runners issued by each pitcher equaled out to a game score than can only be considered second-best.

-Even though the Royals have improved their offense over some of the more anemic lineups of recent years, they were still a prime candidate to get snubbed. The 5-0 loss dealt to them by Baker was the 8th game of the month of August in which the Royals totaled 1 or 0 runs. Binary- useful for programming, but pretty hopeless for run production.

Biggest Disappointment

I’m none too happy about the fact that Boof Bonser and Carlos Silva have melted down over the last several weeks, but I’m even more annoyed that the offense is so hopeless that every bad start is an automatic loss no matter who they are playing.

To my mind, the real underbelly of the Twins lineup is the fact that they have pressed a bunch of guys who are no better than 25th men into semi regular service, at least in a platoon role. Nick Punto could be useful as a secondary utility guy who seldom sees the plate. Alexi Casilla could be a very good major leaguer in a couple of years but has convinced me that he is not yet ready. Garrett Jones, Rondell White, and Lew Ford are all getting playing time because Terry Ryan seemingly forgot that the team has to play three outfielders and a DH. Why else would he enter the season with Hunter, Cuddyer, an unreliable Jason Kubel and nothing else?

Since the All-Star Break, this quintet has accumulated 394 plate appearances, about 2/3 of a season’s worth, meaning that in a single month of the season, they have amounted to approximately two full-time players. In those at-bats, they have combined for 67 hits, 49 of them for singles, and only 24 walks. That batting line works out to .188/.230/.264. The starting pitcher with the best OPS-against in all of baseball is Chris Young at 535. Since these five guys have been managing only a 494, it’s equivalent to having two league average players in the lineup everyday who have to bat against 1999 Pedro Martinez every time they come to the plate. Terry Ryan has fielded two everyday players who are as bad as Pedro Martinez is good.

The Big Picture

There has been some talk lately that the Twins might be interested in acquiring some position players in the off-season (hello!), and Colorado’s Garrett Atkins has crept onto the list by virtue of top prospect Ian Stewart’s gently nudging him out of the mountains. But what effect would leaving this mountains have on Atkins? That’s the relevant question to ask of any departing former Rockie, considering the collapses of once elite players like Ellis Burks and Vinny Castilla.

The normal home-away caveat about Rockies players does apply to Atkins, as his 2005 road averages were only .238/.301/.347, a 253 point OPS nosedive. In 2006, his career year, his OPS only lost 66 points, and he managed to slug .531 away from Coors Field. This year, he’s back down to .247/.319/.427 and a 146 point OPS deficit. Interestingly, his 2005 and 2007 numbers are submarined by losing at least 50 points of BABIP away from home, indicating that his approach stays the same through thick and thin air, but the results are different on the road. I take this to be a positive sign, that he can find some sort of middle ground, without the highest highs of Coors, but also eliminating that atrocious road performance. His .281/.348/.466 line this year looks sustainable to me, and having Cal Ripken and Tony Perez as two of the top three PECOTA comparables hints at good things to come. He may not be an All-Star caliber player, but he would fill a gaping hole for the Twins at third base and in the right-handed power department. If he could be had for Boof Bonser, I would make that trade in a heartbeat.

On the Horizon

I’m sure many fans and analysts circled this week on the calendar at the start of the season, as Cleveland comes to town followed by a road trip to the Cell to visit the suddenly cellar-dwelling White Sox. Santana will get two starts this week, which means two opportunities to pump up that wins column for a Cy Young surge. We might as well get used to cheering for non-pennant related activities, because this year is starting to look suspiciously like 2005. Still, for the true baseball fans, Sabathia and Santana facing off in an oddly timed Monday day game will be a great game. I suggest that everyone watches and tries to attribute the lack of scoring to Sabathia’s brilliance.

Monday, August 27, 2007

TWIT: This indecision’s buggin’ me

Weekly Roundup

A week after one of the least inspiring 4-2 sets in recent memory, the Twins managed an equally mixed-bag 5-2 campaign, dropping two of three at home to the Mariners before rolling the pointless Orioles in a four game set. The week got off in an inauspicious start as Matt Garza and Scott Baker got shelled to the tune of 23 hits and 10 earned runs in two starts. The result was a pair of uneven losses, 9-4 and 7-2 against sub-par opposition on the mound. If there was a silver lining to the start of the season, it may have been the reawakening of Justin Morneau’s dormant bat, which offered six total bases in the two losses, including a two double game on Monday. Any remaining hope for the Twins depends, at very least, on Morneau coming back to life offensively after a disastrous month. Things got better on Wednesday afternoon, as Mike Cuddyer’s first inning grand slam hinted at his own resurgence while simultaneously giving Carlos Silva a seven-run lead to lead off the game. Silva cruised to another quality start, keeping the brooms in Seattle’s closet.

Coming off an uneven six games in the last six days, the Twins left for the east coast with a woeful 8.5 game deficit in the division that made the postseason seem less likely than ever. After convincingly taking advantage of Baltimore’s miserable bullpen, though, the Twins are on a five-game winning streak, all of the sudden, with a three game series against the Indians providing some faint vestiges of hope for the postseason diehards who have yet to give up hope. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Twins recent warm streak has been the five consecutive games with at least five runs scored. After hitting like rookie league shortstops for the better part of two months, the lineup’s recent run of support must make the pitching staff feel like rats in the dumpster of Old Country Buffet.

Biggest Success

As I mentioned in the introduction, Justin Morneau flipped the switch back into the “on” position over the last week to the tune of .346/.419/.615, going from miserable by any standards to very good by his own standards overnight. Torii Hunter continued to affirm the classification as the Twins most consistent offensive player of 2007, hitting two more home runs, scoring eight times, and hitting .367.

Neither of these two stalwarts jumps off the page like Jason Bartlett, though, who has asserted himself royally in the last six weeks after a miserable start to the season. Since the All-Star Break, Bartlett has hit .321 with an uncharacteristic .496 slugging average (buoyed by an unbelievable 6 triples in only 34 games after only 3 in his first 259 games). This week, Bartlett bopped nine hits in 18 at-bats, including three triples and a double. His contributions netted four runs scored and five runs batted in across only five games. After the recent up tick in his output, Bartlett’s .277/.340/.380 line is beginning to approach last season’s pleasantly surprising .309/.367/.393. With plus defense, that batting line is perfectly acceptable relative to the league average of .271/.323/.394 for shortstops, making Bartlett an asset rather than a liability moving forward. For a team that can’t find a left-fielder or a DH who can hit at replacement level, I shudder to think of what they could dredge up to throw at shortstop if one was not on hand.

Biggest Disappointment

Through a wider lens, Matt Garza’s two start lull over the course of a very solid season does not seem terribly disturbing, even though he gave up 18 base runners, 4 homers, and 8 earned runs in only 7.1 innings over two starts. Since Garza’s getting the free pass this week, that means another one of my long-term favorites, Alexi Casilla, falls under the harsh light of scrutiny. With Luis Castillo succumbing to his typical lower-appendage fragility in Queens, Casilla was going to be on the hot seat either way. As things have worked out, he has been severely disappointing as a starter for the last month, leaving quite a gap where the Twins were once getting acceptable offensive output. In the last week, Casilla came to the plate 26 times, managing only four hits and a single walk. His numbers before and after his recall have been almost exactly identical, and none of his rate stats even crack .300 over that timeframe. He’s a slap hitter with a little bit of patience, but that profile does not carry much weight when the player is continuing to hit in the .225 neighborhood. Casilla needs to leverage his speed and bat control into a batting average above .275 at very least in order to be a contributor. He has a better bat in his future, but at the moment, he is helping Nick Punto slaughter the offense.

The Big Picture

The Twins are underdogs going forward, to be certain. The BPro playoff odds report pegs them for about a 5% chance at winning the division, and a barely non-zero chance of catching up to the Wild Card. Of course, Twins fans know that a non-zero possibility is eminently reachable if the former half of the stars-and-scrubs equation gets hot at the right time. In terms of run differential, the Twins get a little bit of good news, as both the Tigers and Indians are 2-3 games ahead of their Pythagorean projections, meaning the teams may cool even more down the stretch.

Another big-picture development that certainly interests Twins fans is the annual Johan Santana Cy Young campaign. Typically, this is the time of year when Twins fans have to start moaning about how win totals are not as important as peripheral stats, and how Santana has actually been better than pitcher X by a wider margin than conventional stats indicate. This year, Santana is actually a sliver behind some of his competition, such as Eric Bedard and Dan Haren, who have both been excellent all year. Santana has been consistent, but his lack of run support has given him 9 losses, and double digits in the L column will definitely cost him votes with the traditional set. If Santana can go nuts for a month, the award may be his to take, but he has not been at that level so far this year.

On the Horizon

When I say that the Twins need their stars to turn it on at the right time, I mean that they need to turn it on right now. With three straight weeks of divisional games, the Twins will get 9 cracks at Cleveland and Detroit combined, leaving at least a sliver of their destiny in their own hands. As I told a friend of mine last week, sweeping Baltimore and Cleveland successively would legitimately reenter them in the playoff discussion. Even winning two of three in Cleveland can only put them within 4.5 games of first with a month to play. To be a real competitor, they need to be firing on all cylinders. The Indians line up their experienced crew, throwing Paul Byrd, Jake Westbrook, and C.C. Sabathia against Carlos Silva, Boof (recently off the schneid) Bonser, and Johan Santana, so there will be no surprises here. Byrd has had a great deal of success against the Twins, so Silva will have to extend his respectability for one more start. After the Indians, the Twins get a chance to pile up some wins against the (playin’ for fourth!) Royals, including a double header on Friday. A series split there would doom the Twins even worse than losing the Cleveland series, so the pressure is high all around. Either way, it is better to win the games now, as the Twins dishearteningly must wrap up the season with a seven game roadie in Detroit and Boston. Look forward to that!