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.