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Terry Ryan at the Helm -- Part 1

Daniel R Levitt



Twins Video

blog-0078203001424362415.pngI originally wrote the following analysis of Terry Ryan as GM of the Minnesota Twins for The National Pastime, 2012: Short but Wondrous Summers: Baseball in the North Star State. I was the editor of the publication—one I heartily recommend by the way for those interested in the history of baseball in Minnesota--and pulled the essay just prior to publication when the publisher informed me that we had gone over our allotted page count. It is great to have this outlet to finally run the article. Due to its length and a natural break point about half way through, I am breaking it into two halves.


In September 1994, Terry Ryan took the helm of one of baseball’s more celebrated front offices. The Minnesota Twins had recently won two World Series, in 1987 and 1991, and much of the credit for assembling those teams was assigned to the scouting and player development personnel. Ryan had joined the Twins in January 1986 as scouting director and worked his way up to being general manager Andy MacPhail’s key assistant. After MacPhail left to assume the presidency of the Chicago Cubs, naming Ryan the Twins’ new general manager seemed the natural continuation move.


Nevertheless, Ryan’s new position was far from ideal. On one side he had Tom Kelly, a successful manager who had a definitive idea of what he liked in a ballclub, coming off of the two World Series victories, and wielding a lot of influence within the organization. On the other he had owner Carl Pohlad, who, while committed to winning, was also very concerned with the bottom line and beginning to focus much of his energy on lobbying for a new stadium in Minneapolis. The team itself had finished the recent strike-shortened season 53-60, with the league’s highest ERA and the top two batting stars from the World Series--Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek--well past their prime. Moreover, the farm system, which had supplied most of the talent for the championship runs, was slipping; Baseball America ranked the Twins farm system 16th of the 28 organizations.


With the baseball world shut down because of the ongoing strike, Ryan could not make any major league player moves during his first offseason as general manager. Once the strike was settled, Ryan’s hand was soon forced by the team’s terrible start to the 1995 season; the club stood at 17-42 on June 30. In July, Ryan swapped four of his veteran pitchers--Scott Erickson, Kevin Tapani, Mark Guthrie, and Rick Aguilera--for eight prospects. Unfortunately, Ryan’s first significant foray into the trade market did not bode well for the future, although in fairness, the pitchers Ryan traded were not stars (except for Aguilera, whose contract was expiring at the end of the season). Of the prospects, only one, Frank Rodriguez, was ranked in Baseball America’s annual listing of the top 100, and only one, Ron Coomer, already 28 years old, went on to become a major league regular.


Ryan had better luck that offseason with a batch of free agent signings. In an effort to bolster his struggling club Ryan signed a number of veteran free agents of mixed quality: Paul Molitor, Dave Hollins, Roberto Kelly, Greg Myers, and Rick Aguilera, brought back after the midseason trade. Amazingly, all five of these moves worked out and the Twins improved their winning percentage by nearly 100 points over 1995.


One way to quantitatively evaluate a general managers moves is by using the Wins Above Replacement metric (WAR), a sabermetric measure denominated in wins now gaining more mainstream recognition. By combining batting, base running, fielding and pitching statistics, WAR estimates how many wins a player produced for his team above a “replacement player,” generally classified as the best player a team could land on short notice without surrendering any talent in return, such as a veteran triple-A player with some major league experience. As a benchmark, 8 WAR represents an MVP caliber season, while 5 WAR would typically qualify as an All-Star season. The five veteran free agents all turned in positive WAR seasons in 1996 led by Molitor at 3.4 and Hollins at 2.5.


While the team may have been playing better in 1996, the front office suffered a humiliation in the annual player draft. Travis Lee, selected second overall, claimed he should be a free agent because the club had not followed a little-known rule and offered him a contract within 15 days of the draft. The Twins believed they were following Lee's request not to negotiate until after the Olympics. With a hearing scheduled for September 24 to determine Lee’s status, Lee and the Twins tried to negotiate an agreement. Lee was reportedly willing to accept a $2.1 million signing bonus ($100,000 more than first overall pick Kris Benson), but the Twins elected to take their chances on the hearing. In the event, Lee (along with three other players who used the same tactic) was declared a free agent and signed with Arizona for an astounding total package of $10 million.


Not surprisingly, a team built around mediocre veteran free agents and a 39-year-old Molitor did not remain competitive. Over the next four years, from 1997 to 2000, the Twins could not win more than 70 games in a season. A large part of the team’s struggles can also be traced to an unforeseen collective disappointment from the club’s top prospects. Had some of them performed closer to expectations, Ryan’s strategy of filling in with veteran free agents may have led to a club on the fringes of contention. From 1992 to 1996 the Twins had 14 different players that were ranked among Baseball America’s top 100 prospects. From the five position players, two of whom were ranked in the top 20 at one point, the team received just five seasons of at least 400 plate appearances: two from Todd Walker and three from Rich Becker.


The return from the pitchers was even more dismal. The nine pitchers combined to deliver only four seasons with more than 150 innings pitched. Even this overstates the case; only one of these four seasons was accompanied by an ERA below 5.00. It remains unknowable whether these players were simply overrated or a flaw existed in the Twins player development system, but in any case, a large group of highly touted prospects failed to live up to expectations.


Ryan had some success with unheralded prospect Marty Cordova. Already 25 years old when he debuted as the regular left fielder in 1995, Cordova went on to win the Rookie of the Year Award. He followed up with a stellar 1996, but then struggled through two seasons with an OPS below .750. In 1996, Ryan also traded an aging Dave Hollins to the Mariners for a young David Ortiz, though he didn’t exceed 300 at-bats with the Twins until 2000.


Despite the Twins’ struggles at the major league level and a change of focus by the top executives, Ryan remained committed to building his ballclub. After the 1997 season Ryan traded star second baseman Chuck Knoblauch to the Yankees for several players, most notably lefthander Eric Milton and shortstop Cristian Guzman, both of whom went on to become valuable major league regulars. The two youngsters added significantly more Wins Above Replacement than Ryan surrendered. Later in this article I will summarize the team's moves under Ryan using WAR.


As the decade rolled on, Ryan continued to pick up useful ballplayers in trades--usually surrendering less than he received--and minor free agent deals. Although not stars, these role players included outfielders Dustan Mohr and Bobby Kielty, and pitchers Kyle Lohse and Joe Mays.


Ryan also had a knack for knowing which of his prospects to hang onto. Of course, some of this was by necessity--by 2000 Ryan was operating with baseball’s lowest payroll, and the Twins were being mentioned as a contraction target. “Scouting and development have to provide us with a constant flow of talent, or we’re in big trouble,” Ryan acknowledged. “We know who we are. We try to be fair, try to be honest, try to be sincere. We have a passion from the front office down to the players. One thing we are is accountable. We don’t try to be something we’re not.”


Although the Twins consistently ranked no higher than the middle of the pack in Baseball America’s minor league organization rankings during the mid to late 1990s, the Twins had some talent in the system and much of it had graduated to the majors by 2001. Along with veteran pitcher Brad Radke, key regulars included catcher A.J. Pierzynski, first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, second baseman Luis Rivas, third baseman Corey Koskie, and outfielders Matt Lawton, Torii Hunter, and Jacque Jones. Ryan’s trade acquisitions filled in nicely around these home grown products, and the Twins finished the 2001 season in second place at 85-77.


Nevertheless, with no new stadium on the horizon, major league baseball (with the compliance of the Twins ownership) targeted the Twins for contraction. Ryan, though, stayed on, hoping the team would survive, and knowing that he had put together a pretty good team. “That’s what makes this such a tough thing to accept,” Ryan lamented. “We think that with a little tinkering with our roster in 2002, we’d be right there. We’ve got a lot of things in place. If we get through this thing, we feel we have a chance to be pretty good.” He reportedly turned down an opportunity to take over the Toronto Blue Jays for a bump in salary; following his lead, the rest of the key front office employees remained as well. Ryan’s determination was rewarded when the team escaped elimination, partially due to a local court ruling.


In another significant decision that offseason, Ryan named coach Ron Gardenhire as the replacement for longtime manager Tom Kelly, who had retired. Otherwise Ryan did very little tinkering for 2002, although the pitching staff was now led by veteran Rick Reed. Trading from a relative surplus of outfielders, Ryan had acquired Reed during the previous season for 29-year-old outfielder Matt Lawton, a useful player but with little remaining upside. In 2002 the 37-year-old Reed turned his last good season with a WAR of 2.6. Gardenhire managed this team superbly, most notably in crafting a strong bullpen anchored by veteran Twins draftee Eddie Guardado, and led the squad to its first division championship in eleven years. The team beat Oakland in the ALDS before falling to Anaheim four games to one in the ALCS.


The Twins could easily have fallen from their perch. In 2002 the Twins ranked 27th in payroll, offering little flexibility to fill in for injuries, and several players seemed to be plateauing or regressing. But Ryan was in the midst of a great run. The farm system had been rebuilt so that it now contained two future MVPs (Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer--the first overall pick in 2001) and a star outfielder in Michael Cuddyer. Moreover, Ryan had bolstered his pitching staff by bringing in future Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana in a one-sided swap of Rule 5 draft picks in 1999. After repeating as division champion in 2003 Ryan made one his best moves, swapping catcher A.J. Pierzynski to San Francisco for several players, most notably closer Joe Nathan and starter Francisco Liriano. Behind the new influx of talent, Minnesota won a third consecutive division championship in 2004 and another in 2006.


After slipping to third in 2007, though, Ryan surprised many observers by announcing it was time to move on. “This is a good thing for me,” Ryan said of his retirement. “My health’s intact. My marriage is intact. That’s a difficult thing to do in baseball.” He also left a pretty solid nucleus for successor Billy Smith, another well-respected long time Twins front office employee, though relatively unknown and heralded more for his administrative acumen than his talent evaluation skills. The players certainly recognized Ryan’s accomplishments. “I’ve always been on his side,” commented outfielder Torii Hunter. “For what he has and the limitations he has with payroll, he’s done a great job. You give this guy a Yankee payroll, and I promise you he will do 10 times better than any other GM out there.”


To read more about the history of baseball operations and the GM, please buy our new book In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball via the publisher or at your favorite on-line store.



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