I 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.
Given this disparity among the resources and opportunities available to the various front offices, is there a way to objectively evaluate some of the more important facets of their performance beyond wins and losses? In fact, there are some aspects of the general manager’s role that can be quantified. Using the Retrosheet transactions database I evaluated all the moves made by the Twins after Ryan's hiring in September 1994 through the end of the 2007 season. Obviously, using this type of analysis to assess Ryan assigns the ultimate responsibility for all transactions--rightly or wrongly--to the general manager.
In this short investigation I examine the value of players lost via free agency, outright release, the expansion draft, waivers and trades, and players acquired via amateur free agency (i.e. players not eligible for the draft), free agency, waivers and trades. Unfortunately this is not quite as straightforward as it might seem: for example, players who become free agents and are subsequently re-signed; in the database these players are shown as both lost via free agency and gained through free agency. The net effect is zero, but it increases the total volume of talent coming and going. Another example is players who come and go before they become established major leaguers. As an illustration of this issue, Casey Blake was claimed on waivers, lost on waivers, reclaimed on waivers, and subsequently released before he achieved any significant major league playing time. While it makes sense to account for them this way--each transaction needs to be evaluated on its own merits and the Twins free agents were certainly available to any team--these multiple moves can make the talent velocity appear greater than it might otherwise be.
For each player involved in a transaction, I calculated the WAR he would earn over the balance of his career. For players still active, WAR is calculated through the 2008 season, the last season for which I have been able to generate the data set (obviously many of these players will significantly increase their career totals). [i would like to update this in the future]
So, what does Ryan's scorecard look like? The table below summarizes the cumulative WAR surrendered and gained in all the Twins transactions from the fall of 1994 through his retirement in 2007.
WAR From Twins Transactions Under Ryan’s Tenure
Players Becoming Free Agents
Players Lost in Expansion Draft
Amateur Free Agent Signing
Free Agent Signing
Despite working under relatively tight financial constraints for most of his tenure, Ryan lost surprisingly little talent to free agency. Only Kenny Rogers, already 38 years old when he left after one season with the Twins, produced more than five wins above replacement after leaving the Twins as a free agent.
Surprisingly, Ryan's two most significant personnel blunders came from releasing two players with significant major league ability, and both came after the 2002 season. In October he released Casey Blake, who would go on to become a valuable contributor with the Indians. More significantly, in December Ryan compounded his error by releasing David Ortiz, who became a perennial MVP contender. Both could have played important roles on the competitive Twins teams from 2003 through 2006. In addition, the loss of Damian Miller to the Diamondbacks in the expansion draft proved surprisingly costly. Miller went on to several seasons as a quality major league catcher.
Given his financial constraints, it is not surprising that Ryan never signed any high-priced free agents. But he often tried to augment his team with bargain priced players with some upside. As mentioned above, Ryan had some success in the mid-1990s. Later he received a quality season from Kenny Rogers before losing him. Ryan also landed several useful role players, such as Mike Redmond, at a reasonable price. Some of his most notable free agent moves involved re-signing his own veterans, such as Radke and Shannon Stewart, on a short-term basis.
For most of Ryan’s tenure, the Twins did not develop many players from Latin America. In the mid-1990s the Twins landed two players who would become useful major leaguers--Luis Rivas and Juan Rincon--but added none of consequence over the next decade. Ryan's staff did smartly pluck Bobby Kielty from the U.S. amateur ranks when he was available outside of the draft.
Ryan may have distinguished himself most clearly in his ability to make quality trades. His worst trade, in terms of value differential, was the swap of Todd Walker to Colorado for little in return. As an extenuating circumstance with this trade, however, the Twins also received cash. Ryan’s regime can be credited with several outstanding deals. Most have been mentioned above: the trades of A.J. Pierzynski and Chuck Knoblauch each added two valuable players. Trading Dave Hollins for David Ortiz was also a great move, unfortunately later vitiated by the latter's release.
To get a better sense of the Twins drafting success under Ryan, I calculated the total career WAR from all players picked in each year’s draft from 1987, when Ryan first joined the Twins as scouting director, through 2001, when the Twins selected Joe Mauer with the first overall pick. Draft classes more recent than 2001 have not had a chance to mature sufficiently through 2008 for a valid evaluation. One needs to be cautious, however, when evaluating drafts. How many early picks a team has, how high in the first round they pick and how much money the team is willing to spend on signing bonuses all affect a team’s draft success without reflecting on the acumen of the team’s front office.
Twins WAR from the Draft (1987 - 1994)
Twins WAR from the Draft (1995-2001)
Caveats aside, Ryan’s record with the draft was mixed. On the positive side, while scouting director Ryan oversaw two stellar draft classes: in 1989 he landed Chuck Knoblauch, Scott Erickson, and Denny Neagle; two years later Ryan brought in Brad Radke and Matt Lawton. During his time as general manager the Twins selected several players that went on to become stars. Mauer, Morneau, and Cuddyer, all drafted in the first three rounds between 1997 and 2001, anchored the Twin’s teams of the mid-2000s. Ryan and his staff also generally recognized their better players and studiously avoided including those who would have a solid major league future in trades. On the other hand, the Twins had a top-6 or higher overall pick in 1998, 1999 and 2000 and came away with little to show for it.
But if Terry Ryan and his staff had at least a couple of years of professional baseball with which to evaluate a player, they were formidable. In trades, particularly after his first year on the job, the prospects Ryan acquired developed into capable major leaguers more often than could be reasonably expected. His veteran free agent signings also generally turned out well, and he rarely lost key players to free agency. Two of his more significant misses had extenuating circumstances: the trade of Todd Walker netted the team cash, and David Ortiz was arbitration eligible, 27 years old and had yet to play a full major league season, mainly due to injuries.
A general manager's job, of course, entails more than talent acquisition, and sometimes a team is in a position where the key decisions involve sorting out the talent (including possibly surrendering more talent than one receives) to alleviate an abundance at one position and solve a dearth at another. But the luxury of rearranging one's talent first requires building a solid talent base. Ryan consistently surrendered less talent than he received as he built a well-balanced team that captured four division championships between 2002 and 2006.
After four seasons of retirement, Ryan returned as general manager, hired to once again retool the Twins after a 99-loss season in 2011. “I don’t know if it will be for one year or 10 years,” Ryan said. “I’m going to see how it goes and see exactly the direction of success and workload and all the things that about 4 1/2 years ago we talked about over at the Dome.” Ryan also identified some of the issues the organization needed to address, including a large number of missed games due to injuries, placing the onus to fix the problems squarely on his shoulders. “Players can only take advice. Players take the advice you give them,” Ryan said. “I would never put it on the players. It’s our responsibility to take control of that and we will.”
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.