Wow, what a turnaround! Six weeks after the end of a terrible Twins season, during which we repeatedly heard that the Twins would not make any major organizational moves, the Minnesota Twins have ousted General Manager Bill Smith and replaced him with Terry Ryan, the man who held the job before Smith. As of this time, there is no word on whether Jim Pohlad fired Smith for personal reasons, or if he was convinced by Puckett’s Pond’s guilty verdict. But the reason for the firing is irrelevant. What matters now is that Ryan is in charge, and he has a lot of work to do.
Ryan is now the first person to serve two non-consecutive terms as Twins GM, which makes him the Grover Cleveland of General Managers (Benjamin Harrison took over for him Cleveland after the 1888 election, but angry voters brought Cleveland back four years later after Harrison traded the Sherman Antitrust Act for Kevin Mulvey and Matt Capps).
But the Twins don’t need a Grover Cleveland right now. They need Ryan to be an Abraham Lincoln – someone to make tough (but intelligent) decisions to guide the team through one of the most difficult moments in its history. Ryan must confront several departing stars, a roster full of gaping holes, core players returning from injury, a farm system that is weak at the top, and a potentially franchise-changing draft next summer. Hopefully, Ryan will also find some time to order somebody to replant the pine trees in center field (I don’t know if that’s a GM’s decision per se, but someone has to do it).
Job #1 for Ryan has to be the impending free agency decisions on Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, and Joe Nathan. All three are players that Ryan brought in during his first term as GM (Cuddyer and Kubel were Ryan draft picks, while Nathan was the centerpiece of Ryan’s most memorable trade), and all three have developed into very good players who should reap a nice payday this offseason. The decision about Cuddyer may already be a moot point, as the Phillies are allegedly in hot pursuit. But Cuddyer’s departure may put even more pressure on Ryan to retain Kubel, or at least offer the restless fanbase a convincing explanation for letting him go.
Meanwhile, if Ryan has any desire to build a competitive team for 2012, he needs to find a middle infielder, outfielders to replace Cuddyer and/or Kubel, a backup catcher, at least one starting pitcher, and enough relievers to make the team’s bullpen no longer a laughingstock. True, he has somewhere between $15 and $30 million in payroll to work with, but even Bill Gates would have trouble buying enough players to ensure a winning team in Minnesota next year.
Finally, Ryan has to be looking forward to next year’s draft. The one silver lining of losing 99 games is that the Twins get the second overall draft pick next June. This is an opportunity to draft a player who could carry the team for the next 15 years (no pressure, Mr. Ryan, but Justin Verlander was a #2 overall pick; we want someone like him!). If Cuddyer leaves, the Twins get two more high picks, and if Kubel leaves, there will be one more. This is the kind of draft that could potentially rebuild the franchise all at once. Hopefully, Ryan is already planning for the 2012 draft now so that he can make the most of the opportunity.
A new General Manager is a perfect occasion for fans to feel optimistic, and I would like to encourage that. I am more excited about the future of the Twins today than I have been in a long time. The man who traded Chuck Knoblauch for Eric Milton and Christian Guzman and A.J. Pierzynski for Nathan and Francisco Liriano is back! That can only be a good thing.
But I would also caution that Ryan is not a miracle worker. We remember his successes as GM, and with good reason. But we shouldn’t forget that after he took over in 1994, the Twins had to endure six embarassingly bad seasons before they reemerged as a winner. Many of the moves Ryan made then were not recognized as brilliant strategy – they just looked like a typical small market team dumping salary and taking chances on prospects. The good news is that Ryan has one advantage now that he didn’t have in the 1990s. Target Field has, at least temporarily, brought in huge piles of money. Let’s hope he squeezes that for every penny it’s worth.