Minnesota Twins: The Paradoxical Era of Bill Smith


The Twins dominated the AL Central between 2002-2007, winning four AL Central titles under the stewardship of Ron Gardenhire and General Manager Terry Ryan. Between 2011 and 2014 the Twins have finished dead last in the AL Central in three of 4 years, posting 90+ losses in all of them. The primary reason for the suddenness and severity of this demise? Former GM Bill Smith. Or at least, that’s what I always thought…

Bill Smith’s tenure as Twins GM lasted four years, between 2007 and 2011. In this four year period (ironically matching the Twins current 90 loss groundhog season), despite winning two AL Central titles Smith made a staggering series of ill-fated moves that, with the benefit of hindsight, resulted in the Twins losing massive player value in his term at the helm.

Before picking apart Smith’s moves, a few words in his defense. Smith was put in an almost impossible position with the Twins roster at the time. Immediately before taking over as GM, Tori Hunter (with a .287/.334/.505 with 28 HR and 107 RBI line in 2007) turned down a 3 year $45 million offer from the Twins in August in favor of a 5 year, $90 million pact with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Johan Santana was coming off of two Cy Young awards and three All-Star appearances in 4 years and posted a 4 year cumulative WAR of 28.3 (pause to exhale). The possibility of the Twins extending him was almost zero.

For the trade discussed below, I’ll assess trade value by adding the cumulative WAR of each player since their departure from the Twins. Similarly I’ll add the WAR of the pieces that the Twins received while they were playing in Minnesota.

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Before we get to Santana, let’s rewind 3 months. In November of 2007 Smith traded Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett and Eddie Morlan to the Tampa Bay Rays for Brendan Harris, Jason Pridie and former number one pick Delmon Young. In theory the trade seemed like a good one for the Twins. Young had a history of problems with the Rays, but still had undeniable upside, having put up a respectable .303/.326/.442 through 192 major league games in his age 21 season. Garza meanwhile, has put up a WAR of just 0.8 through his first 130 innings with the Twins, while struggling with his control 9.3 BB% (league average – 8.3%) and a poor 17.35 SO% (league average 18.5%).

Twins Lose: Bartlett 9.3 WAR, Garza 15.4 WAR, Morlan – never made major leagues.
Twins Acquire: Brendan Harris -0.6 WAR, Jason Pridie -0.2 WAR, Delmon Young 1.1 WAR.
Total Value Leaving Twins – 24.7 WAR.
Total Value Acquired by Twins 0.3 WAR

On February 2nd 2008 the inevitable happened. The Twins traded ace Johan Santana. Santana provided the Twins extraordinary value in his tenure in the Twin Cities. Santana was a former rule 5 draft pick; he was the club’s last truly dominant ace. In the buildup to his trade rumors had swirled about a trade with the Yankees for then uber prospects Phil Hughes (no 4 prospect in 2007), or with the Red-Sox for a package surrounding Jon Lester. The Mets eventually pounced, trading Carlos Gomez, Deolis Guerra, Phillip Humber and Kevin Mulvey for Santana.

Mulvey and Humber were both, at one time, good prospects, Humber having been a number 3 overall pick. The Mets only got three legitimate seasons from Santana before he began to break down from injuries which have derailed his major league career since 2012. While recouping so little value for Santana was frustrating it would have been nothing compared to the frustration level if they had signed him to a long term extension. The Twins would have been financially hampered and tied to an ageing ace losing value.

If Smith’s era can be defined by any maxim it would be poor timing. The ire Twins fans felt as Garza (who had issues in the Twins clubhouse) went on to become a well above average big league starter is dwarfed by the frustration level associated with the lack of value recouped on Carlos Gomez and JJ Hardy. In their time with the Twins, Hardy and Gomez combined for a WAR of 3.9. Since their departures, they have combined for a WAR of 32.9 and 3 All-Star appearances. That’s hard to swallow when the return for both players was a year of JJ Hardy at SS, Brett Jacobsen and Jim Hoey. Combined with Smith’s well documented stinker of a trade sending Wilson Ramos (5.6 WAR since joining the Nationals and counting) to the Nationals for Matt Capps (2.2 WAR with the Twins) cemented Smith as public enemy number one for Twins fans during their recent period of struggle.

In other moves of note, Bill Smith did some great work as Twins GM. No, seriously. Trading away R.A Dickey in 2008, drafting Kolten Wong in the 16th round of the draft that same year (he did not sign with the Twins), signing Tsuyoshi Nishioka from Japan (Oh, wait) and drafting Kyle Gibson (22nd overall pick) and Brian Dozier (8th round) of the 2009 amateur draft (those two are for real). In many regards however, 2009 was also the year the seeds of the Twins turnaround were planted. After drafting Dozier (who just signed a very team friendly extension) and Gibson the Twins also signed Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler, (Sano and Polanco are the Twins 2nd and 8th best prospects heading into 2015 according to Baseball America.

While Smith almost certainly doesn’t deserve all the credit for these seemingly excellent draft choices and international signings, he probably doesn’t deserve all the criticism he has received since his stint as general manager. As LaVelle E. Neal pointed out:

While it will never be clear if Smith’s perceived struggles during his tenure as Twins GM were primarily due to timing, bad luck, or lack of skill, it paradoxically sent the Twins major league club into a malaise and yet, ironically stocked a farm system with some of the prospects needed to extricate it from its self-inflicted sabotage. Bill Smith has served as a convenient scapegoat for the majority of Twins fans, including myself. The truth is, his stint as GM may offer a little more long term than most Twins fans might think.

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