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Elliot Mann is a Minnesota native and freelancer writer who has worked for several daily newspapers and contributes to The Daily Gopher, SB Nation's Minnesota Golden Gophers site. You can follow him on Twitter @elliotmann.
Dec. 3, 2011
Terry Ryan was supposed to sitting in the bleachers at a dusty minor league ballpark somewhere, scouting a kid too young to legally enjoy a post-game beer, checking in on a young arm filled with promise. That was the part of the job he always liked most—evaluating talent, plucking out the brilliant ones from the busts. But instead of taking his post behind the plate in some small town, checking the numbers on a radar gun or seeing firsthand if a high draft pick was learning how to hit a splitter, Ryan found himself in front of a podium again, answering questions about a job he had stepped away from only four years before. He was back where he’d never planned to be, as Minnesota Twins general manager.
When Ryan stepped down in September 2007, the Twins had just finished third in the AL Central, but the team had won four division championships in the previous six years. They had a two-time Cy Young winner leading the pitching staff, a first baseman about to have an MVP season, and a St. Paul-born, all-star catcher entering his prime. But as Ryan ran through the beat reporters' questions two years ago, it became clear that the perennial contender had vanished like a fly ball in the old Metrodome's roof.
The team was in disarray, finishing 63-99—the worst record in the American League, and 16 fewer wins than the last Twins team under Ryan's control. To make matters worse, the 99-loss team had posted the highest payroll in franchise history. The Twins were no longer a small-market success story (if that’s an actual thing).
In the four years that Bill Smith—Ryan’s successor, and predecessor—spent at the helm, the Twins won two division titles, though it’s worth noting that the AL Central at that point was baseball's worst division. (The 2009 AL Central Champion Twins had the 11th-best record in baseball, and would have finished fourth in what was then the NL West.) The Twins were promptly swept in both the 2009 and 2010 playoffs. And after the second such sweep at the hands of the New York Yankees, the Twins seemingly imploded.
What went wrong?
When Bill Smith came aboard as Minnesota Twins general manager in October 2007, he was Terry Ryan's handpicked successor, a candidate who would be able to provide continuity as the nameplate at the head of the front office changed.
Smith, whom the Associated Press described as an “administrative whiz,” had worked for the Twins since 1989, ascending to the position of Ryan's second-in-command in 1994. In line with the Twins' usual practice of promoting from within, Smith was hired with the thinking that he could provide a seamless transition. Since Smith was seen as more of an administrator, the team also promoted then-scouting director Mike Radcliff to vice president in charge of player personnel.
Twins chief executive officer Jim Pohlad said at the time that hiring Smith could make the Twins an “even better organization,” although hindsight makes that comment seem somewhat hubristic considering the challenges facing Smith as he became GM.
The decisions Smith would have to make during his first months as general manager, following the 2007 season, would affect the Twins’ future for the next several years. Perennial Gold Glove winner Torii Hunter was in the last year of his contract. All-Star closer Joe Nathan would be a free agent at the end of the 2008 season. Johan Santana was also set to enter free agency and was expecting a contract in the neighborhood of $20 million annually. The Twins also needed to decide if they wanted to offer long-term contracts to Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer. While many have criticized Smith for the trades made during his tenure, few consider that he inherited a team in transition, a small-market organization with little room for error. The deck may have been stacked against Smith from the beginning.
“Smaller-revenue teams have a tougher time signing premium free agents, or retaining their own top players past their initial six years of team control. That puts extra pressure on these poorer teams to bring up a bunch of great prospects all at once, then hope they get good at the same time before they get expensive.
But far more often it's a bullshit excuse. It's a vague, faraway goal that always seems several years out of reach. It's a cover for cheap, greedy ownership, lousy scouting, drafting, and player development, and myopic trades. It's a weak attempt to placate a fan base screwed over by years of management incompetence and indifference.” — Jonah Keri
Success for small-market organizations hinges upon acquiring talent through the draft, developing that talent, and then trading off those players once they reach free agency, re-stocking the talent pool in the process. The collective bargaining rules have since changed, but during Bill Smith's tenure, teams were also able to receive compensatory first-round draft picks if they lost top players in free agency.
Small-market teams like the Twins will never be able to outspend the Yankees, but they don't necessarily need to. Spending money helps, but it isn't the only key to success, nor is it a guarantee. It's how teams spend that money, which trades are made, whom these teams decide to draft that matters.
Trading a dollar for a quarter, then a quarter for a dime
One of the hallmarks of Terry Ryan's career was his ability to turn veteran players into prospects who eventually become major-league contributors. In 1996, Ryan traded away Dave Hollins for a youngster named David Ortiz. He flipped Chuck Knoblauch for a package of players that included eventual all-stars Eric Milton and Cristian Guzman. He selected a converted center fielder named Johan Santana in the Rule 5 Draft. He sent away A.J. Pierzynski for Joe Nathan and Francisco Liriano.
Smith's front office did not have the same success.
The table below shows every major trade made during Smith's tenure as GM, along with Baseball Prospectus's Wins Above Replacement Player for each player after the trade. Combining the WARP of each team's haul provides us with an easy-to-understand metric for how well a team did at unloading its assets while trying to rebuild its farm system.
For example, in 2010 when the Royals traded away Zack Greinke with two years remaining on his contract, they received Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi from the Brewers. The Brewers got two years of Greinke (a combined 6.5 WARP) and one year of Yuniesky Betancourt (who contributed 1.2 WARP), for a total of 7.7 WARP. The Royals have posted a combined WARP of 3.5, led by Cain and Escobar, who are continuing to add value to their side of the deal.
The Royals lost out on Greinke's brilliant 2010 and 2011, but were able to flip a prime asset for a package of prospects, two of whom have become solid, everyday contributors. It's also worth noting that when the Brewers eventually traded away Greinke in July 2012, they received 2012 All-Star Jean Segura from the Angels in exchange for 13 starts from the departed pitcher. The Brewers seemingly got the best of that deal, with 5.1 wins (and counting) compared to 0.5 wins. Both teams benefited from flipping Greinke before he left in free agency.
Less than two months into Smith’s tenure as Twins general manager, free agent center fielder Torii Hunter signed a five-year, $90 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The Twins had been offering three years, and a candid Hunter later said that he probably would have signed for five years and $75 million. The consensus around baseball was that the Angels had significantly overpaid, but the Twins were still left with a crater in the middle of their outfield and their lineup.
Within a week, Smith moved to address this newly-created hole. He dealt 23-year-old starter Matt Garza—an elite pitching prospect whom Baseball Prospectus had ranked as baseball’s no. 13 prospect before the season—and starting shortstop Jason Bartlett to the Tampa Bay Rays for a package headlined by outfielder Delmon Young, the runner-up for AL Rookie of the Year Award the season before, who had checked in at no. 3 on that same BP list of prospects.
Less than two months later, the other shoe dropped. Fearing that the team would lose Johan Santana as it had lost Hunter, Smith pulled off a trade, sending Santana to the New York Mets in exchange for four prospects, including highly-touted center fielder Carlos Gomez (BP’s no. 34 overall prospect) and oft-injured pitcher Phillip Humber (no. 26). The moves, while defensible on paper, were controversial at the time, and they don’t look any better in retrospect.
The Delmon Young-led package (which also included Brendan Harris and Jason Pridie) delivered a total of 2.8 WARP from 2008 to 2011. Meanwhile, Garza and Bartlett provided the Tampa Bay Rays with a combined 13.8 wins over the same span.
Santana stumbled through several injuries with the Mets, but amassed a combined 14.9 WARP from 2008 through 2012. The Twins' haul was only 2.3 wins, most of which came from center fielder Carlos Gomez, the aforementioned cornerstone of the trade. But the team gave up on Gomez after only two years, shipping him off for shortstop J.J. Hardy, only to give up on Hardy after one season to make room for Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka. The Twins traded Hardy for two players who contributed a total of -0.4 WARP; both Gomez and Hardy have since become All-Stars.
From the two trades that were supposed to restock the farm system, only one player remains with the Twins: minor league pitcher Deolis Guerra, who sat out 2013 after recovering from surgery related to a blood clot in his arm.
Patrick Reusse of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune argued last spring that Terry Ryan received a greater return for Francisco Lirano in 2012—who was at that point an unraveling, inconsistent pitcher under contract for only a few more weeks—than Bill Smith was able to extract for Santana, a two-time Cy Young winner in the midst of his prime. In that deal, the Twins received Eduardo Escobar and Pedro Hernandez, the no. 7- and no. 15-ranked players in a farm system regarded by Baseball Prospectus as the worst in all of baseball at the time. Neither is expected to play a major role in the Twins’ ongoing rebuilding process.
And yet, Reusse was right.
In fact, of all of the major trades under Smith's reign, only one can be considered a positive move: convincing the Cleveland Indians to dump journeyman starter Carl Pavano for a minor leaguer named Yohan Pino, besting Cleveland by margin of 2.9 WARP to zero.
How bad were the trades made by the Twins from 2007 to 2011? In all of the major trades combined, the Twins received 9.3 wins above replacement level. They gave away 50.4 wins. In Smith's four years, then, the Twins traded away 10.275 wins per year. For comparison, Mike Trout posted the highest WARP in all of baseball last year at 10.35.
Taken more simply, in each year of Bill Smith's GM tenure, the Twins essentially traded away a player equal to Mike Trout—the most valuable position player in the game in 2012 and 2013—and received nothing in return.
Lighting $30 million on fire
As discussed earlier, small market-teams are not going to outspend teams like the Red Sox, Angels, Dodgers or Yankees. But when small-market teams do make long-term commitments, they can't do so on replacement level players.
Even when the Twins aren’t major players in free agency, smaller moves still create ripples throughout the organization. Signing a middling player to a long-term deal for a few million dollars per season can hamstring the team down the line. If the Twins trade J.J. Hardy to clear space for free agent signee Tsuyoshi Nishioka, the new shortstop has to produce. The Twins might be aiming small, but they need to make sure they miss small, too.
Smith can take credit for two unquestionably successful signings over his four-season term: Orlando Hudson and Jim Thome. In February 2010, the Twins added Hudson on a one-year, $5 million deal. He provided solid production, with slash line of .268/.338/.372 and 1.7 WARP. In January 2011, the Twins signed Thome, who had a late-career resurgence in Minnesota, posting a slash line of .283/.412/.627, along with 25 home runs, good for 3.3 WARP.
Most of Smith’s other moves on the free-agent market weren't quite as rewarding. The 2007-08 offseason, for instance, included the following signings: Adam Everett, Craig Monroe, Mike Lamb, and Livan Hernandez. Everett was granted free agency at the end of the season; the other three players were cut mid-year.
The 2011 team was ravaged by injuries—particularly to Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Joe Nathan, who accounted for $49.25 million combined—but they also paid $7.15 million to Matt Capps for -0.5 WARP. The Twins, formerly a small-market team that didn't burn through awful contracts, found themselves paying a combined $30.775 million to seven players who totaled a WARP of -0.1. The not-so-magnificent seven? Matt Capps, Delmon Young, Jason Kubel, Francisco Liriano, Nick Blackburn, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, and Kevin Slowey. Only two of these players posted a WARP above 0.1, and none of them contributed a full win above replacement. The Twins weren't failing because they didn't have the money to compete. They were failing because of the players they decided to compete with.
Some of Smith’s signings are forgivable, like paying $4.3 million for the once highly touted Francisco Liriano. But others might reveal why he lost his job.
In March 2010, the Twins signed pitcher Nick Blackburn to a four-year, $14 million deal, the year after he gave up the most hits of any pitcher in the American League. Blackburn would go on to post a 5.56 ERA from 2010 to 2012 and has since been dropped from the 40-man roster. He was the team's fourth-highest-paid player last year, but did not appear in the major leagues.
In December 2010, the Twins posted a $5.3 million transfer fee for Nishioka, then signed him to a three-year, $9.25 million contract. That deal went poorly as well.
Nishioka snapped his fibula in April, on his way to posting a -0.9 WARP, the lowest of any major-league shortstop. When he was injured, the Twins and Ron Gardenhire gave at-bats to an equally ineffective Matt Tolbert, who also played below replacement level.
Nishioka hit .215/.267/.236 in 254 MLB plate appearances, but his Twins career can be encapsulated by with this Aug. 12, 2011 game summary:
"In the first [error], Nishioka can’t handle a ball in play off the bat of Shin-Soo Choo. In the second one, Nishioka boots a grounder and settles for one out on a potential double play. In the third one, Nishioka can’t get the ball out of his glove in the turn in a potential double play. In the fourth one, Nishioka boots a roller off the bat of Travis Hafner. The Indians scored in the inning, and Nishioka basically gave away four outs. All of these plays happened in consecutive plate appearances, and none of this is taken into consideration by Nishioka’s Win Probability Added. In the biggest offensive game of his major-league career, Tsuyoshi Nishioka was an absolute defensive wreck.” — Jeff Sullivan
Rough as it was, this move personified the Smith era.
Nishioka was signed to play shortstop, making Hardy expendable. But Hardy was the compensation for Carlos Gomez. Not only did the Twins lose Hardy's production, they were forced to find a suitable replacement for Nishioka once it was clear that he wasn't cut out for the major leagues. In compensation for a Cy Young-level pitcher, the Twins ended up with the problem of trying to find an everyday shortstop.
Bad luck or bad decisions?
Baseball draft picks have long been described as crapshoots—18-year-old pitchers often dazzle in high school, only to flame out before they hit the majors. At the time of his hiring, Bill Smith was seen more as an administrator than a talent evaluator. The failures of his draft classes underscore this reputation.
When Torii Hunter left for California, the Twins received two compensatory first round picks in the 2008 draft. They snagged Aaron Hicks with their own first pick, and then two college pitchers with the compensatory selections, Shooter Hunt and Carlos Gutierrez. Neither Hunt nor Gutierrez remains with the Twins; Hunt is out of baseball, while Gutierrez is currently a 26-year-old pitcher playing for the Chicago Cubs’ Double-A affiliate.
The Twins’ 40-man roster includes five players drafted during the Smith era: Hicks, Brian Dozier, Mike Tonkin, Kyle Gibson and Logan Darnell. Out of nine first-round picks spread over four years, only Hicks and Gibson remain top prospects within the Twins' system. Whether that can be chalked up to bad luck, bad scouting, or both is difficult to answer definitively, but it's worth noting for comparison’s sake that the team's three first-round picks from 2005 to 2007 (Matt Garza, Chris Parmelee and Ben Revere) have all reached the majors, with varying levels of success.
NBC Sports blogger, one-time Baseball Prospectus contributor, and long-time Twins fan Aaron Gleeman ranks the Twins' top 20 prospects each year. On Gleeman's 2013 list, 11 prospects came from the Bill Smith era, with three of those coming as international signings. The top 10 had only four players linked to Smith's era: infielder Eddie Rosario, pitcher Kyle Gibson, outfielder Aaron Hicks and uber-prospect third baseman Miguel Sano.
Baseball Prospectus National Prospect and Player Development Writer Jason Parks updated his rankings of the Twins' top 10 prospects on Nov. 18. Of those 10, Parks also listed four prospects who were signed during the Smith era: Sano and Rosario, along with international signings Felix Jorge and Jorge Polanco.
Smith deserves a good deal of credit for the signing of Sano and for stepping up efforts in international scouting, but the highly touted draft picks who were expected to grow into rotation mainstays simply didn't pan out. While Sano could be the rare star that becomes the centerpiece of a contending team, the Twins have already moved on from many of Smith's draft picks. Of the top pitching prospects who have yet to make the majors with Minnesota, the top three on Parks' list were acquired by Terry Ryan.
It's not often that a team slogging away nearly 10 games under .500 appears on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but the Twins scored such an honor with an Aug. 19 regional cover.
In 2012, Baseball Prospectus ranked the Twins' farm system 22nd overall. But in March's 2013 ranking, buoyed by Terry Ryan's trades of Denard Span and Ben Revere, as well as the high draft picks associated with awful records in 2011 and 2012, the Twins's organizational talent ranked fourth overall.
Parks has since stated that the Twins have the best farm system in baseball, while Gleeman wrote that the system is probably the best since he started covering the team a decade ago.
When Smith was fired in 2011, Baseball Prospectus ranked the Twins' organizational talent 15th overall. The team had just wrapped up a 99-loss season, doing so with the highest payroll in team history. They were mediocre in nearly every facet of the game.
This is not purely an indictment of Bill Smith. The Twins employ a vast network of scouts and other talent evaluators, front office personnel who should have had contingency plans in place for the 2007 offseason long before Smith ascended to general manager. The Twins’ long-standing player development philosophies—strike-throwing pitchers with limited upside; speedy, slap-hitting middle infielders in the mold of a traditional no. 2 hitter—left them predisposed to misjudge the talent in front of them. Those two philosophies alone led to them getting rid of Garza, Bartlett, and Hardy, and also directed them to bring in Nishioka, Humber, and Mulvey. Despite being a small-market team, the Twins had historically been able to re-sign all of their star players, mainstays like Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek and Brad Radke. The guys they lost or traded—Mientkiewicz, Jacque Jones, Koskie—almost immediately stopped being useful players, so those moves were easy to rationalize. It was only after 2007, when Hunter, Santana, Morneau, Mauer, Cuddyer and Nathan were all looking for big contracts, that it became inevitable that some Twins fan favorites were going to be starring for someone else in the future. It’s possible that this shift impacted the front office’s decision-making. It's also possible that that’s just an easy narrative to excuse some of Minnesota’s now-regrettable decisions.
The incredible promise of Sano, along with other international prospects like German-born outfielder Max Kepler, could eventually eclipse the failures of the Garza and Santana trades. Likewise, a contending team in the near future and the continued rise of Byron Buxton will certainly dull the pain of the Bill Smith era. But there’s no denying the fact that the results were and continue to be painful to watch.
It's easy to say that the Twins' failures from 2008 to 2011 were another case of a small-market team losing talent to the highest bidder. But it's just not true. The Twins under Bill Smith were not successful, but it wasn't because they were a small-market team that couldn't afford to make winning decisions. The Twins under Smith were a small-market team that couldn't afford to win with the decisions they were making.