Continuing from Part I of the discussion…
Baseball Prospectus: Looking back on the 2002 draft, for a while people may have been questioning the Twins taking Joe Mauer over Mark Prior. Now, Mauer is up in the majors and doing well. What went into the thought process of drafting Mauer over Prior? How much did Mauer being from Minnesota factor into the decision?
Terry Ryan: A little bit of the hometown aspect went into the selection. And all that’s fine, but it wasn’t the overriding factor. Economics were a part of it too. There were probably a dozen guys in that draft room, and we did our homework, so there were no big question marks. We knew that Prior was a tremendous talent, Teixeira too. We were very equal on Prior and Mauer, with Teixeira a tick behind–he had a broken (leg) at the time. In the end it didn’t matter–both guys will be great players, Prior was a tremendous pick for the Cubs.
We knew more about Mauer than any player in the draft, we’d tracked him since he was 15. We’re a left-handed-oriented organization because of the Metrodome, a lefty-hitting catcher is hard to find, and catching is probably the most difficult position to find, behind maybe only starting pitching.
BP: Deciding which players to keep and sign long-term can be tricky. You talk about Mauer, and he found an opening after the Twins traded A.J. Pierzynski. Then you’ve got guys like Hunter, Jones and Stewart who were all given multi-year deals. And there’s the risk of backlash from the fans and media if they feel you’re not retaining players. How do you strike a balance, especially given the Twins’ limited budget?
Ryan: You try and retain and pay players who are productive, who want that kind of security. We’ve signed many of our higher-profile players over the years–Hrbek, Puckett, Torii Hunter, Brad Radke…you always try to retain our own. We took a pretty good run at keeping Eddie Guardado. We didn’t have enough time to do anything with Hawkins. You look at Rogers, Pierzynski, Ortiz, we’ve had to make some tough decisions, and these guys have gone on and done well. We can make some compromises, but a player may have to be willing to take a discount too–it works both ways.
I’m all for retaining everybody, but that’s unrealistic. Even the Yankees have to deal with this kind of situation–look at what happened with Pettitte. We get a good idea by October of whether we’ll be retaining these guys, and which others we have to let go. I think the fans in Minnesota–and the rest of the world–realize that’s the nature of the business. When next year comes along, you’re looking to be competitive again and surviving. We’ve lost some talented players, but for the most part, we’ve had people step up. This year it’s been Nathan, Silva, Rincon, Balfour, Mauer.
BP: With some of the more recent signings, though, you’ve given long-term deals to players who play positions where the Twins seem to have other options. All the deals for outfielders–especially the one for Shannon Stewart–when you’ve got Ford, Ryan, Cuddyer, Restovich and all these other guys who play the position. You signed Mientkiewicz to a two-year deal when you’ve got Morneau. How do you strike a balance between signing guys vs. letting the kids play?
Ryan: With Stewart–and this goes for other situations too–if I thought that the others guys could establish themselves quickly, I wouldn’t have done that. It takes three or four years for most players to get established. Shannon Stewart was the best player we had last year, and in the playoffs. Most of the guys you mentioned didn’t have the track record to prove they could do it at the big league level for us. Ford has been a big surprise.
Morneau, even though he’s a talented kid, he’s (23). He’s got a chance to be pretty good. We don’t think this was the year that he was ready, but he’s getting closer. The stats look good, his defense has improved, but he’s still a work in progress.
I’d be the first to tell you I don’t have all answers. But as long as you win, you’re doing OK. We have a lot of decisions again this year, guys who are arbitration-eligible, up for free agency. We have some options, and it’ll be interesting to see what we can do payroll-wise. Radke’s up, Koskie’s up–there are a lot of things to decide on, and I’m sure we will be second-guessed again.
BP: One thing you do get is depth, though, with some of the younger guys filling in and coming off the bench…
Ryan: Some people rave about our depth. Others say we’re hoarding talent, ‘why would you sign an outfielder long-term when you’ve got depth?’ I think we know our players better than most, we know their makeup. Ultimately
when a guy goes down you have to be able to replace him. And there’s no downside to having a guy at Triple-A, playing. There’s nothing wrong with Morneau playing at Triple-A and learning. He’s going to be a four- or five-hole hitter for the next five or six years.
BP: Keeping him at Triple-A keeps his service time clock from starting too, which makes a difference down the road with arbitration, free agency…
Ryan: We never worry so much about service time. I worry more about a guy coming in and not doing much. If Joe Mauer wasn’t producing, I’d worry about it. A guy like Lew Ford–he’s (almost) 28, obviously his time is now, and he’s been productive.
BP: But even with that depth, Jose Offerman has been getting a lot of playing time. How involved are you as the general manager in making those kinds of decisions, and was the plan to have Offerman play as much as he has?
Ryan: Jose Offerman is here to be a pinch-hitter, that’s the only reason. He played a lot more than we wanted to a while back. He’s DHing a little bit now because Mientkiewicz is on the shelf and LeCroy is playing first base. But we got him to come off the bench in the eighth or ninth inning, to get that one big hit for us. We’ve had problems health-wise this year–Hunter, Stewart, Mientkiewicz, Koskie, other guys too.
BP: What methods do the Twins use in handling player health that may differ from how other teams do it?
Ryan: We’ve done a good job over the years. This year is an aberration–the last five years or so clubs have been asking us how we stay healthy. The new turf is much more forgiving, and we think that will help us some, especially with hamstrings and knees.
It goes back to the players themselves: Athletic guys have a tendency to stay a little healthier, and we focus on bringing in athletic players. We don’t get carried away with weightlifting programs. We’re pretty conservative–we’ll focus on durability and flexibility probably more so than bulk. We like to draft baseball players, we’re not huge in looking for anything more than a guy with instincts and ability.
Pitchers are a little tougher, though we keep an eye on pitch counts all the way down to rookie ball. A lot of the responsibility goes to the guy running the show–Gardy, or before him Tom Kelly, plus the minor league staff–keeping players healthy by resting them, not abusing or overworking them. It’s preparation and athletic ability, diet and sleep–and sometimes it’s just luck.
BP: Do you look at other teams in the division in making decisions on players to acquire, or your timetable for contention vs. trying to retool?
Ryan: We never worry too much about that; all these publications, Baseball America, (Sports) Weekly, The Sporting News would have had the Royals up there on paper. You do what you have to do yourself. We never worry too much about what other teams are doing or what’s going on in the industry. Every winter we take a beating because we don’t do much that’s high-profile. But you get to the middle of the summer, and it turns out we’re doing OK. You set yourself up for spring training, hope you have decent health and tweak it as you go. If you make decisions based on what other people do for their clubs, you’re reacting instead of acting. People might say ‘what kind of an idiot are you to put a 20-year-old catcher in there?’ But we say, ‘well, he’s ready,’ and you tend to know your guys a little better than some others might.
BP: As you head into the second half and the stretch run, what weaknesses do you see on the club that you might look to address?
Ryan: We’re having trouble scoring runs right now. Shannon Stewart will help when he comes back. There are some concerns there–we felt we’d score more runs. We’re not worried about home runs, but rather about scoring runs. Hopefully once we get Shannon back, you can move everyone down a notch. I don’t want any more injuries either–if you look at games missed to the disabled list, we’re down right at the bottom. We’ve been fortunate in how Henry Blanco stepped up for Mauer, Lew Ford for Shannon. Starting pitching depth we’re also a little thin, and in the minor leagues we’re a little lean there too.
BP: Given his success this season striking out guys and starting to get the walks down a bit, do you see Grant Balfour becoming an option as a starter some time soon, especially since he started in the minors?
Ryan: We did a little bit of everything with him in the minor leagues. I always want guys to start some in the minors, but he also ended up in the bullpen for much of last year since we had a need there. He’s also had some injuries, and we wanted to ease the burden on his health. We tried to start him last year, but it didn’t work out.
Our major league staff right now has more interest in him keeping that bullpen role. That’s not to say he couldn’t start down the line; he’s got three legitimate pitches, he’s strong, so we’ll always have that option. But the way things are set up right now, we see him staying in that sixth- and seventh-inning area. Tom Kelly always liked to do that with young pitchers, to let them get their feet on the ground. We may consider a move with (Balfour) if we have a need here in July, August, September, since we’re a little lean in the rotation.