The Man at the Top
As the Twins took the field last Wednesday to try to complete a series sweep against the West-leading Oakland A's, GM Terry Ryan sat in a packed press box surveying the field with raptor-sharp eyes. No, insisted the tall, prepossessing Ryan—the impending return of his overpowering rookie lefthander, Francisco Liriano, his overpowering rookie lefthander, Francisco Liriano, did not make this the most important game of the stretch run. "You get into this part of the season," Ryan says evenly, "every game's important. Today's no more important than yesterday." The idea, he figures, is to just keep winning series one at a time, so that none of your games become do-or-die. He is affable but emphatically terse on the subject of the club's needs past this season: "All those things are for a later time. Which is good. We should enjoy this moment."
It was a moment worth savoring: Ryan's team led the AL Wild Card chase by two and a half games over the defending champion White Sox, and trailed the once-invincible first-place Detroit Tigers by just a single game in the lost column. Ryan has seen a number of successful teams in his 20-plus years with the franchise—first as scouting director, then VP of player personnel, before being named the club's general manager in September 1994—but none has ever rivaled the shot-down-in-April, ridin'-high-in-July drama of the '06 Twins. Entering the season as a dark horse pick for the Wild Card, the club spent the month of April stinking up stadiums around the league. It was a total team effort. As of May 2, the Twins were dead last among 30 major league teams in scoring, and tied for 27th in runs allowed. With the exception of the lowly Kansas City Royals, they were statistically the worst team in baseball, and the Terry Ryan/Ron Gardenhire strategy of building for '06 with journeymen veterans like Tony Batista, Juan Castro, and Rondell White looked like a bust.
Then, in Ryan's words, "a lot of things started to happen," many of them spurred by personnel changes that Ryan and Gardenhire began making to the starting lineup and the pitching rotation. They went to the bullpen and the minor leagues to fortify the latter, a move that started Francisco Liriano on his abortive breakout season. The middle-of-the-lineup troika of Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer, and Justin Morneau started hitting. Batista and Castro disappeared in favor of Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett. (Trivia question: When was the last time a team cashiered half its opening-day infield for non-performance and still wound up contending for the playoffs deep into September?)
Around baseball, Ryan is known as one of the premier judges and traders of horseflesh in the game. After his own pitching career as a Twins prospect came to an end—he was 10-0 in 1973, before an arm injury finished him—Ryan got a degree from the University of Wisconsin and went on to become a Midwest scout for the New York Mets. He joined the Twins as scouting director in 1986 and succeeded the much-celebrated Andy MacPhail as GM after the strike-shortened 1994 season.
It's too bad for Ryan that the 2002 non-tendering of David Ortiz has become one of his best-known personnel moves, because on the whole he's amassed a remarkable record of collecting talent, often at bargain-basement prices. As far as the 2006 roster is concerned, start with the 1999 acquisition of Rule 5 pick Johan Santana. In 2002, Ryan snatched shortstop Jason Bartlett from the San Diego Padres for a fading utility outfielder, Brian Buchanan. In 2003, he got Nick Punto and Carlos Silva from the Phillies for an effectively washed-up starter, Eric Milton. And he pulled off what may yet prove to be the best trade in baseball since St. Louis nabbed Mark McGwire for three going-nowhere relievers, swapping A.J. Piersynzski to the Giants for Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and Boof Bonser. Along the way, he kept an eye out for useful pieces that had been discarded by others—like the invaluable lefty late-innings specialist Dennys Reyes, signed to a minor-league contract last winter.
If the Twins make the playoffs, Ryan is sure to contend once again for the Sporting News MLB Executive of the Year award he won in 2002. But that's another of those subjects he would rather leave to another time. Right now he's busy. In the top of the third inning, about 45 minutes after Ryan extended his hammer-lock handshake and exited the press box, Francisco Liriano walked off the mound and out of the Twins' pennant run.
"He's done," WCCO-AM late-night host Dark Star told the people near him in the press box after checking with club sources. "Done," he added, making a cutting motion across his left arm. A couple of flights down, in the bowels of the Metrodome, Terry Ryan was no doubt already on the case.
City Pages:Most people only hear of a baseball team's GM when he makes a trade or signs a free agent. What's an average workday for the general manager of a contending major league team down the stretch of a season?
Terry Ryan: It's as much about preparing for the future as it is that particular day. I mean, we're getting ready with advance [scouting] work, if we're fortunate enough to qualify for postseason. I'm dealing with Instructional League, our AAA club is in the playoffs right now, and there's a lot of decisions to make about your front office, your scouting department, your minor league department, as we get into October and November. We're preparing for organizational meetings. We're watching what's going on in Detroit and with the White Sox, Oakland, the Yankees, all the teams that are contending. I don't have everything scripted on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis. First and foremost, there's no question that I am hoping on a daily basis that things go well leading up to our game at 7:05 every night....
What happens today, yeah, it's big. But if you wind up on the short end, then you regroup and head into Cleveland. We're always looking to win series. And especially on the road. We haven't played great baseball on the road. We're about at .500, finally, but it's been a struggle to get there. We've played well at home. And if we win this game today, it makes tomorrow's game huge, and the next day. But we need to win series right now. We've got a chance to determine our own fate, which is fantastic. Who would have ever thought that back in April and May? We got into a tough spot there, and all of a sudden nothing went right. Now we can decide our own fate in September, and that's what you hope to get to.
CP: About the team's start: You did make a lot of personnel moves in late May/early June, both among position players and starting pitchers, and even in the bullpen—bringing in Dennys Reyes, for example. In retrospect, do you think you guys made bad calls at the start of the season, or do you still think they were the right calls given what you knew at the time?
Ryan: At the time, those were probably the calls that needed to be made. There were too many other question marks about certain situations. For instance, Dennys Reyes. He was at the World Baseball Classic for most of the month of March. And ultimately it was a blessing in disguise, because we sent him down to Rochester—actually, he accepted assignment, because he had an out in his contract that meant he didn't have to go. Thankfully, he accepted it. We put him in the rotation and had him work on holding runners, and he's been quite good ever since.
So maybe that was a blessing. You never know how those things are going to work out. I can't tell you that I have every answer to putting a team together, but sometimes you get lucky. Dennys Reyes has responded favorably to just about everything he's had come his way. The Batista thing—that certainly wasn't working. But I wouldn't have been able to tell you that Nick Punto would have responded quite as well as he has, either.
There are always question marks at the start of the season. Over the course of the first six weeks or two months, it pretty much crystallizes to the point where you can say, all right, we need to do something here. This is working. We might have to make a trade for that. Every club goes through this. We're not alone.
CP: Have you begun the process of assessing this season and deciding where you'd like to see the team get stronger next year?
Ryan: That's ongoing. I never want to make decisions with an eye just to the present. But no, I'm not too worried about next year's major league team right now. A season is evaluated over 162 games. Back in April and May, I would have told you one thing [about the Twins' needs]. Now I wouldn't tell you the same thing. We'll look at it on the basis of the whole year, instead of half a year or two months. Because you can make a lot of mistakes when you end up evaluating a person or a ballclub over a couple of months instead of a year.
CP: And yet you did exactly that this year. You started slow and then made several changes in a short time...
Ryan: Things weren't working. They weren't working.
CP: Can you take me back through your thinking, and Gardenhire's, about why you started the season with veteran players and journeymen like Tony Batista and Juan Castro in the lineup rather than your youngsters?
Ryan: Well, the Castro situation—we would have liked Bartlett to step up and take that spot, and unfortunately it just didn't seem like he was quite ready. So we sent him back down. Which is all right. I never thought there's anything negative about sending a player back to AAA. He responded when we brought him back up, and it seemed like he was ready to take it on. That was the reason behind that.
Now Batista, we didn't have a third baseman coming into the winter, and last fall he was available. We liked some of the power history that he had. He was a veteran, and we were young around the diamond. Now that one didn't work out so well. It was just an evaluation process that ultimately I made, and it didn't work. So we made some changes. We brought Punto in and put him at third, and we brought Bartlett back, and then we promoted Liriano from the bullpen to the rotation. And things started to click.
But other things were happening as well. Morneau started to pick his game up, obviously, we brought back Kubel, Rondell White started to produce. Bartlett played well. A lot of things happened. We changed a couple spots, and there was a little bit different look to the club. There was a little more speed, a little more range, and that range factor improved our defense some. We were hitting better, and our runners were going first to third and second to home on a consistent basis. We had a little bit more production one-through-nine instead of just a couple of spots. Neshek came up, and he's been a very valuable guy in the bullpen.
A lot of things happened. There's not just one area—it wasn't a matter of replacing Tony Batista, for example. I hate to make him the fall guy for this ballclub. There were a number of things that ultimately transpired to give us a whole different look. Tyner came up. It's amazing, all these guys who came up from AAA—they all responded.
CP: After this season, you'll see up to $33m from this year's opening-day payroll go off the books—
Ryan: Not necessarily [$33 million]. That's premature. We'll make those decisions, but there are some players with contracts that have options on them. Torii Hunter, Rondell White, Silva. We've got things to make decisions on, and not just Torii Hunter. Then you've got arbitration, and the decisions you make on who's tendered and who's not. Punto is [eligible for arbitration], Cuddyer is, Morneau is, Mauer is. This is a good year, though, because you're dealing from strength. Most of those players are having the types of years we were hoping for. We're never concerned about paying for quality.
CP: Have you considered following the Cleveland Indians model, tying up young players a couple of years into potential free agency with long-term deals?
Ryan: Yeah, we've done that historically. We've done that with a lot of guys in the clubhouse. We've done it with Knoblauch, we've done it with Hunter, we've done it with Johan Santana, we've done it with Radke. We've always had the ability to make [those] decisions. If we think that the security and the comfort of a multi-year contract will suit them, that they'll handle the situation well, we'll do it. We've had a number of players come through that locker room with deals like that. And most of them have worked out for both parties. Not all.
CP: Do you expect to be in the same ballpark in terms of opening-day payroll next year, in the neighborhood of $60 million? And does the promise of a new stadium in 2010 factor into your payroll calculations between now and then?
Ryan: The new stadium won't have any impact on 2007. This year's results and attendance will have an impact on next year's payroll. Attendance is up, that's a good thing. We'll probably be up some [in payroll]. I'm not sure what the final number will be. As soon as we finish the season, we'll look at the total tally. But ownership here has been pretty good for us. They've done what we needed to have done. Actually, our payroll was responsible this year, and it's allowed us to be competitive, to keep some people we wanted to keep and sign some people we wanted to sign. We got our draft choices [signed] that we wanted, for the most part. So when there's a necessity to get money, I go down the street and ask. And if I justify it, they usually respond favorably.
CP: The Twins have long had the reputation of possessing one of the finest scouting and drafting machines in the game. As far as the split in baseball between scouting and statheads, the Moneyball people, is concerned, you seem to fall on the scouting side of the divide. Have you absorbed any useful lessons from the statheads?
Ryan: There's not a player that we talk about that we don't do a statistical analysis on. We do it a little more behind the scenes than some, but I wouldn't do anything unless I had both the scouting report—the visual [impression], the makeup, the health history—and the statistical history too. We're somewhat a part of that program. I'm not saying we're frontrunners, but we believe in it. I think there's certainly some validity to it, and it always helps to have that type of background. You need the stats to back up the visual.
CP: One stathead favorite is on-base percentage, and you seem to have an unusual number of good OBP guys this year.
Ryan: Yeah, we do, and that's a big stat in our approach to how we go about things. I think on-base percentage is big. It's not the end-all, by any stretch, because we've got a few guys with the kind of on-base percentage you don't like to see on a stat page. But when you've got hitters who know what they're doing, who are somewhat patient and disciplined toward the strike zone, you're probably going to extend innings and get into bullpens and do all the stuff that's conducive to offense. We've had trouble over the years with some of that. It's something I've always tried to improve upon in putting a lineup out there. But you're right, we've got a little more threat one-through-nine than we've had in the recent past.
CP: What's made the difference for Justin Morneau this year? He's seeing about the same number of pitches per at-bat, walking and striking out at about the same rate as last year, hitting a lot fewer groundballs. Is that part of the key to his success?
Ryan: Well, really, the problems he had last year came from being unable to get prepared for the season. He had injury after injury through the course of the winter, and in about the second game of the year, he got hit in the head. That set him back. He came back and did a pretty good job for a couple of weeks, and then he went in some sort of tailspin and never really got his feet under him again. I don't know if it's being healthy, or confident, but everything he's doing this year is what we hoped he'd do last year.
You've got to give him a lot of credit. He's now a force in the middle of the lineup. This is what he did in the minor leagues every year. It's no surprise to those of us who saw him down there. He was always a guy who drove in runs, hit it over the fence, and hit for average. I'm happy for him. I think this is the year that all of us anticipated he'd finally put together.
CP: In view of the knee troubles he's already had, what measures do you take to make sure that Mauer is holding up to catching as much as he does?
Ryan: We've kept an eye on him pretty well this year. We don't want to abuse him back there, but we certainly like having his bat in that lineup slot. Athletically, he's not had any setbacks. There's a lot of maintenance on his legs, but he's a good worker. He's a very good athlete, he runs well, he's got quick feet. All the things you look for in a catcher, he possesses. So we're not going to baby him. Most everyday catchers go about 120-130 games a year behind the plate, and he'll be in that vicinity.
Incidentally, he doesn't want to be babied. He wants to be out there. And we put him out there as much as we can without abusing him.
CP: What's been the biggest surprise to you about this '06 team?
Ryan: That our starting pitching ended up solidifying itself. Not a big surprise. But to win out there, you've got to have starting pitching, and ours started to kick in in about June. Coincidentally, it might have paralleled the promotion of Liriano to the starting rotation. But for whatever reason, we struggled on the mound early. You can blame it on a lot of things, but starting pitching is going to end up being how we succeed or fail. I've stated that over the years. We had trouble with quality starts, getting into the sixth inning. But Radke ended up settling in nicely, and certainly Santana's been good. But we've had a lot of guys contribute. Our starting rotation's had a lot of different faces in it this year. And for the most part, from June on, we've had pretty good starting pitching. Our bullpen's been solid for the most part.
CP: And what's been the most pleasant surprise among individual performances?
Ryan: We've had a lot of pleasant surprises. Jason Tyner's come up and done well. Punto's had a nice season. Bartlett's been the guy we anticipated he'd be. It took a little longer than we expected, maybe. Liriano. It's not been one guy who's been a pleasant surprise. We've had a lot of things go right since June. We've had more people contribute. Morneau did what we thought he was going to do. Mauer stayed healthy. Unfortunately, we've had a couple of injuries to Radke and Liriano too. Over the course of a 162-game season, there are always good things and not-so-good things.
CP: It's certainly been one of the most gratifying Twins teams to watch.
Ryan: It's not going to be gratifying unless we get to the postseason. We've put ourselves in a good position for it. But if this all goes for naught, it's not going to be what we wanted. We've got to get to postseason.
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