The Ryan Express

The most amazing thing about the Twins' turnaround the past couple of seasons is how quickly the perception of a team can change in baseball's current economic climate. A team that spent much of the 1990s in a complete organizational freefall, becoming in the process an unfortunate and almost wholly unlovable model of small-market malaise, has somehow suddenly become an example of all things virtuous, the sort of things that tend to get overlooked in the current obsession with revenue streams and the bottom line--things like player development, waiver-wire ingenuity, fiscal responsibility, and patience.

How does a broke-down train become the Little Engine That Could almost overnight? That's the question that has captivated the national media. And the answer, of course, is that it doesn't, and it didn't. For longtime Twins fans, a more germane question is certainly: "What the hell took so long?"

Coming out of the 2000 season--the Twins' eighth straight losing campaign--local and national indifference regarding the team was at an all-time high, and there seemed to be little cause for optimism, on or off the field. That 2000 club had what might well have been the most dispiriting season in franchise history, finishing 69-93 and putting itself--justifiably, in fact--on baseball's contraction radar. In a year that saw an unprecedented power explosion around the major leagues, Jacque Jones led the Twins with 19 home runs; Matt Lawton was the RBI leader with 88, and no Twin scored 100 runs. The team earned run average was 5.14. Whatever fans remained could have spent the entirety of the off-season poring over the numbers without finding a single bright spot.

Manager Tom Kelly, largely in cahoots with the local sporting press, had spent years denigrating the talent general manager Terry Ryan and his staff had assembled, and even fans who had grown weary of Kelly's handling of his younger players had to have developed at least a measure of sympathy for the beleaguered skipper. There was incessant talk of a rift between Kelly and Ryan, and much speculation that one, or both, of them would be fired.

Clearly, something happened during that off-season. Both men, surprisingly, were retained, and Kelly showed up at spring training a kinder, friendlier manager. The products of Ryan's farm system were apparently going to be given a chance to prove, once and for all, whether they could play the game. Though no one in the organization would say so directly, it was clear that the 2001 season was make-or-break for Ryan. (Kelly was in a can't-lose situation: Another losing season would be a grim I-told-you-so victory for the manager; if the club managed to win, he'd once more be celebrated as a genius who knew how to get the most out of limited resources.)

You can chalk up the success of last year's team as a victory for both Ryan and Kelly if you choose, but it must have been a particularly satisfying triumph for the long-belittled general manager. Despite a second-half fade that cost the Twins the division title, the team's first winning season in nearly a decade brought forth the Twins as a model of small-market ingenuity. A year later Kelly is gone and Ryan is presiding over an organization--and a first-place team--brimming with talent at both the major- and minor-league levels for the first time in more than ten years.

And make no mistake: The current version of the Twins is Ryan's team from top to bottom, from the 40-man roster to the largely homegrown coaching staff. Twenty-three of the players who have seen duty this season also saw playing time in that miserable 2000 season. Of the position players on the roster, six current starters are pure products of the Twins' farm system: Jones, Torii Hunter, Corey Koskie, A.J. Pierzynski, Doug Mientkiewicz, and Luis Rivas. Pitchers Brad Radke, Eddie Guardado, and J.C. Romero are also products of the Twins' farm system, as are outfielder Bobby Kielty, utility man Denny Hocking, and catcher/DH/first baseman Matthew LeCroy. Shortstop Cristian Guzman was acquired (along with Eric Milton and Brian Buchanan) in the trade that sent Chuck Knoblauch to the Yankees. Right fielder Dustan Mohr was a pick-up from Cleveland, after the Indians released him from their minor-league system in 2000. Reliever Tony Fiore was signed after Tampa Bay cut him loose.

Ryan acquired a handful of other current players in trades that looked insignificant at the time: David Ortiz was picked up in the trade that sent Dave Hollins to Seattle. Starting pitcher Joe Mays came from the Mariners for Roberto Kelly; another starter, Matt Kinney, was part of the 1998 Greg Swindell trade with Boston; and yet another starter, Kyle Lohse, came from the Cubs in the Rick Aguilera swap. Of the current Twins, only starter Rick Reed, back-up catcher Tom Prince, and relievers Bob Wells and Mike Jackson have spent significant time on another major-league roster.

The best indicator of how far the Twins have come since that 2000 season might be reflected at this year's All Star game in Milwaukee. Last season the Twins sent three players--Milton, Mays, and Guzman--and you could make a solid case that Mientkiewicz deserved a spot as well. This year none of those players even deserves consideration, yet the team has a handful of other guys who should get serious looks--Guardado, Hunter, Jones, and Pierzynski are all deserving candidates, and though the All Star game usually snubs set-up men, J.C. Romero has been as dominant as any pitcher in baseball, and his importance to the team's early success can't be overstated.

The scary and exhilarating thing is that there is apparently a busload of players laboring in the minor leagues at the moment who could make this team even better down the road. Remember all that talk in spring training about Michael Cuddyer in right field? Gardenhire's decision to send the prospect back to Edmonton was the big news coming out of camp, and now Brian Buchanan--the guy who supposedly won the right-field job over Cuddyer--is sitting on the bench while afterthoughts Mohr and Kielty are hitting over .300. The two guys with the best current batting averages on the team, Kielty and Matthew LeCroy, are battling for at bats, and LeCroy, who is hitting .338 and slugging .568, has spent the season shuttling back and forth from the AAA club in Edmonton.



As dominant as the Twins bullpen has been, the numbers are actually skewed by the performance of the mop-up guys. Toss out the unsightly data compiled by Jack Cressend, Bob Wells, Mike Trombley, Matt Kinney, and Johan Santana (63 earned runs in 76 and two-thirds innings pitched, for a 7.40 ERA), and the stats are even more astonishing: Guardado, Romero, Jackson, Hawkins, and Fiore have given up only 38 earned runs in 174 and one-third innings, for an ERA of 1.96. The bullpen's 3.23 ERA is still more than two runs lower than the starters' 5.32.

In only his second full season, A.J. Pierzynski is making a claim as one of the best catchers in Twins history. Granted, it's a thin list--historically catcher is probably the Twins' weakest position; you've got Earl Battey and then who? Brian Harper? Tim Laudner? Battey spent seven years with the Twins and was a four-time All Star, but his career offensive numbers are hardly eye-popping (.270 batting average, 104 home runs). Pierzynski's defensive improvement is nearly as impressive as his .325 average.

With the Twins continuing to struggle against lefthanders (their .249 average is 12th in the AL), they're starting to see a steady parade of lefties with the game on the line. Of the Twins' regulars, only Koskie--a lefthanded hitter--has had any real success against southpaws, batting .309. Look for Kielty, LeCroy, and Hocking, all of whom have hit lefties well to date, to get additional pinch-hitting opportunities.

Looking back over Terry Ryan's track record, there are only a couple of deals that now look like complete busts: the 1995 trade that sent oddball righthander Scott Erickson to the Orioles for Kimera Bartee and Scott Klingenbeck, and last year's swap of Mark Redman for Detroit's Todd Jones.


Brad Zellar goes Yard every Tuesday morning--and perhaps more often--for as long as he (and the Twins) are up to it.

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