Smith out, Ryan in to rebuild Twins

The Twins announced today that they had parted ways with General Manager Bill Smith and had installed former GM Terry Ryan as the interim GM. Smith had taken over for Ryan when Ryan resigned from the position after the 2007 season.

Smith’s seat as Twins GM had grown hotter and hotter in the past 12 months. With one of the highest payrolls in the league, the Twins were once again swept in the American League Division Series by the Yankees in 2010. Smith’s task for 2011 was to move from perennial postseason candidates to perennial World Series contenders. His Twins went on to lose 99 games and recorded the worst record in the American League.

Considering the injuries the Twins endured in 2011, Smith’s firing may seem a touch harsh. However, payroll ballooned under Smith from $62 million in 2008 to $113 million last April. Based on Smith’s spending and the Twins results in the postseason and their monumental collapse in 2011, one could be led to believe that Smith spent wildly and on the wrong players. But that wouldn’t be entirely accurate.

Under Smith’s reign, All Stars Joe Nathan, Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, and Michael Cuddyer have all received contract extensions totaling $335 million. A hefty sum, but within the Twins organization, that amount can be justified by nurturing players in-house versus paying even further over the odds on the free agent market.

Some of Smith’s contracts have hamstrung the Twins. Paying any player $23 million a season will make it difficult for any team to install talent around him (bar the Yankees). Giving that money to Mauer, who’s had a career filled with nagging injuries, and you’re looking at 20 percent of your payroll tied up in one player, who happens to be on injured reserve.

However, that wasn’t necessarily Smith’s biggest problem. Smith also had a knack for getting fleeced in trades. Repeatedly. His first major action as GM in the early months of 2008 was to trade Johan Santana to the Mets for Carlos Gomez, Phil Humber, Deolis Guerra, and Kevin Mulvey. Gomez is now in Milwaukee, Humber with the White Sox, Mulvey is in the Diamondbacks’ Triple-A organization, and Guerra is in Twins Double-A ball.

Not long after that, Smith dealt the Twins’ hottest pitching prospect in Matt Garza (the man who Ryan wouldn’t include in the proposed Alfonso Soriano deal) as well as Jason Bartlett to Tampa Bay for Delmon Young and Brendan Harris. Garza went on to win the 2008 ALCS MVP and Bartlett was named the Rays’ MVP of the same season by local sports writers. Young was dealt to Detroit this past summer for relief help and Harris was dealt to Baltimore (with JJ Hardy, whom the Twins received from Milwaukee for Gomez) after the 2010 season.

After Nathan was lost to Tommy John surgery prior to the 2010 season and the Twins looking poised for a deep playoff run, Smith decided that he would need a top-shelf closer. And so, he dealt the Twins’ sparkling catching prospect Wilson Ramos for the Nationals’ All Star closer, Matt Capps. As a rookie in Washington, Ramos has put up numbers that have only been matched by Mauer, Buster Posey, Craig Biggio, and Jason Kendall in the past 25 years. Matt Capps has accumulated 31 saves in 42 opportunities with an ERA of slightly higher than three, while his $7 million a year contract, which expired at the end of the season, leaves him unlikely to return to the Twins.

With a horrid 2011 in the rearview mirror, the Twins have anywhere between $30 million and $40 million to spend in free agency. They need help with their starting pitching, their bullpen, a middle infielder, and a catcher who can step up when Mauer will (frequently) need to be rested. On top of all those holes, they also could be set to lose Cuddyer, Nathan, Capps, and Jason Kubel via free agency.

So Ryan will step in less than a week after free agency has begun with the task of rebuilding this franchise. And for as much doom and gloom as I’ve spent the previous 650 words explaining, Ryan gives the Twins options. With Smith in the driver seat, the Twins were unlikely to trade to patch their holes. Under Ryan, the Twins could use their depth in back-end starting pitchers to acquire bullpen, catching, or middle infield help. Kevin Slowey and Nicky Blackburn are solid if unspectacular starters that could command the sort of patchwork help the Twins need.

The mess Billy Smith has made in the past four years will take time for Ryan to clean up. The cupboards are bare, the payroll is bloated, and there are lots of holes to fill (makes me wonder if Bill Smith and Doug Risebrough went to school together) in the major league clubhouse. But Ryan gives the team and its fanbase a reason to be optimistic.

Now all the Twins need is to somehow convince Ryan to remove the interim tag from his title.

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