Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Hope Is Kindled

I'm a glass-half-full guy. If there's any reasonable chance of some upside in a situation, I'll look for it to come about. I stay positive, and it helps keep my outlook on life sunny.

That applies to my status as a Twins fan, as well. Right to the end, I expected good things from Delmon Young. I thought Francisco Liriano was going to be great in 2011. I even keep rooting for Shooter Hunt to find the strike zone again. Whatever the prevailing wisdom regarding expectations for the Twins, I'm usually inclined to take the over.

This offseason, for the first time in a long while, that was not the case. The weight of Bill Smith's poor moves had so far overwhelmed his good ones that it became clear that the man simply didn't have the ability to accurately evaluate talent. He didn't understand that JJ Hardy was a valuable asset that one doesn't just throw away. Or that Matt Capps is a good but not great pitcher. Or that Jose Morales is a much better player than Drew Butera. The Twins' roster needs a lot of fixing, and there was no reason to think that Smith was going to go about it in a way that would actually improve matters.

But, most of all, it was his apparent unwillingness to shake things up that troubled me. I wanted to see the entire training and conditioning staff fired at 9:00AM on September 29th. Not only didn't that happen, but Smith later indicated that the very same people would be in place again next season. As I noted in my Offseason Blueprint, no amount of tinkering with the roster is going to make the 2012 Twins back into winners if Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Denard Span can't play 130+ games each. It is imperative that at least 2 of the 3 return to full health and productivity. Entrusting that crucial task to the same group of bumblers who failed over and over to keep the players on the field was the last straw for me. I was resigned that the Twins would be losers again next year.

Then, yesterday, like a beacon on a mountaintop, came the unexpected news that Smith had been fired, to be immediately replaced by Terry Ryan, the architect of the Twins' success for most of the past decade. Instantly, my outlook changed.

Ryan hasn't been afraid to let treasured familiar faces walk when their free agent price tags get higher than their expected performance. Eddie Guardado, Jacque Jones, Corey Coskie... the only time he really blew that sort of evaluation was with David Ortiz. That sober gaze is required this offseason as the Twins decide how far to go to retain Michael Cuddyer, Joe Nathan and Jason Kubel.

While Ryan didn't nail every trade, he had a knack for knowing when to pull the trigger on a deal that would return the most value. The AJ Pierzynski for Nathan, Liriano and Boof Bonser trade alone blows away everything Smith did. But there were also effective trades of Chuck Knoblauch, Eric Milton, Bobby Kielty, and smaller deals that brought in eventual contributors like Jason Bartlett, Luis Castillo, and Alexi Casilla. It will take some trades to restore the organization to health in 2012 and beyond, especially with the payroll likely to come down a bit. I would expect Smith to get cheated in those deals. But I expect Ryan to have the upper hand.

Should Cuddyer and Kubel sign with other teams, the Twins may find themselves with 5 of the top 60 or so draft picks next summer. In his 1st tenure, Ryan drafted 22 players in the 1st and supplemental rounds. 17 made the majors, with 8 delivering at least 3 WAR to this point in their careers (and Ben Revere, Chris Parmelee and Kyle Waldrop are just getting started). He had 3 clunkers in a row from 1998-2000 (Ryan Mills, BJ Garbe and Adam Johnson), but otherwise his 1st round drafting record is pretty solid. In the 2nd round, he hit on Jones, Jesse Crain, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey and Joe Benson. Though it's still early to evaluate what will become of Smith's picks, it's disconcerting that so many of them already appear to have stalled for one reason or another. I certainly feel comfortable turning the responsibility for making those selections over to Ryan.

But, most warming to my soul, were the comments Ryan made demanding accountability from the training staff. I may yet get my wish for big changes in that department, and if I do, the Twins' chances of bouncing back next season will be that much better.

I don't know if there is any other single transaction the front office could have made that would do as much to change the franchise's fortunes for the better. I hope Ryan resigns Nathan and lets the other free agents walk. I hope he finds the right pieces to upgrade the defense and the lineup. I hope all the walking wounded can return to full strength in 2012. I hope.

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