Ryan’s moves usually don’t make sense until years later

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Jim Souhan
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
— Few seem impressed with Terry Ryan’s moves this winter. But fans never have been impressed with Ryan’s best moves, at least not when he made them.

Ryan, the former and current Twins general manager, didn’t earn raves when he traded for a player left unprotected by the Houston Astros in the Rule 5 draft. Few people in baseball above Class A ever had heard of Johan Santana.

No one was impressed when Ryan traded a fine catcher who had helped him win consecutive division titles, A.J. Pierzynski, for an injury-prone pitching prospect, an unknown pitching prospect and a chubby pitching prospect. Those three turned out to be Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser, a threesome that brought tremendous value to the Twins while Pierzynski was replaced with a three-time batting champion.

No one was impressed when Ryan traded his only star, Chuck Knoblauch, to the Yankees for a handful of prospects. Then Cristian Guzman and Eric Milton joined a wave of players who helped save the franchise and gain approval for a stadium.

Few outside Minnesota were impressed when Ryan and his staff chose a high school catcher from St. Paul over the most celebrated pitching prospect in baseball history. Joe Mauer became an All-Star and MVP; Mark Prior became one of baseball’s all-time busts.

No one was particularly impressed when Ryan exhibited endless patience with struggling prospects and young players. In 1997, Torii Hunter’s fifth season in the minor leagues, he hit .235 at Class AA. The Twins never wavered, and he became an All-Star.

Ryan’s decisions this winter don’t seem to have excited Twins fans, many of whom crave familiarity or fireworks. He has allowed the popular Cuddyer to leave in free agency, along with Nathan and Jason Kubel. He has plugged a hole at shortstop with a 37-year-old with no power.

He has protected himself against another season of Mauer’s hypochondria by signing Ryan Doumit. He has brought back a struggling closer, Matt Capps, and has yet to do anything to upgrade what was a lousy pitching staff.

He hired Gene Glynn as his Class AAA manager, following a season in which the Twins’ young players looked unprepared to play when they arrived in the majors. He ditched two problematic pitchers who performed horribly last year: Jose Mijares couldn’t control his weight; Kevin Slowey became a cancer in the clubhouse.

Ryan also coaxed his successor and predecessor, Bill Smith, back into the organization after he was fired as general manager. The return of Smith, like the hiring of Glynn, will strengthen the organization.

All of those decisions have elicited a combination of yawns and screams from the fan base but haven’t surprised anyone who knows Ryan. He doesn’t believe in making a splash; he believes in sensible moves that create ripple effects.

“Anything that we do, I picture as a significant move,” Ryan said. “I don’t do anything here that I don’t think is going to make some sort of significant improvement with the club. I know some fans might not think some of these moves are significant, but when you look at how they fit with our roster, I think they’re more than tweaks.

“They are significant. They might not involve players with great name recognition, but we made these moves for good reasons.”

Teams that win the offseason are not necessarily those that win during the season. Two years ago, the Mariners won the winter, acquiring Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins. Then the Mariners lost 101 games. Last year, the Red Sox won the winter, acquiring Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, then executed one of the worst collapses in baseball history and missed the playoffs.

Flashy free-agent signings are like movie trailers filled with stars: They might lure you to the theater, but they don’t guarantee a good show.

The decision to sign Josh Willingham is classic Ryan.

Cuddyer signed with the Rockies for three years and $31.5 million. Ryan signed Willingham for three years and $21 million. Look past Cuddyer’s winning personality, and here’s what matters:

Willingham is a better hitter (with a career on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .836, compared with Cuddyer’s .794) and a similar but less versatile fielder. Willingham cost much less. Cuddyer’s departure lands the Twins two high draft picks.

That’s quintessential Ryan: Angering fans with a sensible and prescient decision.

Last updated: 7:04 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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