During his 13-year tenure as a Major League executive, former Minnesota Twins general manager Terry Ryan acquired the reputation of being a prudent horse trader and a proponent of developing players from within the organization's ranks.
Of course, this was a philosophy borne of necessity.
By the time that Andy McPhail handed over the reins to Ryan in September 1994, it was becoming increasingly clear that it was getting more and more difficult for the Twins, being a small-market club, to compete in the free-agent market against the seemingly unlimited resources of teams such as the Chicago Cubs or the New York Yankees.
The financial picture didn't improve any for Ryan over the years. Still, he and the Twins prospered.
From 1995 through 2007, the Twins captured four American League Central Division crowns, all of them coming within a five-year span between 2002 and 2006.
The success that Ryan achieved was through selecting quality players (Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, and others) via the amateur draft and allowing them to mature.
He also made a couple of dynamite trades along the way, acquiring the likes of Johan Santana in 1999 in a Rule 5 draft, and Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser for malcontent catcher A.J. Pierzynski.
The Twins, as the 2009 seasons nears, is still very much the house that Ryan built.
Except for a couple of key components that are missing - components, one may argue, that led the Twins to miss out on another division championship in 2008 by the slimmest of margins.
In November 2007, Minnesota dealt pitcher Matt Garza, shortstop Jason Bartlett and reliever Eduardo Morlan to Tampa Bay in exchange for outfielder Delmon Young, infielder Brendan Harris and outfielder Jason Pridie.
A former 2005 first-round Twins' draft selection, Garza had showed that he was ready to pitch with the big club in 2007. Garza, called up just before the All-Star break, went 5-7 with a 3.69 ERA. Yet, Garza, commonly regarded as the Twins' brightest pitching prospect, was suddenly deemed expendable.
Ryan acquired Bartlett on July 12, 2002 in a trade with the San Diego Padres for Brian Buchanan. In 2006, Bartlett batted .309 in 99 games. As the Twins' regular shortstop in 2007, Bartlett batted .265 in 510 plate appearances. Suddenly, he was deemed inadequate.
In 2008 for Tampa Bay, Garza and Bartlett showcased the skills that attracted the Twins' notice in the first place. Garza went 11-9 with a 3.70 ERA. Bartlett raised his average 19 points to .286.
More importantly, he cut down down his errors from 26 the year before to 16. He finished 18th in the AL MVP race. And the duo helped the Rays achieve a berth in the World Series
Meanwhile, Young put together his second solid but not spectacular season. In 2008, Young hit .290 with 10 homers and 69 RBI with the Twins. He walked 35 times with 105 strikeouts. He also had 28 doubles and 14 steals.
Young hit .288 with 13 homers and 93 RBIs in his first full major league season with Tampa Bay in 2007, though he walked only 26 times with 127 strikeouts. He also had 38 doubles and 10 steals.
Harris bolstered the Twins' offense in 2008 with a .265 batting average with seven homers and 49 RBI.
The upcoming season will go a long way toward an assessment of Bill Smith's effectiveness as the current Twins' general manager.
If Young enjoys a breakout season and begins to approximate the all-around player that Torii Hunter was—and Harris proves to be unusually productive at the plate in a part-time role—the Twins' gamble will be viewed as warranted. If not, Smith will be viewed as giving up more talent than he received.
Ryan, for his part, was by no means infallible. The biggest blunder under his administration was the decision to release bothCasey Blake and David Ortiz in 2002. By this time, though, Ryan was well-established as a leader.
Smith, in just 18 months atop the Twins' organization, is already treading choppy water, not only for the Tampa Bay trade but for the losses of Santana and Hunter on his watch. These, however, shouldn't fall on Smith's head since Santana made it known that he wanted to leave Minnesota for the brighter lights of Boston or ultimately, New York.
Hunter, in hindsight, looks like every bit the part of a player who is on the downside of his career, although he enjoyed a better 2008 at the plate (278, 21, 78) than Young.
A general manager, rightly or wrongly, bears the responsibility of a team's success or failure. Fans and historians don't take into account any extenuating circumstances, such as injuries or bad hops.
Another factor that won't be taken into account is that Ryan assumed control amid a downturn in the Twins' fortunes. He was allowed to grow into the position. Smith's short tenure has been nothing but a trial by fire because the Twins, with their talent pool, seemed poised for big things.
If the Twins fail to win a division crown in 2009, then Smith's judgment will be severely called into question. If the Twins cop the AL Central, Smith will be well on his way toward carving his own legacy.
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