1. You can't win out of the bargain bin.
Terry Ryan doesn't like the free agent market, and I don't blame him for that. But he does sign bargain-basement free agents after all the other teams have filled their rosters with players. I think he does this too much. It's OK to sign one or two minor league free agents and let them win jobs in spring training. But he shouldn't give as many guaranteed contracts to the bargain basement players he signs.
This year's free agent class is the most disappointing in Ryan's tenure: RonDL is a complete bust; Sidney Ponson should have never made the team; Ramon Ortiz had one good month; and Jeff Cirillo has shown flashes of competence and long stretches of poor health. This is not just bad luck on Ryan's part. It's bad strategy.
Last year's class had one find, one so-so pick up and one total failure. Dennys Reyes was the find; RonDL was a tale of two half seasons, one horrible, one good; Tony Batista was the failure.
I won't go over every year, but Ryan has typically got what he paid for out of the bargain bin. He would be better off trusting AAAA players out of the system than spend his last $6 million on the collection of stiffs he unearths every year. Or better yet, sign one good regular with the $6 million and fill the remaining spots with AAAA filler.
Kevin Cameron would do better than Ortiz. And Alex Romero would be starting in the outfield right now if he hadn't dipped into the bargain bin to get Ortiz, leaving Romero off the 40-man roster to make room for him. $6 million could fetch a pretty good DH this past off season. I hope he doesn't repeat this practice next offseason.
2. You can't contend every year, so you might as well trust the rookies and develop them anyway.
I commented on it ad nauseum in a diary earlier this week, but it bears repeating. This organization is built on its farm system. When prospects are ready to start learning how to be major leaguers, it makes no sense to keep them in AAA for additional seasoning while playing retreads in the vain hope of contending.
The tricky part is knowing when to give the prospects a major league shot. And there is no science to this: prospects are like snow flakes. They all develop at their own rate. So in some cases, the organization needs to fill in its roster with replacement-level players while the prospects develop the way they should.
I now tend to think that was the case with Garza. I don't know if he would have developed that change-up--which is now his second-best pitch--while trying to get major-league hitters out. I'm not so sure about Baker. But there are cases where the Twins seemed to prefer the retread to the prospect who was clearly ready. And when they have brought the kid up, he's been used too inconsistently to develop into a quality major leaguer for a while (Cuddyer, Kubel, etc.). This should never happen.
3. You need a balanced system to sustain success.
Mike Radcliff has often said that the Twins focussed primarily on pitching in their 2000-2004 drafts. Given this, it's no surprise that the system is very pitching heavy and hitting light. Now, when the team needs bats, it must go outside the organization to get them. That would not be such a big deal except for that Ryan seems determined to hang onto his pitching and find other ways to get hitting.
4. If your system is unbalanced at the upper levels, you need to fix that through trades.
I can excuse an unbalanced system. After all, some of the imbalance is the result of the position players the Twins drafted not panning out (ahem, Span). But when you are in that situation, you can't be too reluctant to trade your glut of pitching to improve upon your dearth of hitting.
Terry Ryan just has not done that. He did make some shrewed offensive acquisitions recently: Brian Buscher and Darnell McDonald, to name two. And perhaps it's not as easy as it sounds to trade AAA pitching for AAA hitting: As ubelmann pointed out, it just doesn't happen very often in baseball for some reason.
But some rebuilding teams might be willing to trade league-average major league hitters who are being pushed by star-quality prospects. And some contending teams might be willing to trade good AAA talent for replaceable "veteran" arms (ahem, Rincon). A GM needs to be creative to fill his roster with enough talent to win. Ryan has not been all that creative. He hasn't traded much at all the last couple of years.
I assume he will make some kind of deal before the trade deadline. But I'm concerned it will be too little, too late. I understand his desire to get the best deal possible, and deals do tend to get better the closer to the deadline you get. But he also needs to factor in the team's position. How many times in the past three games have the Twins been one good hitter away from victory? Suppose he gives up more talent than he gets but he fills an immediate need in the process. Is that such a bad thing?