A Look Back at Bill Smith, General Manager

Judging from reaction to Monday's big news, it's clear the vast majority of Twins fans had lost faith in Bill Smith and seriously doubted his ability to return this team to its status as the class of the AL Central.

Fans had every reason to be frustrated with Smith's tenure as GM. Smith took over during a tumultuous time for the franchise, overseeing both the departure of long-time star Torii Hunter and trading away the team's best pitcher for an underwhelming collection of prospects. He swapped Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett for Delmon Young. He traded JJ Hardy to make room for Tsuyoshi Nishioka. He moved Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps, and then brought back Capps just to watch his strikeout rate implode and ERA explode. The list goes on.

On the other hand, Smith made several smart, mid-level moves that did pay off: Pavano, Thome, Hudson, Rauch, Fuentes, and, of course, the acquisition of J.J. Hardy. But any goodwill Smith may have garnered from fans with those moves meant little when compared to the disappointment and anger he elicited from fans for the many moves he made that seemingly failed so spectacularly.

While I am entirely supportive of the decision to relieve Smith of his duties as GM, and couldn't be happier to see Terry Ryan take over the position, I do have to say I've spent the past day or so experiencing quite a bit of sympathy for Smith. I'm not talking about the public firing, which, while difficult, certainly comes with the territory. No, I'm talking about his track record as GM, which, however flawed, was certainly impacted by a string of bad luck and terrible timing that magnified every questionable move he made as GM

I'll dive into that after the jump.

Let's review some of the worst moves of Smith's tenure as GM:

The Santana trade:

No one doubts that Smith took over the Twins' GM role at an unenviable time. Less than five months after taking the job, Smith moved the team's Ace, sending Johan Santana to the Mets for Carlos Gomez, Phil Humber, Kevin Mulvey and Deolis Guerra. Needless to say, the move did not pan out, and Smith has subsequently taken a tremendous amount of heat for moving the best pitcher in baseball for what essentially amounted to four spare parts.

But did it have to turn out that way? Most of the heat Smith took at the time of the trade was from fans upset that he didn't take the rumored deals from the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers. Truth is, no one outside Smith and his confidantes truly know what offers were actually on the table at the time of the trade, leaving the rest of us to speculate and second guess. As far as the actually trade with the Mets, while the majority of experts believed the Mets had "won" the trade, there were several very smart analysts that defended Smith at the time of the trade:

Twins fans grumble with the haul of prospects they got. But is it really that bad? The Twins are getting about 13 WAB [Wins Above Bench] of talent (free-agent salary adjusted) and giving up only 6 WAB. The question (and gripe) is whether the Twins could have snared a better package. Surely Melky Cabrera and Philip Hughes is better than the deal they got? Well if you count Hughes as a top pitching prospect (and to be fair he has largely arrived) he is worth 6 WAB. (http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/another-look-at-the-johan-santana-trade/)

In conclusion, the Twins were not ripped off as many claim. However, I would not say that the Twins won the deal outright, as the raw prospect value numbers show. When we include the four factors mentioned above into our evaluation, I would say that the Mets come out as slight winners; the extent of their edge depends on what happens with the contract negotiations with Santana.

If I were a Twins fan, I would be slightly disappointed by the fact that the rumors of the Boston and New York proposals did not come true. Still, the Twins did come away with good value in this trade. (http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/the-bright-side-of-losing-santana/)

In hindsight, we also need to credit the Twins (and Smith) for not re-signing Johan Santana, no matter how little production they received in the trade. Johan failed to reach 200 innings in either 2009 or 2010, and missed all of 2011 with a major arm injury. The Mets are due to pay Santana $24 million in 2012 and $25 million in 2013, and will have to pay him $5.5 million not to pitch for them in 2014.

The Delmon Young Trade:

A back-of-the-napkin accounting of this trade is all you need to see how bad this move really was for the Twins. In Delmon Young and Brendan Harris, the Twins got a total of 1 Win Above Replacement (WAR), despite playing Delmon nearly full-time for three-and-a-half seasons. Matt Garza and Tampa Bay generated more than 15 WAR for Tampa Bay, and helped lead the team to its first World Series in 2008.

Needless to say, the move didn't work, and Smith has been dogged by this trade ever since. But let's remember: Delmon Young was Baseball Prospectus' #1 prospect in 2006. He was Baseball Prospectus' #3 prospect in 2007, a season which saw Young finish second in Rookie of the Year voting while playing in 162 Major League games at the age of 21. Smith pulled the trigger to acquire one of the premier hitting prospects in baseball. And ended up missing wildly.

Capps for Ramos:

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but if the Twins had made a run in the 2010 postseason with Rauch and Capps locking down the 8th and 9th innings, a lot of Twins fans (including myself) would have eaten a lot of crow over this trade.

But that's not the way it worked. The Twins were swept by the Yankees, Smith's desperation move to add a "closer" for the stretch run backfired, and the injury to Mauer in 2011 showcased the foolishness of trading a high-level catching prospect for a short-term upgrade in the bullpen. Throw in Capp's disappearing strikeout rate and exploding ERA, and it actually seems like fate and luck have combined to make Bill Smith look as bad as possible for making this trade.

Signing Nishioka, Trading Hardy:

Trading a very good, everyday shortstop for two middling relief prospects was a terrible move. There is really no escaping that fact. However, what about the decision to bring in Tsuyoshi Nishioka and trade away JJ Hardy?

In retrospect, we know the switch didn't work. JJ Hardy led all American League shortstops with 30 home runs for Baltimore. Nishioka was one of the worst players in baseball when he was actually on the field.

But Bill Smith was not the only person to think Nishioka would be able to come over to the States and become a positive contributor to a Major League team. Some of our best projection systems pegged Nishioka has a solid investment for the Twins. Check out this Twinkie Town post from February:

Below is a sample of what projection systems are predicting for Nishioka in 2011...as well as what I penciled him in for a couple of weeks ago. (For those who will wonder: CAIRO is based on Marcel, there are no Chone projections for 2011, and I haven't downloaded Bill James' projections.)

Oracle AB HR SB AVG OBP SLG

Rotochamp 542 6 34 .283 .336 .400

CAIRO 532 10 19 .273 .346 .400

ZiPS 601 7 38 .281 .337 .403

Jesse 557 8 22 .284 .342 .406

In that very post, Jesse took a poll asking readers to guess which projection would be turn out to be the most accurate. The most popular choice? "Nishioka will out-perform them all by a significant margin."

Sure, the JJ Hardy trade was bad news for Twins fans. But the error was magnified by Hardy's incredible (and unlikely) season, as well as the shockingly bad performance by Nishioka. If Hardy's injury troubles continued in Baltimore or Nishioka actually performed as expected, we'd certainly view Smith's decisions much differently.

There are other examples I could site, including the failure to sign Nick Punto, who subsequently posted a career-high OPS for the Cardinals at age 33. But my point here isn't to rehash every single move of the Smith era. His track record is well-established: while he made some smart moves at the margins, the vast majority of his "signature" deals as GM of the Minnesota Twins spectacularly backfired.

A Snakebitten GM?

Let me be very clear: none of this is meant to absolve Smith of responsibility for the deals he made and trades he brokered. In any deal, there is very likely to be a winner and a loser, and Smith found himself the loser too many times to just simply chalk up his bad deals to a string of bad luck. Good GM's make moves that work. Bad GM's make moves that fail. Simple as that.

But when Smith looks back at his short-lived tenure as Twins GM, I'd be the first person to forgive him if he felt a little bit like the victim of bad luck and poor timing. When he made good decisions, they often went underappreciated. When he made poor decisions, they often ended up blowing up in his face, even if they may have seemed sensible at the time he pulled the trigger.

On a personal level, I couldn't be happier to see Terry Ryan return as GM of the franchise I love. I remember where I was when I learned that Ryan was stepping down as GM the same way others remember where they were when Lennon was shot. Ryan's track record as Twins GM is nearly the opposite of Smith: when he made bold moves, he tended to hit the jackpot, but didn't enjoy the same payroll flexibility to make the smart mid-level moves that would have helped the franchise capitalize on its string of star players in the 2000s.

It's clear that Ryan has his work cut out for him. He's taking over a team that is a long way from contention, and which doesn't have a whole lot of tradable parts with which to rebuild. However, as a Twins fan, I'm much more comfortable with Ryan leading us through this process than Smith. And, at the end of day, that's all you really need to know about Bill Smith's tenure as GM in Minnesota.

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