It's interesting how the current situation for the Twins bears some similarity to the situation when Terry Ryan first became GM back in the mid 90's. Following the strike-shortened 1994 season, the Twins were replacing general manager Andy MacPhail, the architect of Minnesota's two World Series Championships in 1987 and 1991. Coming off back-to-back losing seasons, the Twins and were not going to be a good team in 1995. The man chosen to take the reigns in the front office was none other than Terry Ryan. The early years with Ryan as general manager were tough to say the least. For 6 years the Twins floundered below .500, including 3 last place finishes.
The late 90's were perhaps the toughest period for Twins fans to endure in team history. Attendance at the aging Metrodome was sparse; 18,000 fans on a good night. Barely 10,000 fans witnessed Eric Milton's no-hitter on September 11, 1999. The lack of fans in the seats meant a lack of revenue for the team, which lead to a lack of payroll to invest in players, which in turn meant a poor on-field product and an inability to get fans into the seats. This downward trend ultimately culminated in the contraction scare in the winter of 2001.
Terry Ryan's job was essentially reduced to enduring microscopic payrolls and trying to make something out of nothing. The solution he came up with was to invest heavily in the farm system. He traded away players he couldn't afford like Chuck Knoblach and Rick Auilera. In return he acquired players in the lower minor leagues, before they became big time prospects. —Players like David Ortiz, Joe Mays, Christian Guzman, Eric Milton, and Kyle Lohse. The team saw sub-par talent at the major league level, but by investing in minor league scouting, he began to build a strong farm system.
In 2001, after 6 years of futility, the Twins began to see the plan come to fruition. Built on a roster of young players who broke through with the club, the Twins turned out their first winning season since 1992 and began a decade of competitive, winning baseball which can arguably be called the best 10 years in team history. The early 2000's teams would feature largely "home grown" talent. —A trend that would continue throughout the remainder of the Terry Ryan years. The pipeline continued to churn out young, exciting players. It seemed like every year there was a Johan Santana, Michael Cuddyer, Scott Baker, Jason Bartlett, Justin Morneau, or Francisco Liriano coming up and giving fans optimism for the bright future of the club.
There was a cost to this front office strategy as well. Twins fans were forced to watch players like Christian Guzman, Jacque Jones, and Torii Hunter leave via free agency. The team traded away other players like Matt Lawton, Eric Milton, and J.C. Romero. They also lost David Ortiz and Casey Blake, who were non-tendered in favor of saving cash. Terry Ryan made some shrewd trades, but he also punted on players when the cost of their salaries started getting too high. The focus of the front office always seemed to be two years into the future, with fans were crying for the franchise to make 1 or 2 big moves aimed at turning an already good team into a World Series Championship one. It was infuriating at times, but it ultimately it ensured a continuing competitive product.
When Terry Ryan stepped down at the end of the 2007 season, the focus of the front office was shifting. There was a new stadium on the horizon, and with it would come new stadium money. The club would soon be able to afford to spend money on free agents and trade for proven MLB players instead of theoretical future ones. Yes, Bill Smith was forced to trade away Johan Santana, but he later locked up Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, and Joe Nathan with long term deals. —And no one forgets about the Joe Mauer contract. In the early 2000's, players like that would have been traded away for a plethora of A-ball prospects. Now those players were staying in Minnesota, and the fans loved it.
Fast forward to 2010 and the new stadium. All is well in Twins Territory. The Twins are winning with proven talent. There's no real exciting players coming up through the farm system anymore, but who cares. The Twins have signed Jim Thome and Carl Pavano and Orlando Hudson. Joe Nathan is hurt, but we'll just trade a catching prospect we have for another closer. He's overpaid, but so what. We're a middle market team now. We can afford to play the spending game.
Then 2011 happened. Everyone had 5 stints on the disabled list. It seemed like the whole roster was old and overpaid, and there was no depth in the organization to fill the holes. A farm system which was once the envy of the MLB was barren. It was maybe the most disappointing season in Twins history, and the end of the Bill Smith era.
Now it's mid May the following year. We lost 99 games in 2011, and we're on pace for a worse record in 2012. Terry Ryan is the new GM again, but the team is full of holes and the best prospects are at least 2 years away. How did we get here? Who's to blame? How do we make it better?
Perhaps the problem is one of front office philosophy, and perhaps the answer is returning to less of a "win now" focus. Unfortunately for Twins fans, that might mean a couple more years of sucking. The whole thing might need to be torn down to be built up again. Still, things are different now. We do still have a new stadium. So how far should Terry Ryan be willing to go? Should he be willing to trade away Span for prospects?
One thing's for sure: If Terry Ryan is going to restore this franchise to where it once was, and do it the Terry Ryan way, it is not going to be overnight. With Treey ryan's return and the Twins lowering payroll for 2012, I suspect this might be the club's new strategy.
We won't see the tiny payrolls of the late 90's, but I doubt we'll see this team spend as openly as they did in 2010 and 2011. Fans were already upset about payroll being cut in 2012, and it will get worse if this continues. Fans will nash their teeth if the team is dismantled and payroll is cut in an attempt to rebuild the club through the farm system. —Especially just 2 years removed from opening a new stadium. If things go the way I think they might, you'll see a lot of bellyaching about giving up on competitiveness. Despite all of that, though, perhaps it's exactly the right move for the long-term success of the Twins. We as Twins fans probably need to remember that it's a strategy that has worked for Terry Ryan and the Twins in the past.
It was once the "Twins Way," then it became the "Rays Way," and now the "Nats Way." Maybe it needs to be the "Twins Way" again.