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The Ryan Years: 1996

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Part Two in the ongoing series examining Ryan's tenure in Minnesota as General Manager.  Archived:  1995.

Where It Started

Even before glaucoma ended Kirby Puckett's playing career, the Twins had dipped into the free agent market in order to field an offense that could not only support a young pitching staff, but could be competitive.  It was a nessesity in order to draw fans to a losing franchise as much as it was to make the team better; nobody wants to watch a team lose sixty percent of their games.  A handful of veteran position players at least gave the impression that Minnesota was making an effort to keep themselves out of the AL Central cellar.  In a move familiar to fans over the last couple seasons, Ryan was forced to rely on a number of young pitchers to flesh out the rotation and bullpen.

1996

Winter had been busy.  Ryan had brought in pitcher Rick Aguilera, catcher Greg Myers and designated hitter Paul Molitor in December, and third baseman Dave Hollins and outfielder Roberto Kelly in January.  Myers was 30, and had been largely a backup catcher for the Blue Jays and Angels.  Molitor had signed a 2-year contract worth roughly $5.5 million, and entering his age-39 season was easily the catch of the bunch.  Hollins, 30, was pretty much washed up but considering the options in house, a flier couldn't hurt.  He signed for $1.35 million, which wasn't bad; he'd only played in 114 games between '94 and '95, and the Twins were obviously hoping he'd be healthy enough to produce something offensively similar to what he'd done in '92 and '93.  Finally, 31-year old Kelly had signed a 2-year, $1.3 million deal to play center field.

Puckett hit .344 through March 28, 1996, when he woke up unable to see.  As he went into the first of what would be three laser surgeries, the starting right field job was given to Matt Lawton.  Eventually, as Rich Becker became the primary center fielder over Roberto Kelly, a platoon began with Kelly, Lawton, Ron Coomer and Denny Hocking alternating in right.

Young pitching still suffered early, but run support enabled the Twins to finish the first month of play with a winning record:  13-12.  Ultimately, this was the story of Minnesota's season.  An offense that could score (877 runs), but a pitching staff that allowed even more (900 runs allowed).  The Twins never were more than two games over .500, and were never more than eight games under.  In this fashion, the '96 club parallels the '07 version, playing competitively without truly being a good or bad team.

Even though no Twin hit more than 16 home runs, the team did boast a combination of good hitters and some decent role players.  Chuck Knoblauch collected 45 steals, 35 doubles, 14 triples and 13 home runs en route to a .341/.448/.517 season.  Paul Molitor hit .341/.390/.468, scored 99 runs and drove in 113.  A 24-year old Rich Becker landed 525 at-bats, tallied 31 doubles and 12 home runs to go along with a .291/.372/.434 line.  Marty Cordova didn't have the home runs from his rookie season, but managed 46 doubles and batted .309/.371/.478.

Roberto Kelly only played in 98 games in the end, but put up what would be his career line.  He no longer had the speed that raised his game in the early stages of his career, but he was a good hitter.  Matt Lawton saw plenty of time, as did Ron Coomer, and Todd Walker picked up 82 at-bats as a rookie.

In his second year, 23-year old Brad Radke began the year 3-0, eventually finishing 11-16 but posting a respectable 4.46 ERA in 232 innings.  his nemesis was the long ball; he allowed 40.  The rest of the rotation wasn't as good.  Frankie Rodriguez hit a career-high 206.2 innings, and was a shade above average with an ERA+ of 102.  Rick Aguilera was moved into the rotation, where arm and hamstring injuries kept him on the shelf for two large portions of the season.  He made only 19 starts.  Rich Robertson, the only other regular starter besides Radke and Rodriguez, was reliable but also very average.  Throwing a career-high 186.1 innings, Robertson was 7-17 with a 5.12 ERA.

Closer-by-committee (seven pitchers with saves, Dave Stevens led the team with eleven), and a plethora of ineffective relief pitchers made the bullpen suspect, but three men did emerge looking good.  Dan Naulty and Eddie Guardado struck out a man per inning pitched; Naulty notched the better ERA, but Guardado appeared in a career-high 83 games to lay the groundwork for the nickname "Everyday Eddie".  Mike Trombley was the most effective reliever, with an ERA+ of 171.

In the end the Twins were as average as their final record of 78-84 showed.  Second in the AL in batting average, last in home runs.  Second in hits, 11th in slugging.  The good news was that for the first time in two years the team ERA wasn't dead last; they were 12th of 14.

Trade Winds

Mahomes to Boston  Pat Mahomes was one of the many highly-touted prospects that never really panned out for Minnesota.  Selected in the 6th round of the 1988 draft, he'd spent parts of five seasons with the Twins and never was able to grab a foothold.  August 26 saw him shipped to the Red Sox for southpaw Brian Looney.  As Mahomes bounced from team-to-team through 2003, Looney never appeared in the majors for the Twins.  He collected only 12.2 career MLB innings from '93-'95.

Hollins to Seattle  As the waiver deadline neared, Dave Hollins was one of Minnesota's more moveable pieces.  He'd provided a decent veteran bat (largely hitting fifth, sixth or seventh), but wasn't a piece of the long-term picture.  At the time of the trade he was batting .242/.364/.396 with 13 home runs and 26 doubles.  Traded to the Mariners on August 29, Seattle eventually sent David Ortiz to the Twins to complete the trade.  Ortiz would play parts of six seasons for the Twins before turning into one of the game's most feared hitters with another team.

1996 Trade Review

We all know that the Hollins/Ortiz trade was a great move.  Injuries and the eventual transformation into Big Papi mar and sometimes distort the time he spent with the Twins, but that doesn't make him any less of a find.  One month of a sun-setting third baseman for what turned out to be a great power prospect:  good trade.  Even if Ortiz didn't become the player he is and never played again after the '02 Minnesota campaign, it's still a good deal.

Looney pitched 24.2 innings for Salt Lake in '97, and then bounced between minor league affiliates of random clubs and the Independent League until 2005.  While Mahomes garnered much more time in the majors and the Twins got nothing in return, it's hard to call this a bad trade.  Mahomes needed to go, and Ryan found a suitor.  Mahomes/Looney is a push.

1996 Draft

Pick  Name           Pos  Age  High Level   MLB Years
   2  Travis Lee      1B   21     MLB       1998-2006
  37  Jacques Jones   OF   21     MLB       1999-Present
  67  Dan Cey         SS   20     AAA
  97  Chad Allen      OF   21     MLB       1999-2005
 127  Michael Ryan    SS   19     MLB       2002-2005
 157  Tommy LaRosa     P   21      A+
 187  Chad Moeller     C   21     MLB       2000-Present
 217  Corey Spiers     P   21      AA
 247  Nate Yeskie      P   22      AA
 277  Joe Cranford    2B   21      AA
 367  Mike Lincoln     P   21     MLB       1999-2004
 577  Matt Kata     P/SS   18     MLB       2003-2005
 907  Mike Lamb       OF   21     MLB       2000-Present
1027  Josh Bard       OF   18     MLB       2002-Present

This turned out to be a pretty solid draft, even if it wasn't for the Twins.  Travis Lee didn't sign with Minnesota, and eventually signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks after the season.  Mike Lamb and Josh Bard are both still playing, although neither player ended up in Minnesota's farm system.  Lamb, a 31st round selection by the Twins in '96, was selected in the 7th round by Texas in '97.  Bard didn't re-enter the draft until '99, where he was taken in the third round instead of the 37th.

In spite of these players, the Twins picked up a number of others who would play roles on future teams.  Jones was a big part of the baseball renaissance in Minnesota.  Chad Allen is famous for being in Tom Kelly's doghouse, and a couple of stolen bases.  Michael Ryan, drafted as a shortstop, became one of the many Twins outfield prospects that rode the line between the majors and the minors (currently in Pittsburgh's AAA affiliate).  Chad Moeller has been a career backup catcher, but he's playing in his eighth year in The Show.  Mike Lincoln pitched in relief for the Twins from '99 - '00.

'96 Wrap

Minnesota picked up 22 wins from Ryan's first year on the job, a very impressive and dramatic improvement.  In spite of Puckett's loss, at least there was the feeling that the product on the field was going in the right direction.  All of the action in the off-season preceding the year put the Twins in a position where, if some of the younger players progressed for the following summer, the team could be even better.  Playoffs better, no, but a winning season wasn't out of the question...was it?

Knoblauch, Molitor, Becker, Coomer, Kelly and Cordova weren't a bad crew.  The pitching staff saw ten pitchers appear at the age of 25 or younger, and certainly guys like Radke, Rodriguez and Miller could take a step in the right direction.  LaTroy Hawkins had one hell of a fastball, what if he finds another plus pitch?  Would Aguilera go back to being the closer?  Would Ryan be able to look outside the organization to find a third baseman?  How about finding stability in a veteran starting pitcher?  Certainly the winter of '96 - '97 held a lot of questions, but things weren't looking nearly as bleak as they had just one year prior.