New Twins GM strikes out on big decisions

2008 has been a year of transition for our the Minnesota Twins. Of all the comings and goings, perhaps the most influential one is also the one least talked about: the transition from General Manager Terry Ryan to Bill Smith. Smith has been involved in the Twins organization for 22 years, including the last 13 as Ryan’s assistant GM. While it’s clear he has the experience and pedigree for the position, his first 10+ months on the job have been nothing short of tumultuous [Travis, would controversial be more appropriate?]. With the club fighting for a division title as we approach the end of the season, it raises the question: Are the Twins winning because of, or in spite of Bill Smith. Here’s a look at the major transactions in Smith’s brief tenure:

-Traded Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and Eduardo Morlan to the Tampa Bay Rays for Delmon Young, Brendan Harris, and Jason Pridie GRADE: B+

This deal is part of a greater trend in MLB, where both teams win in trades. The Rays had and an abundance of hitters, and the Twins had an abundance of pitchers. If I were to give Tampa a grade, it would probably be an A-. Bartlett and Harris have comparable numbers and games played, and have both positively contributed as role players. Garza has been occasionally brilliant, and fairly consistent with 13 quality starts, 10 wins, and a sub-4.00 ERA. Delmon, meanwhile, has had his slumps. Most notably his zero home runs in the first half. But his second half pace would put him on a 20HR/30SB pace. And at 22 years old, there’s a very good chance that Delmon will have the best career of any player in this deal, and would bump Smith’s grade up to a A+.

-Let Torii Hunter and Carlos Silva leave via free agency. Drafted pitchers Carlos Gutierrez and Shooter Hunt with compensatory draft picks. GRADE: I

Hunter had been the face of the “Get To Know ‘Em” Twins of this decade. He had always been productive at the plate, an elite defender, and tremendously popular. However, at 33 years old, he is at the stage in his career where his production should decline, while his service time at the majors will continue to make maximum money. Smith showed the savvy to realize that, as good as Hunter is, it is unlikely that he will earn the amount of money needed to retain his services. Silva, on the other hand, has been awful for a diseased Seattle club that has fired both their manager and general manger during the course of the year. The two players acquired in the draft, Gutierrez and Hunt, are still a couple years away from contributing to the big league club, and haven’t pitched enough to get a sense of progress. But both are 21 years old, were exceptional college pitchers, and have some maturity already.

Traded Johan Santana to the New York Mets for outfielder Carlos Gomez, and pitchers Phillip Humber, Kevin Mulvey, and Deolis Guerra GRADE: C-

The big one! There was little doubt that Santana was not affordable for the Twins, which was confirmed when the Mets signed him to a six-year, $137 million contract. At his age, he has a better chance of earning his contract than does Torii Hunter. And the case could be made that, with the new stadium (and it’s increased revenues), the Twins could have gone against precedent and spent the money it would take to get Santana. Instead they vainly hoped a bidding war between large market teams would bring back multiple high-end prospects. Unfortunately, those same large market teams’ front offices have been getting smarter as well. The idea of hanging on to your cheap, young talent is permeating all clubs, not just the financially conservative ones. When both the Yankees and Red Sox stopped short of the what Smith wanted, the Mets swooped in and offered a reasonable, if underwhelming package that got them the 28 year old multiple Cy Young award winner. In return, the Twins received the exciting Carlos Gomez, a 22 year old center-fielder with great speed, but a bat that needs development. He has showed great promise, and great frustration at different times this season. Like Delmon Young, however, the ceiling is high on Gomez’s abilities. Should he approach that potential before 2010, which he is signed at league minimum salary, Smith’s grade, and the Twins chances at post-season success will increase dramatically. In addition to Gomez, two of the pitchers received in the deal, Mulvey, and to a lesser extent Humber, are close to contributing to the big league club. Guerra, 19, is young and needs multiple years of experience and instruction. Though potential is there, he is far enough away that it may be some time before we know one way or the other how Smith did in acquiring him.

Signed Free Agents – OF Craig Monroe, IF Mike Lamb, IF Adam Everett, and P Livan Hernandez. GRADE D

The only thing keeping this grade from being an outright F is Livan’s smoke-and-mirrors first half, and Lamb’s game-winning hit off of Papelbon and the Red Sox at one of the games I attended earlier this year. If there was one part of the Terry Ryan administration I would have like to see not carry over, it would be the bottom-of-the-barrel free agent signings that have permeated the last several seasons. Alas, Lamb showed he is nothing more than a nice pinch hitter. The best thing Everett did was add depth to an infield that has had a few injuries. Monroe never got things going, and at 31, appears to be on a substantial decline. He was released in August. After a respectable first haf, Hernandez had a mere two quality starts in the last two months before also being released. With Francisco Liriano healthy and ready to contribute, you might give Smith credit for making the move. However, if the Twins miss the playoffs by a single game, it could be easily pointed to the excessive time Liriano spent rehabbing in the minors as a substantial error in Smith’s judgement.

So where does Bill Smith stand in all of this? A lot like his predecessor actually. Smith’s clearly willing to deal players whose contracts are due an expensive upgrade. He’s going to trust the farm system to provide cheap replacements, and only invest in low-risk, low reward free agents. In some ways, continuing the business model that has brought success seems obvious. But what about the elusive greatest success… another World Series championship? The concern is that Smith (and formerly Ryan’s) approach will bring division titles, but not championships. In baseball’s unequal financial landscape, there will always be teams in the playoffs with loaded rosters and payrolls two and three times the size of our favorite hometown team. So we’ll see if the Bill Smith led 2008 Twins can once again win the Central division, and then if they can advance in the playoffs.