A TEAM OF ADMIRABLE AND INTERCHANGEABLE PARTS

By Murray Chass

March 11, 2012

You don’t find many baseball organizations like the Minnesota Twins. In an era in which most teams and players don’t know the meaning of the word loyalty, don’t understand the concept of loyalty, the Twins are an aberration. The Twins demonstrate their loyalty to their employees, and the employees show loyalty to the team.

Most recent example: After finishing last season with one of the worst records in their history (63-99), they fired Bill Smith as general manager. But in bringing back Smith’s predecessor, Terry Ryan, they asked Smith to remain in a different front-office position.Terry Ryan 225

Expressing his delight that Smith opted to take the new job and stay with the organization, Ryan said, “He knows everything about what it’s like to be in this chair. He and I are pretty close. I was hoping he would stay. We have chemistry. He knows what I’m thinking; I know what he’s thinking.”

But, Ryan acknowledged, “There was a little bit of awkwardness because he was the boss for four years. It was awkward. Thankfully Bill came back. We’ve been together a long time. But when the owner decided to make a change it was awkward.”

The feeling is mutual. “I’m as delighted that Terry returned as he is about my staying,” said Smith, who was the Twins’ general manager for four years. “I’m thrilled that they offered me the position. There are a lot of projects I’m interested in. Nobody has to feel sorry for me. I’m in a great spot. I’m in a great organization with great people. I have lot of respect for Jim Pohlad and Dave St. Peter.”

Pohlad, son of the late owner, Carl Pohlad, is chief executive officer, St. Peter president.

“I’ve been lucky to be part of one organization for 26 years,” said Smith, now assistant to the president and the general manager. “We went through a tough season last year and went through a tough November when they decided to make changes.”

The 2011 season was uncharacteristic of the Twins in recent years. After winning the American League Central title in six of the previous nine years, the Twins finished last for the first time since 2000. Their fall was injury-driven.

Riddled by injuries, the Twins had only three players play in 100 or more games. “That’s not good,” Ryan said. They led the majors in that unenviable statistic. According to Elias Sports Bureau, no other team had fewer than five players who played 100 or more games.

“A year ago I think a lot of people were picking us to win our division,” Smith said. “We were coming off 94 wins. But we had the perfect storm of injuries. We fought through the first half maintaining that every team has injuries. But every time we got close to having a full squad back on the field, we had more injuries. From mid-May to mid-June we had nine players on the disabled list. We were only five out at the trading deadline and then we had more injuries.”

justin-morneau-225Justin Morneau played only 69 games, Denard Span 70, Joe Mauer 82. Alexi Casilla 97, Jason Kubel 99. Scott Baker made 21 starts, Francisco Liriano 24, Nick Blackburn 26. Joe Nathan relieved in 48 games.

Kubel is gone with Michael Cuddyer and Nathan as free agents, but the others are back, recovered from their injuries and giving the Twins the feeling that without signing expensive free agents or making costly trades they have added a bunch of good players to their last-place team.

The new old general manager, though, doesn’t write off the 2011 season entirely to injuries.

“It wasn’t just health but fundamentals and execution,” Ryan said by telephone from Fort Myers, Fla. “We have a lot of work to do.”

The lack of sound fundamentals and execution, uncharacteristic of the Twins, was very likely the result of the emergency steps they had to take to find replacements for the injured players.

“Last year we were healthy at the start of the season and started breaking down a week later,” said Ryan, who was general manager from 1994 to 2007. “As we got into the latter part of the summer, there weren’t a lot of familiar faces out there playing.

“We didn’t have enough depth. We had to reach down to double A. We had a lot of guys we probably pushed, who probably should have had more time in the minors. We tried to correct that this offseason. We have a lot of guys in camp. Our invite list was deep so we can put some guys out there with experience.”

Besides seeking depth among available players, the Twins secured the services of four free agents who are expected to be starters:

Josh Willingham will be in right field, replacing Cuddyer; Jamey Carroll will be the shortstop, replacing a committee of shortstops; Ryan Doumit will be the designated hitter and spell Mauer behind the plate, and Jason Marquis will be the No. 5 starting pitcher.

The Twins had hoped the oft-injured Joel Zumaya would strengthen Ron Gardenhire’s bullpen, but the right-hander is injured again, scheduled for an elbow ligament transplant later this month.

The 27-year-old Zumaya, who hasn’t pitched for a year and a half as the result of a different elbow injury, tore a ligament in his first batting practice of spring training.

“We were hoping Zumaya would be healthy and help solidify the bullpen,” Ryan said.

He signed Carroll, Ryan said, “because we didn’t pick up the ball at shortstop and that didn’t help our pitching.” Willingham was signed because the Twins needed a right-handed power hitter to protect the left-hand hitting Mauer and Morneau in the lineup.

They lost Cuddyer, a nine-year member of the Twins, because “we didn’t get high enough in dollars,” Ryan said. “He got a nice deal from Colorado.” The Rockies gave Cuddyer, who will turn 33 in two weeks, $31.5 million for three years. The Twins signed Willingham, who turned 33 last month, for three years and $21 million.

Asked to assess the team’s prospects for the season, Ryan said, “I think it will be a guarded anticipation based on what we do in spring training and if Mauer and Morneau are out there. It’ll be interesting to see if they play as much as we hope they can.”

So far, so good. Mauer and Morneau have been “out there,” both demonstrating a healthy outlook.

LOW PAYROLLS, HIGH FINISHES

Terry Ryan is one of the reasons I never liked the book “Moneyball” and have refused to see the movie. I have always felt that the Michael Lewis book glorifies Billy Beane, the Oakland general manager, whom I also like and respect, at Ryan’s expense when in reality Ryan has been at least as successful as Beane, winning despite small payrolls.

The difference between them has been their methods, Beane building the Athletics through statistical analysis and Ryan the old-fashioned way, through scouting. My preference is for scouts, for whom I have great respect, over computers.

When I have raised the “Moneyball” issue with Ryan, suggesting that he didn’t get the appropriate attention and acclaim that Beane has received because of the book, he has shrugged it off, saying he gets enough publicity.

When I brought up the issue recently, Ryan said, “As you know, this is a tough racket. I have a lot of respect for Billy. They had some good years in the 2000s. We have had some good years in the 2000s. I’ve seen the movie and enjoyed the movie. He and I are friends and have been for a long time.”

Until the Twins moved into Target Field two years ago, the teams competed with similar payrolls. The Athletics’ most productive period was 2000 through 2006, during which they won four division titles and one wild-card entry into the playoffs. From 2002 through 2010, the Twins won six division titles. That period included the first season in their new park.

Here is what the teams spent on their payrolls and how they fared in the last dozen years (payroll in millions of dollars):

Oakland Minnesota

TRYING TO FIGURE OUT THE MONEYBALL MAN

From a distance, the moves were confusing. Billy Beane traded the Athletics’ three best pitchers – starters Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez and closer Andrew Bailey – then paid $36 million to sign a Cuban defector – outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.

Without those three pitchers are the Athletics going to be in position to contend during the four years of the Cespedes contract? His signing was highly un-A’s-like, and they gave him the right to be a free agent when the contract expires. In other words, why make the expenditure if you have shed those pitchers?Yoenis Cespedes As 225

“That’s a fair question,” Beane said. “We weren’t going to contend with those three pitchers. We needed an entire outfield. Just returning the team we had was going to cost $51-52 million with only Ryan Sweeney left in the outfield. We lost Willingham and DeJesus, and we would not have been able to re-sign Coco Crisp.”

Willingham moved to Minnesota, DeJesus to Chicago with the Cubs. Crisp stayed at home for two years and $14 million.

The pitchers, Beane said, “were our three best assets and guys we were going to get the most young guys for. We acquired 10 players in return, and a number are close to the big leagues. Two will probably fill spots.”

He meant spots in the starting rotation, and the two pitchers who could do that are Brad Peacock, who was obtained from Washington in the Gonzalez deal, and Jarrod Parker, who came from Arizona in the Cahill transaction. Josh Reddick, one of three players acquired from Boston for Bailey and Sweeney, figures to be the A’s right fielder.

Another newcomer, Seth Smith from Colorado, could be the left fielder.

“We created some payroll flexibility to build our outfield,” Beane said. “We like the talent.”

The A’s will make no judgment on Cespedes until later in the spring. If they like what they see, he could wind up starting in the outfield. They signed him, Beane said, because they liked his potential skill and his upside at the age of 26.

“His talent was too good to ignore,” Beane said. “We have him for four years. He’s an asset.”

Their signing of Cespedes prompted speculation that the A’s knew that they would be allowed to move to San Jose. Not so, Beane said. “I do know something about San Jose,” Beane said. “I know it’s taking a long time to find out.”

In fact, last week the New York Daily News reported that Commissioner Bud Selig had decided not to allow the move. Selig, however, issued a statement saying he had made no decision. The flurry of reports and speculation prompted Lew Wolff, the A’s managing partner to end his silence on the subject.

In a statement, Wolff stressed the history of the territory (Santa Clara County) in which San Jose is located.

“MLB-recorded minutes,” Wolff said, “clearly indicate that the Giants were granted Santa Clara, subject to relocating to the city of Santa Clara. The granting of Santa Clara to the Giants was by agreement with the A’s late owner Walter Haas, who approved the request without compensation. The Giants were unable to obtain a vote to move and the return of Santa Clara to its original status was not formally accomplished.”

When I related that development in a column a year ago, I asked William Neukom, then the Giants’ managing partner, about it, and he dismissed it as an “urban legend.” He was just as honest and forthright as the Giants have been with the A’s.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.