September 19, 2006


The Man at the Top: General Manager Terry Ryan talks about the fall and rise of the 2006 Twins (Steve Perry, 9/20/06, City Pages)

As the Twins took the field last Wednesday to try to complete a series sweep against the West-leading Oakland A's, GM Terry Ryan sat in a packed press box surveying the field with raptor-sharp eyes. No, insisted the tall, prepossessing Ryan—the impending return of his overpowering rookie lefthander, Francisco Liriano, his overpowering rookie lefthander, Francisco Liriano, did not make this the most important game of the stretch run. "You get into this part of the season," Ryan says evenly, "every game's important. Today's no more important than yesterday." The idea, he figures, is to just keep winning series one at a time, so that none of your games become do-or-die. He is affable but emphatically terse on the subject of the club's needs past this season: "All those things are for a later time. Which is good. We should enjoy this moment."

It was a moment worth savoring: Ryan's team led the AL Wild Card chase by two and a half games over the defending champion White Sox, and trailed the once-invincible first-place Detroit Tigers by just a single game in the lost column. Ryan has seen a number of successful teams in his 20-plus years with the franchise—first as scouting director, then VP of player personnel, before being named the club's general manager in September 1994—but none has ever rivaled the shot-down-in-April, ridin'-high-in-July drama of the '06 Twins. Entering the season as a dark horse pick for the Wild Card, the club spent the month of April stinking up stadiums around the league. It was a total team effort. As of May 2, the Twins were dead last among 30 major league teams in scoring, and tied for 27th in runs allowed. With the exception of the lowly Kansas City Royals, they were statistically the worst team in baseball, and the Terry Ryan/Ron Gardenhire strategy of building for '06 with journeymen veterans like Tony Batista, Juan Castro, and Rondell White looked like a bust.

Then, in Ryan's words, "a lot of things started to happen," many of them spurred by personnel changes that Ryan and Gardenhire began making to the starting lineup and the pitching rotation. They went to the bullpen and the minor leagues to fortify the latter, a move that started Francisco Liriano on his abortive breakout season. The middle-of-the-lineup troika of Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer, and Justin Morneau started hitting. Batista and Castro disappeared in favor of Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett. (Trivia question: When was the last time a team cashiered half its opening-day infield for non-performance and still wound up contending for the playoffs deep into September?)

Around baseball, Ryan is known as one of the premier judges and traders of horseflesh in the game. After his own pitching career as a Twins prospect came to an end—he was 10-0 in 1973, before an arm injury finished him—Ryan got a degree from the University of Wisconsin and went on to become a Midwest scout for the New York Mets. He joined the Twins as scouting director in 1986 and succeeded the much-celebrated Andy MacPhail as GM after the strike-shortened 1994 season.

It's too bad for Ryan that the 2002 non-tendering of David Ortiz has become one of his best-known personnel moves, because on the whole he's amassed a remarkable record of collecting talent, often at bargain-basement prices. As far as the 2006 roster is concerned, start with the 1999 acquisition of Rule 5 pick Johan Santana. In 2002, Ryan snatched shortstop Jason Bartlett from the San Diego Padres for a fading utility outfielder, Brian Buchanan. In 2003, he got Nick Punto and Carlos Silva from the Phillies for an effectively washed-up starter, Eric Milton. And he pulled off what may yet prove to be the best trade in baseball since St. Louis nabbed Mark McGwire for three going-nowhere relievers, swapping A.J. Piersynzski to the Giants for Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and Boof Bonser. Along the way, he kept an eye out for useful pieces that had been discarded by others—like the invaluable lefty late-innings specialist Dennys Reyes, signed to a minor-league contract last winter.

If the Twins make the playoffs, Ryan is sure to contend once again for the Sporting News MLB Executive of the Year award he won in 2002.

There's a fair bit of talk about Santana or Morneau for MVP, but if you're going with a Twin, how can it not be Mauer? Not only is he going to finish at or near the top in batting average, near unheard of for a catcher, and leading the second best pitching staff in the AL, but has done such a good job throwing out base-stealers that they don't even run on him much (though he's no Pudge yet).

Yanks Finally Find a Spark, and Close in on the Title (TYLER KEPNER, 9/19/06, NY Times)

If the Yankees looked sleepy early on against the Blue Jays, it was mostly from the dazzling pitching of A. J. Burnett. [...]

“We were dead,” Rodriguez said. “He was dominating us as much as we’ve been dominated all year. It was nice to get that bloop base hit up the middle and a blast, and the captain came up with the big hit.”

That was a reference to Jeter, who ended his 25-game hitting streak Sunday when he grounded out on a 3-0 pitch in his last at-bat. That was the first time Jeter had swung on 3-0 since 2002...

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 19, 2006 7:55 PM

I'd have said Mauer a month ago.

But if you go by VORP, Santana is tops in the league, with Jeter 2nd.

I'd give it to Jeter tho since I think a pitcher has to have a Guidry in 78 like year -- 25 or more wins with very few losses, and an era under 2 -- to win it.

And in 78, iirc Guidry didn't even win it, finishing 2nd to Rice, who had a fantastic year, tho the stats don't translate to today's game.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at September 19, 2006 8:21 PM

It might even oughtta be Pudge if you look at his defensive numbers--has any catcher ever had a better year behind the plate?

Posted by: oj at September 19, 2006 8:35 PM

Red Sox play Twins this week. While I'd like the Red Sox to finish with some respect I also think the Twins are the only team that can keep the Yanks out of the Series. Go so Twins.

Posted by: AWW at September 19, 2006 8:50 PM

It almost gets tiresome watching the Yankees bury them every year in the AL East. Almost.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at September 19, 2006 8:57 PM

The Yankees aren't better than any of the playoff teams, but obviously more experienced.

Posted by: oj at September 19, 2006 9:01 PM

The Yanks are better than the other teams, and they also have the best team they've had since 2000, pitching and defense being much improved.

However, they could lose to each of those teams, especially in the first round series.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at September 19, 2006 9:04 PM

The Yanks have the same problem they've had in recent years, which is they're built more for a 162-game marathon than for a best-of-seven sprint. It would have been tough to come up with a better 1-2 combination on the mound than Schilling and Johnson when the Diamondbacks beat the Yanks in 2001, but since then -- and especaily after Clemens left -- they haven't had anyone really putting up a streak of consistantly strong outings going into post-season against other, weaker 1-2 pitching combinations that makes you confident they'll be the best pitcher on the mound in Game 1 (or 4 or 7). Add to that the every-pitch-an-adventure middle relief, and nothing's guarenteed.

You know who New York's 1-2-3 starters are going to be -- Wang, Johnson and Mussina, though not necessiarily in that order. You just don't know if they're going to go out there on any given night and perform as well or better than whomever the Tigers, Twins and/or A's throw at them.

Posted by: John at September 19, 2006 9:14 PM