Monday, November 07, 2011

Bill Smith's trade history hindered Twins

It was a tumultuous first year for Bill Smith. He had to face the reality of the face-of-the-franchise Torii Hunter leaving via free agency as well as annual Cy Young candidate Johan Santana making it known that he wanted to play in a larger market – preferably New York. In the first few months at the helm, Smith made two trades that would forever tarnish his reputation in Minnesota in the fan's eyes.

In November 2007, Smith dealt Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett and Eduardo Morlan to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for Delmon Young, Brendan Harris and Jason Pridie. In efforts to replace Hunter’s right-handed stick, the Twins purchased the promising Young at a high price. Garza would help fortify the Rays rotation while Bartlett would boost the Rays defense in the infield. After receiving 16.2 wins above replacement from Garza and Bartlett, Tampa’s shrewed front office would move the pair for more prospects and useful parts including Sam Fuld, Brandon Guyer, Hak-Ju Lee, Cesar Ramos and Adam Russell. Once the Twins were finished with Young (or rather Young finished with the Twins depending on who you are asking), Smith was only able to fetch Cole Nelson and Lester Oliveros. What’s more is that the Twins wound up paying over $2 million more in salary for their return as well.

Meanwhile, the Santana trade was a poorly timed, poorly executed deal which is viewed as Smith swapping the cash cow for a pile of beans. While none of the beans amounted to much, Smith did manage to save over $10 million and only lost out on 1.2 WAR (only factoring in 2008 for Santana which would have been his walk year). At the time, reports came in that the Yankees and the Red Sox had better packages ready (with Jacoby Ellsbury and Jon Lester being some of the names bantered around), but both teams ultimately rescinded their offers (if those offers were legit in the first place). Comparatively, Gomez and company seemed like a sheer fleecing by the Mets and Keith Law’s analysis had the Mets coming out on top:
“In the abstract, it's hard to accept dealing your marquee player and top trading asset without getting your partner's top young player in return, and that's what the Twins did. They did get back significant economic value in four young players, each of whom has under one year of big-league service and two of whom aren't even on the Mets' 40-man roster yet, so the Twins will have each of them under control for six full years of service. That return in exchange for just one year of Santana's services is reasonable. But premium players should fetch premium prices, because there's value to a club in having so much production coming from a single roster spot. And in this case, Minnesota GM Bill Smith did not get a premium prospect in return.
In hindsight, Smith failed to get that premium prospect and now most of the Santana bounty is scattered across baseball. Would have waiting until the trade deadline open more avenues or create more trade scenarios than the one he was pigeon-holed into prior to the season?

Even though the Santana-for-Gomez  and the Garza-for-Young trades started his legacy off on the wrong foot, Smith and his team were able to piece together favorable trades after the more egregious ones. He grabbed Carl Pavano and Jon Rauch for a pittance. Orlando Cabrera and Brian Fuentes were also exchanged for little compensation. He landed JJ Hardy for Carlos Gomez. Those moves together provided the Twins with 6.2 wins above replacement and only “cost” the team roughly $10 million in added salary.

After the handful of trades that worked towards the Twins favor, Smith began to execute what would be considered two of the more painful and damaging trades to the organization.

At the trade deadline in 2010, the Twins bullpen was shallow and in need of a boost. They targeted the Nationals’ closer Matt Capps. Capps, who was an All Star that season and performing well for the lowly NL East club, was far from a dominating arm. He was a step above Jon Rauch, whom the Twins acquired the year before at the waiver deadline for the flotsam known as Kevin Mulvey. Only instead of giving up a player of Mulvey’s caliber, the Twins offered up Wilson Ramos – the Twins top prospect as well as the 58th overall by Baseball America. With little offensive help at the upper levels, the utter depletion of the team in 2011 exposed how badly they needed someone like Ramos. Ramos did quite well for the Nationals – both offensively and defensively. He hit .267/.334/.445 with 15 home runs in 425 plate appearances. Capps, meanwhile, who was re-upped for this past season, regressed hard and was beat around while earning $7 million. While the jury is still out because Ramos’s career is just beginning, thus far the Twins have lost 3.1 wins above replacement and have paid over $8 million because of this deal.

While the intentions were never clear – payroll, performance, injury history, clubhouse mannerisms – the Twins decided that they needed to move on from shortstop J.J. Hardy. True, he had a shortened season in 2010 but his second-half numbers were indicitive of an elite player, not to mention at a very difficult to fulfill position. Whether it was his decision or someone else in the club’s call, Smith sent Hardy and Harris to Baltimore for a pair of damaged minor league arms in Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobsen. HoeyJacobsen floundered a bit in the minors attempting to develop a secondary offering as well. Hardy, on the other hand, smoked pitches all over Camden Yards armed with health and a new approach to pull the ball. This move cost the organization 5.2 wins in 2011 but managed to save $6 million in salary in the process.

While there were some notably disastrous trades made, overall Smith managed to lose just 10.3 wins above replacement but saved the team $7.67 million after all the wheeling and dealing was done.

Here’s the thing: It is hard to fully evaluate a GM’s tenure. There are no encompassing metric which neatly ties in free agent signings, trades, minor league development and amateur draft in a budget-neutralized context. Because of this, it’s hard to accurately compare the work of one organization to the next. Is saving almost $8 million in salary over the course of ten trades in four years good or bad? How about costing your team 10 wins over four seasons? Is that average for a GM?

Reviewing Smith’s trade track record, it is not hard to see that he likely has done more harm than good. While he was proficient at adding pieces in-season, his ability to build for the future through trades was atrocious. It is this area that newly appointed general manager Terry Ryan was particularly successful at. During his first administration, Ryan managed to build a competitive franchise by trading off soon-to-be departing players and the excess fat. With a system that is currently bottom-heavy and holes abound on the major league roster, installing someone like Ryan who has been lauded for his ability to extract talent from other teams is the right decision for the Twins. 

Twins excuse GM Bill Smith

In a somewhat unexpected turn of events, the Twins have excused general manager Bill Smith of his duties in the front office.

This comes shortly after the team declined the Baltimore Orioles the opportunity to interview Vice President of Player Personnel Mike Radcliff and the reports that they are trying to re-hire Wayne Krivsky, who was the Cincinnati Reds’ GM from 2006 to 2008. Clearly, ownership was not satisfied by the results generated by the current leadership.

According to Smith, on Friday he was notified that the Twins were going to insert Terry Ryan as the interim GM and allow Ryan to search for suitable replacements – which could very well be either Radcliff or Krivsky.

During a post-firing interview with 1500ESPN, Smith admitted that the two sides had “philosophical differences” in their approach. In his tenure as the GM, Smith had made plenty of trades that seemed highly questionable at the time and looked exponentially worse in retrospect – including his Johan Santana deal, the Garza-for-Young, Ramos-for-Capps and Hardy-for-Hoey and Jacobsen. While not necessarily alone on the decision, Smith green-lit signing Tsuyoshi Nishioka to a sizeable deal and the Japanese shortstop has been a complete disaster in year one of his contract. All of this has added up to an organization that is struggling to remain competitive in an improving AL Central.

Globally for the Twins, payroll increased but was allocated to only a handful of players while the farm system became dilapidated at the highest levels – a fact that came to light when the expensive talent was injured without major league-ready assistance available. When players did arrive, they failed to play at a level which the Twins had become accustom to and the once-touted “Twins way” was not being instilled properly to the younger players.

In another curious decision, when the Twins were seven games out with a week left until the non-waiver trade deadline and appeared out of the division race, the front office stood pat with its tradable commodities, refusing to move coveted soon-to-be free agents in Michael Cuddyer or Jason Kubel. While the team may get draft picks in return, the bounty at the deadline from desperate teams would have likely outweighed whatever supplemental pick the organization receives (and also grabbing players who would likely be able to contribute sooner rather than later). Who knows if that was just Smith’s decision but in the end someone needs to be there to make those types of tough calls.

To his credit, Smith and his team made in roads towards rebuilding the system, such as signing heralded international prospect Miguel Sano to a significant contract, as well as making some decent signings that provided some return on investment including Jim Thome and Orlando Hudson. While his headlining trades backfired or bore little fruit, Smith and his advisors managed to squeeze out some talent when acquiring such players like Brian Fuentes, Jon Rauch and JJ Hardy. 

The Twins are at a major crossroad. There are numerous holes to fill, a small amount of money to play with and an even smaller amount of trade bait available. Whoever takes over the player acquisition role this winter, they will have a tall task ahead of them of addressing the current and future needs of the franchise.