Thursday, March 09, 2006

Know When to Hold 'Em, Know When to Fold 'Em

Kenny Rogers--the baseball player, not the singer whose lyrics appear in this post's title--is one of a select group of players who Twins' general Terry Ryan has let go in his tenure that he probably shouldn't have. The most notable and prominent member of that group, without a doubt, is David Ortiz, who exploded as one of the best designated hitters in league history after leaving the Twins and joining the Boston Red Sox.

Ryan draws a lot of criticism for letting Ortiz go. I'm not entirely sure David would have ever developed into the player he became if he stayed here, but clearly it would have been nice to have his pop in the middle of the lineup. He had shown some power during his time with the Twins, but just couldn't seem to stay healthy and put it together. After the 2002 season, the team released him. About a month later, Boston signed him, and in three years there Big Papi has amassed 119 home runs and nearly 400 RBI. Ouch.

Rogers is another guy who Ryan probably should have hung on to. After posting solid numbers in one year with the Twins in 2003, the team could have re-signed him for fairly cheap, but instead let him go to Texas where he won 32 games in two years. This year he will be the Opening Day starter for the Tigers. He certainly would have been an improvement over Joe Mays last year, or Terry Mulholland in 2004.

Still, outside of those two players, it is hard to find many major mistakes on Ryan's resume within the last several years. This is something that tends to be overlooked when people discuss the man. I think he and his staff's ability to recognize when to let guys go has been an asset, and has allowed the club to save a lot of money that could have been foolishly squandered. Obviously, he made a big mistake by handing Mays a large contract following his 2001 campaign, but T.R. has avoided making the same mistake on many other occasions.

Without further ado, here is a list of the guys the Twins have let go in the past five years who have floundered elsewhere and made us feel no regret about losing them:

[NOTE: In order to be considered for the list, the player must have had at least relatively good years with the Twins. Thus, while guys like Brian Buchanan and Casey Blake may have absolutely sucked since leaving the Twins, it wasn't exactly a gut-wrenching decision to let them leave.]

Cristian Guzman - SS

Guzie has to lead off any list like this. Five years ago, Guzman was my favorite player. The way he motored around the bases, beating out infield singles and diving into third base for frequent triples, made him one of the most exciting players I've ever watched. He had become a fan favorite by the time his contract with the team was up after 2004, and even though he had performed pretty poorly that year (.274/.309/.384), Ryan faced a tough decision. He decided to let Guzie go, and the Washington Nationals quickly handed him a big contract to the tune of four years/$16 million.

Guzman was one of the worst regulars in baseball last year, posting a line of .219/.260/.314. He also committed 15 errors, most in four years.

Doug Mientkiewicz - 1B

"Dougie Baseball" was another player who was very popular in his time with the Twins. Despite his lack of prototypical first-baseman power, he was a good, patient hitter who got on base with good regularity and ripped a lot of doubles. He was also the best defensive first-baseman in the league.

Mid-way through the 2004 campaign, Ryan faced a tricky situation. A young slugger by the name of Justin Morneau looked ready for a starting gig in the Majors, and Mientkiewicz was growing disgruntled. So the Twins sent Dougie to the Red Sox as part of a multi-team deal, and the return was a young southpaw by the name of Justin Jones. Jones appears to be on the verge of breaking out, as ESPN.com blogger Buster Olney recently raved about him.

Mientkiewicz, meanwhile, hit .215 for the rest of the year with the Red Sox and hit .240 last year with the Mets. This year he will be starting at first for the bottom-feeding Kansas City Royals.

Eric Milton - SP

An All-Star in 2001, Milton won 13+ games in 2000-02 and had good strikeout rates. After he missed most of the 2003 campaign with an injury, Ryan dealt Milton to the Phillies for Carlos Silva and Nick Punto. At the time, the move seemed questionable; dealing a potential future ace for an unproven reliever and a utility man. As it would turn out, the move payed off big-time. Silva has been excellent with the Twins. Milton had a decent year with Philadelphia in 2004, going 14-8 with a 4.75 ERA but allowing an outrageous 43 home runs. The Reds then signed him to a monster contract to become their ace. In his first year with Cincinatti in 2005, Milty posted a despicable 6.47 ERA and allowed another 40 home runs.

AJ Pierzynski - C

At the time the Twins parted with Pierzynski, it seemed that he was a player with a very high ceiling. He was young (26), and had seen his batting average increase in each year as a regular starter. From 2001-03, he saw his average increase from .289 to .300 to .312. Then, on November 14, 2003, the Twins traded him to the San Francisco Giants. This move will go down as one of the best in Twins' history, as it brought back an All-Star closer (Joe Nathan), the current best pitching prospect in baseball (Francisco Liriano) and another solid pitching prospect (Boof Bonser).

Pierzynski, meanwhile, was in the last year of his contract. The Giants did not re-sign him after a 2004 campaign in which he hit only .272/.319/.410, all career lows. The White Sox signed him in the following offseason, and, while he did help them capture a World Series title, he had by far the worst season of his career, hitting .257/.308/.420. The Twins, meanwhile, have a 22-year-old catcher whose future looks a lot more optimistic than the 29-year-old AJ.

Corey Koskie - 3B

I would love for the Twins to have re-acquired Koskie in the trade that was discussed earlier this offseason. However, when the team released Corey following the 2004 season, it was the right move. Koskie is a good player, but the three-year, $16.5 million deal he got from the Blue Jays was too much for an aging third-baseman with a long injury history. Not surprisingly, Koskie missed much of the 2005 season after breaking his hand, and in the time he did play he was not particularly effective, hitting only .249/.337/.398 overall. He will turn 33 this season, and while he would almost certainly be an upgrade over anything the Twins currently have at third base, he's not worth the contract he got from Toronto. Letting him go was a wise move; not bringing him back at an offered discount was perhaps not so smart.

Bobby Kielty - OF

At the time the Twins traded Kielty, he looked like he had a very bright future indeed. In his first year of semi-regular duty in 2002, Bobby was outstanding, hitting .291/.405/.484 in 289 at-bats. In 2003, the Twins were struggling and needed help, so on July 16 they traded Kielty, who was hitting .252/.370/.420 at the time, for Blue Jays' left-fielder Shannon Stewart. Kielty played in 62 games with Toronto for the rest of the year and hit only .233/.342/.376. Following the season, he was dealt to the Oakland Athletics for Ted Lilly.

Kielty has struggled mightily in an A's uniform, failing to get his slugging percentage above .400 in either season he's played there. In 2004, he hit a miserable .214/.321/.370 in 238 at-bats. Last year he improved, hitting .263/.350/.395, but was still far from expectations. Stewart was phenomenal for the Twins in the second half of '03 and in '04. He had a down year last season, but the team is hoping he can bounce back in 2006.

LaTroy Hawkins - RP

As a closer for the Twins in 2001, Hawkins was horrible. He posted a 5.96 ERA and had more walks than strikeouts. He was eventually replaced by Eddie Guardado. In 2002, the Twins started using Hawk as a set-up man, where he was much more effective. There, he posted a 2.13 ERA in '02 and a 1.86 in '03. Following the 2003 campaign, the Twins let Hawkins go via free agency, as they didn't want to pay what he was asking. He signed with the Cubs, where, despite posting a solid 2.63 ERA in 2004, he quickly wore out his welcome by regularly blowing saves. This led the Cubs to trade Hawkins to San Francisco early in the 2005 season. In total, LaTroy was mediocre last year, posting a 3.83 ERA in 56.1 IP.

Matt Lawton - OF

In October of 2000, Lawton was a 28-year-old right-fielder coming off a season in which he hit .305/.405/.460 and walked almost 30 more times than he struck out. Things were looking up for Matty Law. However, just before the trading deadline the next year, while he was amidst another great offensive season, hitting .293/.396/.439, Ryan dealt Lawton to the Mets in return for pitcher Rick Reed. It was a bad trade--Reed never amounted to much of anything--but Lawton never saw the same type of success again in his career. He finished the 2001 season by hitting .246/.352/.366 with the Mets, who turned around and traded him to Cleveland following the season. His first two years with the Indians, Lawton hit only .236 and .249. Then, in 2004, he made a large stride back towards his peak form, hitting .277/.366/.421 with 20 home runs and 70 RBI, while swiping 23 bases as well. Following this quality performance, the Indians turned around and traded him to the Pirates for reliever Arthur Rhodes. He floated around between three teams last year and hit just .254/.356/.396 overall. After last season, it came to light that Lawton had tested positive for steroids. He is now trying to catch on with the Mariners as a backup outfielder.

And finally...

Chuck Knoblauch - 2B

Okay, so this was more than five years ago. But dumping Knoblauch was truly one of Ryan's wisest moves. While Knobby did have a couple solid seasons with the Yankees following the trade, they didn't even approach his best years with the Twins. Oddly, Knoblauch, who never committed more than 11 errors after his rookie season with the Twins and won a Gold Glove the year before he was traded, committed 26 erros in 1999 and eventually the Yankees had to move him to left field. Knoblauch steadily declined after leaving the Twins. By age 34, he was out of baseball.

Meanwhile, it has been the gift that keeps on giving for the Twins. Not only did they get quality years out of the guys they received in the Knoblauch trade (Guzman, Milton, Buchanan), but dealing those players yielded a couple more young players who could produce for the Twins for a long time (Silva and Jason Bartlett).

---


Alas, while it might hurt to watch Big Papi slam game-winning home runs for in Fenway Park, it is important to remember with a smile all the players who the Twins have gotten rid of just in time. The list of nine players above reminds me of just how lucky we are to have a savvy baseball mind like Terry Ryan running the Minnesota Twins. I have frequently questioned his moves in the past, and I no doubt still will in the future, but as it stands there is no one else who I would rather have running this team.

6 comments:

Jeff A said...

In regard to the hitters on your list, this goes along with an argument I make in defense of Scott Ullger. If Ullger was such a terrible hitting coach, and is responsible for ruining so many Twins batters, then by now there ought to be a list of hitters who flourished after getting away from his influence. Yet, the list pretty much begins and ends with David Ortiz.

We have a new hitting coach this year, and I certainly wish him well. But I'm not so sure the Twins hitting woes were all Scott Ullger's fault.

Tboz said...

I would argue that Casey Blake has actually been somewhat successful playing for the Indians. He has definitely performed better than Cuddyer has for us...

Nick N. said...

Jeff: Great point, I think I might have been a little overly harsh on Ullger last year, and when you consider the success he brought a lot of these guys who couldn't cut it elsewhere, it seems he's done a good job. It just astounds me how far below their potential almost every guy on our offense hit last year.

Tboz: That argument can be made, and I'm certainly not going to defend Cuddyer. I suppose I am going a little far in saying that Blake's absolutely sucked with Cleveland, he was decent in 2004. His .241/.308/.438 line last year was pretty ugly though. Sadly, that would pretty much be a best-case scenario for Batista this year...

Tboz said...

How many Twins have better numbers than Blakes over the last three seasons?

2003
.257/17hrs/80r/67rbi/35doubles
2004
.271/28hrs/93r/88rbi/36doubles
2005
.241/23hrs/72r/58rbi/32doubles

Jacque and Torii both had fewer homers in that time and Im guessing their other numbers are not much better.

No twin has hit that many homers for us over a three year span in awhile....Probably since Kirby

Nick N. said...

Blake has averaged 556 at-bats over the past three years. Hunter has averaged 491, including last year. That would help to explain the disparity in HR/RBI. Not to mention that Blake plays in a considerably better offense.

Your point is taken though. Blake has been better than I give him credit for.

As for no Twins hitting that many home runs in a three-year span in a decade...

Casey Blake, 2003-05: 68 HR

Torii Hunter, 2001-03: 82 HR

Jacque hit 67 between 2002-04

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