Timberwolves general manager Kevin McHale has taken a lot of heat from sports fans around these parts over the years. Under his watch, the Wolves have sputtered for over a decade despite featuring one of the league's best players in Kevin Garnett. For many fans, the frustration with McHale wasn't just because of his failure to build a championship-caliber team, it was the fact that he was wasting the prime years of a transcendent star's career by failing to surround that player with the proper talent. Since Garnett was drafted back in 1995, the Timberwolves have gotten past the first round of the playoffs just once, and they have never reached the Finals. McHale's resume is plagued by poor free agent signings, horrible trades, wasted draft picks and silly contract extensions. Garnett was at the top of his game for many years here in Minnesota, but McHale's failure to make the necessary moves ultimately made Garnett's pursuit of a championship in a Timberwolves uniform a waste.
And then there is Terry Ryan, the general manager of the Minnesota Twins. Ryan and McHale are very different, in terms of their personalities and in terms of the way they go about their business. Yet, the Twins have suffered from many of the same issues under Ryan's watch as the Wolves have under McHale's. Ryan has been widely acclaimed for his ability to orchestrate excellent trades, and rightfully so -- he has certainly been better than McHale in this regard. But the Twins' GM has shown heavy flaws in other areas. The poor free agent signings? Where to begin... Ramon Ortiz, Sidney Ponson, Rondell White, Tony Batista, and so forth. The wasted draft picks? The Twins haven't drafted an impact hitter since 2001. The silly contract extensions? Certainly nothing to the extent of Marco Jaric or Troy Hudson, but Joe Mays does come to mind.
As is the case with McHale and the Wolves, the Twins have moved past the first round of the playoffs just once during Ryan's tenure. And, most distressingly, by failing to make the moves necessary for the Twins to succeed, Ryan is effectively wasting the prime years of many of his superstars.
Johan Santana is the best pitcher -- and arguably the best player -- in all of baseball, and has been for three years running. His pitching has been largely responsible for propelling the Twins to the playoffs in two of the past three years, yet neither of those teams was strong enough to win a postseason series. There is a strong possibility that Santana will be gone after next year, closing his window of opportunity to win a championship as a Minnesota Twin. Also likely to be gone after this year is Joe Nathan, an elite closer who can essentially shorten every game to eight innings. With the Twins' playoff possibilities fading this season, it would seem that next year will be Ryan's last chance to find the proper complementary pieces that can take this team to the next level.
It may already be too late for Torii Hunter, who is likely to be gone after this year. Hunter has been one of the better center-fielders in baseball over the past several years, but he may move out of the Twins' price range after his current contract expires following this season.
And then there are the younger guys, like Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. The Twins are not in danger of losing either of these players anytime soon, but both already seem to be in their prime and have been incredibly productive for the last couple seasons. Along with Hunter, Mauer and Morneau make up part of what is a highly talented core for the Twins lineup. Unfortunately, Ryan has failed to surround this core with even replacement-level players, and so the lineup as a whole is streaky and sub par overall.
Ryan assembled the core of the Twins' roster, and for that he deserves plenty of credit. It is a team filled with blossoming young superstars. This, however, makes the Twins' underwhelming performance all the more frustrating. Basketball is a team sport, and Garnett could not carry the load on his own despite his immense talent and determination on the court. He needed the proper role players around him in order to succeed, which we saw when McHale finally made a splash in one offseason and added Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell. Similarly, three or four players cannot carry a lineup in baseball, particularly if the bottom third of the lineup is totally devoid of production.
Over the past year, Ryan has done nothing to meaningfully improve the Twins as a ballclub. To me, that seems unacceptable. The fact that he is working on a relatively small budget is no excuse -- no one is asking him to sign Alfonso Soriano or trade for Mark Teixeira. The main pieces are in place on this team, but there needs to be some semblance of talent around them, and that's been pretty clear for some time now. That Ryan entered the season with White and Nick Punto as starting position players is not inexcusable; after all, last season did give reason for hope with both of those two. That he entered the season with no backup plan in place for either of them, and that he has done nothing to fix the problems that they have created, are major mistakes that have crippled the team's chances.
For many fans, Ryan seems to be above criticism because of his success in the past. People will point to the A.J. Pierzynski trade and the Eric Milton trade, among others, to remind us of how good he is at what he does. Those were excellent moves, but how long can a GM live off of past success while not being held accountable for current failures? By that philosophy, we should still be applauding McHale for drafting Garnett in the first place.
To be clear, I don't think Ryan is a bad GM, and I don't think he should be fired. I do think that he has done an extremely poor job this year, and prevented the Twins from being anything more than a mediocre baseball team. With the stars that they have on their roster right now, they should be better than mediocre.
Garnett's pursuit of a championship in Minnesota officially came to an end last week when McHale traded the 31-year-old to Boston for a package of young players. Wolves fans can now only look back sadly that things had to end the way they did, and that the team could not have done more with Garnett's talent. If Hunter leaves after this season, and Santana and Nathan leave the following year, how will Twins fans look back at their time in Minnesota? These are the years where the Twins are built to compete, and when the stars start dropping from this team, reaching for that World Series ring will only become more difficult. If Ryan continues to do nothing but plan for the future, then in the present all he is doing is wasting the time of the fans and the players. I don't think that's a very good approach. But then, what do I know? I'm not a GM.