July 19, 2016
In a move that’s somehow simultaneously a long time coming and shocking, the Twins fired Terry Ryan after two stints and 18 total years as general manager. Ryan’s teams won four division titles in five years from 2002-2006, but that success was limited to the regular season and bookended by ineptitude. Overall with Ryan as GM the Twins had a .474 winning percentage and were 149 games below .500, including a 318-421 (.430) record in his second stint. Their lone postseason series win under Ryan was 15 years ago and they haven’t won a playoff game in 13 years.
Few, if any, teams would have stuck with a GM for that long given the limited amount of winning amid 11 losing seasons in 18 years, but for better or worse Ryan—old school, conservative, loyal, and ultimately not all that successful—has represented everything about the Minnesota Twins for two decades. In firing Ryan the Twins named his longtime right-hand man Rob Antony as interim GM and it speaks to the culture of inertia and in-house loyalty that there’s legitimate reason to worry he may given the full-time job after 30 years in the organization.
At the very least Antony is now tasked with making several key decisions about veteran players leading up to the July 31 trade deadline. Ryan spent the past month saying repeatedly that he planned to be active at the deadline, uncharacteristically making public pronouncements about how the Twins couldn’t afford to stand pat when they’ve typically done just that in recent years. His departure two weeks before the deadline raises eyebrows, as does putting an interim GM in position to immediately make significant trades.
Ryan’s first GM stint ended when he voluntarily stepped down citing health issues and burnout in October of 2007, leaving his replacement and longtime assistant Bill Smith with key decisions to make on Johan Santana, Torii Hunter, and others. It went horribly, as Smith made misstep after misstep before Ryan reclaimed the GM job in November of 2011. Now it’s Antony thrust into the spotlight after working in Ryan’s shadow and it’s difficult to have much confidence in him for the short or long term.
Antony was the second-loudest voice at the Twins’ table for all the bad moves. He doesn’t come from a scouting background like Ryan, instead climbing up the organizational ladder after starting in media relations, but Antony has a similarly old-school approach. In fact, as of 2010 he showed a shocking lack of familiarity with basic analytics and touted the importance of RBIs and wins. I was once invited into Antony’s office after writing about some of his old-school quotes and the in-person follow-up further convinced me he hadn’t even progressed to entry-level sabermetrics.
None of which is to suggest that a GM can’t be successful without knowing about and relying on analytics, but rather that it took the Twins a long time and a lot of losing to finally make a change in the front office and doing so to simply promote the next old-school, in-house voice to the big chair doesn’t really seem like much change at all. Fans who’ve understandably grown tired of the Twins’ approach and decision-making should be rooting for Antony to avoid any serious damage while keeping the seat warm for a long-term, outside successor to be named in a few months.
Whatever leap of faith is required to believe that the Pohlad family will see the need to truly clean house—they’ve already said any GM choice will have to retain Paul Molitor as manager, which is an approach that could turn off good candidates—even more trust is needed to feel safe that the decidedly hands-off ownership will choose a promising successor. There’s been essentially zero outside voices added to the front office in decades and ownership had become so dependent on Ryan that it’s hard to imagine who they’ll turn to for guidance in search of his replacement.
Team president Dave St. Peter’s job is apparently safe and owner Jim Pohlad indicated that he’ll be asked to play a prominent role in deciding on a permanent GM. St. Peter has been part of the organization for 27 years, but always makes it a point to say that he’s not involved in the on-field baseball decisions. And he looks like Branch Rickey compared to Pohlad, the second-generation owner who revealed in Monday’s press conference that he studied other teams’ media guides to learn about how non-Twins front offices are structured. Maybe a search firm can save them.
The positive news is that GM of the Twins should be a pretty appealing gig. Expectations are very low, even modest success will be met with extreme loyalty, and as bad as the team has been this season there’s a lot of young talent already in place or close to the majors. Payroll restraints will always be an issue under the Pohlad family’s ownership, but Target Field is a great ballpark, the fan base is strong when not rooting for a horrible product, and a foundation of Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Jose Berrios, Jorge Polanco, and a 2017 top-five draft pick is full of upside.
These are strange times and uncharted territory for this era of baseball in Minnesota. Life without Ryan at the helm is no doubt scary to Twins ownership and upper management, just as relying on Twins ownership and upper management to make a smart, informed decision on his replacement is scary to fans. Ryan hadn’t done his job well in a long time and a change was overdue, but his roots extend deep into the Twins’ organizational soil. This is a team in desperate need of a fresh voice and a shift to the modern era of MLB decision-making, but they may just be pulling weeds.