Patrick Reusse: Twins GM has 'one big issue' still to resolve

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 28, 2007 - 10:39 PM

The issue, of course, is two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana, who will demand far more than the Twins can pay.

Twins General Manager Bill Smith asserts the team is working hard to improve its lineup, though the Twins, he says, will be younger.

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The Twins have a tradition of closing down their offices from Christmas Eve until after New Year's. That was the case again for this holiday season.

This meant that Bill Smith was a lonely presence on the top office floor at 34 Kirby Puckett Place. "I was trying to work at home but decided I could get a lot more done here," he said.

He was dressed casually and unshaven -- the look of an executive who knew he would have the office to himself on this afternoon.

"I do have a conference call on insurance for players at 2 o'clock," he said. "Exciting stuff."

Smith has worked in the Twins baseball department since March 1986. He was the right-hand man to Terry Ryan for the previous 13 years, and then replaced him as the general manager on Oct. 1.

Smith was infamous for his long hours as Ryan's assistant. He was asked if being the boss has increased those hours.

"It hasn't changed that much," he said. "This always has been a hectic time of a year -- with the organizational meetings, the GM meetings, the winter meetings, setting the roster, dealing with free agents."

Most of the attention aimed at the Twins has centered on departures: center fielder Torii Hunter to Anaheim for $90 million, pitcher Carlos Silva to Seattle for $48 million and all the rumors surrounding a trade of pitcher Johan Santana.

Yet, this has not been a do-nothing three months for the new GM. Smith and his baseball people went hard after Tampa Bay's Delmon Young as a righthanded bat to replace Hunter.

It was the most aggressive deal the Twins had made in years -- Young, infielder Brendan Harris and outfielder Jason Pridie from the Rays for shortstop Jason Bartlett, strong-armed starter Matt Garza and pitching prospect Eduardo Morlan.

"It was tough to give up our starting shortstop, but I'll say it again: to get quality you have to give up quality," Smith said.

That left the Twins with three obvious holes in the lineup: center field, shortstop and third base.

Earlier this month, the Twins signed two free agents from Houston: shortstop Adam Everett (one year, $2.8 million) and third baseman Mike Lamb (two years, $6.6 million). The reaction of Twins fans and the national baseball media was a collective yawn.

"More than anything, our manager [Ron Gardenhire] wants stability at shortstop, and Everett catches the ball as well as anybody," Smith said. "And our reports on Lamb always have been good."

The way Smith sees it, Gardenhire will have depth and options with his new infield.

"We have four players for three positions," he said. "We have two righthanded hitters [Harris, Everett], a lefty [Lamb] and a switch-hitter [Nick Punto]. I'm not worried about our infield."

That leaves center field. Is that player here yet?

Smith smiled, nodded toward the big board on the office wall that included the Twins roster and said: "Yeah, we have a couple of center fielders on there."

Those players would be Pridie and Denard Span, the No. 1 draft choice from 2002 who went backward this past season at Class AAA Rochester. Span will be back with the Red Wings, and probably with Pridie as a teammate.

"We have one big issue to deal with," Smith said. "Maybe if we get that taken care of, we'll answer the other questions."

The issue is Santana, of course, and the reality the Twins have no chance to meet the contract requirements of a two-time Cy Young Award winner.

"You get a player like this, and then the teams involved are the highest-profile teams from the largest market ... there are going to be a ton of rumors," Smith said. "But that's what they are: rumors."

I'm sure we heard a hint, though, that any deal for Santana would bring a center fielder -- validating the rumors that Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury, or the Yankees' Melky Cabrera or the Mets' Carlos Gomez would be part of any Santana deal.

Right, Mr. Smith? "As I said, we have one big issue," he said. "If we can resolve that, maybe we'll know where we stand there [center field] and with our pitching."

Smith's first three months have included many accusations that the team is "cutting back," what with the departures of Hunter, Silva and presumably Santana.

"We're not cutting back," Smith said. "We've worked hard to improve our lineup. The one thing you can say for certain is we're going to be younger. But if you're getting younger with a player like Delmon Young, that's a good thing."

Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. and 4:40 p.m. • preusse@startribune.com

  • GM: BONSER SHAPING UP, LIRIANO PROGRESSING

    No matter the outcome of Johan Santana trade talks, the Twins' major task entering spring training will be putting together a starting rotation. General Manager Bill Smith gave updates on three pitchers who could be part of that rotation:

    Boof Bonser, 26, righthander, 8-12 with a 5.10 ERA in 31 games for the Twins last season:

    "Our strength coach, Perry Castellano, went to Tampa to see Boof," Smith said. "He's working out with a trainer and is getting in shape. Boof's pitching last season was a disappointment to everyone, including him. And he realizes this will be a key year for him."

    Francisco Liriano, 24, lefthander, out all of 2006 after Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery:

    "Francisco's not close to being ready to pitch in a big-league game, but he's been throwing regularly, doing well. Our Dominican scout, Fred Guerrero, is keeping tabs on him and he's giving us good reports. Whether Francisco will be ready for the rotation in April, it's too early to say."

    Nick Blackburn, 25, righthander, 10-4 in the minors, then 0-2 with a 7.71 ERA in six September games for the Twins:

    "He got pounded a couple of times at the end," Smith said. "Before that, he threw well for us. Then, he went to the [Arizona] Fall League and was tremendous. He started the championship game and was the MVP of that game."

    PATRICK REUSSE

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