Jim Souhan: Patience might not work for Ryan this time

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 15, 2007 - 12:03 AM

The Twins GM is known for his caution in building a team, but time might be running out.

What many general managers are to stopwatches, Terry Ryan is to the sun dial.

Ryan, the Twins' renowned GM, has wielded patience as both weapon and shield. His patience has allowed him to avoid the kind of grotesque, long-term free-agent signings that hamstring other franchises, has allowed him to wait for young players to develop long after other GMs would have given up on them.

Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Bartlett and Justin Morneau were considered slow-developing or disappointing at one point in their careers, and Johan Santana was a Rule 5 draftee who didn't know how to throw a changeup.

So it's difficult to criticize Ryan — the best sports executive in town — for continuing to exercise caution and patience. This week's developments — including Ichiro Suzuki agreeing to a $90 million deal — provided a lesson Ryan should heed:

If you want to be able to afford a star player tomorrow, you should have signed him yesterday.

Ryan is facing a different set of challenges with his current roster than he did with the resurrection Twins of 2001-04. That team played better than the sum of its Mientkiewiczes, but Ryan made the right decision in letting Eddie Guardado, Cristian Guzman and LaTroy Hawkins leave, in trading A.J. Pierzynski.

Ryan has made remarkably few major mistakes since his franchise-changing masterstroke — the Chuck Knoblauch deal — in 1998.

He cut loose David Ortiz, which was obviously a mistake but made sense at the time. Ortiz was injury-prone and underachieving, and that wasn't the kind of player Ryan wanted to reward. And he signed Joe Mays to a $20 million contract based on one outstanding year.

Ryan has made lesser mistakes, like thinking the likes of Sidney Ponson, Ramon Ortiz, Tony Batista and Juan Castro could help a contender. If he would have taken all the money he's spent on those players — and Lew Ford, and Ruben Sierra, and Rondell White, etc. — he might have been able to add one productive free agent, or be in a better position to sign one of his big-time players now.

In terms of the overall job he's done, this is nitpicking. Ryan has resurrected an entire low-revenue franchise, helping it become remarkably popular and positioned it to acquire public support for a new stadium.

Ryan's old tactics might not serve him well in his current situation, though. Now he's facing the loss of two prime Twins in the next two seasons.

In the last calendar year, Torii Hunter has become the best all-around center fielder in the game. Johan Santana has been the best pitcher in baseball since August of 2003.

Typically, the Pohlads have anted up for franchise players. Kirby Puckett's deal was briefly the richest in baseball history. Because of the decline of the Twins' fortunes and, eventually, his health, Puckett's deal could be considered a mistake, in terms of wins-per-dollar ratio.

Does anybody affiliated with the Twins regret it, even in the light of Puckett's off-field problems? Hardly.

It's decision time again, and the recent negotiations conducted by other teams haven't helped Ryan's cause. Ichiro's deal and agent Scott Boras' assertion that Alex Rodriguez will seek a $30 million a year deal indicate that the market will explode again this winter, and tell us how Ryan should have proceeded.

He should have signed Justin Morneau to a long-term deal this spring, back when Morneau was thought to be willing to accept a deal in the same range as Joe Mauer's. Now Morneau could destroy the Twins in arbitration. Ryan should have signed Hunter and Santana before they had a chance to contemplate the current, gilded marketplace.

Ryan's patience is the bedrock on which the Twins are built. As baseball becomes increasingly lucrative and expensive by the minute, and Hunter and Santana eye their options, that bedrock is starting to feel a bit like quicksand.

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