Trade talk: Stewart swap showed club can deal

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 22, 2007 - 11:04 PM

But Terrry Ryan is more cautious now, especially with pitching prospects.

Baseball's trade market has changed since then. Then again, so have the Twins.

But four years ago, with the Twins fading in the standings and in need of an offensive spark, they made just the kind of move many believe they need now.

On July 16, 2003, they acquired Shannon Stewart from Toronto for Bobby Kielty and a player to be named.

The turnaround was remarkable. The Twins overtook Kansas City for another division title, and Stewart finished fourth in American League Most Valuable Player voting.

Now, with Twins fans clamoring for General Manager Terry Ryan to strike another bold move, history shows how unique the Stewart situation was, offering lessons why the Twins haven't made those gambles every year.

Ryan was reluctant to discuss this topic. With another July 31 trade deadline approaching, the last thing he wanted was to sound boastful at a time that can be very humbling for a GM.

"It's amazing the reactions you get to different acquisitions," Ryan said. "Sometimes they work beautifully, and sometimes there's no difference. Sometimes it's a mistake, and we've probably been in every predicament."

Inside the deal

The Stewart deal was no mistake, and it certainly wasn't made with a sudden impulse. The Twins had glowing scouting reports on him dating back more than a dozen years.

A first-round pick of the Blue Jays in 1992, Stewart emerged as a leadoff man with speed and power, stealing 51 bases and hitting 12 home runs in '98. The Twins actually tried acquiring him in 2001.

By 2003, Stewart was a pending free agent making $6.2 million, and leg problems had robbed him of his speed. In mid-July, he had stolen only one base, while batting .294 with seven home runs.

But Larry Corrigan had spent years as Ryan's top American League scout, while then-assistant GM Wayne Krivsky covered the National League. Corrigan followed Stewart as a high schooler and knew Stewart's makeup.

"He certainly had some positive things to say about Shannon," Ryan said.

Maybe Stewart wasn't the same player. But he was 29 and could still hit.

"We were looking for somebody at the top of our lineup, and Shannon obviously fit that bill," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "A guy who could go deep into counts and all those things. It was a definite need -- another professional hitter."

The perfect storm

As the trade talks with Minnesota intensified, Toronto was 49-46 and third in the AL East, nine games behind the New York Yankees.

J.P. Ricciardi was in his second year as Toronto's GM. He had previously served as Billy Beane's top assistant in Oakland and developed the same appreciation for players with a high on-base percentage.

A switch hitter who could play every outfield position, Kielty, then 26, had nine homers and a .370 on-base percentage in 75 games for the Twins in 2003. He was making $325,000 and wasn't due for a major raise through arbitration until after the '04 season.

So the two teams had a match: Stewart for Kielty. The sticking point was money. "I wasn't in any position to take on [Stewart's] salary," said Ryan, whose payroll was $55 million then, compared to $74 million this year.

Toronto agreed to pay the remainder of Stewart's contract, and all the Twins did from the beginning of his arrival was win. They went 46-23 after the All-Star break, all the more remarkable considering they entered the break on a 1-12 skid.

"I still credit [Stewart] for helping us turn that season around," Ryan said.

Most thought Stewart would be a rental player, but the Twins signed him to a three-year, $18 million contract after the season. Meanwhile, Kielty didn't pan out for the Blue Jays and was traded to Oakland that November for lefthander Ted Lilly. One month later, the Twins received minor league lefthander David Gassner from Toronto as the player to be named.

Times have changed

When told the Twins haven't made an impact in-season trade since the Stewart deal, Ryan disagreed, pointing to the deal last Aug. 31 that sent Class AA pitcher Adam Harben to the Cubs for Phil Nevin.

"We gave up a pitcher we liked," Ryan said of Harben, who has since had reconstructive elbow surgery.

Nevin hit only .190 with one home run for the Twins, but Ryan said: "He was a big piece for us. He was a righthanded bat, a veteran, and he may have taken some pressure off some other guys."

Some close to Ryan say he's been in a difficult position in recent years because the Twins' most valuable trade chips have been pitching prospects such as Francisco Liriano, Matt Garza and Kevin Slowey.

If the Twins have any hope of keeping Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Johan Santana -- while still keeping their payroll under control in coming years -- they will need to surround them with young, inexpensive talent.

The Twins had serious discussions with the Nationals about Alfonso Soriano last year, for example. But insiders say Nationals GM Jim Bowden asked for a package of three prized pitchers: Garza, Slowey and Scott Baker. The Twins refused to trade Garza but made a counterproposal that included two top prospects.

In the end, Bowden didn't even trade Soriano, who then left for the Cubs as a free agent last offseason. As compensation, the Nationals received two compensatory picks between the first and second rounds of this year's draft.

More teams are choosing to keep prospective free agents, rather than trade them because they can turn those picks into inexpensive young players.

With salaries rising, the value of players in their first three years of service time -- making close to the major league minimum salary of $380,000 -- continues to rise.

Deals still possible

Ryan disagrees that it's getting tougher to make trades, and so does Krivsky, now in his second year as Reds general manager.

"It's always been tough to make trades," Krivsky said. "I don't think it's any more difficult now than it was then. It's tough to make trades period."

Krivsky sure didn't hesitate to deal when he first got to Cincinnati, however. He made 12 trades in his first six months.

Since Krivsky left the Twins in February 2006, Ryan has made only four trades -- including two with Krivsky. The Twins sent Juan Castro and Kyle Lohse to the Reds last season for minor leaguers.

Because of this, a perception is building that the ever-patient Ryan has become even more cautious without Krivsky's risk-taking instincts.

Ryan brushed that theory aside. Yes, Krivsky's was a key voice at his side, especially on trades with NL clubs. But Ryan has a reputation for trusting scouts at all levels. And the Twins won 96 games last year, so it's not as if Ryan has had wholesale changes to make, the way Krivsky has with the Reds.

Ryan also has not hidden the fact he's trying to make a move to spur the 2007 team.

"We're having trouble sustaining offense," he said. "There's no better example than the [recent Detroit series]. We pitched quite well, and we needed one hit in a key situation to get us a win or two. Maybe one guy can provide that."

Four years have passed, but maybe Ryan is ready to pull another Stewart from his sleeve.

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