It was a tumultuous first year for Bill Smith as the newly anointed general manager.
He had to face the reality of the face-of-the-franchise Torii Hunter leaving via free agency as well as annual Cy Young candidate Johan Santana making it known that he wanted to play in a larger market – preferably New York. Those were difficult decision for the most novice general manager's, hardly an easy task for someone less than a month into his job. In the first few weeks at the helm, Smith would eventually make two trades that would forever tarnish his reputation in Minnesota in the fan's eyes.
In November 2007, Smith dealt Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett and Eduardo Morlan to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for Delmon Young, Brendan Harris and Jason Pridie. In efforts to replace Hunter’s right-handed stick, the Twins purchased the promising but troubled Delmon Young at a high price. Garza would help fortify the Rays rotation while Bartlett would boost the Rays defense in the infield. After receiving 16.2 wins above replacement from Garza and Bartlett, Tampa’s shrewd front office would move the pair for more prospects and useful parts including Sam Fuld, Brandon Guyer, Hak-Ju Lee, Cesar Ramos and Adam Russell. Once the Twins were finished with Young (or rather Young finished with the Twins depending on who you are asking), Smith's bounty was only able to fetch Cole Nelson and Lester Oliveros. All in, the Twins wound up paying over $2 million more in salary for their return as well.
Meanwhile, the Santana trade was a poorly timed, poorly executed deal which is viewed as Smith swapping the cash cow for a pile of beans. While none of the beans amounted to much, Smith did manage to save over $10 million and only lost out on 1.2 WAR (only factoring in 2008 for Santana which would have been his walk year). At the time, reports came in that the Yankees and the Red Sox had better packages ready (with Jacoby Ellsbury and Jon Lester being some of the names bantered around), but both teams ultimately rescinded their offers (if those offers were legit in the first place). Comparatively, Gomez and company seemed like a sheer fleecing by the Mets and Keith Law’s analysis had the Mets coming out on top:
“In the abstract, it's hard to accept dealing your marquee player and top trading asset without getting your partner's top young player in return, and that's what the Twins did. They did get back significant economic value in four young players, each of whom has under one year of big-league service and two of whom aren't even on the Mets' 40-man roster yet, so the Twins will have each of them under control for six full years of service. That return in exchange for just one year of Santana's services is reasonable. But premium players should fetch premium prices, because there's value to a club in having so much production coming from a single roster spot. And in this case, Minnesota GM Bill Smith did not get a premium prospect in return.”
In hindsight, Smith failed to get that premium prospect and now most of the Santana bounty is scattered across baseball. Would have waiting until the trade deadline open more avenues or create more trade scenarios than the one he was pigeon-holed into prior to the season?
Even though the Santana-for-Gomez and the Garza-for-Young trades started his legacy off on the wrong foot, Smith and his team were able to piece together favorable trades after the more egregious ones. He grabbed Carl Pavano and Jon Rauch for a pittance. Orlando Cabrera and Brian Fuentes were also exchanged for little compensation. He landed JJ Hardy for Carlos Gomez. Those moves together provided the Twins with 6.2 wins above replacement and only “cost” the team roughly $10 million in added salary.
After the handful of trades that worked towards the Twins favor, Smith began to execute what would be considered two of the more painful and damaging trades to the organization.
At the trade deadline in 2010, the Twins bullpen was shallow and in need of a boost. They targeted the Nationals’ closer Matt Capps. Capps, who was an All Star that season and performing well for the lowly NL East club, was far from a dominating arm. He was a step above Jon Rauch, whom the Twins acquired the year before at the waiver deadline for the flotsam known as Kevin Mulvey. Only instead of giving up a player of Mulvey’s caliber, the Twins offered up Wilson Ramos – the Twins top prospect as well as the 58th overall by Baseball America. With little offensive help at the upper levels, the utter depletion of the team in 2011 exposed how badly they needed someone like Ramos. Ramos did quite well for the Nationals – both offensively and defensively. He hit .267/.334/.445 with 15 home runs in 425 plate appearances. Capps, meanwhile, who was re-upped for this past season, regressed hard and was beat around while earning $7 million. While the jury is still out because Ramos’s career is just beginning, so far the Twins have lost 3.1 wins above replacement and have paid over $8 million because of this deal.
While the intentions were never clear – payroll, performance, injury history, clubhouse mannerisms – the Twins decided that they needed to move on from shortstop J.J. Hardy. True, he had a shortened season in 2010 but his second-half numbers were indicative of an elite player, not to mention at a very difficult to fulfill position. Whether it was his decision or someone else in the club’s call, Smith sent Hardy and Harris to Baltimore for a pair of damaged minor league arms in Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobsen. Hoey, who had shoulder problems that interrupted his career, proved that all he had was a fastball he couldn’t control while Jacobsen floundered a bit in the minors attempting to develop a secondary offering as well. Hardy, on the other hand, smoked pitches all over Camden Yards armed with health and a new approach to pull the ball. This move cost the organization 5.2 wins in 2011 but managed to save $6 million in salary in the process.
While there were some notably disastrous trades made, overall Smith lost just 10.3 wins above replacement but saved the team $7.67 million after all the wheeling and dealing was done.
Here’s the thing: It is hard to fully evaluate a GM’s tenure. There are no encompassing metric which neatly ties in free agent signings, trades, minor league development and amateur draft in a budget-neutralized context. Because of this, it’s hard to accurately compare the work of one organization to the next. Is saving almost $8 million in salary over the course of ten trades in four years good or bad? How about costing your team 10 wins over four seasons? Is that average for a GM or completely terrible?
Reviewing Smith’s trade track record, it is not hard to reach the conclusion that he likely has done more harm than good when maneuvering his pieces. While he was proficient at adding pieces in-season, his ability to build for the future through trades was atrocious. It is this area that newly appointed general manager Terry Ryan was particularly successful at. During his first administration, Ryan managed to build a competitive franchise by trading off soon-to-be departing players and the excess fat. With a system that is currently bottom-heavy and holes abound on the major league roster, installing someone like Ryan who has been lauded for his ability to extract talent from other teams is the right decision for the Twins.