A Twins season in which nothing has gone as planned has now claimed the job of its chief planner.
Terry Ryan, who retook the reins as general manager while the team floundered nearly five years ago, was fired Monday, the most visible victim of the franchise’s historically bad start.
“He gets it,” Twins President Dave St. Peter said of Ryan, a two-time MLB Executive of the Year. “We just didn’t win enough games.”
Ryan, 62, will be replaced by assistant GM Rob Antony on an interim basis. The Twins will undertake a search for a permanent replacement in the near future, owner Jim Pohlad said, a process they hope results in a hiring before the season ends in October. Antony will be considered for the job, but the team intends to solicit outside candidates as well.
“The challenge to make the organization better is exciting,” Pohlad said. “We do believe, and I know [manager] Paul Molitor believes, we can win in 2017.”
That remains to be seen, but Molitor definitely will be a part of it. Pohlad wants the Hall of Famer to remain in the dugout next year, saying he will make that clear to the team’s next GM.
Pohlad decided a month ago to replace Ryan before next season, he said at an informal news conference at Target Field on Monday. According to people with knowledge of the situation, that decision came after Pohlad and Ryan couldn’t agree on how to improve the last-place club.
Pohlad said he left it up to Ryan how to handle the transition. Ryan came to him Friday, at the end of the All-Star break, and said “OK, let’s get on with it.”
“Terry was disappointed, for sure,” Pohlad said. “But it feels like we lost our confidence.”
A lot of baseball games, too. The Twins went 318-421 in the five seasons since Ryan returned to the helm, including a 33-58 disaster this season, the second-worst midseason record in franchise history. The team has not qualified for the playoffs since 2010 and has won only one postseason series, over Oakland in 2002, since its last world championship in 1991.
Building a team with shrewd trades and adroit drafting, Ryan presided over four AL Central champions in five seasons from 2002 to ’06. But the team has dissolved into last-place insignificance for most his second tenure, fueled by bad investments in free-agent pitchers, and the team’s traditional ways — as personified by its old-school leader — was widely regarded, fairly or not, as increasingly obsolete by baseball’s 21st century standards.
“We’ve hurt our brand over the last couple of years,” Pohlad said. “The fans, I’m sure, are discouraged.”
Pohlad and St. Peter informed Antony and manager Paul Molitor of the move shortly after Sunday’s 6-1 loss to Cleveland, before the team departed for Detroit. Neither Antony nor Molitor knew that Ryan’s departure was imminent, even though it had been in the works for weeks.
A search for a new GM will begin shortly, Pohlad said, and “I would hope this wouldn’t extend into the offseason.” In the meantime, Antony “has complete freedom to do what he wants” to alter the roster, the owner said. There are no financial restrictions on the interim general manager, himself a 28-year employee of the team.
Along with Antony, internal candidates such as scouting director Deron Johnson, Vice President of Baseball Operations Mike Radcliff and special assistant to the GM Wayne Krivsky could pursue the job as well. “We’ve always wanted to promote from within,” Pohlad said, “so [Antony] will certainly be a prime [candidate].”
But the allure of hiring someone from outside the organization, after 22 years of being led by Ryan or his top assistants, seems clear.
“We think this is a really good job,” St. Peter said. “We are highly confidence we’ll have no shortage of great internal and external candidates.”
That didn’t make the decision any easier, however. An all-staff meeting at Target Field to announce the news to Twins employees was tearful, Pohlad said. “You could see how Terry is loved by the entire organization,” he said.
The firing comes exactly two weeks before the Aug. 1 MLB nonwaiver trade deadline, and Ryan had promised to be unusually active in the trade market. Players such as catcher Kurt Suzuki, reliever Brandon Kintzler and starting pitcher Ervin Santana are expected to be sought by teams in playoff contention.
The Twins, who improved significantly in 2015 thanks largely to the development of rookies Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario, plummeted this season while entrusting even more playing time to inexperienced players. Rosario and Byron Buxton were demoted to the minors after flailing in Minnesota, though they have since returned; injuries struck half the starting infield and two-fifths of the starting rotation; and the team failed to right itself after a horrid start. The Twins have yet to win more than 10 games in any month of the season.
The Twins’ last-place status is far from the expectations that Ryan and Molitor set during spring training.
“I think we’re a playoff-caliber club,” Ryan said on Opening Day, just before the Twins began the season with a franchise-record nine consecutive losses. “I don’t have any qualms about mentioning that. I just think this is a good ballclub, and we ought to be pointing toward that.”
But it didn’t turn out that way, starting with the 0-9 start that became a 7-17 April, followed by an 8-19 May that left the team hopelessly buried at the bottom of most statistical categories. Also declining, albeit not as abruptly yet: attendance. Games at Target Field have averaged an announced 24,566 fans this season, which ranks 24th in the majors and is a 10.3 percent decrease from the 27,408 the Twins averaged in 2015.
“While disappointed we were unable to bring Minnesota a third world championship, I leave the GM post with immense pride in being part of the Twins organization for the better part of three decades,” Ryan said in the statement. “I’m grateful for the leadership opportunities provided by the Pohlad family. … It’s been an honor to be part of the Twins organization and I wish everyone nothing but the best.”
Ryan will maintain a low profile for the time being, Pohlad said, but he and St. Peter both expect the longtime executive to be sought-after around baseball.
“I don’t believe Terry is ready to retire from baseball,” Pohlad said.
The former minor league pitcher and longtime scout rebuilt the Twins once before, after being named GM in November 1994 after Andy MacPhail departed to become president of the Cubs. It took seven seasons, but the Twins won four AL Central championships from 2002 to ’06, using homegrown players supplemented by a handful of wildly successful trades Ryan engineered. Joe Nathan, Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano, among others, were all acquired via Ryan’s trades. Ryan acquired a reputation for building a winner without the huge payroll that often accompanies it.
In September 2007, Ryan stepped down, saying he had lost enthusiasm for the job. But his hand-picked successor, Bill Smith, failed to lead the Twins any further, and after he was fired following a 99-loss 2011 season, Ryan agreed to return to the GM role.
Ryan was diagnosed with cancer in his neck in January 2014, missing two months of the season to undergo treatment. He guided an unusually talented crop of young players through the Twins farm system, but so far none other than Sano and perhaps starter Tyler Duffey has been able to sustain any success in the major leagues.
Meanwhile, Ryan’s attempts to prop up the starting pitching through free-agent signings has mostly been an expensive failure. Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey, Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and Ervin Santana were all brought in to improve one of baseball’s worst rotations, and while some have been a modest success, Hughes in particular in 2014, the team has committed $193 million to that fivesome, with $78 million still owed the latter three over the next few seasons. That investment has produced a total of 78 wins, 114 losses and a cumulative 4.63 ERA.