For almost a decade the Twins were an unsurpassingly efficient baseball institution, churning out players and playoff appearances, without a huge payroll or a star-laden roster. From 2002 to '10 they won six American League Central titles, finished as low as third in the division just twice and had a losing record only once.
Thus it was shocking to see the Twins lose 99 games in 2011 and, given the franchise's front-office stability, equally jarring for management to fire general manager Bill Smith earlier this week -- citing "philosophical differences" -- especially at this relatively late juncture of the offseason.
Terry Ryan, who served as GM for the 1995 through 2007 seasons before stepping down because of burnout, returns to the role after spending the past few years as a senior advisor. Though he was introduced as an interim option, he's not merely holding down the fort while a search is conducted, saying at his press conference that he might have this job for "for one year or 10 years."
"Terry wants to jump back in, and he's all in," assistant general manager Rob Antony said. "Ownership expects us to get this thing turned around. I think they have total confidence in Terry that he'll be able to do that."
Ryan's role within the front office seems to have been larger than an advisory title often suggests -- he was consulted on every major move of the last four years and was involved in all end-of-season organizational meetings. He now merely shifts from providing input to making the final decision.
He immediately announced a decision to retain Antony, whom Ryan said would receive an (as-yet undetermined) larger role, and vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff. Ryan is also rehiring former assistant G.M. Wayne Krivsky, a re-assembly of brainpower not unlike what former Red Sox boss Theo Epstein has done by rehiring with the Cubs many of his top lieutenants from Boston.
While Smith's background was in administration, Ryan is a former scouting director with his own ability to evaluate talent.
"I think what he brings to the table is credibility and experience," Antony said. "He's rebuilt the club before, and hopefully we're not that far removed if we can get some people healthy and fill some holes.
"Hopefully we can be competitive again in the near future rather than this being a long-term overhaul."
The primary assurance the Twins have that a turnaround can be swift is that it seems implausible the club could be so thoroughly ravaged by injuries as it was last year. Only three players logged 100 or more games, with the club's Nos. 1, 3 and 4 hitters -- Denard Span, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau -- playing between 69 and 82 games apiece.
Much of Morneau's recovery is an unknown, due to the unpredictable nature of concussions, but the club at least hopes that minor foot and wrist surgeries can alleviate discomfort from nagging injuries.
Mauer is overhauling his offseason training program, according to Antony. Rather than wait until the new year to begin working out in earnest, Mauer is already working hard on his general conditioning now before taking a short break and delving into more baseball-specific work in January. All of this is in preparation of again returning behind the plate on a full-time basis instead of spending as much time as he did as a first baseman (18 games) or designated hitter (14 games).
"His plan, as he's told us, is to catch 130 games next year," Antony said. "He wants to catch. He believes he'll be fine, that this was an aberration where it was a situation that it just took longer for his knee to heal after surgery and he just wasn't ready to go and then he spent the whole year trying to play catch up."
Surely the prospect of Mauer successfully returning to the rigors of catching is the best-case scenario for Minnesota, but it's also undoubtedly a large gamble, given that he has seven years and $161 million remaining on his contract.
The reality is, even if Mauer and Morneau return to their All-Star or MVP selves, the list of Twins' needs stretches far beyond them. Minnesota's lineup hit the AL's fewest homers last year and scored its second-fewest runs; its pitching staff struck out the fewest batters and had the second-worst ERA and its defense ranked last in the majors, according to park-adjusted defensive efficiency.
The club acknowledges a need for a starting pitcher, three relievers including one who can pitch in the late innings, a backup catcher, an outfielder and resolution at shortstop, where Tsuyoshi Nishioka -- the Japanese import who broke his leg in the first week of the season -- will be given an opportunity to win the job, though the team could seek outside competition too.
The club's top two free agents, outfielders Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, would both be of value if they can be re-signed affordably, if one plays rightfield and the other is the primary DH. Of course, one has to wonder if the DH spot is best left unfilled in case Mauer or Morneau needs to use it more than anticipated or if first-base prospect Chris Parmalee proves he's ready to stay in the majors and needs a position.
"We have definite interest in bringing both of them back," Antony said of Cuddyer and Kubel, "and I think both are going to be desirable on the market. Whether we can bring them back or not will remain to be seen. . . . We need to address other areas as well and there's only going to be so many dollars to go around and so many resources to try and do that."
At least this time Ryan is no longer confined to the Metrodome, which never produced enough revenue for him to manage a payroll north of $71 million. Now that the team calls Target Field home, it spent close to $115 million last year and will spend at least $100 million in 2012. In fact, the team's pre-existing obligations for 2012 -- with roster spots still to fill -- already exceed that $71 million figure.
The teams Ryan constructed in his first tour of duty as GM won regularly (though they never advanced to the World Series) thanks to a first-rate system of scouting and development that plugged holes without adding significant free agents.
In the Twins' 2002-10 run, they never had more than three All-Stars in any one season and never had any All-Star who was acquired via free agency. The biggest names populating those rosters -- Johan Santana, Torii Hunter, Mauer and Morneau -- were all homegrown. The rest were obtained in trades.
The pipeline doesn't appear so robust right now. Parmalee, pitcher Liam Hendriks and outfielders Ben Revere, Rene Tosoni and Joe Benson headlined the class of young Twins last season -- Parmalee mashed in his 21-game cameo, hitting .355/.443/.592, while Revere showed exceptional defense and base-stealing speed when he managed to get on base -- but there aren't many other players in the farm system knocking on the door. Shortstop Brian Dozier has been impressive in the minors and in the Arizona Fall League but only split last season between High Class-A and Double-A. Top pitching prospect Kyle Gibson had Tommy John surgery.
Therein lies the greatest task on Ryan's agenda: rebuilding the system that made the Twins perennial contenders. Last year's 99-loss season ensures the club the No. 2 overall pick in next year's draft and equally high standing atop each ensuing round, a fast-track to replenishing talent, especially if Cuddyer (Type A free agent) and/or Kubel (Type B) depart.
"This is going to be a challenge," Ryan said. "I'm up to the challenge and I appreciate the opportunity."
Ryan said he felt recharged after the past few years in his reduced role, and he'll need it, as rebuilding the Twins will be more than an interim task.