November 8, 2011

Twins fire general manager Bill Smith, name Terry Ryan interim GM

Five weeks ago Twins owner Jim Pohlad gave Bill Smith a public vote of confidence, making it very clear that he'd remain the general manager following a 99-loss season because "he's had a very tough situation" and "we're not a knee-jerk organization." Apparently something major changed between then and now, as yesterday the Twins fired Smith after four years and two months on the job, repeatedly citing "philosophical differences" that they refused to discuss.

To replace Smith the Twins turned back the clock, with longtime general manager Terry Ryan returning to the job on an interim basis after serving as an advisor to the front office since his resignation and Ryan's former right-hand man, Wayne Krivsky, returning to his old assistant role after leaving the organization in 2006 to take over as the Reds' general manager. They're getting the band back together, for a while at least.

Ryan stepped down as GM on September 14, 2007, citing burnout after 13 years at the helm, and in returning to the job at age 58 he expressed uncertainty about whether it would be "for one year or ten years." Clearly the Twins weren't expecting to fire Smith until very recently and Ryan seemingly indicated that he was stepping back into the job as much out of his feeling of responsibility to the organization as his desire to actually be the GM again.

Ryan left Smith in a difficult spot in 2007, with Torii Hunter leaving as a free agent and Johan Santana on the trade block. Similarly, injuries wrecking the entire roster this year made many of Smith's decisions moot, good or bad. However, that doesn't excuse the series of bad moves Smith orchestrated, from getting little in return for Santana and trading Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett for Delmon Young to dealing Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps and dumping J.J. Hardy.

Smith also made a number of shrewd trades and signings, but for the most part they were on a small scale. Jim Thome and Orlando Hudson were smart, cheap free agent pickups, trades for Carl Pavano and Jon Rauch worked out well, and the original deal to acquire Hardy from the Brewers was an excellent one even if it involved admitting that Carlos Gomez was a bust as a centerpiece of the Santana blockbuster.

Smith did reasonably well at the margins, but failed on the franchise-altering moves and that's not a recipe for long-term success. By contrast, Ryan thrived with big-picture moves like adding star-caliber building blocks outside of free agency and squeezing unseen value out of veteran-for-prospect trades, but struggled with small stuff like surrounding those building blocks with washed-up veterans. Ryan's weakness was annoying. Smith's weakness was crippling.

Eventually we'll learn more about the "philosophical differences" that led to Smith's firing and based on the odd timing those details are probably pretty damn interesting, but ultimately it comes down to the fact that he performed poorly and the more successful person he replaced was available and willing to resume the job. This is a crucial offseason, for 2012 and beyond, and you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't trust Ryan more than Smith.

None of which is to say Ryan has an easy task ahead of him. For one thing, he revealed during yesterday's press conference that the Twins' payroll will decline in 2012, saying it will likely be "somewhere around $100 million." If true that would represent a $15 million drop and leave little room to re-sign Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, and Joe Nathan, let alone add other free agents. Based on the current roster they already have about $82 million committed for 2012.

Beyond that, Smith was hardly the only person involved in the Twins' decision-making during the past four years. Ryan was an advisor during Smith's various poor moves, assistant general manager Rob Antony and vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff remain in the same roles, and even Krivsky comes with a mixed track record in Minnesota and Cincinnati. Smith took the fall because he was sitting in the biggest chair, but his departure alone fixes nothing.

Smith was a relative unknown when he took over for Ryan in 2007 and proved overmatched, making large-scale blunders that vastly outweighed his small-scale successes while seemingly epitomizing the Peter Principle. That doesn't make him a bad person or even an incompetent employee, it just means he was a poor fit as the GM of a major-league team. Ryan may not be able to climb out of this hole either, but I certainly feel more optimistic handing him the rope.

30 Comments »

  1. I don’t ever wish anyone the experience of being let go and didn’t call for Smith’s job in this case. It’s obvious something major caused a change of heart whether it was Smith saying he was done or Twins ownership admitting a need for a change.

    1) The $$$ – 99% of the time money is the main reason for two long time partners to seperate. However, I think it’s unlikely to suggest Smith wasn’t prepared to follow orders and reduce payroll no matter the PR hit he and the Twins would take.

    2) Change in job responsiblities – this seems the most likely to me. Pohlad came to Smith, probably as recently as this last week, and said they would be changing what he had final say on. Showing Smith a lack of confidence and causing Smith to react unfavorably.

    3) T Ryan was Pohlad’s guy – The divide between Smith and Ryan had grown too great and one guy had to go. Pohlad picked T Ryan.

    Smith’s exit doesn’t fix the Twins problems. They still suffer from a lack of organizatioinal depth, starting pitching, and the likely departure of key players via free agency.

    Comment by pk — November 8, 2011 @ 12:28 am

  2. AG, can you expand on what Smith’s role was prior to becoming GM and what value he might have should he remain in the organization?

    Comment by Frank — November 8, 2011 @ 12:39 am

  3. Enjoyed the podcast, but your “humblebrags” are just plain brags, scourge of Harris Wittels!

    Comment by rebozo — November 8, 2011 @ 1:01 am

  4. It seems, by announcing two moves at once, new GM and new payroll, the Twins told us what the “philosophical difference” was with Smith: he didn’t want to cut payroll.

    IMO, Smith’s two biggest issues were impatience (big moves that fizzled, not concentrating on getting return for traded players, short term needs over collecting prospects) and confusing relative values of the positions (valuing relievers and corner players over up-the-middle players and starters.)

    Comment by justme — November 8, 2011 @ 5:41 am

  5. Given the timing with free agency, I’m wondering if the “philosophical differences” were about whether or not to bring Cuddyer back and at what price.

    Comment by morts — November 8, 2011 @ 7:10 am

  6. I’m wondering if it has to do with the rest of the leagues perception of the Twins with Smith at the helm. Perhaps the Twins departing free agents didn’t trust/like Smith, or maybe other GM’s weren’t really taking him seriously and were only making fleecing offers to the Twins because they didn’t respect Smith as a negotiator.

    Correct my memory if it’s wrong, but hasn’t it sounded like Rob Antony been dealing with a lot of the front office to player communications? I felt like any news about negotiations came from Antony, and I wonder if that’s because Smith had trouble with the that aspect of the GM role. If he has trouble negotiating with his peers and communicating with agents and players, that would be a recipe for his dismissal. He can be a smart business man, but if he can’t negotiate with anyone he’s not fit for the job.

    Comment by Dan — November 8, 2011 @ 8:06 am

  7. It does seem one of the big stumbling blocks here was Smith’s apparent belief that all that was needed was a few small tweaks and a return to health and all is fine and everyone else’s belief that there were bigger problems afoot. And I can see how if the Pohlad family was making a decision to reduce payroll how that would really conflict will Bill Smith’s view of the team: he was probably prepared to spend like last season to hold together the team and hope that good health and a little luck turned it around.

    But the reality is, Bill Smith’s trades have not worked out, and it’s put the Twins in a real hole. I’ve felt for a while now that too much of Smith’s moves in constructing the roster were in deference to what the coaching staff (read: manager) wanted the team to look like, rather than what were the best interests of the club. I have more faith in Ryan’s ability to tell Gardy and whomever to get stuffed, we’re doing it his way.

    Time will tell if Ryan can turn it around, but I think this was a wise decision. Bill Smith seemed overmatched for the job. Some people will call this a knee-jerk decision, but to me it looks like a clear-eyed view of what’s been going on…

    Comment by Josh — November 8, 2011 @ 9:00 am

  8. Smith himself admitted that he was more of a numbers guy then baseball guy. As someone who has never fully subscribed to the “moneyball” idealogy, I took that as a red flag that Billy wasn’t the right person for the job.

    Comment by Adam — November 8, 2011 @ 9:51 am

  9. As far as the payroll goes, is next years team really going to be competitive whether the payroll is $100 million or $110 million? I have serious doubt. I don’t have a problem if they are saving that $10 million to spend in upcoming years but who really thinks that is the plan?

    Comment by jama — November 8, 2011 @ 10:36 am

  10. Spot on once again.

    Comment by cmathewson — November 8, 2011 @ 10:38 am

  11. Aaron, if I may offer a bit of constructive feedback…you and The Geek need to stop interrupting each other so often. I couldn’t count the number of times one of you or the other couldn’t finish his thought because the other jumped in. Your podcasts will be far more informative if you simply learn, as big-time talking heads have learned, to give your partner space.

    Comment by David — November 8, 2011 @ 10:50 am

  12. Terry Ryan was the GM when the Twins drafted what should be the young guys on this roster, or the old guys at AAA. Getting rid of Smith made sense, but let’s not pretend Terry Ryan is infallible. This is not the TB Rays.

    Comment by mike wants wins — November 8, 2011 @ 11:14 am

  13. Will the $15 million be used on the draft and international signings? Try to find guys who can pitch, hit, and pick up the ball? Get ready to compete in a few years?

    Comment by Clyde — November 8, 2011 @ 11:41 am

  14. Adam, Bill Smith’s moves are the sorts of things that make Sabermaticians cringe. He’s a “numbers” guy in the sense that he was better at working with contracts than anything else.

    Comment by Zack — November 8, 2011 @ 12:20 pm

  15. If this thing was about rebuilding, isn’t it possible they just didn’t trust Smith to do it? Seems to me after losing 99 games there isn’t much of an option. If you have the wrong guy making the rebuilding decisions you could end up with the Royals circa 2005/Dayton Moore and you’re in rebuilding mode for a decade. Smith didn’t even run a good team well.

    Comment by JustinCB — November 8, 2011 @ 12:47 pm

  16. I am at the point that I think one of the biggest problems Smith had this year was thinking they were too good for too long. Why not trade Capps at the trade deadline rather than not get anything back. Why wait so long to trade D. Young? Why not trade Nathan or Kubel, as you are not going to get arbritration for them? Why not trade Liriano when he was in the middle of a hot stretch?

    Our minor league system is out of gas, and we are letting people go that we can get nothing back for. Bad job!

    Comment by Gamescrows — November 8, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

  17. As much as it pains me, it’s time to rebuild. I hope Ryan lets all the free agents walk, and let’s reload through the draft. Hope the fans will keep enjoying the amenities at Target Field through the process.

    Comment by funoka — November 8, 2011 @ 2:35 pm

  18. “Smith himself admitted that he was more of a numbers guy then baseball guy. As someone who has never fully subscribed to the “moneyball” idealogy, I took that as a red flag that Billy wasn’t the right person for the job.”

    This is one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever read.

    If you don’t “subscribe to the ‘moneyball’ ideology” Bill Smith should be your hero.

    Comment by Brian — November 8, 2011 @ 3:12 pm

  19. Also, I would have been much more scathing in my review of Billy’s tenure.

    Good job keeping it classy Aaron, no reason to pile on the guy now that we finally got rid of him.

    Comment by Brian — November 8, 2011 @ 3:13 pm

  20. It seems to me the biggest thing not discussed in your 11/8 post comparing Smith and Ryan is the minor league system. Throughout the Ryan and Ryan/Kelly era we heard about rookies learning the “Twins’ Way” in the minors. Recently, our call ups were not at all ready to play defensively or as base runners.
    I assume, but don’t know, that setting the tone in the minor system is one of the GMs responsibilities. Ryan used to regularly be on the radio discussing minor league prospects in great depth; Smith seemed to say little more than the most basic stats.

    Comment by BJ — November 8, 2011 @ 3:41 pm

  21. We shouldn’t be so giddy becasue the lack of high level prospects is on Ryan. Just look at 2004 draft that was a killer, 5 picks in 1st and supp round; 20# Plouffe, 22# Perkins, 25# Waldrop, 35# Fox, 37# Rainville. Looking at the guys they passed over around the picks they made this team could look a lot better. Ryan has to be better but his last few years of the draft were not good.

    Comment by Mike — November 8, 2011 @ 3:41 pm

  22. WTF is going on with the Terry Ryan bashing here?

    In 1994 Ryan took over a losing team with a barren farm system and a cheap owner. The team had six losing seasons before breaking through in 2001, when the Twins won 85 games with the lowest payroll in baseball. The Twins won four division titles in the next six years with payrolls that ranked 27th, 18th, 19th, 20th, 19th and 18th. That is the mark of a good general manager.

    Not all of his draft picks hit, but if you look at any MLB draft you will see that the success rate is pretty low. As someone points out, 2004 had some duds, but his top picks his last three years were Garza (who Smith traded) Parmalee (who looked pretty good in September) and Revere, who despite his limitations is going to be a starter here. While it is true that the players he drafted in his final years should be the players coming up to the majors now, since he wasn’t running things the last four years, I don’t know that the blame is his for how they developed. Did he punt on some decisions on Hunter, Santana and Mauer? Maybe. But if you are going to leave a job, don’t you leave the big decisions to the person who has to live with them? I can’t fault him for that.

    The main difference between Ryan and Smith was that while not all of Ryan’s moves worked out, I can’t think of too many occasions where moves looked terrible when they were made. Some of the 90s trades were depressing, but those were driven by financial constraints of an owner more interested in contracting the team than putting a winning product on the field. Contrast that with the Ramos trade or the Garza/Bartlett trade, which looked terrible at the time and turned out to be terrible. Go look at Aaron’s analysis of Nishioka as a prospect – the guy had one statistically improbable year and otherwise was a very average player in Japan. A good GM figures that out.

    Bill Smith did not know what he was doing. Terry Ryan did. Being a good GM does not mean being perfect. It means being more right than wrong. It means making the most out of the resources you have. Terry Ryan did that.

    I am not just happy to be rid of Bill Smith. I am happy to have Terry Ryan back.

    Comment by Pedro Munoz — November 8, 2011 @ 8:06 pm

  23. Pedro, what, exactly, do you think Smith changed in the minor leagues? I’m guessing player development is about who you pick more than anything else. And, it isn’t bashing of Ryan, it is questioning why everyone thinks they are now somehow saved. They still will not hire a saber guy, we all know that. They still aren’t bringing in outside blood. You don’t think the scouts (who are Ryan’s people) had anything to do with the signing of Nishioka? You think Smith did that on his own? You can choose not to fault Ryan for the Santana and Hunter situations, but those were created by Ryan not acting when he should have.

    The questions people are raising are legitimate questions about Ryan. None of those have anything to do with Smith. I think everyone here is happy BS is no longer the GM. Maybe it is too soon, maybe we should just bask in the moment. But at some point, all these questions are legit questions.

    Comment by mike wants wins — November 8, 2011 @ 8:24 pm

  24. MWW’s …I generally agree with your comment. People forget Smith came in to do some of Ryan’s dirty work ie trading Santana, signing Morneau and Mauer, and letting Hunter go.

    The Nishioka signing and Capps trade is on everybody in the Twins FO including T Ryan.

    LENIII said today he thought Smith’s communication skills were poor and may ultimately have been his undoing. LENIII is as plugged in to the Twins and their PR machine as anyone.

    Comment by pk — November 8, 2011 @ 9:53 pm

  25. The claims about what Ryan did or the scouts or Ryan’s guys did or did not do is pure speculation. The buck stops with the guy at the top. When Ryan was the guy at the top, things went well. When Smith was the guy at the top, they didn’t. That’s the end of the discussion as far as I’m concerned. I won’t speculate on who was responsible for what.

    I don’t know if something changed in player development under Smith or not – I just don’t think its fair to judge Ryan’s picks when they went through someone else’s system.

    I think the concerns about Ryan not buying into sabermetrics and not getting any new blood are legit. I think concern about whether he can turn this team around is legit. The criticism of his past performance as GM is what I have a problem with, because that performance was really good.

    As far as Hunter and Santana, what should have been done? Hunter’s contract with the Angels was ridiculous and he hasn’t come close to earning it as his skills had declined. Should we have traded him sooner to get something? Was there something out there worth more than the draft pick? Santana didn’t want to stay, so the only criticism is maybe that we didn’t trade him sooner. I don’t think the timing was necesarily the problem – the rumored players offered by the Yankees and Red Sox were all better than the bag of shit we got from the Mets.

    Comment by Pedro Munoz — November 9, 2011 @ 1:33 am

  26. It is speculation on a lot of fronts, but it isn’t that his communication’s skills were lacking. You can hear that on every interview he gave.

    Comment by mike wants wins — November 9, 2011 @ 7:26 am

  27. I agree with the other David. The podcast would be better if you didn’t step on each other so much.

    Comment by David — November 9, 2011 @ 8:31 am

  28. /threadjack

    Wilson Ramos was KIDNAPPED in Venezuela?
    http://www.mlbtraderumors.com/2011/11/wilson-ramos-kidnapped-in-venezuela.html

    Comment by TeeNutts — November 9, 2011 @ 8:29 pm

  29. Terry Ryan was Dave St. Peters Guy not Pohlads he didn’t want Smith gone, at least that quickly.

    COme on Y’all I AM VERY HAPPY RADCLIFF is here, KRIVISKY is Back and SMITH IS GONE! !!!! !!!!!! !!!

    Yes

    Comment by steve hoffman (SHS) — November 10, 2011 @ 4:12 am

  30. I wonder how responsible Ron Gardenhire is for Smith’s firing. Seriously.

    As a less senior GM, did Smith defer to Gardenhire’s misguided personnel sense? Some of the talented players Smith traded away (for too little) had publicly frustrated Gardenhire (Bartlett, Garza). Smith assembled starters that “pitched to contact” and had abysmal strikeout rates, fitting a Gardenhire (and organizational) fetish. Last year Smith seemed to cater to Gardenhire’s desire for more “speed” and assembled a punchless offense with failures at short and second. Whether Smith sold low on Hardy and Young based on feedback from Gardenhire is hard to tell.

    Anyway, at least Terry Ryan has the tenure to act like Gardenhire’s boss.

    Comment by DaveA — November 16, 2011 @ 7:25 am

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