Twins address future with their past

Minnesota Twins Terry Ryan new GM replacing Bill Smith.

When Pat Gillick stepped down as general manager of the Seattle Mariners in 2003, there were those who wondered if he was through as a GM. He was 66. He had two World Series rings. He began working as an advisor to the Mariners, which allowed him to scout rather than sit behind a desk.

It didn’t last. As great as the gig was, it couldn’t satisfy one of the greatest roster-tinkerers in baseball history.

Gillick is a born leader, a baseball visionary, a man who performs best when the challenges and responsibilities are greatest. So after two years away from the big chair, Gillick became GM of the Phillies. The encore lasted for three years. He won another world title.

I thought of Gillick on Monday, after the Twins named Terry Ryan their interim general manager.

Ryan built the Twins into a lean, fundamentally sound winner during his first tenure as the Minnesota GM, from 1994 through 2007. Then he resigned, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family and acknowledging executive burnout. He assumed a role with the Twins that was similar to Gillick’s in Seattle: a little scouting, a little advising, a little inconspicuousness.

Four years later, Ryan’s children are grown, and the 99-loss Twins must be rebuilt. Ownership concluded that there is no one more qualified for the job than Ryan himself.

Ownership is right.

They are calling Ryan the “interim” GM, but let’s be honest: He’s only 58, a full decade younger than Gillick was when taking the Philly job. As one member of the Minnesota organization told me Monday night, Ryan will be the GM for as long as he wants to be.

In many ways, this is a better job than the one Ryan left. The Metrodome, with its springy turf and Teflon sky, is no longer home. The Twins play at one of the finest ballparks on the planet, Target Field, and their payroll has accordingly inched upward. The need to wring value from every dollar, which frustrated Ryan near the end of his first tenure, is no longer so acute.

Still, the task in front of him is arduous. That sounds odd, coming barely 13 months after the franchise’s most recent AL Central title. But it’s true. The Twins need time — years, not months — to complete this retooling. If ownership couldn’t commit to keeping Bill Smith as GM for multiple seasons, then they had to replace him immediately with the longer-term solution.

So meet the new GM, same as the old GM.

Concerns 1) and 1a) for Ryan are the health of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, and it’s not as if either has a sprained ankle that is guaranteed to heal by Opening Day. Mauer was placed on the disabled list with bilateral leg weakness, later missed time due to pneumonia, and stopped hitting home runs almost entirely. Morneau began the year amid questions about if and when he would recover from his 2010 concussion; by the end of the season, he underwent wrist and neck surgeries — and the concussion symptoms returned.

The former MVPs combined for 60 RBI. If that happens again, the Twins probably are doomed to another second-division finish.

But apart from the Mauer and Morneau injuries, the Twins lacked their customary depth in pitching and supplemental players. There was no Luis Castillo, no Jason Bartlett, no Nick Punto, no Mike Redmond, no Matt Guerrier and no Jesse Crain. No one could have expected Smith to forecast that Mauer would hit three home runs. The greater shortcoming was a failure to build the sort of team we’ve come to expect from the Twins.

And so September was filled with starts for Drew Butera, Chris Parmelee, Brian Dinkelman, Trevor Plouffe, Rene Tosoni, Joe Benson and Ben Revere.

With the exception of Mauer (if healthy), Morneau (if healthy) and Denard Span (if healthy — he sustained a concussion, too), the other six everyday lineup spots are uncertain. The pitching staff is reeling from a season in which the Twins had the majors’ second-worst team ERA. And by the way: The bullpen lacks a closer and a right-handed setup man.

So this isn’t the star-laden team Gillick inherited in Philadelphia. Ryan needs time to complete this job, and hopefully he gets it. At 58, Gillick would say that he’s just a kid.

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