FORT MYERS, Fla. — The spring training routine hasn’t been any different this year for Terry Ryan than it was during his previous 13 years as the Twins’ general manager.
He arrives at Hammond Stadium around 6 a.m., checks messages and e-mails sent to him by his assistants, holds meetings with managers and coaches and, eventually, takes in a game early in the afternoon. He always has a daily agenda on hand and constantly monitors the giant list of rosters posted on his office wall. When the minor league camp opens, he frequently tracks the progress of the organization’s younger players.
After being away from the GM chair for four seasons, that familiarity is comforting to Ryan, 58, who replaced Bill Smith in November as Minnesota’s general manager.
“I don’t think there’s all that much that’s much different,” Ryan said as he sat in his Hammond Stadium office. “Spring training’s very similar. I don’t care how long you’ve been out or how long you’ve been doing it. … There’s a few things that have changed in the game. Ultimately, it’s people that you end up hiring, you delegate and away we go. We’ll see where it all takes us.”
Ryan hopes it takes the Twins to a more promising season than 2011, when Minnesota lost 99 games. He’s hoping it takes the franchise back to where it was when he was last at the helm — the Twins went to the playoffs four times from 2002-06.
That 2002 season is one Ryan is particularly proud of when he looks back at his first tenure as GM. Prior to that year, Minnesota hadn’t made the postseason since it won the World Series in 1991. The playoff drought ended when Minnesota went 94-67 to clinch the American League Central.
“We went through some tough (times) in the ’90s. But we had to go through some of that to get to that point,” Ryan said. “The majority of the players that ultimately got us into the 2000s — and we won quite a bit — they are the guys that struggled back in the late ’90s.
“We still haven’t got to the World Series since ’91, and that’s the objective.”
The right time to walk away
Ryan’s last season during his first go-round as GM was 2007. After winning the division the year prior, Minnesota finished 79-83, its worst record since 2000.
The long days that accompany a job as a general manager were wearing on Ryan. After 13 seasons, he stepped down following what he calls a thought-out decision.
“It just seemed like it was time,” he said. “Thirteen years as a GM in one organization is a long, long time. There aren’t many that would say that they were the general manager of one organization for 13 years. Sometimes you just need to step away. At that time, it was the right decision for a lot of reasons.”
After he resigned, Ryan remained with the organization. He became a special assistant to new general manager Bill Smith. But he didn’t have the decision-making power he once did. Those personnel decisions were ultimately Smith’s to make.
Following a 99-loss season in 2011, however, someone had to be held accountable. That was Smith, who was fired as GM and replaced by Ryan on an interim basis.
“He was the GM when we won a couple divisions and finished just short,” Twins first baseman Justin Morneau said of Smith. “We had a year where guys couldn’t stay healthy and we didn’t play how we were capable of, and it was unfortunate he was the one that took the brunt of it. I think they’re both very good baseball people.”
One of Ryan’s strengths in his first stint as GM was doing a lot with a little — as in a small payroll. In 2002, the Twins’ payroll was about $24 million. By the time Ryan stepped down in 2007, that figure had grown to roughly $71 million.
For 2012, Ryan has about $100 million at his disposal, although nearly 40 percent of that is tied up in two players: catcher Joe Mauer ($23 million) and Morneau ($14 million).
This offseason, the Twins also signed several veteran free agents, including outfielder Josh Willingham, catcher Ryan Doumit, infielder Jamey Carroll and pitcher Jason Marquis. While those players may not have been marquee names, that type of free agency splurge was one Ryan rarely saw during his first term.
“We went out in the free-agent market this past winter because of necessity. We never had that type of flexibility to be able to do that much,” Ryan said. “Sometimes you have to go out, you have to get people because you’ve got a glaring need. We did have a few glaring needs this year. We went out and tried to fill them. But I think you talk to any general manager in the game … they’d just as soon draft, develop and promote from within.”
Morneau doesn’t think Ryan’s approach will change much despite a deeper wallet.
“He was big on player development and player evaluation and kind of having knowledge of all the players, not just our players,” Morneau said. “I don’t think payroll makes a difference if you don’t evaluate players and bring in good people and good teammates. I don’t think it makes a difference if the payroll’s $50 million or $100 million.”
An interim basis?
When Ryan’s hiring was originally announced on Nov. 7, he was designated as the interim general manager. At the time, no one — including Ryan — knew just how long he would stick around.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s an interim basis,” said Twins center fielder Denard Span. “I think he’ll be here as long as we allow him to be here. I think it depends on probably how we do and all that good stuff. I think if he gets back to having fun like he probably did when he first started doing it, I think he’ll be here for a while.”
How long does Ryan think he’ll stay on the job? Even he’s not sure.
He’s been too busy to think about it.
“I haven’t given that much thought. We haven’t even started and played a (regular-season) game yet,” Ryan said. “Let’s get things organized. Once we leave spring training, it’s important and vital that we get off to a decent start. … Personally, I haven’t given much thought to anything beyond this month or this year.”