MINNEAPOLIS -- Last Monday night at Target Field provided a window into precisely what the Minnesota Twins are, and what they aren't, as the second year of general manager Terry Ryan's rebuild comes to an end.
Earlier that afternoon, Ryan walked purposefully down the corridor in the bowels of Target Field leading to the Twins' clubhouse, several hours before his regularly scheduled Monday roundtable with reporters. The news he had to deliver was expected, but still disappointing: franchise icon Joe Mauer, out since August 19 with a concussion, wouldn't play again this year.
"Obviously, he would like to be out on that diamond, and has been out on that diamond for a long time," Ryan told reporters gathered around him, just outside the clubhouse doors, prior to the Twins' 4-3 win over the Tigers. "Unfortunately, his symptoms won't allow it, and as we all know, those things are very touchy and sensitive. We've gone through this with Justin once before. I just don't want any setbacks, and neither does he."
The "Justin" Ryan referred to was Justin Morneau. Back in 2010, the Twins won 94 games and the American League Central. Morneau and Mauer were easily the two most valuable players on that team, and both younger than 30, while Francisco Liriano, just 26, was their best pitcher. Ron Gardenhire, the Twins' manager, was the American League Manager of the Year.
Three years later, so much has changed. Liriano, victimized by injuries and ineffectiveness, signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he's enjoyed a revelatory 2013. Morneau's concussion-related problems have robbed him of his once-elite bat, and the Twins shipped him off to the Pirates last month. That could open the door for Mauer, signed through 2018, to play first base in 2014, though the Twins insist, for now, that he'll be the catcher until and unless he chooses another position.
In the meantime, the Twins have lost 90-plus games in three consecutive seasons. After the first of these, the Twins fired Ryan's successor, Bill Smith, and put Ryan back in charge.
Now, as Ryan, 59, prepares for his third offseason since resuming his role as general manager of the Twins back in November 2011, he recognizes that Mauer is merely the top line on a team badly in need of help, both on the hitting and pitching sides of the ledger. He also knows he needs to find a balance between the patience required for a massive rebuild, one in which he's only had two drafts so far, and the desire of Twins fans to see something tangible on the field after three straight difficult seasons.
Ryan wasn't up for making excuses when we sat down to chat in the press dining room a few hours later, just before the start of Monday night's game.
"We've had a lot of success here, eight or nine years in a row," Ryan said. "I think, the fan base, the people affiliated with this club, expect to see -- we've got a beautiful stadium, we've draw well, we have a good reputation with our minor league system. We've had troubles for three years, for various reasons. Some of it baseball decisions, some of it injury, some of it a combination. But there is nobody here that's going to hide from the struggles we've had. We've got to turn that around... I've got to do a better job of finding people."
Having Ryan in charge as the man to do it has given the Twins some breathing room from their fans. After all, Ryan is the one who built the Twins into a franchise with extended success from 2001-2010, nine winning seasons and six playoff appearances over that time.
It's also worth noting, though, that Ryan initially took over after the 1994 season. It certainly wasn't an overnight process then, and Ryan doesn't expect it to be now.
"We pushed Hicks last year," Ryan said, referring to Aaron Hicks, an outfielder promoted straight from Double-A. "And we're pushing [power-hitting outfielder Osvaldo] Arcia right now. We usually let the player dictate their path, and sometimes, it's based on need, because okay, if you don't have a spot for them, they can stay down at Triple- or Double-A, keep gaining experience.
"One of the biggest virtues any GM can have is patience. I have a lot of it. It's tested often, and sometimes you really have to hold back in a lot of situations surrounding the club -- the manager, and the fan base, and maybe even the ownership. Everybody's gonna want to see those young, exciting guys. You read and hear about them... when they're ready, we'll give them a shot. If not, they'll stay down there. I don't have any problem with patience. I'm trying to do my best by the player."
But while it's Ryan's job to make sure his prospects develop fully, the fans see things like an unoccupied third base job, while down at Double-A is 20-year-old third base prospect Miguel Sano, who has major league power right now -- though perhaps not the ability to control the strike zone, or potentially the defensive chops to stay at third. (Still, at the Twins store, Sano shirts are already for sale.) Or they see center field, where Hicks flopped and no one of consequence has stepped in, and dream of Byron Buxton, the consensus best prospect in baseball, but also a 19-year-old who finished the 2013 season playing in Single-A.
"They're on fast track, because they showed that they should be," Ryan said. But expecting them as regulars before 2015 doesn't make much sense. The same is true of power pitching prospect Alex Meyer, acquired in the Denard Span trade, who has just 70 innings at Double-A on his resume, or 2013 top pick Kohl Stewart, an exciting talent who has many levels still to climb.
So Ryan acknowledged that he'll need to make the 2014 Twins better using other means, even while his long-term plan continues to develop. The Twins have seen payroll climb north of $110 million as recently as 2011. It stood at $80 million this year, and the Twins have just $46 million committed for 2014. But Ryan also pointed out that getting free agents to come to Minnesota, particularly on the heels of three straight losing seasons, isn't the easiest task. That his 2014 draft pick is protected, in other words, doesn't mean much as it relates to his winter strategy.
"If there's a spot that needs to be addressed, between free agency, trade possibilities, non-tenders, international signs, Rule 5 draft-between them, you can go accrue talent in a lot of different way," Ryan said. "You don't necessarily just have to wait for Sano and Buxton. You have to go plug it, just like everyone."
Nor has the 2013 season, despite the overall record, been absent any potential long-term answers for the Twins. Brian Dozier, 26, a converted shortstop, has supplied plus power and above-average defense at second base. And Josmil Pinto, who crushed minor league pitching in 2012 and 2013, has stepped in at catcher with Mauer out and done the same thing in the major leagues, posting a .975 OPS over his first 68 plate appearances.
"Well, we thought he was gonna do this last year," Ryan said of Dozier. "And it didn't happen last year. Maybe that was too soon to think was realistic... He's had a nice year. It looks like he's gonna fit right there at second base. He's very sound defensively, he's showed surprising power this year. He's very capable of holding down that position, as long as everything stays with health, there's no reason he shouldn't be our second baseman for a number of years."
Dozier himself expressed an awareness of balancing roles, too. He'll be 27 next year, with one full year under his belt. He also may need to be a leader in the clubhouse, as one of the older Twins, as the young players start to emerge.
"From what I hear, we've got a lot of guys in Double-A, some top prospects, who are really gonna help us out in the near future," Dozier, who looks even younger than his 26 years, told me as we talked by his locker Monday afternoon. "Whether that is next year, or whenever that is to come, that's up to Terry."
It may not be a team managed by Gardenhire, whose contract is up at the end of the season, and whose status Ryan continues to say will only be revealed after the season is over. But for now, it's Gardenhire, Dozier, Pinto and triage. The fans have still come out in decent numbers, better than 2.3 million this season for a 90-loss team. But that's also down from 2.77 million in 2012 and 3.16 million in 2011. Some of the patience has clearly waned among the fans. And Ryan recognizes, ultimately, it will take wins, and nothing else, to keep the fans, and Ryan himself, happy.
"We've got a good farm system, scouting system, people in the business side here," Ryan said of the components that make up the Twins' front office, many of which he's overhauled himself. "There aren't too many things, other than getting the team going in the right direction [that need to change]," Ryan said. "There are a lot of things that people worry about in other organizations. A lot of ours, with the exception of our record, are in pretty good shape. [But] I'm guessing if you asked a fan of the Minnesota Twins, they'd hope that our record is good and the heck with the rest of it."
Those who remained Monday night were treated to some on-field cause for optimism. Facing Justin Verlander and the playoff-bound Detroit Tigers, the Twins kept the game close. Then in the ninth, Dozier, facing Joaquin Benoit, homered to tie the game at 3-3. Two innings later, Dozier led off with a single, and came around to score the winning run when Pinto lashed a single, as thousands of fans largely wearing Joe Mauer jerseys cheered wildly for his possible replacement behind the plate.
It was impossible not to notice Dozier's head nodding to the beat of the celebratory music playing in the clubhouse even as he addressed reporters following the game, the energy of a win still coursing through him.
"Well, we obviously had a bad road series against a real good Oakland team," Dozier said, a smile never leaving his face. "So to get a win to start off the home stretch feels pretty good."
The Twins had to fashion a makeshift postgame procedure so reporters could talk to Pinto, who is still learning both English and what it is like to talk after recording a game-winning hit. A translator was found to stand next to Pinto, as a security blanket, but he managed just fine.
"I'm so excited now," Pinto told reporters. "I tried to put a good swing, and I think I hit the ball well, to bring in the run." You could feel the reporters rooting his English on, Pinto gaining confidence with each sentence. "The first at-bat, I think I did too much, so in that situation, looked for a ball I could make contact, didn't try to do too much."
"Nice job!", one reporter congratulated Pinto, on the press conference, the game-winning hit, or both. The press conference lasted less than a minute, and the win merely got the Twins to 67-90 on the year. But it's a start.