Putting the Minnesota Twins’ Decision to Release David Ortiz in Context

Obviously it’s a situation that I watch and I’ve observed and I see what he’s done and I see what he’s meant to the Boston Red Sox. Ok, I screwed it up.

— Twins GM Terry Ryan on Friday before David Ortiz played his final series in Minnesota

The Minnesota Twins released David Ortiz, a Hall of Famer, straight up because 1) they did not want Ortiz to take them to arbitration and get $1.5 million, 2) they felt Matt LeCroy would make an adequate designated hitter, and 3) they wanted a roster spot to make a Rule 5 claim, according to Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse.

“Anyone who says it was a financial decision is dead wrong,” Ryan told Reusse for a different column. “It was a very bad baseball decision. We thought we had better options. We were wrong in a big way.

“It’s on me, nobody else. I’m the general manager. We don’t release big-league players without the general manager’s approval.”

Minnesota, for the record, claimed Jose Morban with the Rule 5 pick. Ortiz was never Big Papi in the Twin Cities, but he was a middle of the order hitter for the 2002 team that beat the Moneyball Oakland Athletics in the ALCS and lost to the eventual champs, the Anaheim Angels, in the next round.

“Terry Ryan doesn’t feel bad just because he let me go,” Ortiz said. “He feels bad because he also knows the Twins treated me bad.”

“I’d take a big swing and my first manager (Tom Kelly) would be screaming at me: ‘Hey, hey, hey, what are you doing?’ Are you kidding me? You want me to swing like a little girl? I’ll swing like a little girl,” Ortiz told the media after arriving in Boston in 2004, according to Pioneer Press columnist Tom Powers. He promptly was a key cog in a team that reversed an 86-year World Series drought and was an All-Star in nine of his next 10 seasons.

He went on to say that he was berated by his manager in Boston for trying to move the runner over with a man on second and no outs rather than swinging for the fences. He was told that he was not with the Twins anymore and had to drive the runner in, according to Powers.

Despite all the division championships that were won from 2002-10, Minnesota never won another playoff series after Ortiz left. The Twins won 94 games in their first season at Target Field, but lost 99 the next season and now are on pace to have five losing records in the past six seasons.

I quote Reusse and Powers because they are longtime columnists in the Twin Cities, and were covering the Twins when Ortiz was in Minnesota. They remember his rise and development as a player, and they can recall key quotes or events after his move to Boston as well as leverage their relationship or familiarity with him to engage in meaningful conversation with him with their recorders running.

It should not be lost on anyone, however, that the Twins operated differently in the Metrodome era than they do now. They operated on a shoestring budget in a stadium built for football and were nearly contracted before dominating the AL Central for a decade. The most sinister thing they did was convince fans that they were a small-market team. In reality the Twin Cities are the 15th largest TV market in the U.S. akin to the Detroit, Phoenix, Seattle and Miami-Ft. Lauderdale mid-size markets, rather than the Baltimore, Pittsburgh, San Diego and St. Louis market sizes.

“I was telling him about how does it feel playing in the Metrodome? That’s not the case here at Target Field”

Still, the entire equation changed when Target Field was built. The Metrodome had crowds of around 10,000 per night, while the Twins at least draw around 17,000 now, and roughly 25,000 came out to the Red Sox series. Some of that may be because of the Boston fans. Some of that might be because Ortiz was making his final visit. A lot of it was because school is out, the weather is great and Target Field itself is immaculate in the summer.

“Minnesota has always been a great place to me. I was talking to somebody, my boy that works for USA Today, and I was telling him about how does it feel playing in the Metrodome? That’s not the case here at Target Field,” he said, referring to a USA Today piece by Bob Nightengale in which he is quoted as saying that Minnesotans didn’t even know that there was a major league team in town when he played here.

“This is beautiful park, this is a park that you would love to come out here and play,” he added. “Minnesota’s a great place to play. I have some friends, they kinda talk about Minnesota, and I tell them about how clean Minnesota is. It is really nice, and I would love to come back.”

This might sound like flip-flopping to fans offended by Ortiz’s earlier comments, and it’s always easier to rip an organization and city from afar, but it’s hard to argue with Papi on this one — the Metrodome was a brutal venue for baseball. The roof blocked out the sunlight that draws people to outdoor parks like Target Field. It wasn’t integrated into the city. It was designed around the dimensions of a football field, so there were rows of empty seats standing in center field, and right field was all messed up from a viewer’s perspective.

The fact of the matter is that the Twins should have kept Ortiz. But they should have kept Johan Santana and Torii Hunter as well. They have long needed a franchise shortstop and a bona fide ace. They shouldn’t have dealt Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps. They shouldn’t have traded Denard Span for Alex Meyer. Many of their top prospects have struggled to establish themselves in the majors this year.

One move does not cripple a franchise, nor will it carry a team to the World Series. Baseball organizations are complicated. To win at the major league level, there has to be consistent instruction between the minor leagues where not only is there Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A affiliations, but Single-A is broken down between Rookie ball, Short Season, High-A and Low-A.

Baseball is weird. It’s unpredictable. It takes time to see what’s real and what isn’t.

Unlike in the NFL and NBA, where star college players can make an immediate impact, it takes years to know which prospects will pan out and which won’t.

Star pitchers blow out their arms. Middle of the order hitters go through slumps. Joe Mauer gets a concussion and goes from a potential Hall of Fame catcher to a first baseman and takes two years to recover. Glen Perkins and Phil Hughes go from All-Stars to the 60-day disabled list. Eduardo Nunez arrives in a trade for a minor league pitcher and has a breakout year at age 28. Brian Dozier is an All-Star for half a year and has struggled since. Robbie Grossman gets picked up off the waiver wire and has a 1.046 OPS (182 OPS+) in 92 plate appearances.

Baseball is weird. It’s unpredictable. It takes time to see what’s real and what isn’t.

If you want a hard and fast rule for what’s up with the Twins, remember this: Things were different in the Metrodome era. The Twins should have enough money to retain the players they need and fill in the holes. Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton should be retained if they pan out. So should Jose Berrios and Kohl Stewart. Ortiz likely would have been retained in the Target Field era.

“This is 20 years ago that this happened,” Ryan said in reference to Ortiz’s comments to USA Today. “For him to have the dates right and the space and all that stuff — he’s not gonna remember that.” He’s highlighting the fact that Ortiz sat on the waiver wire for weeks before he was picked up. And while he’s speaking of Ortiz specifically in the quote, he could be talking to all of us. History has a way of warping over time, and, frankly, a lot of the Twins’ bad deals wouldn’t affect the team now — dealing Santana for less than he was worth, trading J.J. Hardy for two minor leaguers, etc. — since those players are already out of the league or in the twilight of their career.

That was then, this is now. Ortiz is about to retire. Hunter did last year. Eddie Guardado, Corey Koskie and Paul Molitor did a long time ago. Now it’s all about Buxton, Sano and Co. It’s about making sure they pan out as major leaguers, and that they remain in Minnesota through their prime years instead of departing like Ortiz, Hunter and Santana did.

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