No one has done more with less than Terry Ryan through the years. But the Twins' general manager finally seemed to run out of magic in 2007, when his pitching-heavy team faded out of contention early. It marked only the second time in six years that Minnesota had missed the playoffs, but Ryan was so discouraged that he took a step back after the season, resigning his position to become a special advisor.
A lack of resources was as much to blame as anything, with owner Carl Pohlad (as always) throwing around quarters like they were manhole covers. The Twins had holes all over the field, and this time, manager Ron Gardenhire couldn't get enough production from guys like Nick Punto, Michael Cuddyer and the rest of the team Ozzie Guillen tagged "the Piranhas" to offset the lack of reliable run producers.
The starting rotation badly missed left-hander Francisco Liriano, who underwent Tommy John surgery after providing a huge lift in 2006, and Brad Radke, who retired. Ryan was forced to look for replacements on the cheap. Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson did not prove to be bargains.
1. A bump in the budget. The Twins spent $71 million last season, up from $56 million two years ago, but that still isn't enough to keep together the core of a perennial contender. Torii Hunter seems likely to depart via free agency, and Johan Santana and Joe Nathan could be one year behind him.
2. A big bat at DH, third base or in left field. Despite Justin Morneau's second straight 30-plus homer season, the Twins saw their scoring decline by 83 runs. Few teams generate less from the DH spot than the Twins have in recent years. They also have had guys at third and in left who are more on-base types than run producers. Those two positions combined to yield 20 homers last year.
3. A healthy Francisco Liriano. Even if he's not ready for Opening Day, the Twins need their 2006 wunderkind to come back strong from elbow surgery.
Minnesota rarely does anything major in free agency but is considering the lesser alternatives among the center fielders, assuming that Hunter leaves. Mike Cameron was on the Twins' radar screen, but it is unclear if his steroid suspension diminishes the interest.
Santana might be the best pitcher in the majors, and new GM Bill Smith knows it is going to be just about impossible to keep him long term in Minnesota. The question is: Does he trade him this winter or hold off to see what happens in the first half next season? If he hangs on to him, he runs a risk that the Twins will be too close to contention at the deadline for him to justify a trade.
Like Santana, closer Joe Nathan is on the short list of the best in the game. That would make him a highly pursued commodity if he were made available, not a wild thought with a variety of in-house candidates to close (Jesse Crain, Pat Neshek and Matt Guerrier).
This should be Matt Garza's time to claim a rotation spot and hang on to it for years.
Kevin Slowey was a pleasant surprise when he went 4-1 in 11 late-season starts. The right-hander's progress makes it easier to let Silva walk away.
After undergoing Tommy John surgery while in college at Nebraska, Brian Duensing is steadily climbing through the system. The left-hander has three pitches including a plus changeup and could force his way into the conversation in spring training.
Smith must know that the team he's inherited from Ryan isn't going to win unless it starts scoring runs. There are pieces in place in Morneau, Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer, but there are way too many holes elsewhere. Given the relative lack of resources, the only way to fill holes is to bite the bullet and make major trades. Moving Santana and possibly Nathan won't be pleasant but could be necessary.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available at bookstores, through Amazon.com or by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).