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Updated: December 9th, 2010 12:08am
Mackey: Don't blame GM Smith (and company) for disappointment in 2010

Mackey: Don't blame GM Smith (and company) for disappointment in 2010

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- With the winter meetings winding down at the Swan and Dolphin Resort, the Minnesota Twins still have plenty of work to do to fill out holes in a roster that won 94 games in the regular season last year.

But whatever moves the Twins wind up making or not making this week or this offseason -- trading J.J. Hardy, re-signing Carl Pavano, trading for a Zack Greinke, giving Alexi Casilla another shot to start -- everything is inevitably aimed at slaying the giant elephant in the room:

Playoff futility.

The Twins have been swept in three straight playoff series, most recently by the Yankees in October.

They have lost 12 straight playoff games dating back to 2004.

It's almost completely unexplainable.

Not losing series, per se. That's explainable, and it happens to a lot of teams, in other sports as well.

But losing 12 in a row? Not winning a game somewhere, somehow?

Even the Gopher football team has trouble rattling off that many losses to quality opponents.

People can debate which parties deserve the most blame for the Twins' playoff futility during the Ron Gardenhire era. It likely lies mostly with the players, to be honest.

But I'm confident in this:

Despite what many pitchfork-carrying fans may believe, the Twins' disappointing end to the 2010 season was not Bill Smith's fault.

The building process began in late-2009, when the Twins' front office -- led by, but certainly not limited to Smith -- acquired Carl Pavano and Jon Rauch to help with the stretch run.

In November, 2009 the Twins traded Carlos Gomez for Hardy. In January, the team signed designated hitter Jim Thome, followed by second baseman Orlando Hudson in February.

Between those acquisitions, the Twins hammered out contract extensions for Joe Mauer, Nick Blackburn and Denard Span.

As the season progressed -- after losing Joe Nathan and Justin Morneau to season-ending injuries -- the Twins traded for closers Matt Capps and Brian Fuentes to help bolster the bullpen.

There was a time when fans complained about the Twins' lack of movement in the trade and free agency markets. Those complaints were sometimes met with the occasional Phil Nevin or Mike Lamb.

Not in 2010.

Sure, Hardy suffered through an injury-laden season, and Blackburn wound up back in Triple-A for a month, but overall the aggressiveness shown by Smith and company -- with help from an elastic payroll -- was effective, if not somewhat unexpected, and it helped the Twins win 94 regular-season games.

What went wrong?

Players stopped performing.

After finishing with the seventh-most runs in baseball (768), the second-highest on-base percentage (.341) and the third-highest batting average (.273), Twins hitters combined to post a .216/.280/.330 batting line in the 2010 ALDS.

To add to the muffled bats, Pavano and Francisco Liriano -- one of the best 1-2 punches in the American League last season -- were unable to shut down a potent New York offense in Games 1 and 2.

"I don't know how much we could have done differently," Smith said about the front office. "The players we got all performed (in the regular season). Orlando Hudson, J.J. Hardy, Jon Rauch, Jim Thome, Carl Pavano; the new players we brought in all performed well.

"Sometimes it's a game that somebody has to win and somebody has to lose, and we're very disappointed we lost to the Yankees. I hope we get to play them again in the first round next year. We just have to beat them. The game is played on the field."

Fans don't want to hear it, but the front office has a responsibility to put a quality regular-season team on the field. Smith and company did so.

Sometimes, as a general manager, there's only so much one can do. The players simply failed to perform at an acceptable level in the playoffs.

Not the lone puppeteer

Notice the use of the phrase, "Smith and company."

That's because Smith is quick to point out that "nothing chaps me more" than when people assume he is the sole puppeteer pulling strings in the Twins' front office.

"I don't want to be too much of a martyr, but when (decisions) go bad, it does come back (to me)," Smith said. "But the success needs to be shared among so many people."

Those people, just to name a few, are assistant GM Rob Antony, scouting director Mike Radcliff, and former GM Terry Ryan, who Smith says helps him "a tremendous amount on the administrative side, and he is one of the best evaluators in the game."

"I think primarily you're either an administrator an evaluator, and I'm an administrator," Smith added. "My strengths for 25 years growing up in this business have been on the business side of the baseball operations. I was fortunate to work for Andy McPhail, who was one of the great administrators. (He) changed the way the Twins do business.

"Terry Ryan was a tremendous evaluator -- is a tremendous evaluator. That doesn't mean you can't do the other side of it. I happen to think Terry Ryan's a tremendous administrator as well, but in his heart, Terry's an evaluator. I don't shy away from that. I'm an administrator, and some of the evaluations are sometimes my lesser strengths, so that's why we've got good people helping."

Smith took over for Ryan as GM in 2007 and was thrust into the unenviable position of trading Johan Santana and dealing with free agent Torii Hunter. At the time, fans were furious at the Twins -- and Smith -- for not retaining one or the other. Or both.

No matter what transpires this offseason, it will be tough to top the high-profile nature of those decisions in 2007.

"We'd been through it before," said Smith, who began working in the Twins organization in 1980. "We weren't operating any differently in '07 and '08 than we were in '87 and '88. If you look at the World Series team that we had in '87; between '87 and '91, we traded Frank Viola, Jeff Reardon came and went, Gaetti left and Brunansky left, and a lot of good players came and went. From '87 to '91, you had Puckett and Hrbek, Dan Gladden and Al Newman.

"So when we got to '07, Torii Hunter was a free agent. I repeat this all the time, but players earn the right to become free agents. And when they become a free agent, they can play anywhere they want. There's no hard feelings.

"Torii has amazing charisma, he was ready for the big stage, he went to southern California. He went to Hollywood. Johan, same thing. He had the charisma, he was ready for a bigger stage, and he went out and wound up in New York. I don't begrudge that."

Resisting the urge to knee-jerk

With the latest playoff sweep in the rear view mirror, the Twins have begun the process of molding the roster for 2011 -- a roster that could include a couple of drastic changes.

The team seems committed to giving Casilla a realistic shot to start at either shortstop or second base, alongside Japanese middle infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Hardy, who the Twins are contemplating trading, could wind up as the odd man out.

The pitching staff will also look different. Despite some positive discussions between the Twins and agent Tom O'Connell, Pavano is no cinch to return. Plus, the Twins are looking to fill gaps left by free-agent relievers Fuentes, Rauch, Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier.

The roster was always destined to look at least slightly different.

But when it comes to making changes to a team that won 94 games last season -- without Nathan for a full season and Morneau for half -- how does the Twins front office differentiate between making changes for the sake of making changes and making productive tweaks?

"You have to look at a lot of things," Smith said. "It's performance, it's projected performance, it's health. Finances play a role. I know Twins fans don't like to hear about finances playing a role in it, but they do. You have to look at short-term vision and long-term vision. We'd love to make our team better, but not at the expense of trading away all of our success in 2014, '15, '16, '17. So you do have to balance out."

And so, with that, the tight-lipped Smith has continued all week to point toward in-house options to help fill bullpen openings and other potential roster holes. Even if the Twins are kicking the tires on outside help -- as they have the last two seasons -- Smith won't divulge any specifics.

"For the 25 years I've been here, we've always tried to fill our needs from within," Smith said. "First and foremost, and that's what we did (in 2010)."

Of course, Smith also talked about in-house replacements in early-2010 as well. But that eventually changed.

"As we got into the second half, in order to compete, and to beat the White Sox and beat the Tigers, and to give ourselves the best chance to go deep into the playoffs, we needed more veteran help. And we went out and got Matt Capps and we got Brian Fuentes. They were great additions. Just as the year before, it was Pavano and Rauch."

As long as financial flexibility exists -- and indications are that the Twins will push payroll above $110 million -- the club will likely continue its selective aggression.

And if that aggression turns into another quick playoff exit, be sure to hold players accountable first for underperforming, and remember the meager payroll days, before blaming Smith and company.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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