MINNEAPOLIS When Terry Ryan took over for Bill Smith as the Minnesota Twins' interim general manager Monday, he knew he had his work cut out for him. The Twins finished the 2011 season with their worst record since 1982 and were last in the American League Central for the first time since 2000.
Injuries doomed Minnesota in 2011, and now the Twins are faced with several big offseason decisions. Ryan has sat in the general manager's chair before, as he was Minnesota's GM from 1994-2007 before retiring and recommending Smith for the job. But many challenges await Ryan as he returns to his old post. Here's what he had to say about the tough road ahead in an exclusive interview with FOX Sports North.
FSN: What are some of the biggest challenges you think you'll face as general manager?
RYAN: We lost 99 games last year, and that puts us 32 games out. That's a long haul here. We had a lot of things happen last year that contributed to that. Some of them are very correctable. Some of them will have to wait until spring training. But I think with a little tweaking maybe a lot of tweaking, actually addressing the roster, seeing what's available between free agents and all the things that present themselves through the course of the winter months, we can correct some of these things and get to work down there in spring training in Fort Myers and see if we can get back to some of the fundamental baseball we're used to.
FSN: The Twins had four players file for free agency, including All-Star outfielder Michael Cuddyer. What has he meant to this organization, and how much would you like to see him stay in Minnesota?
RYAN: He's the longest-tenured player in the organization. We drafted him out of high school down there in Virginia. He's been everything that you'd ever want in a representative of the Twins organization. He believes in accountability. He believes in fundamental baseball. He believes in everything we are about, on and off the field. Those are some of the attributes you're always looking for when you either acquire or retain a player. He's got all those things. He knows what this community is about. He knows what the Twins are about. He's been on winning ballclubs here. He's got a lot of the things that you look for in a leader in the clubhouse and on the field.
FSN: Closer Joe Nathan is another player who is now a free agent. He feels he's back to where he was before his Tommy John surgery in 2010. Do you agree?
RYAN: Yeah, I do. I think his breaking ball has had the power and the spin and the tilt. His fastball is in the 90s. You don't have to be a fogger out there to be a good closer. It doesn't hurt, but I think it comes down to more location and having other pitches maybe to set up your fastball. Joe's got all that. He even implemented a changeup quite often in the last month. So yes, I believe Joe is pretty close to being back, if not back.
FSN: Outfielder Jason Kubel and reliever Matt Capps are the two other free agents. What do you see in their futures?
RYAN: First off, on Capps, I think everybody agrees that Matt had a difficult year. Some of it was because we had to use him so frequently. We put him out there many times in those two-inning situations. His stuff, his makeup, his availability, health, accountability, there are a lot of positives with Matt. I would say that anybody looking for bullpen help, you'd have to have interest in him. Granted, he had a little bit of a tough year for us, but nonetheless there are many relievers in the game that go on and off. It's tough to get a read on relievers. I wouldn't give up on Matt Capps. Kubel, he had a difficult health year, but he's still in the prime of his career. I know that he has interest in playing the outfield, and he's a pretty good outfielder, in my opinion. He's got power. I don't think this ballpark is going to intimidate him. He can play left and he can play right and he also is a guy he never hid from the media, he never hid from anybody. He's a standup guy.
FSN: What other areas are you hoping to address this offseason?
RYAN: Pitching. It would be nice if we'd get all our starters back to health. That would certainly help. But we do need to firm up that bullpen. We had a difficult year on the mound, particularly our bullpen. We probably pushed some of those younger kids up there a little fast. I think if you can clean up some of your pitching and I talked (Monday) about firming up that defense it'll go a long way to helping us win games.
FSN: Shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka struggled at shortstop last year after coming to the Twins from Japan. Will there be competition at the shortstop position in spring training?
RYAN: I think we need to create competition at that position. We struggled there mightily. I don't think really right now you could anoint anybody out there from what we've seen. We need to create chances, choices, opportunities. There should be some people there that we should have the ability to pick from. I'm going to give Nishioka a mulligan here. The transition from Japan to the U.S. is huge, No. 1. Two, he was hurt. Language there's all kinds of things. The pace of the game over here, the size of the ballparks, the way we play compared to what goes on in the Japanese leagues. It's different. So with all that being included here into his equation, hopefully the second time will be certainly more productive and healthy than the first.
FSN: Catcher Joe Mauer missed a lot of time with injuries in 2011, including two months with bilateral leg weakness. Are you confident he can return to spring training healthy, or is his health a question mark for this team?
RYAN: I'm led to believe and I haven't talked to Joe yet I'm led to believe that he's doing pretty well, and that's encouraging. We've got some months here to make sure that he's prepared for spring training. I don't think there's anybody more interested in getting out there for 130 games than Joe is. That certainly would be welcomed not only for our pitching staff but for our offense as well.
FSN: You said Monday that you estimate the 2012 payroll to be somewhere around 100 million, which is about 15 million less than it was in 2011. Will that be an issue as you try to rebuild after last year?
RYAN: I think payroll figures are an excuse. I've never worried about it. Ultimately, what we can afford, we usually spend. When we come to a figure, it's usually because of the revenue that's generated from ticket sales and the ballpark and all that good stuff. You'll never hear me talk too much about payroll. It doesn't hurt to have dollars, but I don't think that's the overall gauge on how you're going to do with the win-loss record. It wasn't too long ago we had a 40 million payroll and we were quite successful. Tampa Bay had a 40 million payroll this year. We've got to make good decisions and good baseball decisions and get a little lucky. But that's not the end-all when it comes to putting a good team out on the field.
FSN: Any other challenges you foresee as you take over the reins as GM?
RYAN: Yeah, I've got a lot of challenges, there's no doubt. This organization, we've got to clean up some things. We've got to get back to our brand of baseball. We've got some issues as far as some of the minor league stuff, particularly at Triple-A. So there's a lot on our plates right now. All of it can be addressed and will be addressed, hopefully by the time we leave for spring training in February. We'll have this roster to where we're comfortable going to spring training and coming out of spring training.