December 16, 2015

Thirteen years ago this month the Twins released David Ortiz

All professional sports teams have their share of bad personnel moves: paying too much for a free agent, getting stuck on the wrong end of a bad trade or letting go of a player who becomes a much improved player elsewhere.

Some teams (see the Seattle Mariners) struggle with their personnel moves more than other teams, but even the Twins had a doozy 13 years ago when they decided to release David Ortiz.

Ortiz, as most of us know, went on to become a major star for the Boston Red Sox, helping the team win its first World Series since 1918 in 2004, followed by two more in 2007 and 2013. Ortiz, who is now set to retire after the 2016 season, developed into a clutch-hitting power hitter. He has hit more than 500 home runs and likely will wind up in the Hall of Fame.

So what were the Twins thinking in December 2002?

That’s essentially the question that Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe asked of Twins GM Terry Ryan earlier this year. Cafardo didn’t get a very definitive answer, but his story raises three possibilities for the release of Ortiz: a bad baseball decision, friction between then-manager Tom Kelly and Ortiz, or it came down to money.

Ortiz, better known as David Arias in those days, was traded by the Seattle Mariners to the Twins in 1996. He raced through the minors and played his first games with the Twins the following year.

“We just made a bad baseball decision,” Twins GM Ryan told the Globe. “I can’t say David ever did one thing wrong. He was one of our best hitting prospects. We put him on our 40-man roster when he was in A ball. He just stormed through our minor league system; played at three levels in one year.”

Ortiz said he has a lot of respect for Ryan, but perhaps not much respect for former Twins manager Tom Kelly.

“I don’t think he really liked me,” said Ortiz of Kelly to the Globe. “I don’t know why. That was his style, not just with me. He was hard on young players. He was the kind of manager who liked veteran players. He never liked me.”

In 2002, Ortiz had his best year for the Twins, hitting 20 homers and driving in 75 runs. He was set to make about $1.5 million in arbitration and then the Twins let him go. Ortiz would sign with the Red Sox for $1.25 million. Twins GM Ryan disputes that money was a factor in his release, according to the Globe story.

Twenty homers pales to the kind of numbers Ortiz put up for the Red Sox. They include 148 RBIs in 2005, 54 home runs in 2006 and 52 doubles in 2007. Imagine Ortiz on those division winning Twins teams in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2010? Just as he was the difference in helping the Red Sox finally break though against the Yankees, he may have done the same for the Twins in the playoffs.

And Ortiz would’ve been in the middle of a Twins lineup that included Torii Hunter, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau — and all of them in their prime.

Although he was released by the Twins, Ortiz, in some ways, never left. Ortiz wears No. 34 for the Red Sox to honor friend and former Twins teammate Kirby Puckett.

COMMENTS

Hi, I’m Rolf Boone and I love the Twins.

I became a fan of the Minnesota Twins after a friendly wager in the early 1980s. I survived Ron Davis, the meltdown in Cleveland, Phil Bradley at the Kingdome and then marveled at a rising generation of stars and two World Series wins in 1987 and 1991. Brad Radke made the 1990s bearable, while Kirby Puckett’s eye injury, exit from the game and eventual death made it almost too much to bear. The new century ushered in more talent — Joe Mauer, Johan Santana, Joe Nathan, Torii Hunter, Justin Morneau — and consecutive seasons of playoff baseball, followed by consecutive seasons of losing baseball. A winning season returned in 2015. So here we are. Go Twins.