The Two Towers: Is Arizona’s Front Office Reloading the Diamondbacks or Destroying Them?

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On February 3, the Arizona Diamondbacks announced contract extensions for the franchise’s two most visible leaders, general manager Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson.

At first glance, this seemed like standard operating procedure. The D-backs had promoted Gibson from bench coach to interim manager in July 2010 and hired Towers in September of that year, and both of their deals were set to expire after the 2014 season. Given those circumstances, awarding the extensions made plenty of sense.

What made a lot less sense was the secrecy surrounding the extensions:

“I don’t understand, sometimes, why people in management, why their contract is public knowledge,” Towers said at the time. “I think it’s something people don’t need to have. It’s between myself, [president and CEO] Derrick [Hall], [managing general partner] Ken [Kendrick], and Gibby.”

We know the deals run beyond 2014, but our knowledge ends there, and that uncertainty typifies what’s shaping up to be a weird year in the desert. The Diamondbacks hoped the hush-hush contract proceedings would stifle hot-seat talk and allow the club to reload in peace. That’s hardly been the case, however, as the Diamondbacks have gone from being a 94-win team in 2011 to a .500 club the last two seasons despite making a flurry of moves designed to improve their playoff chances. Arizona’s best pitcher, Patrick Corbin, is out for the year following Tommy John surgery, and while the D-backs have flailed early, many of the players the club has dealt away are off to hot starts elsewhere. The team is off to a 2-8 start, and although there’s little value in overreacting to a small sample size, it’s not too early to wonder if 2014 is going to bring more of the same in Arizona, and if the men in charge deserve more blame than the players on the field.

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Towers and Gibson took over amid an eventual 97-loss season, tied for the second-worst finish in franchise history. Teams don’t go from first to fifth in three years without people losing their jobs, so change was inevitable.

Gibson was a first-time big league manager. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing: Plenty of rookie skippers have proven their mettle over the years, and Gibson had ample coaching experience after serving as Detroit’s bench coach and hitting coach and then Arizona’s bench coach. During his 17-year playing career, Gibby had earned a reputation as a tough, no-B.S. player whose signature moment came while he could barely walk. That same rep carried over to the dugout when he took over as D-backs manager. Gibson is extremely honest and fiercely loyal to his players, which has resulted in some tense — and occasionally volcanic — pregame scrums.

Towers was, and is, a different breed. He spent 14 seasons running the San Diego Padres, making him one of the longest-tenured GMs in recent memory, and a far more seasoned choice as GM than Gibson was as manager. All of those years in the big chair taught Towers that patience isn’t always a virtue; he has very high standards for his players, and has proven more than willing to cut bait when he disapproves of a player’s performance, work habits, or both. Though that approach would seem to be at odds with Gibson’s loyalty, it’s not necessarily a bad stance for a GM to have, and Towers had employed it successfully before. One of his most notable skills as Padres GM was his ability to build excellent bullpens out of little more than scrap-heap pickups. He’d dump a bunch of pitchers, acquire a bunch of new ones on the cheap, and thrive.

In 2011, the first full Towers-Gibson season in Arizona, nearly everything that could go right did, and spectacularly so. The Diamondbacks hit for power, finishing fourth among NL teams in home runs. They played exceptional defense, led by the stout up-the-middle trio of Chris Young, Stephen Drew (when healthy), and Miguel Montero. They ranked second in the NL in stolen bases and third in fewest walks allowed, and won a passel of tight battles that year, going 9-4 in extra innings and 28-16 in one-run games. Gibson won NL Manager of the Year honors for that 94-win campaign, while Towers received his share of praise.

Much of the credit belonged to others, however, with former scouting directors Tom Allison and Mike Rizzo and former GM Josh Byrnes having drafted, developed, or acquired many of the players (including Justin Upton, Montero, Gerardo Parra, Josh Collmenter, Ryan Roberts, Daniel Hudson, and Ian Kennedy) who turned in excellent 2011 seasons. Towers and Gibson did their share, with the GM successfully revamping another bullpen by acquiring J.J. Putz and David Hernandez, and with Gibson making all the pieces fit. Still, with the Giants only one season removed from a World Series (and about to chase down another) and the Dodgers on their way to better times thanks to a combination of homegrown stars and an eventual spending spree, the Diamondbacks knew they needed to keep striving in order to contend in the NL West.

So, they made a few moves. A few months after bagging Aaron Hill in a late-season trade, Towers re-signed the team’s second baseman to a multiyear deal. The GM also nabbed veteran outfielder Jason Kubel on a two-year contract. Those two players combined to smash 56 homers in 2012, with Hill emerging as one of the best second basemen in the league. That winter’s other major pickup, right-hander Trevor Cahill, tossed 200 innings and solidified the solid mid-rotation starter label he’d earned in Oakland. Those three additions bolstered a team that got a breakthrough rookie season from lefty starter Wade Miley, another very good year from Montero, and a promising first full major league season from another homegrown player, burly first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Despite all of those good tidings, the D-backs suffered a precipitous drop in the standings, falling to third place with an 81-81 record.

From a distance, that 13-game tumble might’ve looked like a disastrous result from a team that failed to live up to the potential it had shown a year earlier. In reality, the 2012 Diamondbacks weren’t vastly inferior to the 2011 D-backs; they suffered from winning fewer one-run games. Arizona’s 28-16 record in those contests was the best in baseball in 2011, while the team’s 15-27 mark in 2012 was tied for the worst in the league with the abysmal 101-loss Chicago Cubs.

There are two ways to react when a monumental shift like that occurs. The first is to acknowledge that one-run games are often coin flips, and that luck can play as big of a role as skill. A GM who thinks this way would likely attempt to improve his team in the offseason as usual, but resist the urge to do anything drastic. In Arizona’s case, that would have meant acknowledging that neither a league-best nor league-worst result was an accurate measure of the team’s ability, and that with a few smart tweaks, an 80-something win nucleus could become a contender again in 2013.

Towers reacted the other way. Instead of lending credence to luck, he chose to focus on the team’s failure to deliver big hits late to win games, and he acted accordingly. In 2012, Arizona hit just .236/.305/.368 from the seventh inning on that year, ranking 23rd in the majors; strip out the offense-boosting effects of Chase Field, and the Diamondbacks looked even worse. Towers identified that as the 2012 club’s fatal flaw, and Upton as the avatar for that particular shortcoming.

Towers didn’t come to this conclusion based on nothing. Upton followed a monstrous age-23 campaign in which he hit .289/.369/.529 with 31 homers by hitting just .280/.355/.430 with 17 home runs in 2012. Even more jarring was the way Upton’s numbers plunged in late-game situations. Per Baseball-Reference, Upton hit .308/.394/.560 in “late and close” situations in 2011, making him one of the most devastating hitters in the league in those instances. In 2012, he batted .176/.227/.235 in those spots. While Upton was hardly the only Diamondback to suffer a drop-off in this area, he was supposed to be the team’s best player, and it’s no good when the team’s best player suddenly looks like Tom Glavine at the plate.

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Nearly everything the Diamondbacks have done since the end of that 2012 season has seemingly been geared toward eradicating those un-clutch results. The team:

• Traded Upton and third baseman Chris Johnson to the Braves for Martin Prado, Randall Delgado, and three fringe prospects in Nick Ahmed, Brandon Drury, and Zeke Spruill.

• Traded Chris Young to the A’s for shortstop Cliff Pennington while simultaneously getting reliever Heath Bell from the Marlins.

• Traded for another shortstop, acquiring Didi Gregorius as part of a three-team deal that cost the Diamondbacks the no. 3 pick in the 2011 draft, Trevor Bauer.

• Traded Ian Kennedy to the Padres for reliever Joe Thatcher and minor league reliever Matt Stites.

• Traded Adam Eaton and Tyler Skaggs as part of a three-team deal that netted Mark Trumbo and a minor leaguer.

• Traded now 23-year-old third baseman Matt Davidson to the White Sox for closer Addison Reed.

Both Towers and Gibson have spoken repeatedly about the importance of having “gritty” players. Unsurprisingly, that’s triggered mockery from various analytical writers, who have correctly noted that teams are usually better off valuing talent over intangibles. To be fair, it’s possible to simultaneously value grit and skill. And what’s more, grit isn’t the common thread that’s tied all these moves together. Rather, that tie is Towers’s quick trigger: When players fail to perform, he swaps them for guys he hopes will play better.

Many would argue that baseball requires more patience than Towers has shown, and that in trading away young players like Upton, Bauer, Skaggs, and Eaton in particular, the GM’s impulsiveness has been to the team’s detriment. Towers found some success in San Diego while employing this gunslinger mentality, however, and the Diamondbacks knew that’s what they were getting when they hired him. Plus, while it’s easy to question Towers’s moves, it’s not easy to say they were all poor. While the Diamondbacks are in a bad spot at the moment, the early returns on several of those deals show that Towers might’ve been right, and that smart alecks like me might’ve been wrong.

Upton did bounce back somewhat in 2013, especially after adjusting his offensive numbers for park effects. But he also looked completely lost at times offensively, and he has regressed into one of the worst defensive outfielders in the league. Towers and his team of scouts might’ve surmised that Upton was part of the recent generation of players who peak early. Frankly, Johnson has been as good or better for the Braves than Upton since that deal. Bauer, meanwhile, is still only 23 years old, but the industry consensus on him has quickly shifted from top prospect to challenging project. Young has gone from All-Star to Mendoza Line status. While trading for Pennington and Gregorius in close succession seemed strange, Pennington has yet to show he should be an everyday shortstop in the big leagues, making reinforcements necessary. Kennedy peaked in 2011 and was becoming an expensive, half-decent fourth starter type on a team that couldn’t afford that kind of asset. When Towers realized that former scrap-heap darling Bell was less effective and more expensive, he chucked him overboard to save more cash. Pairing Trumbo with Goldschmidt gave the Diamondbacks two right-handed sluggers who could easily combine for 70 or more homers this year. Finally, nabbing Reed helped Towers solidify a bullpen that had begun to falter.

Of course, there’s a big difference between understanding why a GM made certain moves, and condoning them. And while it’s possible to defend the bulk of Towers’s moves in isolation, it becomes a lot more difficult when considering the sum of the parts. It’s not Towers’s fault that Corbin got hurt, but that doesn’t change the fact this is currently a team with last-place potential. Ultimately, that falls on the men in charge.

We still don’t know who’s going to play shortstop for this team for the bulk of the season, let alone for the next five years. Delgado looks like an iffy choice to make up for Corbin’s absence. While the Cahill trade took place before the team’s barrage of other deals, the Diamondbacks gave up pitchers Jarrod Parker and Ryan Cook in that deal; both Parker and Cook have struggled with injuries, but both have also shown great promise. Hill and Brandon McCarthy are fine players when healthy, but expecting them to hold up over a full season is asking a lot. Concerns over Putz, Brad Ziegler, and others suggest a bullpen that could leak runs all year, even with Reed. And it’s still too soon to know how much Towers gave up long-term by ditching talented, young, and inexpensive players like Eaton, who’s gotten off to a great start for the White Sox, and Skaggs, who looked strong in his first 2014 outing for the Angels.

It’s also too soon to know if Towers and Gibson will even be around to experience that long-term future. If one frustrated party has his or her way, they won’t be. The Diamondbacks’ recent struggles sparked someone to update Towers’s Wikipedia entry to read as follows:

Kevin S. Towers (born November 11, 1961 in Medford, Oregon) is an American professional baseball executive. He is currently the general manager for the Arizona Diamondbacks, but will hopefully be fired very soon, serving in the role since 2010. He has not been able to make a good bullpen since 2011.

It looks like Arizona’s hope to muffle hot-seat talk by keeping the front-office contract terms hush-hush has failed to bear fruit, much like Towers and Gibson’s team-building has failed to return the Diamondbacks to contention. Amid a rash of injuries, poor performances, and snarky fans, it’s easy for the men in charge to lose patience and come out guns a-blazing. In Arizona, however, those bullets have yet to hit their target.

Filed Under: MLB, Arizona Diamondbacks, Kevin Towers, Kirk Gibson, NL West, Justin Upton, Adam Eaton, Tyler Skaggs, Mark Trumbo, Jonah Keri

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri