Tony La Russa is going with his ace again, and going against the grain of MLB's recent hires. The Diamondbacks' chief of baseball operations has tabbed Dave Stewart — his top starting pitcher during his run of success with the Athletics in the late 1980s and early '90s — to be Arizona's new general manager, succeeding Kevin Towers, who was fired earlier this month with the team en route to its worst season of his four-year tenure. Atop Stewart's agenda will be the search for a new manager, as the team announced the firing of Kirk Gibson and bench coach Alan Trammell at the press conference to introduce Stewart and senior vice president of baseball operations DeJon Watson.
The 57-year-old Stewart has a diverse resume, having spent 16 years in the major leagues between 1978 and 1995, and since then working as a pitching coach, special assistant, assistant general manager and player agent. For all of that experience, his hiring is a move that bucks several trends, though one that offers no guarantees of returning the Diamondbacks to contention in the NL West.
In an age where general managers usually come to the job either as career minor leaguers who rose through the player development ranks or as young (often Ivy League) college graduates with no experience in organized baseball but a fluency in statistical analysis as well as familiarity with the scouting side, Stewart becomes of just four ex-major leaguers in that post. He joins the Phillies' Ruben Amaro Jr., the Athletics' Billy Beane and the Angels' Jerry Dipoto. He's also the first former All-Star to hold a GM job since 2007, the final year on the job for the Orioles' Mike Flanagan and the Angels' Bill Stoneman.
More notably, given that he was critical of baseball for its lack of minority hiring when he left the Blue Jays' front office in November 2001, Stewart becomes one of just three current minority GMs, according to the MLB Racial and Gender Report Card; Amaro and the Astros' Jeff Luhnow are the others. He's just the sixth African-American GM in major league history, following in the footsteps of Bill Lucas (Braves, 1976-79), Bob Watson (Astros, 1994-95; Yankees, 1996-97), Kenny Williams (White Sox, 2000-12), Mike Hill (Marlins, 2007-13) and Tony Reagins (Angels, 2008-11). Williams and Hill have since been promoted to higher executive positions.
It's his playing days for which Stewart is best known. A 1975 draft pick by the Dodgers, the Oakland native struggled to establish himself as a starter with the Dodgers (1978, 1981-83), Rangers (1983-85) and Phillies (1985-86) to the point that he was released in May 1986, having pitched just 16 2/3 innings for the latter. The A's quickly picked him up, and when they turned to La Russa to manage later that year, Stewart began a 6 1/2-season run as a rotation regular, developing a devastating forkball under the tutelage of pitching coach Dave Duncan to complement his fastball/power slider combo.
Accompanied by an intimidating glare and a willingness to pitch inside, that expanded arsenal turned Stewart from merely an imposing mound presence into an imposing and successful one. From 1987 through 1990, he reached the 20-win plateau and finished in the top-four in the AL Cy Young balloting each year, leading the league in starts three times in that span (as well as in 1991), in innings and complete games twice apiece and in shutouts once. In 1989, when he went 21-9 with a 3.32 ERA, he was runner-up to Bret Saberhagen in the Cy Young voting, but it was 1990 when he set career bests with 22 wins and a 2.56 ERA while pacing the circuit in starts (36), complete games (11), innings (267) and shutouts (four) — a superior season to teammate Bob Welch (27-6, 2.95), who won the Cy Young.
The A's won pennants in 1988, 1989 and 1990, beating the Giants in the earthquake-interrupted World Series in the middle of that run, and Stewart was their top postseason pitcher. He earned World Series MVP honors in 1989 with a pair of victories and a 1.69 ERA, then was the ALCS MVP the following year against the Red Sox and again with the Blue Jays in 1993 against the White Sox. For his career, he went 10-6 with a 2.77 ERA in the postseason; he still holds the LCS record for career wins (eight). After spending 1993 and 1994 with the Blue Jays, he returned for one more season in Oakland, La Russa's last before departing for St. Louis.
After retiring, Stewart spent the 1996-2001 period serving in a variety of uniformed and front office capacities. He was a special assistant to GMs Sandy Alderson in Oakland (1996) and Towers in San Diego (1997), the pitching coach for the Padres (1998, when they won the NL pennant), Blue Jays (2000), and Brewers (2002), and assistant general manager for the Blue Jays (1998-2001). He left Toronto after being bypassed in favor of J.P Ricciardi as Gord Ash's successor following the 2001 season, disillusioned by MLB's poor track record in hiring minorities in front office positions.
Among Stewart's scathing comments, he told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "I'm losing faith and losing hope. I know that other minorities may have been looking up to me to make things better for them. But I've lost hope in the direction that baseball is going with minorities." To the Toronto Star, he added, "The more qualified guy didn't get the job. I can swallow some (crap) but I can't swallow this much. ... If anyone's going to tell me that [Ricciardi] is as qualified, or more qualified, than me, I will tell you that you are 100 [percent] wrong."
Upon leaving, Stewart started a sports agency, Stewart Management Partners, in 2002. Former A's third baseman Eric Chavez was his first big-name client; Stewart netted him a six-year, $66 million deal that didn't age well due to Chavez's injuries, but he went on to represent more than 20 major and minor league players, most notably including Chad Billingsley, Chris Carter and Matt Kemp, whose eight-year, $160 million deal signed in November 2011 was the seventh-largest in major league history at the time. Stewart has been particularly outspoken during Kemp's ups and downs with the Dodgers, though in deciding to pursue the Arizona GM job, he told the San Francisco Chronicle's John Shea, "As an agent, I’m not challenged every day. But this job is 24 hours every day, and I’m looking forward to that.” In taking the Diamondbacks' job, he'll turn his agency over to former teammate Dave Henderson, a partner in his firm.
Stewart will have his work cut out for him with Arizona, which under Towers won the NL West flag in 2011, then followed that with a pair of 81-81 seasons notable mainly for the GM's overhaul of the roster in the name of "grit" and "eye-for-an-eye" retribution, along with a purge that sent Justin Upton, Trevor Bauer, Adam Eaton and Ian Kennedy away. Meanwhile, Towers increasing their 2014 Opening Day payroll to a club record $112.3 million (12th in the majors), in part via free agent deals (Bronson Arroyo, Brandon McCarthy, Cody Ross), extensions (Aaron Hill) and trades (Trevor Cahill, Mark Trumbo) that haven't panned out.
This year's Diamondbacks haven't spent a single day above .500; they were 16-28 when La Russa was brought onboard above Towers, and while they went 39-39 from May through July, they sank to 9-18 in August in the wake of trades and Paul Goldschmidt's season-ending hand fracture. Thus far, they're 6-17 in September, a slide that has conveniently put them in line for the first overall pick in next year's amateur draft, but one that spelled the death knell of Gibson's regime:
On the other hand, a tweet from Diamondbacks beat reporter Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic suggests that characterization may have been overstated:
Generally speaking, players I spoke to were disappointed by Gibson firing. Things he could have done better? Sure. But he was respected.— Nick Piecoro (@nickpiecoro) September 26, 2014
Candidates mentioned by Nightengale, Piecoro and others include Mike Aldrete, Jay Bell, Joe McEwing, Phil Nevin, Jose Oquendo and Terry Steinbach — all of whom have either some ties to the Diamondbacks or to La Russa's time in Oakland or St. Louis. Trammell will serve as interim manager despite being dismissed as bench coach.
Stewart inherits a roster that has $67.25 million committed to nine players for next year, with Arroyo, Cahill, Hill, Montero and Ross all making at least $9 million; that quintet has combined for a sorry -1.9 WAR this year. He'll have a good number of cost-controlled assets to build around in Goldschmidt, shortstop Chris Owings, outfielders A.J. Pollock and David Peralta, pitchers Wade Miley, Josh Collmenter, Patrick Corbin (who underwent Tommy John surgery in March), Daniel Hudson (who recently returned from his second TJ), Chase Anderson, Evan Marshall, and Addison Reed.
The team also has a trio of well-regarded pitching prospects in the upper levels of the minors in Archie Bradley, Braden Shipley and Aaron Blair, all of whom placed on Baseball America's Midseason Top 50 Prospects List, with Bradley at No. 12; he was expected to see time in the majors this year, but elbow woes and the team's trainwreck season have precluded that.
Helping to beef up the Diamondbacks' minor league system will be Watson, who was named senior vice president of baseball operations after spending the past eight years in the Dodgers' front office, most recently as vice president of player development. Watson has been a key figure in the development of All-Stars such as Kemp, Dee Gordon, Clayton Kershaw and Yasiel Puig; he interviewed for the Diamondbacks' GM opening in 2010 before Towers was hired. As for Towers, it sounds as though he will remain with the Diamondbacks in a diminished role, no surprise given his ties to Stewart.
Stewart's hiring marks La Russa's first real chance to put his stamp on the organization beyond wielding an axe. He's gone out on a limb to tab a first-time GM, albeit one who will be surrounded by mentors in his former manager, former pitching coach (Duncan joined the Diamondbacks as pitching consultant last November) and former GM — a group that could help insulate him from the inevitable criticism of managing partner/desert Steinbrenner wannabe Ken Kendrick. Stewart is set up for success, because for a team that's slipped to the very bottom, there's nowhere to go but up.