Struggling Diamondbacks hire Tony La Russa as new Chief Baseball Officer
It's going to be a busy summer for Tony La Russa. Already scheduled to be inducted into the Hall of Fame for his outstanding career as a manager, the 69-year-old La Russa has been named the Chief Baseball Officer of the Arizona Diamondbacks. That could be bad news for general manager Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson, both of whom will come under even more scrutiny.
Coming off a pair of 81-81 finishes that have been as notable for their abrupt personnel purges — Justin Upton, Trevor Bauer, Ian Kennedy and Adam Eaton being the most notable — as their performance, the Diamondbacks are off to their worst start since their 1998 inaugural season. Even having won eight of their last 14 games, they have the majors' third-worst record (16-28) and worst run differential (-73), not to mention an astoundingly awful 4-18 record at Chase Field.
La Russa will report to team president and CEO Derrick Hall and oversee the entire Baseball Operations department, placing him above Towers in the pecking order. Via the statement from Hall in the team's press release, it certainly sounds like the GM and manager, respectively in their fourth and fifth seasons in their current positions, will be under the magnifying glass:
"The entire organization is obviously frustrated with the results on the field and we are looking to improve… Tony brings us a wealth of knowledge, experience and success, and will work closely with Kevin and Kirk in evaluating our current state to determine the future of our baseball operations. He is excited and enthusiastic about the challenge, and we are fortunate to have this Hall of Famer on board and a part of the team."
La Russa spent 33 years as a major league manager for the White Sox (1979-1986), A's (1986-1995) and Cardinals (1996-2011), taking his teams to the postseason 14 times, winning 12 division titles, six pennants and three World Series while compiling a record of 2728-2365 and a .536 winning percentage. Only Connie Mack managed (and lost) more games, while only Mack and John McGraw won more. Only fellow 2014 Hall of Fame inductees Bobby Cox and Joe Torre took more teams to the postseason, and only the latter compiled more postseason wins. La Russa retired after guiding the Cardinals to victory in the 2011 World Series, thus becoming the first manager to go out on top in such fashion.
Along the way, he changed the game via his innovative bullpen management. From Tom Verducci's piece on the occasion of his retirement:
La Russa didn't exactly invent the specialized bullpen. You can go back to guys like then-Cubs manager Herman Franks turning Bruce Sutter into a specialized fireman to close games in the late 1970s. But by winning with his Oakland teams in the late 1980s, La Russa refined it.
In order to give closer Dennis Eckersley as much of a clean window to close games — to start the ninth inning with nobody on base — as he could, La Russa used a parade of lefthanded and righthanded specialists, not to mention sinkerballers and power pitchers, to create matchups in his favor. He would avoid intentional walks or overusing his closer by using as many arms as possible to create matchup advantages.
Since retiring, La Russa has worked for MLB as a special assistant to commissioner Bud Selig and continued his work as part of the 14-member Special Committee for On-Field Matters. He's been particularly visible as one of the architects of the expanded instant replay system and as a frequent spokesman for the league in attempting to clarify the new home plate collision rule.
Even with those responsibilities, it isn't surprising that La Russa has gone back to work for a team. In January, he was a candidate to become president of the Mariners, a job that ultimately went to Kevin Mather, the team's vice president of finance for the previous 18 years. Prior to losing out on that job, La Russa told USA Today's Bob Nightengale:
"I'm interested in getting to the competition upstairs… I've missed the competition since I left the field. I talked to the commissioner [Bud Selig] about it. It's not a thing where you miss the dugout, but I miss the winning and losing.
"The situation has to be right.''
It's questionable as to whether Arizona is the right situation. Not only are the Diamondbacks off to a terrible start that has all but doomed their chances of making the playoffs, but they're headed by an impatient managing partner in Ken Kendrick, whom I've characterized in this space as a desert Steinbrenner wannabe for his hands-on style and penchant for calling out the team's underperforming players (and other employees) in the media. In 2010, he took the rare step of firing general manager Josh Byrnes in midseason.
Towers, who had served as the Padres' GM for 14 years (1996-2009), took over that fall, and under him the D-backs won 94 games and the NL West in 2011 before receding to 81 wins in each of the past two seasons while reshuffling the roster in controversial fashion by selling low on several young players who had recently appeared to be at the center of their plans, often in the name of changing the clubhouse culture. Having given Towers license to bump the payroll from $86.3 million last year to $112.3 million this year (11th in MLB), Kendrick effectively put the GM on notice in late April via a lengthy interview in which he questioned those character-driven roster moves and limited use of analytics.
Towers, who along with Gibson received a contract extension this spring, appears to understand that he's under the gun. As he told ESPN:
"We all thought that with our payroll we had a good chance," he said. "And we got off to a horrible start and [Kendrick] is probably scratching his head. 'Do I have the right manager? Do I have the right general manager? Is this really what we have? Is this really who we are?'
Apparently, La Russa will lead the charge in determining the answers to those questions. In doing so, he'll join a few former colleagues. Roland Hemond, who hired La Russa to manage the White Sox back in 1979, is a special assistant to Hall, while longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan is a special assistant to Towers, and longtime first base coach Dave McKay is currently serving in that capacity on Gibson's staff. Those presences give La Russa eyes and ears at several levels of the organization, so it bears watching how this plays out. The sands could be shifting in Arizona.