Nobody besides maybe the Arizona Diamondbacks themselves figured they'd sniff the playoffs this year, but here they are, within a whisper of clinching an improbable postseason berth. Everyone associated with the team, from club president Derrick Hall to first-year general Kevin Towers to their emotional manager Kirk Gibson to their players, many of whom border on anonymity, deserve credit. Collectively, they've overcome a low payroll, lower expectations, a brutal local economy, limited experience and a fresh memory of last year's stinging disappointment in which they finished last in the NL West, 27 games behind.
Despite keeping the payroll at about $60 million, which is around the same as last year and sixth from the bottom in the majors this year, Towers still made several subtle personnel improvements, using every method possible, from trades to cost-efficient free-agent signings to even Rule V and the minors. The result is a total transformation. The 85-62 first-place Diamondbacks already have won 20 more games than last year, when they were 65-97.
The improved team has a persona that's grittier, a lineup that's less strikeout prone and bullpen that's deeper and better. Towers doesn't want to accept any plaudits, declining through a team spokesman to comment for a story to praise him because he figures it's a team effort. But Hall said flat out about Towers, "He is the architect of an extremely competitive team that has resulted in arguably the most impressive and unthinkable turnaround in our game this season.''
Truthfully, there is not much arguable about it; as Hall said, it is not only impressive but unthinkable. While the Pirates and Indians made their runs before fading out of their respective raves, the Diamondbacks are putting together a total season.
Nobody doubted Towers' pedigree when the respected longtime Padres GM was hired last September, but nearly everyone still envisioned a turnaround being at least a year away. And most figured them to repeat their last-place finish of a year ago. Yet, they are running away in a division that includes the defending World Series champion Giants, whose $118 million payroll is double that of Arizona's. While the D-backs are not especially well-paid (or even that well-known), they appear to have something special going; before finally losing on Sunday, they had won 15 of 17 games overall and 14 straight at Chase Field, and they still lead San Francisco by 8 ½ games with less than three weeks to go.
Towers' most important call of all may have been to retain Gibson, a mid-2010 Hall hire who should win Manager of the Year honors unanimously. The coaching staff, which Towers hired, is similarly long on major league experience, giving the D-backs the gravitas they needed with a young team.
And while Towers benefited from the coming of age of ace Ian Kennedy, who was acquired by the first of two GMs last year, Josh Byrnes, and a full year from Daniel Hudson, who was obtained by the second 2010 GM, Jerry DiPoto, Towers is the one whose many finishing touches helped the upstart team turn the corner. Perhaps no one made more moves. Closer J.J. Putz, who got $10 million guaranteed for two years and was the single largest expenditure, has been worth every penny, with 38 saves in 42 opportunities and a 0.92 WHIP. But today, most of the moves seem sizable in their own way.
New relievers David Hernandez, Joe Paterson and Brad Ziegler joined Putz in a remade bullpen. Utilityman Willie Bloomquist and catcher Henry Blanco added depth. Second baseman Aaron Hill and first baseman Lyle Overbay are recent imports to aid the lineup. And effective right-hander Josh Collmenter and slugger Paul Goldschmidt were judicious callups from a fertile farm system.
Towers also looks very wise not to have dealt young star Justin Upton, who has taken a step toward realizing his vast promise and is the team's lone MVP candidate from its everyday lineup. The big winter trade of powerful but strikeout-prone third baseman Mark Reynolds to Baltimore for a couple relief pitchers, including Hernandez, who saved 11 games when Putz went down, saved a few bucks and didn't hurt the team.
Towers surely has burnished his reputation as a pitching savant through several transactions, transforming Arizona's bullpen from the worst in baseball last year, when it posted a 5.74 ERA, to 18th this year (3.75 ERA). The team probably wasn't as far away as it seemed. But even if he doesn't want the credit, Towers was the guy who smartly figured out exactly what was needed to make them into a contender. This is no small feat, which is why Towers tops my list of the 10 best GM jobs this year. The rest:
2. Ruben Amaro, Phillies. He made arguably the biggest winter pickup when he brought ex-Phillies lefthander Cliff Lee back to Philadelphia for $120 million over five years ($28 million less than the Yankees were offering) and arguably the biggest of the season, too, when he sent four prospects to Houston for outfielder Hunter Pence, who has provided needed righty pop and fit right in. Lee is 16-7 with a 2.44 ERA and a team-high 211 strikeouts, and is a Cy Young candidate. Pence is batting .322 and has a .956 OPS. The Phillies have not disappointed a soul with their brilliant season and are the big World Series favorite.
3. Dave Dombrowski, Tigers. Victor Martinez was one of the best free-agent signings (as opposed to Adam Dunn, whom they also considered), and he has hit .326 and fit right into the Tigers' team. Maybe nobody did better at the trade deadline than Dombrowski, who added Doug Fister, who's 4-1 with a 2.64 ERA now that he's with a team that can support him. Wilson Betemit and Delmon Young have contributed, as well. Joaquin Benoit has come back, now has a 1.10 WHIP and may not be the overpay that he seemed initially. Jhonny Peralta, a solid move a year ago, has gone under the radar but has 18 homers, 77 RBIs and a .304 batting average, even better numbers than those of rival Indians shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera.
4. Brian Cashman, Yankees. While he wasn't able to lure Lee to the Bronx, he made several price-efficient pickups, including Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, Russell Martin, Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones. Folks were making fun of the age on some of these guys, but almost all have wildly exceeded expectations and salary. Colon was a particular bargain at $900,000. Luis Ayala and Cory Wade are among surprises to fortify one of the majors' best bullpens. Credit also is due for getting MVP candidate Curtis Granderson in that sterling three-team trade with the Diamondbacks and Tigers after the 2009 season. Cashman, as we all know by now, was also against the $35 million expenditure for moody reliever Rafael Soriano, which looks like the correct call now, too.
5. Jon Daniels, Rangers. In terms of the players involved, Texas was the big winner of the two-part Vernon Wells trade with the Angels and Blue Jays. In that deal the Rangers received Mike Napoli, who has been nothing short of an offensive force for Texas (25 homers in 320 at-bats, .997 OPS), or just the opposite of what holdover catcher Jeff Mathis has been for the Angels. That may make the difference in the division. Daniels also stole Adrian Beltre, a Los Angeles resident, from the Angels, and Beltre looked like a possible MVP candidate before a leg injury sidelined him. The change of mind to keep Michael Young rather than trade him to Colorado also worked out beautifully, as Young is hitting .336 and is Texas' clear MVP among every-day players. Daniels also attacked their bullpen problem by adding Mike Adams (0.89 WHIP in Texas), Koji Uehara and Mike Gonzalez during the season, turning a weakness into a strength. Endy Chavez has been solid in centerfield and Yorvit Torrealba the same behind the plate, and Darren Oliver has provided the usual solid work from from the 'pen. Bonus points go for the move to transform Alexi Ogando, who's 12-8 with a 3.71 ERA, from a reliever into a starter, same as they did the year before with C.J. Wilson, who's 15-6 with a 3.13 ERA this season. Matt Harrison, 11-9 with a 3.50 ERA, is the latest to pay dividends from the brilliant Mark Teixeira trade.
6. Doug Melvin, Brewers. He emptied out the prospect cabinet to seriously upgrade a rotation with trades for Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. The Nationals seemed prepared to pay more for Greinke, but when the mercurial righthander wouldn't go to Washington, Melvin managed to get him and veteran shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt from Kansas City for immature shortstop Alcides Escobar, plus speedy outfielder Lorenzo Cain and pitching prospects Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi, while Marcum came from Toronto for top-hitting prospect Brett Lawrie. Nyjer Morgan arrived from Washington and has had himself a superb season, though he upset Tony La Russa (and some others) with an over-the-top Twitter rant as alter ego Tony Plush. Long-established closer Francisco Rodriguez gave them the setup man they needed, LaTroy Hawkins has bounced back to provide solid relief and Takashi Saito generally has been effective. Melvin understood this was the year to go for it, with star first baseman Prince Fielder likely to leave via free agency following the season. And so he did.
7. Andrew Friedman, Rays. Tampa has weathered the losses of Carl Crawford, Carlos Peña, Matt Garza, Joaquin Benoit and Soriano (all but Pena has slipped a bit away from Tampa), and with an influx of more good young players and more astute moves, the Rays are putting a late scare into the Red Sox despite a payroll that's near the bottom again. Friedman rebuilt the 'pen, and Kyle Farnsworth (1.01 WHIP) and Joel Peralta (0.96 WHIP) are having nice years, with newcomers Alex Cobb, Adam Russell and Juan Cruz also contributing. Slick-fielding Casey Kotchman is hitting a surprise .314; Johnny Damon has 14 steals, 14 homers and a lot more heroics; and Sam Fuld was Superman for a while. Top outfield prospect Desmond Jennings has shown surprising power (nine homers, .916 OPS) since his callup. With the prospects from trade that sent startin pitcher Matt Garza to the Cubs, including highly-ranked pitcher Chris Archer, and 12 draft choices in the first 80, all signed, the future looks secure despite absurdly low revenues.
8. Theo Epstein, Red Sox. The Adrian Gonzalez deal looks even better today, with Gonzalez leading the AL in hitting and becoming the latest great left-hander to use the Green Monster to his advantage. Crawford hasn't worked out as expected so far. But Alfredo Aceves was a steal (from the Yankees, no less) for $600,000, and he is 9-2 with a 1.12 WHIP. Jarrod Saltalamacchia has become a viable starting catcher, surprising many. Despite their riches, Epstein's Red Sox were built mostly through perceptive drafts, and toward that end, Jacoby Ellsbury showed unexpected power and became an MVP candidate, Dustin Pedroia remains the soul of the team, and Jonathan Papelbon bounced back to have perhaps his best season ever. The Sox must stem their recent slide, though, that has seen their wild card lead shrink to just 3 ½ games over Tampa Bay.
9. Frank Wren, Braves. The Braves look like a player-producing machine, incorporating Freddie Freeman (.296 batting average, .823 OPS) and Brandon Beachy (7-2) into the mix this season, the year after they did the same with Jason Heyward, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel (who is technically still a rookie). They have so many excellent prospects that they were able to trade for speedster Michael Bourn ( who's hitting .297 with the Braves) to shore up a weakness without touching any of their four vaunted pitching hopefuls. All four -- Randall Delgado, Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino and Mike Minor -- have made cameos with the big club, highlighting a bright future. Dan Uggla was hurting them for a while, but then had his thrilling 33-game hitting streak and now has 33 home runs.
10. Alex Anthopoulos, Blue Jays. He made the deal of the winter, unloading Vernon Wells and all but $5 million of the $86 million on his albatross of a contract, and he used that money to lock up Jose Bautista, maybe the best player in the game, on a bargain $65 million deal that was heavily criticized at the time. He also managed to come away with the multitalented Colby Rasmus at the trade deadline. Definitely didn't hurt his reputation as a young genius.
• The Cardinals locked up Chris Carpenter to a $21 million, two-year extension, according to JoeStrauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as they try to clear their calendar for the big negotiations of the winter involving mega-star Albert Pujols. The Cardinals would like to re-sign Lance Berkman, as well. Carpenter had a $14 million team option for 2012 that was deemed a tad high, and this was a reasonable compromise. The Cardinals are favored to re-sign Pujols, though they are said to be something less than completely confident.
• There are high-ranking people in MLB who would love to see MLB exec Kim Ng, a University of Chicago product and ex-White Sox executive (and formerly of the Dodgers, as well) get the chance to be the Cubs' next GM. It isn't known what her chances are to break through the glass ceiling and become the first female GM in baseball, however.
• GM Neal Huntington was rewarded with a three-year extension by the Pirates, largely on the strength of the team's improvement this year, though the draft where they signed Gerrit Cole and Josh Bell didn't hurt, either.
• Davey Johnson will be back as Nationals manager, barring a change of heart on his part, though the team is required to conduct a search. Meanwhile, the Marlins decided at a recent organizational meeting that Jack McKeon will be back in some capacity, but not as manager.
• Matt Kemp's agent, Dave Stewart, told TylerKepner of The New York Times that the Dodgers haven't approached them about an extension lately. One was discussed more than a year ago, and at that time Kemp was believed to be looking at Nick Markakis' $60 million, six-year extension. The price has presumably increased quite a bit since then.
• Dodgers GM Ned Colletti told writers in L.A. that team execs aren't expecting major changes on the club next season. That shouldn't be a big surprise, since owner Frank McCourt is in bankruptcy. The Dodgers have gone 31-22 since the break and have played especially well in recent weeks.
• Top pitching prospects Trevor Bauer and Jarrod Parker could be called up by Arizona to give them a taste of pennant baseball, reported Peter Gammons. Bauer was the No. 3 overall pick in July.
• Eyes are on the Rays, who promoted baseball's top pitching prospect, Matt Moore, a left-handed strikeout artist.
• The Angels have perhaps baseball's best defensive outfield, with Peter Bourjos in center, flanked by two former centerfielders Torii Hunter and Wells. But it might be even faster in coming years, when top prospect Mike Trout and Jeremy Moore could join Bourjos.
• Ex-Mets GM Omar Minaya expects to be with a new team before the winter meetings. The Indians and Rays are believed to be clubs that have shown interest.
• The Mets are gearing up to make a serious try for Jose Reyes, but are leery of another team breaking the bank for the multitalented yet injury-prone shortstop who can be a free-agent at season's end. Reyes, who grew up in the organization from the time he was 16 and is now 28, has told people that he prefers to stay.
• Tigers ace Justin Verlander has had a 10-game winning streak, coinciding with a slump for Curtis Granderson and a team-wide slide for the Red Sox, who have MVP candidates Adrian Gonzalez, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia -- and has probably made himself the AL MVP favorite at this point.
• The NL Cy Young race is interesting, with Clayton Kershaw's stats just a touch better than those of Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, who pitch for a much better team but in a tougher park for pitchers. Kershaw also has won three matchups with two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum. I'll take Kershaw so far.
• MLB should have let the Mets wear the FDNY and NYPD caps on Sept. 11.