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
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:
• The Cardinals locked up Chris Carpenter to a $21 million, two-year extension, according to JoeStrauss of the
• 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
• 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.