Arizona's slide from contender to cellar dweller can be laid at the feet of Kevin Towers, who was let go as the team's general manager on Friday.
Kevin Towers arrived in Arizona with a strong reputation based on his 14-year run as the general manager of the small-market Padres. After finding initial success at the helm of the Diamondbacks via the 2011 NL West flag, however, he turned the team into a national punchline, justifying a roster overhaul in the name of "grit" and "eye-for-an-eye" retribution, sending several talented young players elsewhere in exchange for lesser players in deals that unsurprisingly didn't pan out. With the Diamondbacks sitting at 22 games under .500 (59-81) and headed toward their worst season on his watch, Towers was fired on Friday, though he has been offered another role elsewhere in the front office and will stay in his current role until the search for a new GM is complete.
Towers' dismissal was several months in the making. On the heels of back-to-back 81-81 seasons, the Diamondbacks opened by losing 22 of the season’s first 30 games; they haven't spent a single day above .500 in 2014. They were 16-28 in mid-May when Tony LaRussa was hired as the team's Chief Baseball Officer and placed above him in the pecking order. While the team leveled off via a 39-39 stretch from May through July, Towers was forced to dismantle the roster he'd built via several trades more bent on cost-cutting than returning talent. The team's 9-18 August probably didn't seal his fate so much as hasten a decision on it; what remains to be seen is the fate of manager Kirk Gibson, who bears responsibility for his own gaffes in the name of instilling that retributive culture.
A former pitcher in the Padres' system (1982-89), Towers served as a minor league pitching coach and a scout for San Diego and Pittsburgh before rejoining the Padres' front office as scouting director in 1993. Named the vice president of baseball operations and general manager in November 1995, he soon found success, as the team won its first of four NL West titles during his tenure the following season — just the second flag in their 28-year history to that point. Two years later, the Padres set a franchise record with 98 wins while capturing their second pennant, though they ran into the Yankees' 114-win juggernaut in the World Series.
Though a dry spell of five straight losing seasons followed, San Diego's fortunes changed after moving into Petco Park in 2004. The Padres won back-to-back division titles in 2005 and 2006, and Towers earned accolades thanks to his ability to build to the park's pitcher-friendly strengths. He was fired after the 2009 season amid a prolonged ownership transfer that wound up taking 4 1/2 years to complete; after a season as an assignment scout for the Yankees, he was hired by the Diamondbacks in late September 2010.
Towers took over a team that had fired GM Josh Byrnes in July en route to a 97-loss season, its third straight in decline from a 2007 division flag and NLCS berth. The GM chose to retain Gibson, who had been hired in midseason to replace A.J. Hinch, and despite just a $55.9 million payroll (MLB’s sixth-lowest according to Cot's Contracts), the D-backs rebounded to 94 wins and another NL West title before losing to the Brewers in the Division Series. Though payroll rose by nearly $20 million, they slipped to 81 wins the following year, during which managing general partner Ken Kendrick kicked off his desert Steinbrenner wannabe phase by publicly calling out injured shortstop Stephen Drew and slumping rightfielder Justin Upton; in a radio interview, he said the former, who was rehabbing his way back from a major ankle injury that included both a fracture and torn ligaments "should have been out there playing before now, frankly," and described the latter as an "enigma" who had not developed into a consistent performer.
It’s not hard to connect the dots between those comments and what has transpired in Arizona since, as Towers followed ownership's mandate to build a tougher team with zeal. He traded Drew, a pending free agent, to Oakland in August and sent Upton, a 25-year-old two-time All-Star to that point, to Atlanta the following January as part of a seven-player deal that brought back Martin Prado and Randall Delgado. "Different clubs like to look for certain intangibles," he told reporters at the time of the latter move. "We like that gritty, grinder type. Hard-nosed. I'm not saying Justin isn't that type of guy." Subsequent references to Upton's body language, however — "Sometimes people's mannerisms and the way they carry themselves, they might not perceive him as the grinder type" — made clear that the GM was at least implying that about the young slugger.
In another personality-driven move earlier that winter, Towers traded 2011 first-round draft pick Trevor Bauer to the Indians in a three-team, nine-player blockbuster; the centerpiece of the return was light-hitting shortstop Didi Gregorius, with USA Today's Bob Nightengale describing the remainder of the package as "two middle relievers and a washed-up first base prospect." Though Bauer had won the team's minor league pitcher of the year honors in 2012, he struggled in four starts with the big club, earning vocal criticism from catcher Miguel Montero for shaking off signs and drawing questions for his unorthodox training regimen, which included pregame long-tossing from foul pole to foul pole.
While the team's payroll increased again, this time to $90.3 million (17th in the majors), those grit-based moves didn't pan out, to say the least. Upton homered 12 times in his first month with the Braves, and while his performance leveled off, he and third baseman Chris Johnson (who hit .321/.358/.457) helped Atlanta coast to the NL East flag. Prado, who was signed to a four-year, $40 million extension upon being acquired, had a solid season (.282/.333/.417), but Delgado, a former top pitching prospect, struggled to keep the ball in the park during his 19 starts. Bauer didn't exactly find his footing upon arriving in Cleveland, but Arizona didn't exactly get the better of the deal. Gregorius, who had a reputation as "a plus-glove/no-bat shortstop prospect" (ESPN's Keith Law) — he wowed Towers in the Arizona Fall League to the point that the GM gushed, "When I saw him he reminded me of a young Derek Jeter" — went on a tear after being promoted early in the season, but cooled off and fell below prospect Chris Owings on the depth chart by its close.
With the Diamondbacks slouching towards a second straight 81-81 season, Towers traded struggling Ian Kennedy to the Padres in a July 31 deadline move that brought back situational lefty Joe Thatcher and another reliever, a meager return given that Kennedy had been viewed as the staff ace as recently as 2011. He had also seemed to exemplify some of the grit that Towers and Gibson desired by touching off a beanball war with the Dodgers just six weeks prior.
Soon after the Dodgers gained revenge by clinching the division title in Arizona and taking an unauthorized dip in the Chase Field pool, Towers dismissed pitching coach Charles Nagy. Hearkening back to a September game in which Los Angeles players had hit six home runs but weren't thrown at in retaliation, Towers spoke of a need for "eye for an eye" mentality from the Diamondbacks' pitchers, saying during a radio interview, "[I]f you have options, there's ways to get you out of here, and if you don't follow suit or you don't feel comfortable doing it, you probably don't belong in a Diamondbacks uniform."
The character-driven moves continued. In December, Towers sent centerfielder Adam Eaton — on whom he had lavished preseason praise as a table-setter who could get under opponents' skin — to the White Sox and pitcher Tyler Skaggs to the Angels in a three-team deal that brought back Mark Trumbo. Eaton had suffered a sprained UCL during spring training that limited him to 66 games; judging by the anonymous teammates' comments of him as a "selfish me-me player" who "irked people in the clubhouse" with an "attitude that had a tendency to wear on people," he succeeded only in getting under his own teammates' skin. Skaggs had been a well-regarded pitching prospect, but he lost velocity amid the organization's attempt to remake his mechanics. Eaton has hit .310/.377/.414 on the South Side, while Skaggs found intermittent success with the Angels (4.30 ERA through 18 starts) before succumbing to Tommy John surgery in late July. Meanwhile, Trumbo missed 11 weeks due to a stress fracture in his left foot and has hit .239/.307/.385 en route to -0.8 WAR, with his terrible defense in leftfield (-6 Defensive Runs Saved) undercutting Towers' wisdom of trading for a DH type and putting him in the field.
Such moves are hardly the only ones of Towers' that have backfired. On the trade front, a five-player December 2011 swap with the Athletics centered around top pitching prospect Jarrod Parker and Trevor Cahill saw Parker help Oakland to back-to-back division titles before requiring Tommy John surgery (his second) this spring, with reliever Ryan Cook earning All-Star honors as a rookie as well. Cahill delivered two seasons of roughly league-average performance, but pitched his way out of the rotation and even to the minors earlier this year; he's still owed $12 million for next year. A three-way October 2012 deal for pricey deposed closer Heath Bell exemplified Towers' inability to replicate the success he enjoyed in San Diego by building strong bullpen casts out of other teams' castoffs, though he was unable to unload Bell on the Rays without having to absorb much money.
On the free agent front, moves that further helped escalate the team's payroll to a franchise-record $112.3 million (12th in the majors) didn't turn out well either:
• A two-year, $11 million dollar deal for Aaron Hill, who Towers acquired in August 2011, initially paid off with a 26-homer, 5.0 WAR season in 2012. But via injuries and decline, he's delivered just 21 homers and 0.4 WAR in two seasons since, that while being granted a three-year, $35 million extension through 2016.
• A two-year, $16 million free agent deal for outfielder Jason Kubel looked superficially acceptable when he bopped 30 homers and slugged .506 in 2012, but his defensive ineptitude limited his value to just 1.1 WAR that year, and he was designated for assignment after slipping to five homers the following season.
• A three-year, $26 million deal for Cody Ross in December 2012 created the outfield logjam that cut into Kubel's time and continued to resonate with the trades of Eaton in December and Gerardo Parra to the Brewers in July.
• The December 2012 signing of Brandon McCarthy to a two-year, $18 million deal and the February 2014 addition of Bronson Arroyo via a two-year, $23.5 million deal both went south, albeit for different reasons. The team apparently discouraged the former from throwing his cutter and he was knocked around for a 4.75 ERA in parts of two seasons before being dealt to the Yankees on July 6 for Vidal Nuno; restoring the pitch to his arsenal, he's pitched to a 2.80 ERA in the Bronx. The ultra-durable Arroyo, who had averaged 33 starts and 211 innings for the previous nine seasons, made 14 starts before needing Tommy John surgery.
Indeed, the Diamondbacks' struggles this year forced Towers to deal from a position of weakness as he cut payroll; the team sent $2.05 million to the Yankees — the Yankees! — in the McCarthy trade and received back-rotation starter Vidal Nuno, who admittedly has fared well thus far as a Diamondback despite limited upside. Prado was traded to the Yankees on July 31 for Double-A slugger Peter O'Brien, who has played his way off catcher while earning a description as "a poor man's Mark Trumbo" (Law, again) for his low on-base percentage and lack of a future defensive home. Parra, considered one of the game's best defensive outfielders, brought back two prospects, no doubt a lesser return than what Towers once sought for him.
Whoever he may be, Towers' successor will inherit a team 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 -0.5 WAR this year. Owings, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, outfielders A.J. Pollock and David Peralta, pitchers Wade Miley, Patrick Corbin (another TJ victim), Daniel Hudson (recently returned from his second TJ), Chase Anderson, Addison Reed and prospect Archie Bradley will provide cost-controlled assets to build around. But in a division ruled by the bigger-spending Dodgers and Giants, the team has its work cut out to make up lost ground.
LaRussa will head that search and begin interviewing candidates this week. The Arizona Republic's Nick Piecoro identified current Reds GM Walt Jocketty — who worked with LaRussa in Oakland and St. Louis — as a top candidate, though elsewhere it’s been indicated that he’ll stay in Cincinnati. Piecoro also named Cardinals farm director Gary LaRocque and Diamondbacks scouting director Ray Montgomery as other potential candidates.
Of Towers, whose 2015 option was picked up in the spring, LaRussa told reporters, "I have offered him a new role in the front office, as I believe his skills fit well within the framework of what we are building. Understandably, he would like to see who the general manager is before making his own decision." It has been speculated that the 52-year-old ex-GM would return to San Diego to join new GM A.J. Preller's front office in an advisory capacity, but that’s just one of many options likely to be available to him. Any additional changes to the baseball operations department — including, apparently, the potential retention of Gibson — will come via a joint decision from president/CEO Derek Hall, the incoming GM, and LaRussa himself.
In the end, it wasn’t hard to see the handwriting on the wall for Towers. He bet heavily on a very specific vision for the franchise. That vision backfired in grand fashion, and he paid the price.