Did Josh Byrnes Deserve to Be Fired?

Buster Olney sent out the following messages on twitter last night:

From a rival high-ranking executive, about the D-Backs’ changes: “That is a brutal decision. They just tore apart one of the best front offices in baseball.”

Another GM on the D-Backs’ change at GM: “Absolutely crazy.”

That, essentially, was my reaction, as well, to the news that the Diamondbacks have fired Josh Byrnes. Yes, Arizona is in last place in the NL West, struggling through another tough year of disappointment. Since the start of last year, the D’backs have won just 42 percent of their games. It’s been a rough couple of years in the desert.

But, still, barring some kind of interpersonal communication problem or issue with ownership that we’re not aware of, this decision seems unjustified at best. As you can see from Olney’s quotes, Byrnes is one of the most respected men in the game, and this just seems like a massive overreaction.

Arizona’s problems this year are not hard to pinpoint. Their bullpen, as a group, has been a disaster, one reaching nearly epic proportions. Their relievers’ WPA total? -7.45. The Brewers have the next worst total, but come in at just -2.91. The D’Backs bullpen has been almost as harmful to their team’s chances of winning as the next three worst bullpens combined.

A bad bullpen is painful to watch, and few things are more frustrating than watching a lead evaporate at the end of a game. However, relievers are also the most fickle of all major league performers, and no amount of preparation and good management can insulate a team from a bullpen meltdown. As a group, the Arizona bullpen has thrown 205 innings. Over a sample that small, weird things can happen, such as usually relieable Chad Qualls posting a .452 BABIP.

What, exactly, should Byrnes have done to prevent this from happening? It’s not like they were abysmal a year ago and he should have seen this coming. No one could have seen this coming. And it’s not like hiring a new GM is going to make these guys pitch better. Sure, you could argue that perhaps he should have done a better job of building his bullpen, but is that really something you want to overhaul your front office over?

The team, as a whole, isn’t in bad shape, in large part due to some of the moves Byrnes has made. Their mostly young, cost-controlled position players have produced +11.7 WAR this year, fourth best in the National League. They’ve got a good young offensive core with Justin Upton, Chris Young, Mark Reynolds, Miguel Montero, Stephen Drew, and even Kelly Johnson, who was probably the bargain of the winter.

Pitching wise, they have some holes at the back end of the rotation, and obviously the bullpen needs an overhaul, but these are not hard fixes that require a change in organizational philosophy. This is not wholesale failure to develop talent and put good players on the field, like we see with other organizations who, it should be noted, have been far more patient with their GMs.

Someone asked me in a chat last week if I thought Arizona needed to make big changes, and I said no, that this had the look of a team that has a few tweaks and some better luck away from being able to challenge for the NL West title again. After firing their GM and putting their front office in limbo, I’m not so sure anymore. This has all the markings of a panic decision by a frustrated ownership group that may not be committed enough to building an organization the right way without overreacting to things that simply can’t be controlled.

Perhaps there’s more to this story, and Byrnes was fired for insubordination or something of the sort. We can’t know all the workings behind the decision, so I’ll withhold some judgment, but if this was truly a decision made because of the D’Backs’ record the last few years, then I think their ownership just royally screwed up.

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It’s worth noting the following tweet from @ed_price:

Major-league source: #Diamondbacks upper management wanted GM Josh Byrnes to fire manager AJ Hinch. Byrnes refused, so both were fired.

Upper management placing the smoking gun of insubordination in JB’s hand, essentially. Realistically, however, you’re spot on; in fact, I would even take the decisions a step further to say that this is not only ownership overreacting, but trying to take charge of baseball operations. Not only did they fail to appropriate JB a large enough budget to field a truly competitive team this year, but then they give him that ultimatum? What a disgrace.

On the topic of the bullpen: I wouldn’t say it wasn’t apparent the bullpen needed some re-tooling in the off-season; it wasn’t terrible, but it needed some patch work. The issue is that ownership gave JB a little over $10mil to work with on free agency this off-season, which he turned into Rodrigo Lopez, Adam LaRoche, Kelly Johnson, Aaron Heilman, and Bob Howry. Some GMs wouldn’t have even been able to turn $10mil into more than two players.

Now, I still don’t understand the thinking behind Heilman and Howry for over $4.5mil — I would have rather gambled that money on JJ Putz — but Howry’s implosion is the lone black mark on an otherwise fantastic off-season.

With the essentially $60mil budget he had to work with for this roster, JB really did a tremendous job. If ownership wanted a sure-fire competitor this season, they should have ponied up the extra $5 – 10mil to solidify the bullpen with Jose Valverdes instead of Bob Howrys. But ownership (which is really just Ken Kendrick) would rather use that money eating $7mil of sunk cost in Hinch and Byrnes’ contracts…