Kevin Towers and the Diamondbacks

With the regular season just ended, the Diamondbacks fired one of the first offseason shots when they hired Kevin Towers as their general manager.

While an argument may be made for other executives and organizations that were more successful than the Padres under Towers’ leadership, he made the most of what he had to work with payroll-wise and kept the Padres an excellent and competitive organization. He should be able to do the same for the Diamondbacks.

The best evidence is a Padres team that was ranked 29th in payroll, most of which was put together by Towers, just missing the 2010 playoffs on the last day of the season. Teams with much higher balance sheets and expectations are now on vacation. Just ask the Dodgers, Angels and Mets, to name a few.

This comes in the midst of a youth movement in which lower payroll teams increasingly reliant on their farm systems are making noise. The Tampa Bay Rays are the AL East champion and built around homegrown talent like Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria. The AL Central Twins are built around Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer. In the NL, you can’t ignore the Cincinnati Reds, who came back from nine straight losing seasons to take the Central. They are built around young talent like Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Johnny Cueto with a few vets like Scott Rolen thrown in. Other teams like the Rangers, Giants and Braves are as reliant on their talented young players as they are their veterans. Only the Yankees and Phillies enter the playoffs with squads dominated by veterans.

Towers’ Padres and the West

As a Dodgers fan, I continue to think of San Diego as a team that has usually made the most of its opportunities and limited means. It has been frustrating to often see the Padres neck-and-neck with the Dodgers in the closing months of a season, despite operating with half the payroll, less fan support, fewer superstars, and less of a baseball pedigree than the Dodgers.

The Dodgers’ record of 1,278-1,134 in 1995-2009 is superior to the Padres’ in that time period (1,168-1,235), and the Dodgers have more playoff appearances (six) than the Padres (four). The Padres have been in the World Series in that time period while the Dodgers haven’t been there since 1988. The Dodgers’ Opening Day payroll in that time period averaged sixth in the majors, while the Padres averaged 19th.

The reason it’s even close could be Dodgers mismanagement as much as any brilliance from Towers and the Padres. The Dodgers went through three owners, seven GMs (including interim stints by Tommy Lasorda and Dave Wallace) and seven managers in the past 15 years. The Padres had two owners and two managers, and only one of each until Towers’ last year.

It can also be questioned how much of the credit is actually due to a GM. While they are undoubtedly central to a team’s success, the owners play a huge role, both by writing (or not writing) checks and varying degrees of intervention. There is the minor league system that nurtures the players. There are many hands mixing the stew, so, like managers, GMs may get too much credit and/or blame. Any discussion about a GM’s performance must be taken in this context.

So while it may be easy to compare the Padres’ success with the once rich and lately dysfunctional Dodgers, Towers and the Padres compare well in performance with other teams in their division and around the league as a whole.

In the division, the Padres have in most years the smallest payroll in the division. The Diamondbacks, where Towers is going, won 100 games in their second year of existence, and a World Series in their fourth. They loaded up with free agent veterans like Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson, Luis Gonzalez and Matt Williams. They made it in the postseason in three of their first five years of experience, but only once since 2003. They have since turned into a much more cost-conscious ballclub. Their record of 970-981 between 1998 and 2007 isn’t hugely different than the Padres, and their average payroll is around 15th in the league.

The Rockies have many similarities to the Diamondbacks except for playoff runs. Their payroll averaged around 13th in the league, mixed between the more free–spending late ’90s and early 2000s and the much more frugal recent years. They have made two playoff runs, including the miraculous run in 2007 that ended with a World Series loss. Their record of 1,081-1,106 and nine fourth place or worse finishes between 1998 and 2006 indicates an organization that was in a long funk.

The San Francisco Giants offer some consistency in the division. Between 1995 and 2009, they finished first or second in the division nine out of 15 seasons (compared to seven top-two finishes by the Dodgers, six by the D-Backs, three for the Padres and two for the Rockies), and made four playoff appearances, going the farthest in 2002 with a World Series loss. Their record over the span of 1997-2009 is slightly worse than the Dodgers’ at 1,255-1,155, and they averaged 12th in payroll.

Based on playoff appearances while Towers was GM in charge, the low-spending Padres were competitive with other teams in their division. The Dodgers have six appearances in that era with no World Series, with a much larger payroll than anyone. The D-Backs have four playoff appearances during the Towers era, including the World Series win in 2001. The Padres and Giants each have four appearances, both with a World Series appearance. The Giants did it averaging 12th in Opening Day payroll while the Padres averaged 19th. The Rockies have been in the postseason three times in that time period.

The Dodgers and Giants have been the most consistent in the division during the Towers era. Both have nine first or second place finishes, but the Giants, whose record is pretty much even with the Dodgers in that era, have accomplished it with considerably less spending than the Dodgers. The D-Backs and Rockies, with their slightly under-.500 records, have had good years and lean years as most teams in the middle of the payroll game fare. The Towers-era Padres are pretty well under .500, with their strong seasons often separated by weak ones. It could be argued that the Padres lack of consistency under Towers is a weak point, but it also can be said that teams with the smallest payrolls are all but forced to accept tough re-building years while waiting for the next playoff run.

San Diego and its peers

The Padres compared well to other small-to-mid market franchises in the Towers era. Take the Cincinnati Reds. Similar to the Padres, in the Towers era they averaged 18th in payroll. They made a playoff run in 1995, but didn’t get in until 2010 and had only three first or second place finishes and an equal number of winning seasons. Of course the ghost of Marge Schott hangs over this team, but it must also be said that the skilled but controversial Jim Bowden was her GM during much of this time period.

Then there are the Toronto Blue Jays. Under Pat Gillick in the early 1990s, they won back-to-back World Series, but under successors Gord Ash and J.P. Ricciardi, they have been forced to cut back on payroll while the Red Sox and Yankees turned into free-spending behemoths. With a payroll that averaged 17th, they’ve won about 80 times a season in a brutal division.

A comparative study on an unwritten rule of baseball.

There can be no discussion about the success of small or middle market teams without Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s. During Towers’ tenure, the A’s have compiled a 1,261-1,159 record, with all but three of those years under Beane (Sandy Alderson was his predecessor), They averaged 24th in payroll. Beane’s teams were in the playoffs five out of seven years in 2000-2006, though not making the World Series. Their consistency was impressive, with eight straight first or second place finishes. Even in the down years, his teams never lost more than 88 games.

The Twins are another payroll-challenged team that has been quite successful. Between 1995 and 2009 they are 1,198-1,203, but that figure includes four straight 90-plus loss seasons between 1997 and 2000. Since then, they have had first or second place finishes in eight out of 10 years between 2000 and 2009, and have had five playoff appearances. Much of this credit must go to Terry Ryan, who turned the cash-strapped team from cellar dwellers to perennial contenders.

Another small or middle market team with success has been the Florida Marlins. They have won two World Series in 1997-2009, despite normally having a small payroll. However, they have been remarkably inconsistent. Besides their trips to the WS, they finished as high as second only once during’ 97-’09, with five winning seasons in 13 years. After the 1997 win, they virtually purged the whole roster, following up their championship with a 108-loss season the next year. Their payroll was fifth highest in 1997, but went down to 27th the following year. During the period of 1995-2009, they averaged 24th.

It’s hard to argue with Beane’s success working with such a small payroll, and the Twins’ success is also difficult to argue with, but when compared to other teams faced with similar payroll issues, Towers looks very good. Cincinnati is part of a long list of teams, both with higher and lower payrolls that have had little or no success postseason or otherwise. While it is certain that being in the deadly AL East has affected the success of the Blue Jays, the emergence over the last two years of the even more cash-strapped Tampa Bay Rays has shown that butting heads with the juggernauts is possible. The Marlins’ success, at least until recently, has been of the “binge and purge” variety, where they load up on pricey free agents for a playoff run, and get rid of them as soon as it is done.

Drafting and trading

Towers was much better trading than he was drafting, but that is not to say he didn’t draft some good players. Once again, if he’s not the best, he still compares very well.

One needs to look no further than the squad that barely missed the playoffs this year. His hands are all over it, especially the pitching staff. Cornerstone Adrian Gonzalez was acquired in a trade with the Rangers in 2006 for Chris Killian, Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka. The Padres, who also got Chris Young and Terrmel Sledge in the deal, certainly came out ahead. Closer Heath Bell was stolen from the Mets in 2006 for Ben Johnson and Jon Adkins, who are no longer in the major leagues. Starting pitchers Mat Latos and Wade LeBlanc were drafted by Towers, while Clayton Richard was acquired in the Jake Peavy trade. Other key members of the team drafted by Towers include third basemen Chase Headley, outfielder Will Venable and catcher Nick Hundley .

Trading was Towers’ strong suit. The Gonzalez and Bell trades were among his high points, but he had other ones also. In 1996, he got slugger Greg Vaughn for Bryce Florie, Mike Newfield and Ron Villone. In 1999 he got Phil Nevin and Keith Volkman for Andy Sheets and Gus Kennedy. More recently, in 2006 he got reliever Mike Adams (who also played a key role on this year’s team) for Brian Sikorski. His only serious dud was getting a washed-up Ray Lankford from the Cardinals for Woody Williams, who had a couple of fine years in St. Louis before returning to the Padres.

In drafting, he wasn’t as good. His list of first-round picks is a sea of no-names and never-weres. All he has to show for his first round picks are Sean Burroughs, Khalil Greene and Tim Stauffer, hardly household names. He did get Peavy in the later rounds, not to mention Latos, LeBlanc, Headley and Hundley, but his strong suit was certainly his trading.

Towers’ record running a payroll-challenged club is perhaps not as successful as Beane’s sabermetric genius or the Twins’ masterful mix of drafts and trades, but you can hold it up to anyone else’s. The 2010 Padres are an example of his continued ability to make the most out of limited resources.

Arizona’s prospects

The Diamondbacks, although having a poor year have quite a base of young, talented players that Towers can build around or trade.

Offensively outfielder Chris Young had a solid year, Adam LaRoche is one of the league’s more solid and consistent first basemen. Kelly Johnson looked to be on his way to a career year before a second half comedown, and while Justin Upton had a down year, he still looks to have quite a bit of upside. You can’t forget the year’s Rob Deer Award winner Mark Reynolds with his 32 bombs and .198 average. Not a bad core here, and even some nice trade bait if Towers goes in that direction.

The relief corps is a sinkhole that he needs to work on immediately, but Ian Kennedy developed into a strong presence on the mound, and while Joe Saunders had a tough year, he has been very solid in the past. Combine that with youngster Barry Enright and the return of Brandon Webb, and you have a core of a team that, through trades or otherwise, could make some noise next year. There is not much immediate help in the minor leagues, so Towers may have to work his trade magic to fire things up.

The Giants’ pitching is dominant and they do have a solid nucleus of young players, but they are a long way from a juggernaut. The Padres had a solid year, but are still very young and face questions on whether to keep Bell and Gonzales. The Rockies have a great group of young players, but have yet to put together a whole season. The Dodgers had a bad year, and while they still have talented players, are in tumult and transition. In sum, the division is pretty wide open next year, and whatever team, including the Diamondbacks, has the right combination of things happening can win it.

References & Resources
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