If the book and subsequent film “Moneyball” taught us anything, it’s that there are a lot of ways to build a winning baseball team. When I meet people and they ask about my baseball writing, they usually end up mentioning the prolific work of Michael Lewis and if they were paying attention, they describe it as “the movie where all the walks were a good thing.” I usually tell them “yes,” but that isn’t necessarily the main takeaway of Lewis’ work. Walks were merely the means to an end for Billy Beane and his Oakland A’s. The base on balls was the market inefficiency of the time, but what Beane really taught us was that there are things that can be exploited in the game. At it’s core, the lesson’s not merely about OBP but about building a winning team in an untraditional way.

The Cast-Offs

Fast-forward to the 2013 offseason. Kevin Towers and the Diamondbacks brass continued on a path that they had set forth in the years proceeding. They shifted out several young players, especially those who did not jive with manager Kirk Gibson and his vision of a tough, gritty team. Adam Eaton seemed to personify this as he was slammed by anonymous clubhouse sources for not toting the party line and acting “selfish.” Eaton, if you don’t recall, had been an OBP monster in his time in the minors and was tabbed as an important piece of the franchise heading into the 2013 season as the team’s presumable leadoff hitter.  Less than a year later, he was gone.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because this had happened before, most notably with Justin Upton, one of the game’s rising stars. Although his offensive production had waxed and waned some during his time in Arizona, he was just 2- years old when he played through a thumb injury that limited his ability with the bat. Why did he play through the injury? Manager Kirk Gibson wanted a tough presence in the middle of his lineup and Upton’s superstar status didn’t necessarily mesh. Rather than sitting out with the injury, Upton tried to appease his bosses and slumped. He grew frustrated with leadership as they publicly grew frustrated with him. That winter, a 24-year old MVP candidate, former first overall draft selection, two time all star and silver slugger winner was shipped off.

The Diamondbacks haven’t reserved their short leash for outfielders. Former third overall selection Trevor Bauer, who’s been known to have his quirks, fell out of favor with the Diamondbacks front office and coaching staff almost immediately. Throughout his prep and college career, he’d been known to have a very unique warm-up and training routine. This was hardly a secret when Arizona used it’s first pick in the 2011 MLB draft to select Bauer, who had the results to warrant his unusual ways. When he refused to scrap the routine upon his arrival, which had just gotten him to pro baseball, the team became frustrated. Bauer wanted to do things his way, and after all, his way was working out pretty well. The D-backs disagreed and traded him early in the 2012 offseason, a year and a half after drafting him.

Tyler Skaggs was considered a top-1o prospect in baseball by some heading into the 2013 season. The left-handed starter had been acquired by the Diamondbacks as the centerpiece of a 2010 mid-season trade with the Angels that shipped out franchise staple Dan Haren. Skaggs made his big league debut late in 2012 as a 20-year old, then reappeared in the majors early in 2013 at the tender age of 21. He scuffled, as many kids do upon entering The Show, but when the Diamondbacks weren’t seeing the growth they wanted, they began an attempt to fix his mechanics that ultimately failed. After messing with his stride length and robbing him of velocity, which couldn’t have helped his raw stuff, they gave up on the former top prospect and sent him packing this last December.

Before we proceed, let’s take a quick inventory of these four players. Here, in this space, we’ve seen four franchise cornerstones traded. Three were former first-round selections and three were largely kicked out due to clashes with management. Eaton wasn’t drafted highly and we’ve never heard a bad word about Tyler Skaggs, but there’s something going on here.

Following the Mold

Now let’s move back to the Moneyball example. Rather than build the team in a unconventional, Billy Beane-esque, way, Kevin Towers has decided to create his team in a gritty, stereotypical mold that follows (old) convention. Let’s place some of the players he’s acquired into a few buckets to help identify a few of his targets:

Rather than look for unconventional ways to build a team on a budget, Kevin Towers has insisted on obtaining players that fit particular labels, labels that aren’t used frequently by those in the advanced metric community. He’s paid high prices for closers, who are known for being overpriced commodities. Tower should know this better than anyone as this is how he made his reputation in San Diego: by flipping mediocre relievers who were purposely allowed to pitch the ninth inning and collect saves, then traded for other players. He’s flopped on power hitters who were supposed to either drive the offense or, more recently, protect Paul Goldschmidt. The innings eaters acquired to fill out the rotation have been anything but productive and continue to plague the rotation. He’s perhaps done best in the role-player category, but that’s not necessarily the biggest compliment aside from Aaron Hill as Prado and Ross have been more “acceptable” than “good.”

This has been one of my biggest rubs with the team-building that’s taken place: Kevin Towers has sought out the label rather than the production when building his team. He wants “sluggers” and “aces” and “veteran arms” rather than players who have shown solid peripherals that backup long lasting, consistent production. These players tend to be good at one aspect of the game, such as Mark Trumbo can hit some serious homers and Bronson Arroyo can chew up innings, but these aren’t the kind of players that offer balanced, well-rounded production. Instead, it all becomes a series of trade-offs where you give up defense for offense, positional flexibility for production or a quantity of innings for quality of innings. The end result is series of bets that carry huge risk, because if that one trait you’re paying for doesn’t significantly outweigh the cost elsewhere, you bust.

Perhaps even scarier, the players he’s acquired aren’t the kind of players you build a team around. In an almost comical fashion, he’s instead traded the young, grow-your-own assets in exchange for these often aging, one-sided players. Rather than having a young, cost-controlled nucleus to build around, the Diamondbacks have allowed personal clashes and an over-aching narrative to define their team. Instead of adults being adults and professionals being professional, we’ve seen several instances of “I don’t like you, goodbye,” when it comes to promising, highly-drafted, highly-rated young players. This fatal flaw is almost so basic, it’s a wonder we didn’t see dreadful results coming sooner.

A Place in History

Rather than getting into the “what ifs” and projecting the roster as if these moves hadn’t been made, let’s get back to Billy Beane. He saw a way to build a club in a way that was forward-thinking and affordable. The Diamondbacks have moved away from a young, cost-controlled, talented club to a traditional, aging, more expensive one. I’m not about to say that everything Beane has ever done is baseball gospel, but eleven years after the book’s publication, it appears as if Kevin Towers and Billy Beane are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Which end would you rather be on?

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21 Responses to How We Got Here: the Kevin Towers Saga

  1. You’ve nailed it perfectly … they were one of the “it” teams only 3 years ago … now?

  2. Furstrated 41 game ticket holder says:

    KT and Gibby have to go! Never thought I would say that about Gibby but it is just painful to watch those two blow up a teams present and future.

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      I have a tough time knowing where to draw line in regards to Gibby’s responsibility for the pieces he has to work with. On one hand, he doesn’t make the trades. On the other, it may be his vision that is pushing for the trades in the first place. I don’t feel comfortable assigning levels of blame because I don’t know the ins-and-outs of how decisions are made. This is for ownership to know about and act upon. Whether that happens is yet to be seen.

  3. Bradford says:

    I don’t know if I’d call Prado “acceptable.” Remember, he even outpaced Goldy in the second half last season for RBI’s. He had a slow start, but considers his track record and the relative lack of depth at third, I’d say he’s above average.
    Where I agree with you is Towers trades. He gave up way too much so many times for the players that were arguably nice compliments for those he traded away. For being known as a “gunslinger,” he’s forgotten the face of his father more than once for getting scalped on the trade table. Towers seems like a guy stuck in a ten year old way of doing things. Maybe the reason the market never develops for his annual trade bait is because the rest of MLB has started to look at the things Towers and, I hate to lump him into this boat, but Zduriencik, refuse to because its not what’s worked for him in the past.
    The sad part is, as fans we see all of these above average players and think, “We have the pieces to win, so why don’t we?” Injuries are key, sure. Few teams could hope to compete after losing their #1 (I won’t call Corbin an ace) starter and one of their few power arms in the bullpen. But it goes beyond that. This team doesn’t seem to have any identity beyond burning itself out every game. They’re playing like desperate men right now, and in their skid they should be. But Gibby’s grittiness is what is a big factor for why this team can’t maintain long term success. Look at Goldy’s numbers and you can see Gibson wears him down to nothing before resting him. This team dies every nine innings and its hard to get on a streak when you have to scrap for every lead and win.

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      Well stated on all accounts, even about Prado. I think internal evaluation is so critical here. When 2013 ended, how many wins did KT & Co. think this team was worth? I had them pegged for somewhere around 75-78 wins with no changes other than sensibly filling holes. I think team management thought they were considerably better.

      In my view, they needed to add about 10 wins to the roster to be a real, serious threat. Instead, they just sort of shuffled the pieces the around and gained a couple wins, tops. To KT $ Co., this may have been enough, but in my mind, after looking at the numbers, they were still going to come up short. Preseason projections, even before Corbin went down, bear this out.

      I’m afraid that they underestimated how much ground they needed to make up in order to position themselves as a legit contender who could play with the Dodgers/Giants for the division and be a wild card favorite. In short, they needed everything to break right to have the any kind of a chance before the season began, and staring with Patty C, almost nothing has. Now they’re going to fight not to lose 90 games.

      • Puneet says:

        If you were GM (Jeff, Rod, Ryan, etc.), what would you do to fix the problem? Basically, if KT is canned, how can another GM come in and fix the problem? It seems like baseball has longer cycles than other sports of rebuilding, because of the need to rebuild the farm system after it’s been pillaged.

        • Jeff Wiser says:

          I’ll tepidly wade in here to say that my preferred vision is building through the draft and international signings, extending the stars you produce (Goldy) and augmenting around them with free agents/trade acquisitions. For a team in the middle of the pack financially, building from within is the only sustainable way. Keep in mind the D’backs have virtually the same payroll as the Braves and have for quite some time, yet the Braves continually produce with their own guys and have enough of them to trade when they need something. The teams with the best talent evaluators continually finish well over long periods of time. Look at the Cardinals, Braves, etc. The new up-and-coming teams (Pirates, Royals, etc) have bitten the bullet and decided to build from within. They aren’t perennial forces yet, but they’ve created a foundation to build from. The D’backs had that, now they don’t, and when someone eventually takes over for the current leadership, they will hopefully go down this road so we have a contending team every year rather than living in a cycle of booms and busts.

        • Ryan P. Morrison says:

          Puneet,

          I think your question calls for a publishable binder, way more than a post, and more than a comment. I agree, the building from within is the way to go, regardless of how long it takes — let’s not be the Padres, who have been consistently mediocre for some time. You can go into hell and back, like the Nationals recently did and the Astros are now doing. The other model is smaller, shorter-term rebuild, which, ironically, the White Sox have seemed to accomplish recently… although the D-backs have something to do with that.

          It might get worse before it gets better. But in addition to rebuilding from within, I’d really like to see the D-backs organization do some new things. The Rays have been ahead of the curve on so much… I’m not even talking about being the Athletics. One idea like that is starter-by-committee, but there are a few more that we’ll probably address on this site pretty soon.

          As always, thanks for reading!

    • TheAttack5 says:

      Phenomenal Dark Tower reference

    • Anonymous says:

      well done with the dark tower reference

  4. The Dude Abides says:

    Towers needs to double down on the grit. There’s a great scrappy winner who’s helping Oakland this year named Nick Punto. And another 2011 1st round D-backs draft pick struggling with his control in the minors. Perfect match!

  5. Hunter says:

    I’ll toot my own horn here as I’ve been saying, even in 2011,that Gibson was not a good manager. Heck Ryan Braun and his PEDs didn’t beat us in the playoffs that year, Gibson lost us TWO GAMES from his managing blunders.

  6. […] How We Got Here: the Kevin Towers Saga […]

  7. Anthony JP says:

    Well done Jeff, this sums it up perfectly.

  8. […] by New York uncorked a torrent of bad press for the D-backs on many national sites, but no one covered the situation better than Jeff Wiser. For the record, I agree with Jeff’s take, and Jonah Keri’s […]

  9. […] wherever they can be found. It may be that Kevin Towers is not the guy to do this, considering he’s how we ended up in this mess. But, at the same time, he’s done innovative things before, if on a smaller […]

  10. […] the club for that situation, but not for valuing him differently because of it. Finally, while targeting types of players or “grit” hasn’t worked out well for the D-backs, I don’t want to ignore the fact that Towers and Gibson may be right in prioritizing certain […]

  11. […] Jeff has pointed out, it’s pretty clear that in prioritizing player types over player value, Towers has made the team worse. Reversing all of Towers’s trades seems to lead to the same conclusion. Who would you rather […]

  12. […] Chris Moran of Beyond the Box Score did a post on all of the youth that the D-backs have traded away under Towers. It’s not really anything you don’t already know if you’re a regular reader here — in fact, I think this post covers the same territory but in a way that is much easier to visualize. And Jeff had a post on the Towers thought process. […]

  13. […] It’s not that Ziegler is extra valuable just because he’s unique, exactly. Especially on the position player end of things, it doesn’t matter how you produce value (power, average, fielding, etc.), it just matters how much value you produce. In terms of winning baseball games, anyway. And that’s not necessarily an easy concept to grasp. Said our Jeff Wiser about Kevin Towers earlier this season: […]

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