It’s finally happened: Nick Piecoro has reported that Diamondbacks General Manager Kevin Towers is General Manager no more. While the move could usher in a better future for the organization, its next moves will be even more critical than the firing itself.

It wasn’t all bad with Towers; his front office made a number of excellent minor moves, like the Paul Goldschmidt extension (which is not minor in hindsight), like the Josh Collmenter extension, and like the deal worked out with Matt Reynolds last offseason. AGM Billy Ryan may have had something to do with putting those kinds of deals together, and so I don’t think the evidence suggests that Ryan was part of the problem. But an organization’s fate is not made or destroyed on minor moves, and it was the major ones that Towers bungled. Bungled not just because the results turned out to be poor, but bungled because the method (of targeting player types instead of being more flexible) was poor.

As Piecoro put it in his piece: “Towers’ tenure has been marked by a slew of trades and player personnel moves that left many in the game scratching their heads.” That qualifies Piecoro for the Understatement of the Year Award, as we found earlier this season in an alternate-universe exercise that if all of the Towers trades were simply reversed, the roster would look a whole lot better. Had good moves have been made, the team could be in a totally different position.

As Jeff Wiser wrote two weeks ago, however, it’s not like Towers is solely to blame. In the wake of a report that managing general partner Ken Kendrick mandated the signings of Cody Ross and Brandon McCarthy, we’re left to wonder just how much of the damage done in the last three-plus years can be laid at the feet of Towers. From Jeff:

If Kendrick ordered the delivery of Ross and McCarthy, then backed the team into a corner of having to sell low on pieces like Upton and Bauer, what else has he had his hand in? To what level is he consulted with when deals are looking to be made? Is he qualified to be part of these conversations?

We may always wonder just how involved Kendrick was, but the hiring of Tony La Russa as Chief Baseball Officer seemed to be an effort to pull in someone who could actually play the role of policeman. That is why, in a site editorial just after the La Russa hiring, we praised the move. It seemed to us that CEO Derrick Hall may not have been equipped to supervise Towers and his staff — now we know that Kendrick needed a buffer, as well. But even at that time, we noted that the La Russa hiring could not be the last move if the D-backs ship was to be put back on a proper course.

The firing of Kevin Towers also cannot be the last move. Kendrick, Hall and La Russa now have before them the single most important decision for the D-backs in the short- and medium-term: the hiring of the next General Manager.

We strive to be a data-driven voice in D-backs discourse, but a swing all the way in the direction of the Houston Astros front office is not something for which I’ll advocate, and it’s not in the cards anyway. If Kendrick has anything to do with it, the D-backs will most likely aim for the middle; and in Kendrick’s world, the middle is somewhere between former GM Josh Byrnes (who relied on data too much, in Kendrick’s estimation) and now-former GM Kevin Towers (too little).

But here’s the thing: D-backs management doesn’t need to pick one or the other.

Different GM styles can be successful, but that’s partly a reflection of different realities for different clubs; teams like the Dodgers, Red Sox and Yankees can afford to make high-risk, high-reward moves not so much because they have the money to pay for them, but because they have the money to pay for the next move if they don’t pay off. The Diamondbacks are far from MLB’s basement in terms of payroll, but if they try to compete with a large-market mindset, they will fail because not all of their moves will succeed.

What’s left to a club like the D-backs, then, is really three types of moves. One is low-risk, high-reward; easier said then done, but those moves include inexpensive signings like David Peralta and international free agents, and in traditional free agency, it tends to mean only signing players who are up-the-middle guys (C, SS, 2B, CF) or starting pitchers, rather than corner guys or relief pitchers.

The second type of move is actually something that the D-backs have shown signs of being able to do well: not frittering away value on the margins. It means that if a Gerardo Parra emerges, he gets played; it means not getting stuck with relievers who can’t be sent to the minors, because they were signed to veteran deals; it means making sure that backup players actually have something to offer. It also means limiting plate appearances for backups altogether, if an alternative time-share opportunity emerges; this is something the D-backs are reportedly considering in having four players combine to handle the non-first base infield spots next season.

The third type of move: things that put an organization in a position to get lucky by design. That’s making sure that in the event of injuries, you have a player who can not only fill in, but use the opportunity to show definitively whether he can be more than a fill-in. It’s gambling on players who have a single (but perhaps serious) flaw, rather than one who is average or fringy in every aspect of his game. It’s being open to things like trying a pitcher out in relief with a lower arm angle to see if he can be an effective matchups reliever, instead of kicking him out of the organization entirely.

In other words, the D-backs don’t need to pick between old school and new school. They need to pick smart, and with all of the information available now, no one as immune to analytics as Towers should be considered “smart.”

Hey, I would love it if the D-backs hired someone like Paul DePodesta, who was ahead of his time as GM of the Dodgers, and who has made an impressive resume even more impressive by working in player development with the Mets. It would be great to hire anyone like DePodesta who already knows just how powerful data-driven analysis can be in the baseball arena. But that’s not necessary.

If the D-backs aren’t going to hire someone already convinced that analytics can breed more and more advantages as the years march on, they need to hire someone who can be convinced, and they need to hire someone who can do the convincing.

An analytics department can and should have the burden of persuasion; that was the premise of a piece I wrote a few months ago in favor of an in-house analytics department for the D-backs. As I explained then, analytics professionals themselves represent a high return on investment, because that investment is so small. Hiring a group instead of individuals means you’re able to hire people with different strengths, broadening the possible benefits and creating an opportunity for the sum of the analysts to be greater than their parts. But most of all, formalizing a department formalizes that burden of persuasion. I firmly believe that most good saber-ists police themselves, and are aware and up front about what they do and don’t know. But the bottom line is, if they can’t convince baseball ops decision makers, then maybe whatever they’re pushing shouldn’t be adopted anyway.

Analytics is only part of the picture of course, but it is part of the picture. And so my advice to Kendrick, Hall and La Russa as they contemplate the next step for the D-backs organization is this: be smart. And in this context, being smart means being open. Having a CEO and a CBO involved in macro baseball ops decisions, in addition to a GM and a GM’s staff, already makes for a committee approach to decision making. It’s OK to stock that committee with multiple kinds of experts. There is no limit to what a diverse group of smart, knowledgeable baseball folks can accomplish.

The Diamondbacks are taking an important step with the firing of Kevin Towers, but it’s what they do next that could determine the fate of the franchise.

12 Responses to Firing of Kevin Towers an Important Step, But What Comes Next is More Critical

  1. Puneet says:

    I almost thought, for a minute, that the news about Ken Kendrick interfering meant KT might keep his position. But you’re right, even if he wasn’t responsible for everything, he was responsible for some major screw-ups.

    I think his least horrific trade was the Bauer one. He hasn’t developed much further in Cleveland, and Didi is a stellar defensive shortstop. But I wonder if we could have gotten anything better for Bauer. The worst part about what our current/former management has done is bash players publicly, reducing trade value. No strategic thinking at all!

    • Ryan P. Morrison says:

      Agree with you on all counts, and the Bauer trade wasn’t a catastrophe… if the organization wasn’t going to be flexible with him, then they did what they had to. Just saw another report that was all about Bauer being stubborn… although other people might call that #rig.

      A forgotten guy in that trade, though, is Bryan Shaw (I know I’ve been guilty of misplacing him). 3.24 ERA and 3.07 FIP in 75 solid innings last year, 2.26 ERA, 3.10 FIP in 67.2 innings so far this year. So good that you wouldn’t trade him for Gregorius straight up? Probably not. But it if we’re looking at the trade in hindsight, Shaw might make it a pretty solid loss.

      • Puneet says:

        Very true! He was a very solid reliever, young, and cheap (exactly what we should be building our bullpen around).

        The stupid thing about the Bauer situation is that he came exactly as advertised. So either we thought we could change him (stupid), or we did a very small amount of research before drafting him (also stupid).

        • Jeff Wiser says:

          As you’ve heard me say before, the return on Bauer could have been even better if the org didn’t bash him in the media and show every other team that they were going to move him. They just have no concept of leverage and value, apparently.

  2. Travis says:

    This is a period of Diamondbacks baseball that is making me nervous. The crossroads for the entire franchise is right in front of us. Make the wrong move, and we’ll be the laughing stock of baseball for quite a few seasons. Hopefully, they will make the right decision, and we can be a contender sooner rather than later.

  3. Kevin says:

    I am happy Towers is gone, mostly because of his bullheadedness and failure to demonstrate a cohesive vision. For me, the most damning example of this was trading Upton because he felt we were overly reliant on high power/high strike out players, and then trading for a high power/high strikeout player in Mark Trumbo the very next year because we suddenly needed power. For me, this move seemed more demonstrative of a chicken running around with his head cut off than a well-oiled machine. I don’t blame Towers for the return in the Upton/Bauer trades, though. I don’t think his bashing really decreased their value. Demand sets value, and clearly the demand was not there. What I do fault him for is biting when the demand wasn’t there. As a GM, you should know when to pull your chips off the table if the scenario isn’t what you want it to be. More so than the bashing, Towers’ firm commitment to trade players come hell or high water was the real reason he flopped. Keep in mind, when he traded both Bauer and Upton they were coming off terrible seasons. They were far from at maximum demand. He sold low, and the bashing really didn’t have much to do with it. Teams aren’t willing to sell the farm for a player on a decline year. The issue is he should have waited (and when Upton bounced back, not traded him at all), but he was too stubborn, senseless, and seemingly too in love with his own narcissistic “gun slinger” reputation to actually act like a responsible professional.

    • Ryan P. Morrison says:

      Agree with all of that. And dumping Upton only to turn around to grab Trumbo wasn’t the only example of Towers reversing course, in my opinion. How about trading a solid innings eater in Ian Kennedy for a bucket of rocks, only to turn around and sign Bronson Arroyo for more money? If you’re paying a transaction cost every time you make a trade, it’s doubly harmful to reverse course.

      There were definitely things that Towers did well. But the fact that you have to squint to see them…

  4. Jeff Wiser says:

    I love how smart the readers of this site are! Great comments, you guys are on it!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Yeah, some of the moves were myopic. the move that set the organization back though was Scherzer, how and why Towers traded that guy, an Ace a true stopper, an anchor.

    The game’s changing again without peds alot of the decling curves are coming back. this year though to stick up for these guys early on were getting squeezed big time. Saw it last night again as none of those pitches were strikes. I think it set a lot the guys back, as vets like Hill and Prado are good at making guys work, but if that’s happening they should of adjusted too. Reimold last night got burned what he was doing taking though?

    For a last place team, though, you never think they are overmatched.

    First move of the offseason, Reed and Peralta for Smardzja. and a one year contract to Headley for 17 mill.

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