With the hirings of Dave Stewart as Vice President and General Manager and De Jon Watson as Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations, the Arizona Diamondbacks haven’t just replaced Kevin Towers. Instead, if the new front office by committee approach ultimately works, they may have just created an alternative to the traditional front office set-up. Owner Ken Kendrick installed Tony La Russa as Chief Baseball Officer earlier this season in a move that shook up the organization and put the writing on the wall for the moves we’ve seen today. To say that today’s events weren’t foreseen would be disingenuous.
But let me back up a little. As Peter Gammons recently reported, Tony La Russa, the head of the baseball product for the Diamondbacks, is “smart enough to know what he doesn’t know.” It’s safe to say that that phrase was never used regarding Kevin Towers and that likely plays a part in why he’s no longer the team’s GM. Meanwhile, La Russa has reportedly sought advice and perspective from several trusted sources within the game. In his new capacity, La Russa appears to be taking nothing for granted. He spent several months getting a feel for the organization earlier in the season in order to truly gauge the best course of action, a noble and likely worthwhile effort. It seems clear that he’s tried to get a feel for the organization as a whole before taking action, an approach that we here at Inside the ‘Zona wholeheartedly endorse. As you know, we’re big on gathering data and evidence and it appears that TLR has taken the same approach in his professional work.
But Tony La Russa wasn’t hired to give his opinions as a consultant. No, he was hired to direct and move the Arizona Diamondbacks in the way that he sees fit. It now appears that Dave Stewart and De Jon Watson are part of that equation. Stewart pitched for the Oakland A’s under La Russa, giving the two ample time to impress themselves upon one another. When his playing days concluded, he worked as a major league pitching coach in San Diego, Milwaukee and Toronto. He served as a special assistant to two general managers and as an Assistant General Manager in Toronto, likely learning valuable insight into the inner workings of a major league front office. In short, Stewart has done it, coached it and helped build it throughout his baseball life. He has previously been considered as a GM for various openings, but moved to a new career as a player agent when he ultimately didn’t land a general manager position. In this capacity, he’s represented players in team negotiations and built a successful business for himself.
Putting it all together, it’s not far-fetched to see Stewart as someone who can identify talent, evaluate talent and value talent. He’s seen enough baseball first-hand to know what he’s looking for, and given La Russa’s views on Stewart, it clearly aligns well with what the organization is trying to accomplish. While Kevin Towers would also seem to fall in the category of being able to recognize talent, he clearly came up short in the obtaining value for the organization, earning himself a trip out of his role as general manager. Stewart’s agent work should give him a tremendous sense of player value, something Arizona had to improve upon. The days of the wild west in Phoenix may be gone and a more measured approach may be upon us, which would certainly be welcomed, although it’s anything but a foregone conclusion.
De Jon Watson comes to the Diamondbacks from the Los Angeles Dodgers, and before you throw up your hands in disgust that a Dodger is now in the Diamondbacks’ front office, consider his experience. He’s spent seven seasons with Los Angeles as an Assistant General Manager, specifically in player development. Given some of the players that the Dodgers have developed, it stands to reason that this is yet another asset in the front office that can cultivate talent. While Stewart and La Russa should be able to identify it from the beginning, Watson and company should be able to help maximize it.
Joining Watson in this process is the highly-regarded Ray Montgomery, who was himself considered for the GM position, and who apparently will stay on with the club. Montgomery has done an excellent job of leading the Diamondbacks’ scouting operation as the team’s Scouting Director for the last four years. In that time, Arizona has drafted successfully and even plucked some interesting players out of independent ball. Under Montgomery’s direction, Arizona hasn’t struggled to find worthy players. What those above Montgomery have decided to do with those players has been questionable at best, but acquiring them in the first place has been an area of relative success. The promotion of Montgomery highlights the work he’s already done and gives him more power to utilize his abilities to strengthen the Diamondbacks.
While I’ve just highlighted the positives of the new front office, there is also reason to be concerned. Stewart doesn’t have a ton of experience in a role like this, and with La Russa also finding his way, this can viewed as a kind of experiment in team-building. The hiring of Stewart bucks the conventional trend of going with someone who has cut their teeth in the front office for a prolonged period of time, and while Stewart has some experience, it’s comparatively limited. It’s not like he’s had this kind of title before, and while he may rise to the occasion, we can’t exactly bet on it.
So why gamble like this, especially with a depleted roster and a frustrated, fading fan base? It all comes back to the unconventional arrangement that was made when Tony La Russa jumped aboard. He’s not about to concede power to someone. While he’s completed a well-rounded group to support him today, he’s also hired folks with questionable autonomy and power. How does that play out? Does Stewart get tired of being micro-managed? Can Watson and Montgomery effectively co-exist in a perhaps overly-complicated arrangement? We can’t say just yet.
If there’s a silver lining here, it’s the Diamondbacks’ approach to building a front-office-by-committee of sorts. Rather than investing a ton of power in just one individual, it seems as if La Russa is trying to spread the responsibility among several competent individuals, creating a team that, if everything clicks, should cover all of the necessary bases. As Lewie Pollis effectively expressed at this year’s SABR Analytics Conference, an effective front office can show real, tangible benefits on the field in terms of wins. By assembling a team of personnel, perhaps the D-backs can make up some ground in an area that’s plagued them for the last several years. Or maybe not, we just don’t know yet.
Either way, the team has ushered in a new era. Kirk Gibson is likely done and 2015 should see a full, fresh start. How they handle this winter will be interesting with a payroll that should drop. Dealing any of Ross, Cahill and/or Hill will be critical to freeing up capital and there’s some hope, at least on the pitching side, in the upper minors. A new day is upon the Diamondbacks, and for that, we should be excited, but reasonably skeptical. Until the transitions and rumors of the hot stove heat up, we’ll likely have to wait patiently. Still, this is a new chapter in Arizona, and although it’s unconventional, it might just be crazy enough to work.
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