There was once a time when the hiring of Tony La Russa to oversee the Diamondbacks’ baseball functions seemed like a major victory. Oh my, does that seem like a long time ago. After Kevin Towers’ blunders, largely being hell-bent on acquiring certain player types that didn’t seem to fit the club’s home park and prioritized offense over defense, just about any change seemed like a good one. Two and half years later, we can certainly take something away from that lesson. The team’s hiring yesterday of Mike Hazen of the Boston Red Sox is, in most contexts, a major step in what would appear to be the right direction. Of course, there’s a lot to do before we can make any kind of evaluation of Hazen’s hiring, especially given that this is being written less than 24-hours since the announcement came down regarding Hazen. Still, I’d be doing you a disservice if I didn’t convey at least my initial excitement as Hazen in many ways represents the tenets of what this website has long advocated for in the past.
But back to La Russa and company for a moment. La Russa brought the team decades of experience in on-field success. It was thought that this experience could pay dividends in the front office. We were indeed a little leery of the transition, but where things seemed to get off track was in the hiring of Dave Stewart as the team’s GM. It was never clear how the work would be divided up and even rival teams were confused when it came to just who was in control. Looking back at many of Stewart’s comments, it seemed as if he was either, a) incredibly naive when it came to running an organization, b) just the mouthpiece for the organization who was tasked with trying to smooth over many unpopular and unwise decisions with the public, or c) a mixture of the two. While many things have come to light in recent weeks that have long been speculated, it seems clear that the previous front office was ill-prepared for their duties, didn’t know the rules that governed every team in baseball, was out of touch with modern baseball, made poor player evaluations, and suffered from internal dysfunction. In that regard, Mike Hazen should be viewed as a direct reaction to the previous regime’s shortcomings.
You’ve likely read about Hazen’s background. He spent 11 years inside a Red Sox organization that has experienced tremendous success at the major league level while collecting one of the most impressive collections of minor league talent in the game. It hasn’t been an either/or in Boston, but rather a holistic compiling of talent because, at the end of the day, talent succeeds. It’s true that Boston had financial might at their disposal that Arizona will not, but the same principals will apply, they just might have to be applied more creatively. It took a few years for Theo Epstein to copy the same success in Boston over to Chicago, but clearly that’s been possible and completed. The question is now whether Hazen can complete a similar task in Arizona. That’s far from a lock, but one has to like the possibilities that exist for a franchise that’s not totally barren.
In Boston, Hazen served as the director of player development from 2006-2011, a period of time when the Red Sox saw a huge amount of success from players developed within their own system. While Boston has been able to sign marquee free agents to fill holes, they’ve been, at their core, a homegrown organization that’s both seen realized success from their prospects in the majors and used their excess talent to pull off trades to bolster their big league efforts. From 2012-2015 he served as the team’s Assistant General Manager, a role that required Hazen to know the most granular of rules pertaining to international signings, draft pick compensations, player salaries, the rules around arbitration hearings, and every stipulation about player trades. In 2016, Hazen was promoted to General Manager and served, admittedly, as the number two in charge with President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski having the lead role. Still, Hazen saw an expanded role in running the organization, one that’s embraced analytics in its decision-making since the early days of the advanced baseball revolution. Put it all together and Hazen has clearly seen many different aspects of a major league franchise since graduating from Princeton and playing two seasons in the minors before injuries ended his career as a professional player.
So let’s just take a quick second to recap. Hazen should have first-hand knowledge pertaining to the life of a professional athlete, the rules governing a major league franchise, the analytics used to make decisions on the field and pertaining to roster construction, and the development of players (both in the minors and the majors). All of this comes on the back of an ivy-league education. Arizona’s detractors have often criticized the organization as being backwards and anti-intellectual, but that appears to have finally come to a screeching halt in the hiring of the well-rounded Hazen. Perhaps the Diamondbacks have finally seen the fault in their several failed attempts to hire salt-of-the-earth individuals who’ve cut their teeth on the field or through decades of more traditional experience as Hazen signals the first shift to a more advanced approach since the Diamondbacks hired Josh Byrnes back in 2005. The team may have felt that Byrnes pushed them too far in the direction of analytics, but it would appear that he may have simply been ahead of the times. While Hazen brings far more than just experience with a franchise that’s embraced analytics with him to the desert, his hiring signals some level of acceptance of analytics within the Diamondbacks’ organization. That’s certainly a welcomed sign as we’ve spent more than three years at this website bemoaning the franchise’s utter disregard for playing the game smarter and more efficiently.
To say that Hazen’s hiring was a surprise is an understatement. While I can say that I had it on good authority that a lot of the public banter about the team’s process in filling the role was unfounded, the ultimate ability to lure Hazen to Arizona is surely not what I had in mind — not be cause I disapprove of the hiring but because I didn’t believe they could pull off something of this magnitude. As Nick Piecoro shared in his thorough coverage of the announcement, other teams were surprised as well. “It’s a huge acquisition,” a high-ranking scout told Piecoro. “I’m shocked they pulled it off.” I was shocked, too, frankly, and the transition isn’t over. There’s currently a void to be filled in the front office that was left when De Jon Watson was let go and it’s unclear just how it will be filled. But it’s worth noting that Hazen may be able to bring a person or two with him from the Red Sox to round out the front office and even Boston Bench Coach Torey Luvollo should be considered a strong candidate to replace Chip Hale as the team’s skipper as he’s been interviewed for managerial jobs in the past and has a reported strong relationship with Hazen. Installing a manager that will be receptive to the new GM’s vision for how the team should be managed is certainly an imperative.
Of course, Tony La Russa is still in the fold, as was announced yesterday around the time that the hiring of Hazen was announced. He’ll serve in an advisory capacity to Derek Hall and Ken Kendrick, though the parameters of that role are still unclear. The team has a press conference scheduled for later today and perhaps we’ll learn more about La Russa’s new role during that announcement. There’s a reason for concern here as Hazen will hopefully be given plenty of latitude in reorganizing a disjointed franchise, but La Russa may ultimately stand in the way of that to some degree as he clearly has the ear of Kendrick and Hall. Perhaps La Russa will serve as a sort of sounding board for the executive leadership when Hazen presents his ideas for the organization, and if that’s the case, it’s at least easy to see where the two, La Russa and Hazen, may not be on the same page. Then again, perhaps La Russa will serve a different role altogether. It’s important not to put the cart before the horse here if for no other reason than not to deflate our excitement before it’s absolutely necessary. We’ve suffered enough.
The team has a lot of needs to be sure, but Hazen isn’t inheriting one that’s completely devoid of talent either. If there’s a reason why the D-backs were able to lure away a young, accomplished GM from a successful organization it’s probably due in part to the team having a talented core of players that are capable of performing well. Tweaks are needed, but this isn’t an Atlanta or Milwaukee franchise that needs to be completely dismantled. They could go that route if they wanted to, trading guys like Paul Goldschmidt, Zack Greinke and others, but that’s not a must. They could opt to instal some better defenders in the corner outfield spots, rework the bullpen and add some depth to the rotation, then roll the dice on 2017.
With a few weeks remaining until things really start to heat up on player-acquisition front, Hazen will likely fill the outstanding vacancies, evaluate the organization and begin formulating a plan of action. What that plan will be isn’t known just yet, but we’re in for yet another intriguing offseason. This one, however, at least comes with glimmers of hope for a smarter front office and a better product on the field. In a time when most fans were saying “anything different would be better than this,” the Diamondbacks raised the bar on our expectations and saved some face with those who’d considered this type of well-rounded, analytically-adjusted hire all but an impossibility for one reason or another. Now we just have to see if they can let it work, because as we’ve seen over the last decade, a smarter approach usually does.
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