The 2011 Arizona Diamondbacks were all that is right with baseball’s new-found parity. Exciting, young teams could go from afterthought to division winner within a year without breaking the bank. “Any team can win the World Series” had become less of an empty cliché and more of a reality. If a team is balanced, hits on its draft picks and grabs the right bargain free agents, it has just as much a chance to win the World Series as the big spenders, if not more of one.
The 2014 iteration of the Diamondbacks are either gumption-less losers or a disgrace to civilized sports, depending on who you ask.
Not only are the Diamondbacks an objectively bad baseball team, they moonlight as debate fodder. They are baseball’s version of the New York Knicks with a hint of the Broad Street Bullies – only without the charm of either.
They don’t just lose – they make it a point to spark controversy and inflict pain on opponents. They’ve been compared to hockey enforcers, but to call them that would be an affront to the so-called enforcer code. They’re not Bob Probert challenging Wendel Clark to fight, they’re Shawn Thornton slew-footing Brooks Orpik and punching the defenseless player’s face into the ice.
It wasn’t always this way. The team was once exciting, full of promise. The 2011 team not only won 94 games, but did so mostly without Paul Goldschmidt in the lineup; the now All-Star first basemen didn’t make his MLB debut until August.
So how could a 94-win team with a perennial All-Star on the way miss the playoffs the following three seasons? How could they fall from division winner to top pick material in three years? Expert mismanagement, that’s how.
The Man, the Myth, the Clown
Kevin Towers was hired as general manager in late 2010 after middling success as San Diego GM for more than a decade. The team was coming off a 97-loss season but had decent offensive talent - Goldschmidt was on the rise in the minors, Miguel Montero was becoming one of the games better hitting catchers, and former No. 1 overall pick Justin Upton had already come into his own.
The pitching, on the other hand, was atrocious. The Diamondbacks ranked 28th in ERA in 2010 but began to make moves to change that. Towers used the No. 3 overall pick in the 2011 MLB draft to select pitcher Trevor Bauer. The team was also counting on prospect Tyler Skaggs and some positive regression to improve the pitching in 2011.
Towers initial goal should have been to be patient, while also making some minor trades and acquisitions to add depth and balance to the team. But the word patience probably won’t appear in Towers’ obituary. (Other words that won’t appear: nuance, logic, deductive reasoning.)
We could spend lifetimes talking and debating about luck in sports. Suffice it to say it exists. It more than exists. It’s omni-present, especially in baseball.
Some people don’t care to accept that. Kevin Towers is one of those people.
The 2011 Diamondbacks were lucky by any objective measure. They were also young and better than the year before. The 2010 team won 65 games with a Pythagorean expectation of 69 wins; in 2011, the team won 94 games with a Pythagorean expectation of 88 wins. Much of this had to do with the jump from 28th to 11th in ERA. This was fueled primarily by the efforts of Ian Kennedy, with a solid quartet of Wade Miley, Joe Saunders, Josh Collmenter and Daniel Hudson behind him.
The 2011 team demonstrated the difference between breakout player and outlier season. Hudson overcame a mediocre minor league career and non-descript few seasons before that to post a solid 16 wins and 3.49 ERA in 2011. He fizzled out early in 2012 and has yet to make it back to the majors. At 27 years old, he’s currently pitching at the rookie ball level. Saunders, already a 30-year-old journeyman with just a year left on his deal in 2011, has also since taken the plunge back into minor league ball. Collmenter and Miley have remained solid but not great options since.
Kennedy briefly shed his reputation as a bust by posting a Cy Young-caliber season. He posted a career-best 2.88 ERA with a career-high 198 strikeouts in a personal-best 222 innings pitched. Unsurprisingly, his 2.2 walk rate was far and away the best of his career. More often than not, these numbers should signal future regression. It should have been clear to Towers that even with the addition of Goldschmidt full time at first base, 2012 wouldn’t be as smooth sailing unless a few quality moves were made.
Luck got even with Arizona in 2012. The team went an even 81-81 despite a plus-46 run differential and missed the playoffs. Hudson suffered through his aforementioned descent while Kennedy’s performance showed that 2011 was more of a fluke than a sign of things to come. The additions of Patrick Corbin and Trevor Cahill added depth to the staff. That, combined with Miley’s moderate improvement, helped the team overcome Kennedy and Hudson’s regression. Arizona finished 15th in runs allowed and eighth in runs scored. Upton suffered through a slightly disappointing season, with his OPS dropping from an elite .898 to a mediocre .785. Goldschmidt, however, suffered no growing pains, posting .286/.359/.490 batting line.
Towers, touted as an aggressive decision maker, did very little in free agency to improve the offense between 2011 and 2012. He did make a mid-season trade to rid the team of Stephen Drew, who was in the early stages of transforming from quality player to punchline. Aside from that, his trademark aggressiveness was missing. That wouldn’t last.
Despite a slight hiccup in 2012, the D’Backs seemed well set-up for the future. Corbin and Collmenter added unexpected depth to a staff that planned to add Bauer and Skaggs to the mix soon. (Not a bad group considering the previous regime gave away Max Scherzer in the deal to acquire Kennedy.) Additionally, the offensive duo of Upton and Goldschmidt was shaping up to be one of the best in the National League.
But Towers didn’t see 2012 as simple bad luck or as a rough patch. He saw a legitimate character issue. To be fair, he wasn’t alone. Just over two months into the season, owner Ken Kendrick took to the airwaves to criticize Upton and Drew. The Drew hate was particularly heinous and unfair, considering it involved him not coming back from an injury quickly enough. Upton, who had started the season slowly, was chastised for his inconsistent play. Kendrick, like Towers, doesn’t subscribe to modern thinking or now common logic when it comes to such things as slumps. Mature ballplayers just don’t slump, in Kendrick’s eyes.
(Here are five random player OPS stats for a month-long sample size: .971, .851, .1.230, .846, .778. Only those aren’t random. That’s Mike Trout’s actual month-by-month OPS this year. EVERYONE SLUMPS.)
Drew was dealt mid-season in a contract year. Not exactly a surprising or important move. But then the fun really began. The Diamonbacks dealt Bauer less than two years after taking him with the No. 3 overall pick for Lars Anderson and Didi Gregorius. Anderson is doing well this year. . . in Double-A. . . at age 26. Gregorius has proven to be nothing more than an average middle-infielder. Bauer hasn’t exactly set the world on fire in Cleveland, but he’s improved over the last two years and is beginning to look like a solid starter. Turns out selling low on a No. 3 overall pick less than two years after drafting him usually doesn’t work out.
A month later, in an apparent effort to outdo his own stupidity, Towers traded Upton.
It wasn’t the act of trading the team’s best player before a season the team expected to contend that makes the deal asinine. It wasn’t that he threw in Chris Johnson, who contended for the National League batting title in 2013. It wasn’t even the haul which featured Martin Prado (a solid infielder who – regression alert – was coming off his best statistical season) and a host of guys who likely will never make an MLB impact. It was the reasoning.
The team needed to be more “gritty,” more “blue collar.” Prado, who’s supposedly more “gritty” than Upton, is objectively worse at baseball.
Unsurprisingly, the 2013 season didn’t go well for Arizona. A team that would have almost certainly improved remained at 81 wins. This was not due to luck; the team had a negative run differential. The pitching dropped to 20th in the league while the offense dropped to 14th. This, in spite of the fact that Goldschmidt morphed into an MVP candidate (he’d finish second) with a .302/.401/.551 batting line. Not only had Towers not made moves to improve the team, he seemed to be actively torpedoing their chances.
Over the past two years, he’s shown almost a comic impatience with players who have struggled. Prospect Matt Davidson, young guys Tyler Skaggs and Adam Eaton, Ian Kennedy and Chris Young - he has yet to receive anyone of real major league value back in one of these trades. As of Aug. 27, Arizona was 55-78, placing the team fourth in the NL West. It’d be wrong to discount luck’s role among Towers’ mismanagement. 2013 breakout pitcher Pat Corbin missed nearly the entire year with injury, center fielder AJ Pollock has spent a good portion of time on the disabled list and newly-acquired Mark Trumbo has struggled with injuries. But this team was awful out of the gate and struggled all year.
Towers doesn’t like losing. Most people involved with professional sports don’t. What separates the successful from the unsuccessful is how they handle failure. Towers and the Diamondbacks handle losing with all the maturity of a petulant 11-year-old.
Last season the Diamondbacks dropped a series to Los Angeles in the midst of a remarkable run for the Dodgers. The Dodgers, a lively bunch, appeared to be having fun during the series. One of the wins in the series clinched the NL West title for the Dodgers, whereupon a few Dodgers decided to swim in the Chase Field pool (located in the outfield).
Towers and manager Kirk Gibson both had measured responses after the incident (John McCain also weighed in with a “I know I support bombing and killing people all over the World but swimming in another team’s pool to celebrate athletic achievement crosses the line!” response). But the civility didn’t last. Towers mentioned hitting other batters as a means of revenge soon after the season.
And Arizona has done just that throughout its disastrous 2014 season. The trouble started in spring training when Miley hit Colorado star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki - which some thought was on purpose. But Arizona went right on throwing at star players throughout the season.
This issue came to an impasse in early August. Pittsburgh hurler Ernesto Frieri threw a ball that got away from him and hit Goldschmidt on the hand. Goldschmidt, who was again posting MVP-caliber numbers, broke a bone in his hand, which put him on the disabled list for the long term. The pitch appeared to be accidental; there would be no reason for Frieri to hit Goldschmidt. The first basemen’s hand was decently close to the plate and the pitch would have only had to get away by an inch or two to hit Goldschmidt.
None of that mattered to the Diamondbacks. Randall Delgado, an Arizona reliever, threw at Pirates star Andrew McCutchen on consecutive pitches, the latter of which hit him in the back. McCutchen suffered a rib injury that landed him on the DL. He has since returned but went back on the DL after suffering rib discomfort.
Towers is no longer just making life miserable for Arizona fans; he’s actively harming the Major League Baseball product.
Forget for a second how dangerous it is to throw that close to someone’s spine. Forget that hitting opposing players does nothing to help the team win. Towers has put a mandate in place for his pitchers to hit batters that play for teams whose pitchers have accidentally (or otherwise) hit his team’s batters. A man engaging in that type of illogical thought can’t be expected to put together a quality major league baseball roster.
He’ll likely be fired along with Gibson after the season. But that’s not enough. It’s one thing to tear apart a young and exciting team in your first two years on the job. It’s quite another to openly admit that you’ve instructed players to purposely hurt opposing players (especially stars like McCutchen and Tulowitzki).
Bud Selig has been far from a perfect commissioner. His stand against Alex Rodriguez and the other Biogenesis players marked one of the only times he took a tough stance of any kind. He can make one more major decision before he ends his two-decade reign.
Take a strong stance on Kevin Towers and Kirk Gibson. Suspend them. For a year. For TWO years. Fine them. Meet with them. Tell them this is no longer acceptable in Major League Baseball.
At the very least, fire a couple baseballs at them.