On the list of sports transactions so stunning they make you choke on your blueberry muffin, Kevin Towers’ dismissal as Arizona general manager doesn’t quite rank up there with Thursday’s news that Josh Gordon will spend this year selling cars and dispensing goodwill for an automobile group in Ohio.
Regardless of the initial happy spin out of Phoenix, Towers was a dead GM walking from the moment the Diamondbacks hired Tony La Russa to fill the newly created position of chief baseball officer in May. In a radio interview shortly after La Russa’s arrival, Towers made a public pitch to keep his job and tried to debunk the notion that he and La Russa couldn’t co-exist. But Towers dropped the most telling sound bite when he said he had no interest in being a “pseudo-GM," with all the menial duties that job might detail.
Towers has too established a portfolio to be a caretaker executive, and La Russa is too detail-oriented and obsessive in his preparation to fade into the background as a consultant, so this arrangement was never going to work. And it’s no surprise which of the principals paid the price.
The Diamondbacks released a strangely worded statement Friday saying they’ve begun the search for a new general manager but have offered Towers a position to stay with the organization and that he’s “currently evaluating the opportunity." It was a trifle bizarre, to say the least.
The obvious question is, what vision and overriding organizational philosophy will drive the D-backs moving forward? After doing a top-to-bottom review of the farm system and watching the big club muddle along at 59-81, La Russa clearly has a better read on where he wants to take the organization. But he needs to articulate his vision very forcefully and surround himself with people who will help him see the game plan through to the finish.
Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick has made a lot of noise about his admiration for the new statistical metrics as a linchpin to franchise-building, but it’s a stretch to see La Russa suddenly tapping his inner Bill James. Although he’s tried to tamp down some of his early anti-seamhead rhetoric, La Russa loved his David Ecksteins and Joe McEwings in St. Louis and had a great appreciation for the importance of makeup and clubhouse chemistry.
Therein lies the puzzle for baseball observers who wonder how different he’ll be from Towers, who had become a target for abuse on the Internet for the Justin Upton trade and other moves rooted in his infatuation with “gritty" players. In the end, maybe it just comes down to drafting, developing, signing and trading for guys who can actually play.
We’ll undoubtedly see a bunch of names surface soon in the search for Towers’ successor. Walt Jocketty speculation is inevitable, even though the early signs point toward him staying in Cincinnati. One industry insider is skeptical that La Russa is simply going to reassemble the old Gateway Arch gang, even though former St. Louis colleagues Dave Duncan and Dave McKay are already with him in Arizona.
The Diamondbacks' statement Friday also provided no insight on the plans for manager Kirk Gibson, who can’t be feeling particularly comfortable at the moment. But one thing at a time.
The only real mandate is for the D-backs to get better, and that won’t be a very high bar to clear. The 2014 season got off to an ominous start in Arizona when Patrick Corbin had Tommy John surgery in spring training, and things continued to regress with injuries to Paul Goldschmidt, Bronson Arroyo, Mark Trumbo, A.J. Pollock and others.
Even if Towers doesn’t land another GM gig, he’s smart, popular and well-connected enough in the industry to find another job in about five minutes. I’ve always thought that Towers left his heart in San Diego, based in part on how conversations with him inevitably drift back to the Tony Gwynn-Trevor Hoffman portion of his career. But the Padres already have Omar Minaya on their staff, and new general manager A.J. Preller brought along his own senior counselor from Texas in Don Welke. So it’s hard to see where Towers fits in a revamped San Diego hierarchy.
Maybe Towers surprises everyone and takes advantage of his so-called “opportunity" to stay in Arizona. Or maybe he goes back to New York, where he worked for good friend Brian Cashman as a special assignment scout in 2010. The Yankees already have former Cubs GM Jim Hendry in the fold, so Towers would give them a double-barreled dose of scouting acumen and entertainment value.
Towers’ legacy as Arizona general manager consists of a 320-317 overall record, an NL West title in 2011 followed by three straight playoff-free seasons; a five-year, $32 million deal for Paul Goldschmidt; less successful multiyear deals for Aaron Hill and Cody Ross; and an Upton trade that sets Arizona fans on edge every time they see him completing another home run trot in Atlanta.
In the end, Towers' inventory of moves was enough to prompt the Diamondbacks to push him out the door while simultaneously inviting him to stay. The mixed messages from that scenario tell you all you need to know about the challenges the organization faces.