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The Arizona Diamondbacks this spring turn 13, an age for in-between maturity and wandering dispositions.
There’s nothing quite like the teen years, where the only obstacle between darkness and light is a flimsy window shade at the end of a good Saturday nooner.
Ask any of baseball’s adolescents. It ain’t easy growing up in an expansion town. First, you’re fresh and exciting and even a smile becomes an occasion. Then you’re expected to know who you are and where you’re going. Like, now. Then everyone wants to know who’s paying for this thing that does nothing but sleep and eat. By the end, when adulthood is near, even a smile becomes an occasion.
As of a couple years ago, each of baseball’s youngest – the Diamondbacks, Tampa Bay Rays, Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins, those imps – had done their World Series thing. Together, they have five World Series appearances (and three wins) and 20 last-place finishes.
The Diamondbacks became No. 20 in 2010, just as they were No. 19 the season before – that adding up to 189 losses after consecutive contending seasons – so it was they who had taken the role of baseball’s kings of mood swings.
Out went the old general manager, the field manager, and ultimately a lot of folks who were close to them. And in came the new authority, the new perspectives and the new methods.
Since the Diamondbacks closed the season with the second-worst record in the National League (thank you, Pittsburgh Pirates), they’ve hired Kevin Towers as their general manager, extended manager Kirk Gibson’s contract by two years, brought in Ray Montgomery (Milwaukee Brewers) to be their scouting director and promoted Rico Brogna to farm director. They’ve also redone their coaching staff with pitching coach Charles Nagy, hitting coach Don Baylor and bench coach Alan Trammell.
Of course, as of today, they also – and still – have the worst bullpen anybody had seen in a long time, a lineup of swing-and-mostly-miss guys, and a roster of young and gifted athletes that hasn’t gained its across-the-board, big-league bearing. As to the latter, that means players – in general – who were overestimated, underdeveloped, rushed into big league roles or portions of all of the above.
The blame likely deserved to be scattered throughout the organization, but Josh Byrnes and Bob Melvin – solid men, sound baseball minds – paid with their jobs. Losing tends to grind at people, and by the time the front office and field staff were rebuilt the cause for the D’backs’ collapse depended on to whom one spoke last.
So, along comes Towers, the 49-year-old baseball junky and gunslinger who’d made a little something out of the San Diego Padres over 15 seasons. He was fired by the Padres a year ago by Jeff Moorad, who left an ownership stake with the D’backs (where he’d hired Byrnes) to lead a group that bought the Padres, and isn’t life interesting?
Now Moorad has himself a young gun at GM (Jed Hoyer), just as he had in Arizona, while the Diamondbacks have reverted to an old-school soul who built his rep on savvy hardball evaluations, notably on the pitching end. That bodes well for the D’backs, whose four-year descent from 90 wins to 65 had at least something to do with the general condition of Brandon Webb’s(notes) shoulder. In 2007-08, when Arizona was relevant, Webb won 40 games. In the following two years, when they were not, he won none.
If you know Towers at all, or paid attention to his observations of various clubs in San Diego, you know he’s as honest as they come. He works as hard as anyone, takes his job as serious as anyone, makes mistakes like everyone, and when his team is terrible he says so. And there’s work to do in Arizona, as anyone can see.
His staff of relievers – what he calls “the bullpen situation” – needs an overhaul. The bench is thin. And there a lot of similar guys in the lineup. Most intriguing, there’s a good chance he’ll attempt to upgrade by trading third baseman Mark Reynolds(notes), a test case for how talent evaluators feel about a guy who’ll hit 35 home runs, walk 75 times, drive in 100 runs, yet strike out 200-and-some times and, last season, bat under .200, all at a time when power is a great and disappearing commodity. Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder(notes) will be among the hot free agents next winter. In the past three seasons, he’s hit 112 home runs and had 326 RBIs. Reynolds in the same span: 104 home runs, 284 RBIs.
Not yet two months in, Towers believes there is less to do here than the organizational won-loss trend and appearances suggest. The rotation is young and promising. He likes outfielders Chris Young and Justin Upton(notes). Add a few arms in the ‘pen (his specialty), some pop on the bench and a veteran guy (Derrek Lee(notes)? Paul Konerko(notes)?) at first, and Towers could have the Diamondbacks presentable again.
“I plan on it, yeah,” he said this week. “I think this team underachieved last year. And then this division is always so volatile. Hey, we’re not the AL East.”
The NL West is the home of the World Series champion, though the San Francisco Giants don’t have the look of a juggernaut. The Padres, surprises last season, will almost surely trade Adrian Gonzalez(notes) and Heath Bell(notes) before the 2011 season is out. The Dodgers are in decline. And the Rockies have their issues.
So here are the Diamondbacks at a crossroads. Maybe they found it, or it found them, but that hardly matters. Maybe they’re growing up a little. It’s so hard to tell at their age. At this point, D’backs fans would take the occasional smile.