When Arizona General Manager Kevin Towers decided that Justin Upton was no longer part of his future plans, he had to know that trading him away would help define his legacy as a GM in Major League Baseball. But more importantly, Kevin Towers was probably indifferent towards his critics and he remained steadfast with his vision and his desire to seek out a trade partner for the two-time National League All-Star. Towers is a gunslinger as a GM. Always has been and always will be. He is also a proven winner over his career and that is why I am going to cut him some slack with this trade in the hopes that his experience and his vision will help shape a winning Arizona Diamondbacks ball club for the year 2013.
Feb 24, 2012; Scottsdale, AZ, USA; Arizona Diamondbacks executive vice president and general manager Kevin Towers during spring training at Salt River Fields. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Like most fans, I have been somewhat perplexed by Towers desire to trade Upton. I just didn’t think the potential that he possessed was worth giving up on at this point in his young career. Giving up a 25-year-old veteran who had shown flashes of brilliance in his career is a thing many GM’s would be afraid to do, but Towers did not hesitate once his mind was made up to jettison the talented, but mercurial outfielder. He just had to wait for what he thought was the best deal he could get for the right fielder. When the Seattle deal fell apart, he maintained that he would not get held for ransom in a deal for Upton and in getting a solid veteran in Martin Prado and a talented young pitcher in Randall Delgado, both pieces could help the D’backs this season.
What gets lost in most of the criticism surrounding Towers, is that he has been at this gig for a long, long time. Towers enters 2012 with 15 years of experience as a Major League general manager to join the Oakland Athletics’ Billy Beane and the San Francisco Giants’ Brian Sabean as the fourth longest-tenured active GM in Major League Baseball. With 1,207 wins as a General Manager, Towers is one of eight current GMs to post at least 1,200 victories during their career.
Feb 24, 2012; Scottsdale, AZ, USA; Arizona Diamondbacks executive vice president and general manager Kevin Towers (right) and manager Kirk Gibson during spring training at Salt River Fields. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
He served as the San Diego Padres General Manager from 1995-2009. During his time as Padres GM, the Padres won division titles in 1996 and ’98, and 2005 and ’06. They missed winning the wild card in 2007 after losing a 13-inning tiebreaker game at Colorado.
He has a vision for the franchise moving forward and it involves a gritty and gutty franchise shaped in the image of his manager, Kirk Gibson. It also involves putting together a lineup that will make more contact and avoid striking out in large numbers. Finally, like all Towers teams of the past, he has put together a very good bullpen and decent starting pitching staff that will have to carry an Arizona team that will be more about manufacturing runs than playing for the long ball.
While he may have lost some leverage during the time Upton was on the market, you can understand what Towers is trying trying to do with this latest trade if you look back on some of his comments when he was first hired as Diamondbacks GM.
“Personally, I like contact hitters. I like guys that have good pitch recognition. Strikeouts are part of the game, but if you have four or five or six guys in your lineup, it’s hard to sustain any sort of rally,” Towers said in 2010.
If you look at the four big pieces, Towers has moved during his reign as D’backs general manager (Stephen Drew, Chris Young, Chris Johnson and Justin Upton), he is eliminating guys who are consistently posting high strikeout numbers. All four of those players posted strikeout rates of over 19% as D’backs players over the last two seasons. The D’backs already have four players, including the newly acquired Cody Ross, who are inclined to strike out quite a bit. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt, catcher Miguel Montero and outfielder Jason Kubel all strike out over 20% of the time, so the elimination of Drew, Young/Upton and Johnson will drop three guys out of the lineup (with the Ross addition) that strike out way too much for Towers liking.
Sep 09, 2012; Flushing, NY,USA; Atlanta Braves left fielder Martin Prado (14) flies out to left during the third inning against the New York Mets at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
The players replacing those that are now gone, are contact hitters with very low strikeout rates. Prado is an excellent contact hitter and his strikeout rate is near 11% for his career. That is up near the very top of the National League as Prado is regarded by some to be among the best contact hitters in baseball. Adam Eaton, who will get the chance to win the center field position is in the same mold as Prado, striking out less than 15% of the time for his career. At shortstop, Willie Bloomquist, Cliff Pennington and Didi Gregorius all strike out less than 20% of the time with Bloomquist having the lowest percentage of the three (15.8%).
Towers has pulled off big trades before with success. Remember, this is a man who once commented that he’s a “sludge merchant,” able to move unproductive players with big contracts for more productive players. He built contenders in the mid-1990s by acquiring slugger Greg Vaughn and pitchers Kevin Brown and Sterling Hitchcock. He also twice acquired Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson.
In one of his biggest trades, Towers acquired All-Star right-hander Chris Young and All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez in a six-player deal with Texas in January 2006. That seemed to turn out pretty well for the Padres during their run of success in the late 90’s
Towers has been placed in situations and has had to make do with tight player payrolls, which the D’backs have to contend with. In July 2009, he saved the Padres $56 million by trading ace Jake Peavy to the Chicago White Sox for four pitchers. Upton’s salary is $9.75 million for 2013 and and sky rockets after that to $14.25 million in 2014 and $14.5 million in 2015. Johnson’s salary is $2.875 million this season and he is a free agent after the completion of this season. Prado’s salary last season was $4.75 million and he is arbitration eligible going into 2013. The D’backs have said the would like to sign him to a long-term extension. Delgado made $480,000 last season and his also arbitration eligible.
You also should remember that in his first season at the helm of the Diamondbacks baseball operations, the team won 94 games and the National League West Division title just one season after finishing in last place with 97 losses. As a result of the 29-game turn around, Towers finished third in The Sporting News Major League Baseball Executive of the Year voting.
Let’s not jump to too fast a conclusion with this trade as it may turn out that Kevin Towers vision for this team is just what the team needed to win games in the difficult National League West division. GM’s are paid the big bucks to take risks and gambles and not many would have traded Upton. His confidence in doing so leads me to believe that he knows exactly what he is doing and the D’backs are going to be better off for it in the long run.