La Russa bound to make changes with Diamondbacks
The sad thing is, Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers is universally well-liked within the sport, manager Kirk Gibson the same.
Towers’ superiors just undercut him, but still hold him in high regard. Many in the organization question Gibson’s decision-making, but greatly respect him as a person.
Maybe it all will work out, and the team’s hiring of Tony La Russa as chief baseball officer will be the move that reboots the entire organization and brings out the best in Towers and Gibson. The D-backs, at least publicly, are leaving open that possibility. And, as team president Derrick Hall says: "Even if we were .500 and I had the opportunity to get Tony La Russa, I’m doing it."
OK, but the D-backs are not .500 — they’re 10 games under, even after winning two of three from the Dodgers over the weekend. And let’s be realistic: La Russa is about the last person the D-backs would hire if they were looking to remain one big, happy family.
Change is coming. The only question is, how soon?
Hall already has acknowledged interviewing candidates for Towers’ job during the search that led him to La Russa. Some in the organization, meanwhile, believe that Towers put together a competitive club, but the players have underperformed due to the tense climate under Gibson and his strategic weaknesses.
That probably is too harsh an assessment — the D-backs were devastated by their two Tommy John surgeries, to left-hander Patrick Corbin and right-handed reliever David Hernandez, and the loss of left fielder Mark Trumbo to a stress fracture in his right foot on April 21.
What’s more, the D-backs remain last in the majors with a 5.28 rotation ERA, a shortcoming that reflects more on Towers than on Gibson, at least in the narrow view. The problem is that Gibson, after nearly four full seasons as a manager, still makes his share of head-scratching moves.
Case in point: Friday night, second inning of a scoreless game, the Dodgers’ wondrous Zack Greinke on the mound. The D-backs put runners on first and second with none out. Chris Owings, who was flashing extra-base power even during a two-week slump, stepped to the plate.
So what happened?
Gibson asked Owings to bunt in front of the D-backs’ No. 8 hitter, Ender Inciarte, who at the time was 3-for-24 on the season with no extra-base hits. Owings popped up his bunt. Inciarte hit into a 4-6-3 double play. And the D-backs went on to lose, 7-0.
Such missteps are not isolated, and scouts who see the D-backs routinely criticize Gibson’s handling of pitching as well. As a player, Gibson could almost will himself to success, as evidenced by his home run off Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. As a manager, he has not quite figured out how to will his team the same way.
But, as one rival executive asked Sunday: "Who do you bring in to manage?"
Phil Nevin, the team’s Triple-A manager, is a Towers guy. Dusty Baker, La Russa’s old rival? Don’t think so. Jose Oquendo? La Russa might talk to his old third-base coach Oquendo at some point. But would he seek to disrupt the Cardinals’ staff to bring in Oquendo during the middle of the D-backs’ lost season? Seems doubtful.
The search for a new GM, meanwhile, could be even more fascinating. La Russa doesn’t want the job, just as he doesn’t want to manage. Sources say that he has yet to even discuss candidates with upper management. But two names were brought to my attention over the weekend, both rather intriguing.
The first was Al Avila, the Tigers’ assistant GM. La Russa, remember, spent the spring of 2012 with the Tigers, learning how a front office works. He remains close with Tigers GM David Dombrowski and former manager Jim Leyland, going back to their days together with the White Sox in the early 1980s. And Avila, Dombrowski’s top assistant, long has been viewed as a future GM.
The second candidate is someone with whom La Russa is even more familiar — his former boss with the Cardinals, Reds GM Walt Jocketty. This is the final year of Jocketty’s contract. He recently bought a home in Phoenix. And he has told friends that he only wants to remain a GM for a few more years.
This could get complicated: Jocketty, 63, might be loyal to Reds owner Bob Castellini, and he also is good friends with Towers. Then again, if the D-backs fired Towers, he almost certainly would bless Jocketty as his replacement. Towers is remarkably even-handed, accepting of the game’s harsh ways.
The thing I wonder about is whether a La Russa-Towers combination actually could work. Towers previously served under demanding bosses, most notably Larry Lucchino with the Padres. And the D-backs’ current failings aside, Towers’ eye for pitching remains almost unmatched in the sport.
Perhaps the biggest question is, what does Ken Kendrick, the D-backs’ managing general partner, want?
A month ago, Kendrick publicly bemoaned the D-backs’ limited use of data, essentially saying that Towers relied too little upon analytics and his previous GM, Josh Byrnes, too much.
La Russa can give off an old-school vibe — he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2009: "I believe analysis from a computer is useful but should be secondary to what you observe." But at that time, he was still bristling over the departure of Jocketty in favor of a more analytically driven front office.
Categorize La Russa at your own risk — he is neither old school nor new school, but his own school. As a manager, he practically invented the matchup bullpen. What is the goal of matchups? To maximize a roster’s capability, a sabermetric principle if there ever was one.
"Chief baseball officer" is a new job for La Russa — and somewhat of a new job in baseball, somewhere between club president and GM. He’s going to implement his own ideas, that much is certain. And as always, he will be utterly compelling, no matter who is on his side.