The Cincinnati Reds, like other major league teams, will start making changes to their roster once the World Series is finished. But adjustments in front office and coaching personnel have already begun. Third base coach Steve Smith was told he wouldn’t return and assistant general manager Bob Miller left the Reds to pursue a business opportunity in Florida.
A recent report (Buster Olney) has circulated that the Reds will soon hire Kevin Towers, presumably as an assistant to his good friend, Walt Jocketty. The Arizona Diamondbacks fired Towers as their general manager in early September. Can Reds fans expect the Towers hire to impact the way the roster is managed this offseason?
Kevin Towers earned a solid reputation as a largely-successful general manager for the small-market San Diego Padres (1995-2009). He was hired by the D-Backs to be their GM in 2011. This weekend, I spoke with someone in the Diamondbacks organization who has worked with Towers. He expressed the same opinion you read elsewhere, that the GM was universally liked and respected.
That said, TowersÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ tenure in the desert coincided with the Diamondbacks’ collapse. In his first season as GM, Arizona won 94 games and the NL West. That success was followed by two 81-81 seasons in 2012 and 2013. This year, under Towers’ leadership, the Diamondbacks had the worst record (64-98) in baseball. That nose-dive took place as the Diamondbacks ownership expanded payroll from $56 million in 2011 to $112 million in Towers’ final season. He practicedÃ‚Â anti-Moneyball.
As with most spectacular failures, more than one factor or person contributed to the D-Backs tailspin. But the personality-driven roster Kevin Towers built was a chief culprit. He filled Arizona’s clubhouse with Ã¢â‚¬Å“grittyÃ¢â‚¬Â guys who Ã¢â‚¬Å“played the right wayÃ¢â‚¬Â and shipped off those he felt lacked toughness. For example, Towers traded Justin Upton at age 24, with three years of affordable team control. He gave up on other good young players because they didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t fit his concept of ideal character.
Towers, who turns 53 in a couple weeks, will join Bill Bavasi and Cam Bonifay, two other old-school GMs who were fired by their organizations, in Jocketty’s inner circle, a veritable Great American Island of Misfit Toys.
Bill Bavasi had previous stints as a major league general manager with the California/Anaheim Angels (1994-99) and Seattle Mariners (2003-08), where his teams had a collective record of 790-923. Both the Angels and Mariners had healthy payrolls during Bavasi’s tenure and the Mariners had won 90 or more games in the three seasons prior to his taking over.
The Reds hired Bavasi in 2008, right after he was let go by Seattle. His approach has been characterized as back-slapping old school and his roster management of the Mariners, where he was much hatedÃ‚Â by fans, has been termed a demolition derbyÃ‚Â and unchained franchise destruction.
In explaining the decision to consign the Reds’ best pitcher to 60 innings of work per season, Bavasi offered this breathtakingÃ‚Â statement: Ã¢â‚¬Å“You build your pitching staff from the back to the front Ã¢â‚¬â€œ if we can shut you down in the eighth and ninth innings, you arenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t going to beat us.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Now we’ve got Aroldis for that.
With Jocketty leaning heavily on such brain-dead advice, we should be thankful that Johnny Cueto hasn’t been assigned to pitch the eighth inning.
Cam Bonifay served as Pittsburgh’s general manager for nearly ten years (1993-2001). He took over a team that had won at least 95 games the previous three seasons and been in Game Seven of the NLCS the prior year. Bonifay led the Pirates to nine consecutive losing seasons. During that time, he was criticized for overpaying players past their primes and described as a terrible judge of talent.
Besides Walt Jocketty’s war room, oneÃ‚Â other place you can find both Bill Bavasi and Cam Bonifay is on Jonah Keri’s 2008 list of the ten worst general managers in history. Keri’s list isÃ‚Â for all sports, not just baseball.
The Kevin Towers hire fits a pattern for Jocketty. Some leaders seek out strong alternative voices, knowing valuable insight can be gained by considering differing viewpoints. Others surround themselves with like-minded people with whom theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll feel comfortable.
Instead of hiring away cutting-edge, fresh-faced talent from successful organizations, Walt Jocketty assembles the timeworn discards of failed operations. It’s sort of natural selection in reverse. In the age of Google and Apple, Jocketty’s inner sanctum more closely resembles Jurassic Park than Menlo Park.
Bullpens are important. Research links the strength of a team’s relief corps and winning. But starting pitchers, hitters and defense all matter more. Shut the other team down the last two or three innings, fine. But it doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t produce a win without the lead.
Bullpens have huge quality turnover from year-to-year. Individual relief pitchers are inconsistent and unpredictable, especially when evaluated by common statistics like ERA that are affected by small sample sizes and one or two bad games. Studies show that great bullpens are typically one-season wonders, managing to be only solid the year after.
It turns out that because of the fickle nature of individual relievers, teams shouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t pay near top dollar for anything other than a high-end closer. And there are few of those. Early-round draft picks used on college relievers (remember Ryan Wagner?) have tended to be relatively poor investments. The reverse, moving starters to the bullpen (Chapman, Sean Marshall before shoulder issues) has had a much better payoff.
Where do high-end relief pitchers come from? Everywhere. Late-round draft picks. Low-budget international free agents. Waiver claims of veterans in their 30s. Independent leagues. Minor pieces of bigger trades. Converted first basemen or catchers. Journeymen starting pitchers can consolidate their pitch portfolio. The lesson is that clubs have to be persistent and make the effort, scavenging for pieces other teams donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t want.
The Dodgers’ recent bullpen recipe was to sign expensive free agents and trade for Ã¢â‚¬Å“provenÃ¢â‚¬Â non-elite closers and set-up men. They paid big money for what the pitchers had already done, not what they would do. It turned out their best reliever, Kenley Jansen, was a player they signed out of CuraÃƒÂ§ao — as a catcher.
In contrast, the Cardinals populated their bullpen with late-round draft picks, international amateurs and former position players. Their All-Star set-up reliever, Pat Neshek, was signed as a minor league free agent.
Obviously, not every pitcher in these categories turns into a capable reliever, even for a short period of time. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s why teams need to generate a steady stream of them, to produce a large pool each year from which to draw Ã¢â‚¬â€œ maybe 30 arms for a critical mass. Teams that primarily target specific relievers arenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t as successful at building bullpens as those that cast a wider net. What tends to work is organizational depth above all else.
Analytics, if clubs use the right statistics, can increase the chance of finding reliable relievers. Looking at ERA or previous saves is foolÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s gold. It’s akin to a dog chasing its tail. Organizations must recognize that just because a reliever has one strong season doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t mean heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s likely to repeat it the next year. That means no two-year contracts for pitchers like Manny Parra and Logan Ondrusek.
Most importantly, major league clubs living with budget constraints have to avoid overspending on their bullpen. Scarce dollars are better used on starters, hitters and defense, areas where reliable performance is easier to identify and estimate.
LetÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s give Walt Jocketty the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s hired Kevin Towers because of Towers’ reputation for a skill that the Reds could sorely use Ã¢â‚¬â€œ building a successful bullpen. The guess here is that when the Reds do hold their press conference announcing the hire, maybe as early as today, that particular quality of Towers will be stressed.
Towers’ built his bullpen brand in San Diego. The best Padres reliever then was Trevor Hoffman, whom Towers inherited. But Kevin Towers was successful in assembling a talented bullpen in San Diego on the cheap. Operating on a small-market shoestring, he landed relievers like Joe Thatcher, Luke Gregerson, Mike Adams, Edward Mujica and Ernesto Frieri.
That narrative continued in part when Towers took the GM job in Arizona. He remade the Diamondbacks relief staff with initial success. But as the D-Backs payroll skyrocketed, Towers lost his frugal ways and deft touch when it came to acquiring relievers.
TowersÃ‚Â traded for 35-year-old Heath Bell, who had previously pitched for him in San Diego but had been ineffective for the Marlins. Even receiving salary help from Miami in the deal, the D-Backs were on the hook for $13 million to Bell over two seasons. Bell blew 7 of his 22 save opportunities in 2013. Towers unloaded Bell (at the cost of $3.5 million) to the Tampa Bay Rays. Bell was DFAÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d by the Rays after a month.
Towers gave J.J. Putz, a former closer with a history of trips to the DL, a 4-year, $20 million contract.Ã‚Â Putz pitched well in Arizona for two years, but slumped over the second half of the contract. Last year, Arizona paid Putz $7 million, and DFA’d him in July.
Towers also paid a high price in personnel to acquire relievers for the Diamondbacks. He traded 29-year-old starting pitcher Ian Kennedy for Thatcher, a 32-year old LOOGY and Padres retread. In 2014, Kennedy’s first full season for San Diego, he produced 2.9 fWAR (approximately $20 million in value). His salary was $6.1 million. Over 201 innings, Kennedy (3.63 ERA, 3.21 FIP) was eighth in strikeout rate for starters in the NL. Kennedy also has another year of team control in 2015. Meanwhile, Arizona has already flipped Thatcher for two second-tier minor leaguers.
Finally, Towers acquired White Sox closer Addison Reed at the cost of 23-year-old, top-100 prospect, 3B Matt Davidson. Reed is young and was still pre-arbitration at the time, but he’s also just a garden-variety closer (0.0 fWAR, -0.5 bWAR in 2014).
In sum, Towers followed best practices in relief pitcher acquisition when forced to by a tiny payroll in San Diego. But he fell into big-spending, hit-and-mostly-miss habits when he operated with a payroll similar to one he’ll find in Cincinnati. Towers committed 18% ($20 million) of the D-Backs’ payroll to the bullpen last year.
The best case for adding Kevin Towers to the Reds front office is based on his history with San Diego, a half-decade ago, particularly with the bullpen. But Towers’ recentÃ‚Â sell low/buy high track record with the Diamondbacks calls into question whether he’ll repeat his success with the Padres.
In Cincinnati, Towers will be flanked by other men who share his de-emphasis of analytics and modern thinking about baseball, an environment destined to reinforce his worst tendencies. Instead of building their bullpen by broadening the organization’s reservoir of cheap arms from multiple sources, expect Walt Jocketty’s old-fangled front office to continue overpaying for aging veterans and one-season wonders.