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September 24, 2010

On the Beat

Raising Arizona

by John Perrotto

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When Kevin Towers looked at the Diamondbacks he didn't see a franchise that has already clinched a second straight last-place finish in the National League West. Nor did he see a franchise that won the division with a young nucleus three seasons ago and seemed ready to dominate the division only for everything to start going wrong.

Instead, Towers looked at the Diamondbacks and saw good things. He saw a franchise owned by Ken Kendrick and operated by club president Derrick Hall, two people he believes want to win. He saw a roster filled with intriguing young talent. Though he won't say so publicly, he also saw some sweet irony in becoming the Diamondbacks' general manager just a little more than a week short of a year since being fired from the same job by the Padres.

Towers had also interviewed for the Diamondbacks' GM job in 2005 with Kendrick. However, he lost out to then Rockies assistant GM Josh Byrnes. Jeff Moorad, then the Diamondbacks' president, made the final decision and selected Byrnes because of his familiarity with advanced statistical metrics. Towers, conversely, has the reputation of relying more on scouting reports and gut instinct when making decisions.

Moorad became principal owner of the Padres early last season and it came as no surprise when he fired Towers after a 12-year run on the next-to-last day of the season. Moorad again went with the analytical type, hiring Red Sox assistant GM Jed Hoyer.

While Diamondbacks-Padres games figure to take on a whole meaning in 2011, Towers isn't thinking about revenge as he begins his new job. Instead, he is thinking positive.

"The reason I'm here is to win," Towers said. "I've never been someone to have a five-year plan or a six-year plan or anything like that. I want to win now. I want to win next year and so does Ken Kendrick. Regardless of the record now, I don't think this is a team that is going to have to wait five years before win. I don't see any reason why next year we can't be this year's Padres."

Towers, of course, is referring to the Padres' surprise run at the NL West title. Expected to finish at or near the back of the pack, the Padres hold a one-half game lead over the Giants.

Ironically, the majority of players on the Padres' roster were either acquired by or drafted by Towers. The strength of the Padres has been their pitching as they are first in the major leagues in runs allowed with 3.60 per game. The backbone of the staff has been a strong bullpen.

Towers has always had a keen eye for pitching talent and been noted for building good relief corps. Not so ironically, finding relief help will be one of his first orders of business when the season is over, as the Diamondbacks are not only last in the majors in WXRL but their -4.5 mark is the fourth-worst since 1954, when Retrosheet records are first available.

"We definitely are going to need some help in the bullpen, especially with a couple of short guys to beef up the back end," Towers said.

Towers laughed when asked his secret to gaining the reputation as the baron of bullpen building.

"Having Trevor Hoffman as the closer for 12 years helped," Towers said, referring to the all-time saves leader. "You look at the scouting reports and then at a lot of different avenues of acquiring talent—starting pitchers who might be better suited to pitching out of the bullpen, international free agents, six-year minor league free agents, major league free agents, pitchers you can acquire in trades. I think there are some guys already in the bullpen who can stay here and help. However, there is no doubt we need to improve the bullpen and bench for next season."

Towers believes he won't have to tinker much with the starting lineup or rotation, saying he feels the nucleus of the team is in place. However, the Diamondbacks have already set the major-league record for strikeouts in a season and he would like to see the hitters improve in that area.

"Without having been around the club much, it's hard to say for certain why there have been so many strikeouts, though strikeouts do usually come as part of the package with power numbers," Tower said. "I don't want to see our guys cut down their swings to sacrifice a lot of power but there are ways you can reduce strikeouts, either by recognizing pitches better or staying within yourself more. It's something we're definitely going to have to talk about and try to find a solution to sometime between now and the start of spring training."

While spring training is a long way off, Towers does get a chance to at least familiarize himself with interim manager Kirk Gibson, considered a heavy favorite to retain the job, and the players during the season's final 10 days.

"It's going to be good to be around the team," Towers. "I want to see how they react after a win, a win and after a loss, and also how they react after they've given a game away. I think it's important to try to find out what makes the team tick before moving forward."

---

Anyone with an ounce of empathy in his soul has to feel for Jerry Manuel. It has become quite clear that the Mets will fire him as their manager at the end of the season, yet he faces each day with a smile while being left to twist in the wind.

Yet even the good-natured Manuel has started getting irked over what has been perceived as people campaigning for his job. First, Wally Backman, manager of the Mets' short-season Brooklyn farm club said he would have done a better job than Manuel this season. Dodgers manager Joe Torre, who is retiring at the end of the season, then told reporters Monday when he visited Yankee Stadium for the unveiling of a George Steinbrenner monument that he would be willing to listen if Mets owner Fred Wilpon called.

Torre backed away from those comments a day later, but Manuel was clearly hurt. Manuel served as a coach under Torre for the American League in the 1999 All-Star Game when Manuel was managing the White Sox and Torre was skipper of the Yankees.

"I find it also curious when someone comments about a job that someone already has," Manuel said. "I don't know Joe on a personal basis. But when things like that come out or are said ... you question the integrity. That's what comes to my mind."

Torre apologized for his comments and Manuel accepted. Manuel also understands why his job would attract a number of high-profile candidates.

"Joe is an icon in New York," Manuel said. "That's to be expected. That's home, New York. It's the mecca of baseball. You can go many places, but after you have been in New York, and I'm sure for him, nothing satisfies him other than New York. I also can understand the desire to come back when you have been there. Once you bite the apple you're hungry for it. That's just the way it is. It's a place where once you get there and get feeling the passion and all that, you're hungry. There's no place like it, and I can see that people would want these types of positions in New York. There are a thousand people that would want this job. For him to say what he said only validates how special it is to have this opportunity."

Torre said he felt badly that he came across as politicking for a job that belonged to another manager. Speculation has been running rampant since Torre announced his retirement last Friday that he will be in someone else's dugout on Opening Day next season. However, he says that almost certainly will not be the case.

"I would doubt very seriously if there would be anything that would entice me to manage again," Torre said. "As I said a number of times, this is pretty good duty out here. This weather, this ballpark, the Dodgers being a storied franchise. I know there are a lot of questions about what's going on. But it's still a pretty darn good place to be. I don't anticipate any managerial offers or anything that would make sense for me to manage."

---

The Twins became the first to team to clinch a post-season berth when they nailed down the American League Central title on Tuesday night. That was quite a contrast from last season when the Twins had to beat the Tigers in a tiebreaker game two days after the regular season ended to win the division crown. The Twins then opened the ALDS against the Yankees the next night in New York and wound up getting swept in three games.

"It's a little different because we're not going to fly out (to New York) in about an hour an half," Twins first baseman Michael Cuddyer said after clinching.

"We can kind of relax and not worry about it all," left-hander Brian Duensing said. "It's a lot different than having to get on a plane knowing you're already going into October. It's a lot of fun, and it's exciting to do it this way."

The Twins became the first team to return to the playoffs after winning a one-game playoff the previous season. They also played in a 163rd game in 2008, losing to the White Sox.

"It's definitely a nice feeling to know we're in there, we've gotten it out of the way, and you can kind of set yourself up for the playoffs now," Cuddyer said.

The division title is the Twins' sixth in nine seasons after going 10 years without reaching the postseason. Cuddyer is the only player who has been on all six champions.

"I don't think you can get used to it," he said. "You don't get used to it. Pretty special."

---

The Rays are almost certainly headed to the postseason for the second time in three seasons. While the Rays trail the Yankees by a half-game in the AL East, they hold a seven-game lead over the Red Sox in the wild-card standings.

However, you might want to take a good look at the 2010 Rays' team picture because it will likely look a lot different next season, even if the Rays go on to win to their first World Series title. Principal owner Stuart Sternberg continues to reiterate that the team-record $72 million payroll will be reduced, possibly by a significant amount.

"No question," Sternberg said. "Nothing can change that. Unfortunately, there's nothing that can happen between now and April that can change that unless Joe Maddon hits the lottery and wants to donate it, or I hit the lottery."

It is generally thought that the Rays' payroll will be around $50 million next season as their attendance and overall revenues continue to lag. Thus, it seems certain they will not attempt to re-sign such free agents as closer Rafael Soriano, first baseman Carlos Pena, and left fielder Carl Crawford.

"We put everything in place to have it happen, to put us in a position so we'd be able to keep adding, keep signing, more long-term deals, stuff like that," Sternberg said. "It wasn't meant to be."

---

MLB Rumors & Rumblings: Former Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu and Nationals third base coach Pat Listach have been added to list of potential candidates to manage the Cubs. … There are many in the Blue Jays organization who believe they should stay in-house for their next manager and promote either third-base coach Brian Butterfield or bench coach Nick Leyva to replace the retiring Cito Gaston. … Towers would like to hire Greg Maddux as the Diamondbacks' pitching coach. … The Red Sox, contrary to speculation, plan to hang on to closer Jonathan Papelbon. … The Nationals are considering trading catcher Ivan Rodriguez, likely to the Marlins, to open the starting job for prospect Wilson Ramos. … If the Angels are successful in their bid to sign Crawford as a free agent, Bobby Abreu will move from left fielder to designated hitter next season.

---

Scouts' views on various players:

Blue Jays catcher John Buck: "It's going to be interesting to see what kind of contract he gets in free agency. He's had a good year but he still swings and misses an awful lot, which makes me think he's not going to repeat numbers like this again."

Diamondbacks outfielder Ryan Church: "It seems like everyone that gets out of Pittsburgh immediately becomes rejuvenated. He's back to his old self, providing good spot play off the bench and hitting right-handers. He's a good guy to have on the bench.

Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis: "I hope the Dodgers finally keep him in the major leagues. He's good enough to be a solid No. 2 catcher and he deserves the chance to stick on a roster all season."

Rockies right-hander Jason Hammel: "The Rays haven't made too many mistakes the last two years but they did when they let this kid get away. He's got some giddy-up on his fastball, his slider is becoming a wipeout pitch and he pounds the strike zone. He's really coming into his own."

Cubs catcher Koyie Hill: "It's too bad he can't hit worth a damn or else he'd be a starter. He's a good defensive catcher and takes charge of the game."

Mets right fielder Angel Pagan: "Frankly, I’m not sure what to make of him. In the first half of the season, I thought he'd shaken that fourth-outfielder label. Now, he's tailed off in the second half and I’m starting to wonder. He's got talent but I don't know if it plays over 162 games."

Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak: "The Mariners have taken heat for taking the deal with the Rangers for Smoak instead of the one with the Yankees for (Jesus) Montero when they traded Cliff Lee but I think the kid has a chance to be a Mark Grace-type first baseman. He might not hit 30 home runs but he'll hit a lot of balls hard into the gap for doubles. The big thing is he has to learn to handle breaking stuff."

Pirates left fielder Jose Tabata: "I thought he was another overrated Yankees' prospect but he's surprised me. He's done a really nice job since getting called up. He really hits off-speed pitches well for a young hitter and he has a good two-strike approach. I don't know if the power is going to develop but he could be a heckuva No. 2 hitter."

---

Three series to watch with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):

Red Sox (84-68) at Yankees (92-61), Friday-Sunday September 24-26
Josh Beckett vs. Andy Pettitte, 7:05 p.m.; Jon Lester vs. Ivan Nova, 4:10 p.m.; Daisuke Matsuzaka vs. Phil Hughes, 8:05 p.m.

Giants (86-67) at Rockies (82-70), Friday-Sunday September 24-26
Tim Lincecum vs. Jhoulys Chacin, 8:10 p.m.; Barry Zito vs. Jason Hammel, 8:10 p.m.; Matt Cain vs. Jorge De La Rosa, 3:10 p.m.

Reds (86-67) at Padres (85-67), Friday-Sunday September 24-26
Bronson Arroyo vs. Chris Young, 10:05 p.m.; Travis Wood vs. Jon Garland, 4:10 p.m.; Homer Bailey vs. Clayton Richard, 4:05 p.m.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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