July 5, 2011
Divide and Conquer, NL West
One Man's Sludge is Kevin Towers' Slugger
The Arizona Diamondbacks are enjoying an unexpected turnaround in 2011. The team widely picked to finish last in the NL West finds itself in the thick of a pennant race as the All-Star break approaches. The difference between this year and last through 85 games could hardly be more dramatic:
Most of the improvement has been in the run suppression department. Former GM Josh Byrnes laid much of the groundwork—trading for rotation mainstays Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, and Joe Saunders—and deserves a significant portion of the credit, as do his predecessors for building an offensive core around Stephen Drew and Justin Upton.
Considering the contributions of Byrnes and Joe Garagiola to the current team, it would be wrong to give new GM Kevin Towers all the credit (just as it would have been wrong to give Padres GM Jed Hoyer all the credit for his team's unexpected success last year, which was made possible by the foundation that Towers had lain before leaving San Diego). Where Towers has made his mark is in finding value where others do not. He gained a reputation for assembling strong bullpens on the cheap while with the Padres, and he is doing the same in Arizona:
Granted, last year's bullpen was historically bad and almost anything figured to be an improvement. And granted, the relievers haven't been as strong of late as they were earlier in the season. Still, this is a positive change and has helped keep the Diamondbacks in games more often than not.
“Finding value where others do not” is a familiar refrain made popular by Moneyball. Towers may have placed less emphasis on sabermetrics and didn't get a book written about him (although Brad Pitt did wear a Padres cap in Spy Game), but his approach in San Diego was similar. Towers learned to search for talent in unusual places while operating on a tight budget. He played the Rule 5 draft, the waiver wire, the Asian market (the cheap version, not the one that brought Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka to North America), and fellow GMs in cobbling together teams that reached the postseason four times in 14 years under his watch—no small feat for a franchise that had done so just once in its first 27 years before Towers’ arrival.
Because of his MacGyveresque approach to assembling a ballclub—give him some gum and a paperclip, and he'll give you 85 wins—Towers took to calling himself “The Sludge Merchant.” It is a moniker that manages to be self-deprecating and self-congratulatory at the same time. And it fits Towers to a tee.Towers' record in the Rule 5 draft has been poor (Kory DeHaan, Donaldo Mendez, Jason Szuminski weren't big-leaguers; Shane Victorino was, but not until it was too late for the Padres; and protecting Craig Stansberry over Joakim Soria turned out to be a huge mistake), but he has excelled in other areas. Whether it be trading Andy Sheets for Phil Nevin, claiming Scott Linebrink off waivers from Houston and then flipping him to Milwaukee for Joe Thatcher after five great seasons, or stealing Heath Bell from the Mets (for the forgettable Jon Adkins and Ben Johnson), Towers finds ways to turn nothing into something.
He signed Akinori Otsuka out of Japan before the 2004 season for $700,000. Otsuka had compiled numbers similar to those of a more heralded (and expensive) reliever who ventured across the Pacific a few years earlier, Kazuhiro Sasaki. After Otsuka enjoyed two fine seasons in San Diego, Towers shipped him and Adam Eaton to Texas for Adrian Gonzalez and change. A year after signing Otsuka, Towers brought Brian Sikorski back from a four-year stint in Japan. Although the move didn't work out as well as San Francisco's signing of this year's surprise pitcher, Ryan Vogelsong, it did have benefits. The Padres put Sikorski into 13 games, and then Towers sent him to Cleveland for another right-handed reliever, Mike Adams.
There are enough examples to call Towers' success a pattern (I once published an overview of his trade record with the Padres at my blog). His methods, though unconventional, produce results. Of course, not everything Towers touches turns to gold. Beyond his spotty Rule 5 record, he also exhibits a loyalty that is equal parts endearing and maddening. While in San Diego, Towers signed local product David Wells to help bolster the rotation in the Padres' inaugural season at Petco Park. The then-41-year-old left-hander responded with a respectable 3.73 ERA and 12 wins for a team that surpassed all reasonable expectations. Wells, a favorite of Towers, jumped ship for Boston the following year. In August 2006, though, Towers sought reinforcement down the stretch and traded promising young catcher George Kottaras to Boston for the fork-laden David Wells. Although Kottaras hasn't become anything more than a role player, Wells' presence in the Padres’ rotation for 22 starts in 2007 (he posted a 5.54 ERA despite pitching half his games at Petco Park) quashed the club's playoff chances that year as much as Tony Gwynn Jr.'s triple off Trevor Hoffman or Matt Holliday's phantom run that ended the season.
This year in Arizona, Towers again has recycled some old favorites—Henry Blanco, Geoff Blum, Russell Branyan, Xavier Nady—and the results haven't been pretty. Towers also gave Sean Burroughs a chance to resurrect his career after Burroughs took a few years off to navigate his own version of the Josh Hamilton Semi-Retirement Plan. Burroughs destroyed the PCL after having not played organized ball since 2007 but hasn't done much in brief stints with the big club. This isn't shocking given that the last time he even slugged .300 in the big leagues, new teammate Upton was a junior at Great Bridge High School.
Maybe Towers' loyalty to Burroughs hasn't paid dividends, but the fact that Towers even looked in that direction shows how far outside the box he will go to try to gain a competitive advantage. Was there enough upside in a 30-year-old third baseman with a career .078 ISO to justify the investment? I don't see it, but then, I'm not the man who drafted Burroughs out of high school. Besides, the most surprising aspect of baseball is its endless capacity to surprise. What kind of upside did anyone think Vogelsong had before the season? Or Wily Mo Pena?
Pena, the least accomplished player ever to hit exactly 26 homers at age 22, signed with the Diamondbacks in December 2010. He recently returned from a two-and-a-half-year exile in the land of Bus Rides O' Plenty to provide some pop from the right side of the plate. The results have been predictably erratic (four homers in 38 plate appearances, but also 17 strikeouts and no walks; so much for trying to make better contact), but Pena has had his moments. Two of Pena's homers (against Kansas City's Luke Hochevar on June 21 and against Detroit's David Purcey on June 24) have traveled an estimated 450-plus feet. There are no bonus points for distance on a home run, but that is exciting to see as a fan, and fans ultimately keep the sport in business.
On June 28, Pena got more than just style points. He clubbed a walk-off homer against Cleveland left-hander Tony Sipp. The downside, beyond a 44.7 percent K%, is that Pena has yet to play an inning in the field. (One could argue this is an upside, but I digress.) With Bud Selig's interleague interlude now in the rear-view mirror, one has to wonder how relevant Pena will be to a team that doesn't employ a DH.
And this brings us back to Towers. (No, not the time he received nothing from Oakland for Jack Cust.) If anyone can turn Pena into a useful part, it's The Sludge Merchant. He has gotten more out of less—transforming three scrubs into baseball's best 1-2 relief combo over the past three years is a slick trick. Maybe Towers won't work his magic with Pena, but I wouldn't bet against it. After all, the man has some gum and a paperclip.