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October 10, 2003

Prospectus Q&A

Kevin Towers, Part II

by Jonah Keri

Continuing from Part I of the discussion...

Baseball Prospectus: When you're looking at the need for young players to learn and develop by getting playing time in the majors, doesn't that also rack up service time for players who may not be ready? As a smaller-revenue team--even with the new park--with a young core, how do you strike a balance with young players in terms of making sure they don't rack up too much service time too quickly vs. giving them a chance to develop at the big league level?

Kevin Towers: With a large-market team it's a little easier to give those types of young players the time they need in the minors to develop. Ideally you'd like to see all your minor league players get 2,000 at-bats before they get to the big leagues, pitchers maybe 500 innings. With a mid- or small-market club, at least 40% of our roster has to be 0-3 players to make our budget work, so sometimes kids get rushed. If the market stays soft like it was last year, we might be able to get one of the Loftons, Sanderses, or Loaizas, which can change things, since they fill a need and would be affordable if the market holds. It's sad that some young players might have to develop at the big league level because of economics. It's a little easier though when it's a Khalil Greene coming from college and more mature, vs. a Peavy or Perez from high school.

BP: Darren Balsley, the new pitching coach, has a reputation for having a great rapport with the minor league kids. Dennis Tankersley and Ben Howard gave him credit for fixing their mechanics when they were pitching well, but now both of them have really fallen off as prospects. What do you see as Balsley's strengths and weaknesses, and what kind of role do you see him playing in helping the young starters develop?

Towers: One of the reasons we made the change to Balsley from Greg Booker was that we felt our young pitchers weren't making as much progress as we'd like. Balsley was with that crop of pitchers from Fort Wayne all the way to Mobile. These guys believed in him, and he was excellent with them in working on their mechanics. He does a good job of making sure a pitcher's balance is there, that his stride is right, that he's striking his toe correctly, that the arm slot is right. Young pitchers, even in the big leagues, have those mechanical flaws, and they need someone they have confidence in to help them make adjustments when they're out of whack--when they get older, they learn to make adjustments by themselves. Book(er) was more about preparation and scouting hitters, which is good for a veteran staff. But if a pitcher's mechanics are no good, preparation doesn't matter. One of the reasons we're holding onto Tankersley is that Balsley believes Tank's still the best of the bunch, and he'd like to have Spring Training to work with him and get him back on track.

BP: A lot of the rap on Tankersley has been mental, where we've heard of some off-field run-ins, lapses in confidence, clashes with teammates, and that those may have affected his performance. Do you see Tankersley's problems as mostly mental too, or would you attribute his poor performance to other factors?

Towers: The problem that Tankersley has run into at the big league level is simply a lack of command of his fastball. If you look at his numbers, his strikeout-to-walk ratios have good, but his pitch counts per inning have been too high. He's unable to be more than a five-, six-inning pitcher right now, because he consistently runs up deep counts. You're not going to have success until you have command of the fastball. You'll have what happened to him against the Giants, where he started and didn't register an out. This is a guy who had a tremendous slider, lived on it at the lower levels, then when he got up to Double-A and higher, guys started laying off it. So he had to control his fastball, and he couldn't.

There are lots of moving parts in his delivery right now: his arms and legs are all over the place. We hope to simplify that. If he can gain command of his fastball, we still think he will have unbelievable success. So it's more mechanical than anything. As far as his mental state, he just needs to get back up here and have a little success. He had some in his first start against Atlanta, but other than that, he had no success whatsoever. So mentally, you're not right, you start doubting yourself. I hope he has good a Spring Training, so that he forces our hand in terms of making a decision. But no, we haven't given up on him by any means.

BP: Staying with young pitchers, Jake Peavy looked like he stepped forward, but he also gave up a lot of homers--checking the numbers here--33 in 194 2/3, in a park that's not known for giving up a lot of homers. Are the homers a concern for you? How's Peavy progressing overall?

Towers: I really think he's going to be a star. If I had to put my neck in a noose on a young pitcher, it'd be for him. He's a winner, he's won everywhere he's gone, high school, the minors, and now in the big leagues. He's a guy who gets better when he gets into trouble. He gave up a lot of home runs, but so does Schilling, and Schilling keeps guys off the bases so that he gives up lots of solo home runs that don't hurt him very much. Peavy had that (oblique) strain before the All-Star break, which hurt his command a bit for a while, but otherwise he pitched well. The sky's the limit for this guy.

I remember sitting in the park in Fort Wayne when he was 19, and he was telling me how he'd make adjustments, pitch backwards to hitters, start them with fastballs, then adjust to breaking balls. He just showed such great awareness. Talking to him was like talking to Greg Maddux, and he was 19! He fields his position well, has a good move to first. He can log innings and pitch deep into games. One thing to watch is that he has such great stuff, he can become a little strikeout-happy. Hopefully with time, he'll learn to manage his game plan a little better. But I wouldn't change much.

BP: You've been the Padres GM for nine years, and you got your start in scouting. How have some of the scouting and player evaluation principles in the organization changed over the years?

Towers: I think it's cyclical. Between '96 and '98, we drafted younger players; we felt there was time to develop them. Bill Gayton came on board (as the new head of scouting), and we said then that we had to improve the system. We got too high school-happy in the mid-90s--it takes high school players a long time to develop. We also drafted pitching heavily in the early and mid-90s. It got pretty slim when it came to positional prospects after a while. We've switched the emphasis to position players, preferably college ones, where we feel we'll get more of an immediate return.

More clubs are now going the college route, doing what Oakland's done, what Toronto's done, what we've done--everybody's starting to jump on the bandwagon. We may end up going back to high school kids after a while. In the next couple of years if we see heavy drafting of college players, we might then be able to land a Cole Hamels. When more and more clubs are doing the same thing, you're going to have less to pick from among college players, so you might be able to get those kinds of pretty good bargains with high school talent.

As far as our timing goes, we're going to go with fewer younger players at the big league level, so we may use some college-drafted players and prospects to make trades, as we did this year to get Giles. In that sense, it's more of a Giants philosophy. Hopefully we'll have a run of four or five years where we don't need many new, young players making major contributions, where we're able to keep our core players on field. We could then use the added revenue from the new park more to sign players and use some of our drafted talent to trade for plugging holes.

BP: When you're looking at the advantage of a college player getting to the majors quickly, wouldn't that play a big role in terms of a general manager providing input into who to draft? You have a five-year contract and all, but getting good, young players to the majors quickly has to be important in terms of job security, isn't it?

Towers: When making any kind of decision like this, you have to look at your system. The depth of your system is what really matters more than any of those other factors. Khalil Greene was a need for us, which is a big part of why we drafted him. We were onto Greene the year before, when he was drafted by the Cubs. In May we knew we wanted to take him, that we wanted a shortstop.

The game has changed a lot in the last five, 10 years. Ownership expects instant returns. GMs are having more say in what goes into the amateur draft. It used to be that you'd delegate, put the scouting department in charge. Nowadays you're seeing more GMs in the draft room than there were 10 years ago. You've heard the old adage: 'take the guy with the highest ceiling.' But sometimes you never see that freaking ceiling. I'm a big believer in probability. If you give me a player with a 30% chance to be an All-Star, vs. an 80% to 90% shot to be a quality regular player, there's no doubt which way I'm going.

BP: Why did the Padres sign Kevin Jarvis to a three-year contract for big dollars?

Towers: He was a non-tender the year before, we signed him for $550,000, and he won 12 games for us that year. I guess the best answer was with the budget being where it was, a lot of young pitchers on the staff, and the possibility of him making $3 million in arbitration, there were a lot of factors in play. Our options were to trade him--which we tried--to non-tender him, and I mentioned he was our best pitcher at the time, or to backload his contract, pray that he has another good year, and try to spin him off the way we did with Bubba Trammell. But (Jarvis) got injured. I consider myself a good sludge merchant, but he hasn't given us much since that time. So the sludge merchant wasn't able to move this one.

There are other things that come into play with a decision like that one, which I can't really talk about.

BP: The Trammell trade seemed like it would clear the way for Xavier Nady to play every day. Nady started hot, but then really cooled off, you brought in Rondell White, and Nady had to fight for playing time from then on. Even without White, with Nevin back healthy and Giles in the outfield, plus the need to find a spot for Klesko, there doesn't seem to be any room for Nady. What do you see as his future with the team?

Towers: I'm hoping that the trade I was talking about that may bring that catcher may also open up an outfield spot to let Nady play every day.

Nady's got a chance to be a power hitter, he's got a chance to be a good defensive outfielder, he's got good makeup. The problem with him at the plate is he takes that leg kick, which leads to a long swing, and he becomes susceptible to the inside pitch. But he's got good bat speed, he's a tremendous athlete, and he runs well. He's got great confidence too: when we brought him to the big leagues, there were no worries about ruining him. We're hoping he'll be an everyday guy, and that we can make that trade for that to happen. He's going to be a player who'll make some noise.

BP: What about Nady's plate discipline? He didn't walk much this year and he's struggled on and off with pitch selection in the past. Do you think plate discipline can be taught, or does a player either have it or not?

Towers: I'm a big believer that plate discipline can be taught. It's nice to see positive indicators in high school and college, because then it becomes a pretty good bet that the player will keep those skills. But I believe it can also be taught. It's teaching a mindset, teaching them: 'don't be afraid to get to two strikes.' If it's a player that has an aptitude for learning, he can apply those lessons and get better. When you're young, in your first year, you're trying to hit the big home run, get base hits, make the club every at-bat. It's our job to teach them to grow beyond that point. We've got a great teacher in Dave Magadan; his whole theory is that it's OK to get to two strikes. We're looking for a few of our young players to get better in this area. I think Khalil will be better eventually, but we're also kind of concerned with him, since he's not a guy who's real disciplined right now. He's got time to learn, but if you start getting to 25, 26, 27 and you still can't do it, then I think we're in trouble.

It's the same in the minor leagues. Josh Barfield is a player we've got in our system who's talented but not very selective. At higher levels he will have to be more selective to succeed. We've got a kid named Pedro De los Santos--he was one of those guys who aged a year and changed his name. People don't talk about him a lot, but he could be better than Barfield. He has exceptional speed, plays a tremendous center field, and he's got some power. He was in Double-A, swinging at too many breaking balls, but for his age, he's got good feel at the plate. He's another one that could really improve a lot if he can be more selective.

BP: Sean Burroughs already seems to have the plate discipline thing down. Now it's a matter of waiting on his power. He looked a lot more lean and in shape this year. Do you think he can become a legitimate power hitter in addition to a .400 on-base guy?

Towers: Sean had shoulder problems, and while he rehabbed his shoulder, he worked hard on cutting down his body fat. He's actually probably the fastest runner we have. As far as his power goes, I just wish he had more torque in his hips. He needs better hip rotation to really drive the ball--he doesn't have explosive hips like Nady. Sean has great hand-eye coordination, and he does a great job of being able to hit the ball to the opposite field, so in that sense he's more like Tony Gwynn. He's got to work on the mechanics of his swing. The path of his swing is good, but he doesn't power his hips through the zone, and that's why balls go to the warning track. I don't know if he needs to take Pilates or something to get his hips to fire, but I think he can develop power, 10- to 20-homer power at least. He did a good job for us defensively and did a good job of getting on base for us, so overall we're definitely happy with his progress.

BP: It seems that you've got your core players in place then, and that you'll be looking to find the right complementary players to fill out the roster. Obviously signing Beck worked out great. Do you see yourself taking a chance on other players like that?

Towers: When you're in a situation like ours, it gives you a chance to be creative. If you look at what Oakland's done in recent years, they'd take a chance on a Matt Stairs or Olmedo Saenz, and it worked out well for them. Last year we had Beck of course, but we also took a chance on Jaret Wright, and of course that didn't work out as well. But you've got to be willing to put a roster together that way. You need to have a project or two like that every year: sometimes those are the guys that make the difference in a close race.

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

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