Death of a Gunslinger

As you doubtless know by now, the Padres have fired GM Kevin Towers. It’s taken me so long to write about this because it is difficult for me to articulate my feelings. His departure hits me harder than those of Bruce Bochy, Trevor Hoffman, Sandy Alderson, or Jake Peavy.

Towers was the primary architect of the best team (’98) in franchise history as well as of the most successful multi-year run (’04-’07). He isn’t the sole reason for the Padres’ success during his tenure, but a lot of good things happened under his watch. What he wasn’t directly responsible for, his hires and charges were. Towers was undeniably the most successful GM in club history, and I hate to see him go.

Was jettisoning Towers the right move? Without having a firm grasp of Jeff Moorad’s vision for the future, I cannot answer that. Perhaps Moorad will find someone who is a better fit going forward. Whether that person (Tom Krasovic mentions some names) can execute as well as Towers typically has over the years… anything is possible, but I’d hate to be the guy or gal trying to fill those shoes.

As for Towers, it’s hard to imagine he’ll be out of work for a moment longer than he desires. The formerly longest-tenured GM in baseball is known for being a tireless networker who has the respect of his colleagues. There’s an opening in Toronto. I don’t know if Towers has any interest in leaving the West Coast, but that could be a good fit.

My great fear is that the Giants will tire of Brian Sabean’s penchant for old players and snatch up Towers (although it sounds like a Sabean extension is in the works). For as upset as I would have been had Towers landed the Arizona job in 2005, I’ll be doubly so if the Giants hire him. Same division, with a team I’ve disliked since I was a kid? Yeah, that would crush me.

Context Is Everything

David Pinto, whose work I greatly admire, offers a disappointingly shallow analysis of Towers’ career in San Diego:

It took Towers nine seasons to put together a team that could post a winning record four years in a row… About the only clear-cut great move he made in recent years was bringing in Adrian Gonzalez.

The first point neglects context and lacks proper appreciation of just how awful the Padres were before Towers arrived:

With or Without You
  Years Winning seasons Playoff appearances
Before Towers 26 6 1
With Towers 14 7 4

As for the second point… no and no. This doesn’t even account for turning two pieces of scrap into Heath Bell, or getting a year-and-half of solid (130 OPS+) production out of Scott Hairston before flipping him for three power arms. Heck, even Khalil Greene for Luke Gregerson is looking pretty lopsided in the Padres’ favor at this point.

Going back further, Towers brought Kevin Brown to San Diego. Although it meant giving up Derrek Lee, without Brown, there is no World Series in ’98. Without the World Series, there likely is no Petco Park and the Padres are still playing at that football stadium… or in some other city.

Towers has done some excellent work here. His trade record is unbelievable (the story that “he once traded a fringe catcher to Cleveland to obtain a used treadmill” is cute even if it never happened — which I’ll address shortly at Unfiltered).

I don’t mean to suggest that Towers is without his faults. The Randy Myers waiver claim in ’98 was a disaster. Ditto long-term contracts to fringe guys like Wiki “Clank” Gonzalez, Kevin “Wiplash” Jarvis, and Bubba “I Don’t Need a Snappy Nickname Because My Name Is Bubba” Trammell, although then-president Bob Vizas deserves some “credit” for those.

Towers’ draft record? Spotty, at best. The most famous and spectacular failure occurred in 2004, when the Padres tabbed local shortstop/misfit Matt Bush with the first pick overall to save a few bucks. Part of that was due to ownership’s reluctance to spend money, although Towers has publicly assumed blame for not pushing harder in favor of Stephen Drew or Jered Weaver.

Towers’ obsession with the Rule V draft has driven me crazy over the years (although it looks like he finally snagged a keeper in Everth Cabrera), as has his extreme candor with the media. I actually find the latter somewhat endearing, except for the fact that many people are ill equipped to receive such candor. As anyone who caught Towers at one of the Baseball Prospectus events in recent years can attest, the man speaks his mind.

Local Voices

Meanwhile, 619sports features a couple of invigorating articles. In the first, Craig Elsten focuses on the club’s performance in the second half of the 2009 season. Although the Padres and Towers should take pride in what they managed to accomplish (75 wins from a team that had four legitimate big-league pitchers on its Opening Day roster is nothing short of remarkable), such accomplishment is separate and distinct from the task of guiding the franchise forward according to Moorad’s vision (whatever that may be). There are solid reasons for disliking the firing (e.g., the fact that Towers is good at his job), but the club’s performance over the past three months isn’t one of them.

New Media Roundtables
The good folks at 619sports also have invited me to do a couple of podcasts with them. The first reviews the 2009 season, while the second looks ahead to 2010.

The second article comes from John Conniff, whose thoughts on the subject largely echo my own. It’s worth a full read, but here is the crux of John’s argument (and man, I wish I’d been able to summarize it as well as he has):

In the three areas where the Moorad group was evaluating Towers, draft, development and the major league club; he excelled at one and his contributions in the other two were questionable.

As good as Towers was at swinging deals and finding low cost bullpens, for some reason despite an extensive scouting background he never was able to put in place an effective development program.

So, yeah, what John said. Seriously, go read the full article; he hit it out of the park.

Elsewhere, Paul DePodesta shares his thoughts:

As difficult as this week is for many people around the game, the good news is that we’ll be rooting for other past colleagues, friends and peers in the coming weeks as they chase that feeling of high achievement. The part of us that empathizes with the sadness this week will also be able to relish in the glee later this month, and that humanity makes this a great game.


The Big Picture

Stepping back a bit (careful, don’t fall off!), now is probably as good a time as any to clean house. San Diegans just “aren’t that into” the Padres (attendance was down by more than 6000 per game this year as compared to 2008), so why not make some moves that might meet with greater resistance were people paying closer attention?

(This is why a trade of Adrian Gonzalez within the next calendar year wouldn’t surprise me in the least. When 20% of your paying customers disappear, you might as well do whatever it takes to build a competitive club; who’s left to alienate?)

On a more general note, has there ever been a more dynamic period in franchise history? Consider some of what has happened over the past 5+ years:

In a relatively short period of time, the Padres have purged themselves of the only ballpark in franchise history, as well as their most successful manager, reliever, owner, starter, and GM. Throw in the departures of Matt Vasgersian, Khalil Greene, and Sandy Alderson, and it’s been a bumpy ride over the past 12 months. Those clamoring for change have gotten it in spades (and aces).

What I like is the fact that good no longer is viewed as good enough. Whether they hit their mark or not, the Padres are reaching for something bigger and better than what they’ve been. It’s hard to fault that intention — unless it turns out Moorad is clueless, in which case we’re all hosed. (It’s worth noting here that Moorad has enjoyed considerable success in the business over the years. This is no guarantee that all of his decisions will be brilliant, but it’s enough to suggest that maybe he deserves the benefit of the doubt.)

I don’t know how this is going to end. I’d be lying if I said I had no concerns. I have no idea how one goes about replacing Towers; I’m glad this is Moorad’s problem and not mine. I hope he knows what he’s doing. The good news is that he’s the one paying the bill, so presumably he has a tad more at stake than you or I do.

As always, we shall see…

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