Diamondbacks embracing change
New Arizona GM Kevin Towers committed to building a tougher, more committed club
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Arizona Diamondbacks might not have all the pieces to recover from back-to-back 90-loss seasons and win the National League West this year. But if Major League Baseball ever expands the rosters from 25 to 32 to include managers and coaching staffs, the D-backs will wrap the rest of the division in a headlock and be dispensing noogies by June.
How's this for an accomplished group? Manager Kirk Gibson won an MVP award in 1988 and hit a momentous home run off Dennis Eckersley that still resonates. Don Baylor (hitting coach) and Matt Williams (third-base coach) have a combined 716 career homers. Alan Trammell (bench coach) played a pretty fair shortstop for two decades in Detroit. Eric Young (first-base coach) has 465 career steals, and pitching coach Charles Nagy won 129 games and made three All-Star teams. You have to feel for bullpen coach Glenn Sherlock, whose career as a catcher peaked with the Triple-A Columbus Clippers in the late 1980s.
"It's a fantasy team," said Diamondbacks third baseman Geoff Blum. "With the street cred our coaching staff has, we have to listen to these guys."
It's hard to tell where listening ranked on the Diamondbacks' inventory of deficiencies in 2010, but it was only one of many. The Diamondbacks went 10-26 against the Dodgers and Giants. Their 5.74 bullpen ERA was the sixth highest in major league history. They used a club record 28 pitchers, and their hitters set a big league record with 1,529 strikeouts. To put that awesome haul in perspective, the Florida Marlins were the only other big league team to surpass 1,300 whiffs.
Hey, best of luck in Baltimore, Mark Reynolds.
Beyond the sorry numbers, the Diamondbacks earned a reputation for laissez faire baseball. For several years, Arizona has pinned its hopes on Justin Upton, Stephen Drew and a nucleus of talented young players. The Diamondbacks signed several of them to long-term deals, ostensibly to let them relax and play ball, but the security appears to have had the opposite effect: The Baby-backs were so comfortable that they cost general manager Josh Byrnes and managers Bob Melvin and A.J. Hinch their jobs.
When Kevin Towers took over as general manager in late September, he was dismayed to see players flying model airplanes in the clubhouse, yukking it up over comedy CDs and wearing jeans and looking like frat boys on road trips. So he was determined to change the dynamic and build a tougher, more committed club.
Removing Gibson's "interim" tag and assembling an All-Star coaching staff were only part of the equation. Towers also brought in several veteran players with complementary skills and personalities to change the tone in the clubhouse. The new arrivals include Blum, Melvin Mora, Willie Bloomquist, Xavier Nady, Henry Blanco and J.J. Putz, to name a few. It would be a misnomer to call them babysitters, but you get the idea.
"Just from playing against these guys, they always had the talent, but you never knew what you were going to get from day to day," said Blum, who arrived in Arizona from Houston. "They'd come out and blow the doors off you one day, then the next day they'd be a totally different ballclub. Not running hard on the bases. Not stretching singles into doubles. Just doing little things that hurt you over the long run. To have 40 percent of the clubhouse turn over, it has to be a shock to the system for some of these kids."
Feel free to call Towers old school: He firmly believes that veterans -- the right kind of veterans -- can set a tone in the clubhouse and ease the burden on kids who are busy enough trying to figure out how to hit major league curveballs. Towers was at the winter meetings in December when Pat Gillick, a newly-minted Hall of Famer, made an observation that struck a chord with him and reinforced his feelings on the importance of team chemistry.
"When Pat first got into baseball, he thought 70 percent of the game was skill set and 30 percent was character and makeup. Now he thinks it's the other way around," Towers said. "To get to this level, you have to have talent. What separates good teams from mediocre teams are guys with character, will, passion and desire. They pull for one another and play as a team. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you're selfish and don't play well together or handle adversity well, you're not going to win."
The cooperative effort in Arizona is evident in both words and deeds. Early in camp, Blanco showed up at 6 a.m. for cardio work, and it wasn't long before several other young Latin players were sweating on the adjoining treadmills and elliptical machines. The Diamondbacks are hoping that Blanco can help starting catcher Miguel Montero take his game to the next level.
We've tried to get rid of sensitivity around here. You have to be honest with each other. If you want to be a friend, tell somebody the truth. Don't be afraid to tell them what they might not want to hear.” -- Kirk Gibson
That's only the beginning. The team's new dress code calls for sport coats and slacks on the road this year. Gibson recently brought in former big leaguers Ed Vosberg and Mike Fetters to work with Arizona's staff on pickoff moves, as part of a full-scale assault on opponents' running games. And when it started raining during a workout, Gibson refused to call a halt to the proceedings. "We're going to play in the elements during the season, so we might as well do it now," he told the players.
Two weeks ago, Towers invited several Navy Seals to deliver a motivational talk in camp. When a Seal falls down on the job, there's a chance one of his buddies will die. If a Diamondback lets down, it might result in a loss to the Dodgers. The stakes are different, but the underlying message is the same.
"You could tell by the questions guys asked the Seals that they're a little perturbed by all the losing here," Blum said. "They don't want to be that team anymore. You can see it in their eyes."
Gibson, 53, speaks softly and bears little resemblance to the guy who was portrayed as such a wild man during his playing career. But his businesslike demeanor, and the tone of his voice, suggest he'd crush your spleen if you crossed him.
"We've tried to get rid of sensitivity around here," Gibson said. "You have to be honest with each other. If you want to be a friend, tell somebody the truth. Don't be afraid to tell them what they might not want to hear."
Towers made some news in November when the Diamondbacks entertained trade offers for Upton, who made the All-Star team in 2009 but posted a .799 OPS in a hitter's paradise last season. At the risk of hurting Upton's feelings, Towers believed it was in his best interests to be open-minded for two reasons.
1. Towers' trade talks gave him considerable insight into how other teams value Upton and Arizona's other players.
2. It sent a message that nobody on the team should feel safe.
"The way I look at it, nobody is untouchable," Towers said. "It's the same approach I had in San Diego. If the right deal comes up, I'll go to a guy even if he has a no-trade clause."
In hindsight, the Arizona regime is convinced that Upton had too much on his plate, too soon. He arrived in the majors at age 19 and was expected to be an All-Star player and the face of the franchise. With the exception of a Tony Clark here and an Eric Byrnes and Orlando Hudson there, he didn't have much in the way of veteran guidance. The same goes for Drew, center fielder Chris Young and Reynolds, who was traded to the Orioles for pitchers David Hernandez and Kam Mickolio in December.
"There are times throughout a season when you definitely need that voice of reason," Young said. "It goes either way. If you're playing extremely well, you need that voice in the clubhouse. And if you're struggling really bad, you need it just as much."
#10 Right Fielder
If you believe in omens, Upton hit .381 in his first seven Cactus League games. Baylor is encouraging him to stay on the ball longer and be content to hit it up the middle and the opposite way. Upton has enough raw power that the pull shots and home runs will come soon enough.
Towers is convinced the Diamondbacks will score enough runs this season. Ultimately, their fate will hinge on the performance of Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, Joe Saunders, Armando Galarraga and Zach Duke or Barry Enright in the rotation, and the contribution of a restructured bullpen. One thing is for sure: They'll run the bases hard, hit cutoff men and complete their double-play takeout slides with fervor, or be forced to answer to the manager.
"The intensity and the way we compete are going to change, trust me," Gibson said. "We won't be well-liked."
After 189 losses the past two seasons, the Diamondbacks will settle for being respected.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter: @jcrasnick