The Arizona Diamondbacks energized the fan base over the weekend when they named Tony La Russa to the newly created position of “chief baseball officer.” When your team is buried in last place and has the worst run differential in the majors, there’s nothing like a freshly minted Hall of Famer on the premises to restore some credibility and positive word of mouth.
But moves this radical always come with fallout, and the Diamondbacks have already glimpsed the uncertainty that awaits as speculation begins to mount over collateral damage in the front office and the dugout. Peter Gammons speculated Monday that Gary LaRocque, the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm director, might be a good fit if the D-backs decide to replace Kevin Towers as general manager, and USA Today’s Bob Nightengale mentioned St. Louis coach Mike Aldrete as a possible successor to Kirk Gibson as manager.
La Russa, who joins former St. Louis colleagues Dave Duncan and Dave McKay in Arizona, apparently has no plans to disassemble the Gateway Arch piece by piece and transport it by U-Haul to Phoenix. Then again, it’s only his fourth day on the job.
Right now the buzz is swirling around LaRocque and Aldrete. Next week it might be Walt Jocketty, Jose Oquendo, Mike Gallego or Jim Riggleman. What the Diamondbacks lack in talent, they’ll more than make up for in rumors and innuendo this summer.
Judging from recent history, Arizona’s leadership might view that as a good thing. The Justin Upton trade saga dragged on longer than the last presidential election, and Arizona’s management consistently stoked the speculation to the point of hindering Upton’s market value. And when Masahiro Tanaka hit the open market as a free agent last offseason and David Price was potentially available via trade, no team advertised its intentions more actively than the D-backs did.
“The hierarchy with the Diamondbacks is very PR-oriented,” said a National League front office man. “On some level they probably think this is kind of cool, even if it isn’t necessarily positive. ‘Hey look, everybody is talking about the Diamondbacks.’”
I have no special insight into whether La Russa wants to reassemble the old Busch Stadium gang or is more intent on immersing himself in Arizona’s organizational culture and minutiae over the next few months. I’d be surprised if even he knows precisely what he’ll do this quickly. But it might be time to put away the “jump to conclusions mat” and wait to see how his game plan unfolds.
Here’s a thought: Maybe La Russa takes his time, does an orderly, bottom-to-top review, dismisses the people who deserve to be dismissed and retains the ones who deserve to be retained, and methodically makes moves that will help ensure a contending team for the long haul. Pat Gillick did it that way for a lot of years, and the approach certainly worked for him.
Will any new additions in Arizona be people with ties to La Russa’s Oakland and St. Louis days? Sure, it could happen. But La Russa has been in the game 52 years, so there are very few people he hasn’t come across at one stage or another. As one NL executive observed, “Tony has a pretty big wingspan.”
Is the final piece of La Russa’s legacy going to be building a winner by raiding his former team? Somehow I think he’s bigger than that.
In the meantime, natural questions will hang over the landscape and cast some doubt over the future of the Arizona franchise:
Can La Russa and Towers co-exist?
To be blunt, this union doesn’t seem destined for a happy ending. I talked to several front-office people, and scouts and couldn’t find anyone who perceived the La Russa hiring as anything other than a blow to Towers’ dignity. Say what you will about Towers’ performance in Arizona, but he might be the most popular general manager in the game, and he might prefer to go work as a scout or a consultant for another team rather than stay in a place where his authority has been so publicly undermined.
You have to wonder how Towers can remain emotionally invested now that it’s no longer his show. While he has been committed to building a winner from his first day on the job in Arizona, I’ve always gotten the impression that he left his heart in San Diego when the Padres fired him in 2009.
But it’s a misconception to say that he and La Russa can’t work together or approach the game from radically different vantage points. It seems odd that the Diamondbacks seem dissatisfied with Towers in part because he hasn’t been more receptive to modern statistical metrics, yet hired a new chief baseball officer who has been lukewarm at best and borderline hostile at worst in his comments about sabermetrics.
As La Russa said during his introductory news conference on Saturday, “I’m not bringing a computer sheet that says, ‘OK, here’s how we do it, boys. Just read this.’ No, it’s basic competitive winning baseball with the right attitude and the guts to play it the right way.”
That philosophy sounds a lot like the one espoused by Towers, who nearly broke the scrap-and-grit meter when he had Ryan Roberts, Willie Bloomquist, Cliff Pennington and John McDonald on the roster during the 2012-2013 seasons. La Russa loved David Eckstein and Skip Schumaker, and apparently wasn’t so fond of J.D. Drew and Colby Rasmus, so they have some things in common.
“I don’t think the two of them are all that different in the resources they use to make decisions,” said one big league executives. “I don’t think Tony is going to rely heavily on analytics.”
Towers actually might have more reason to be worried about his job security if the Diamondbacks had hired, say Jeff Luhnow, as their new chief of baseball operations. He might already be gone by now.
Is Walt Jocketty a possibility?
La Russa and Jocketty did some great things together in St. Louis before they broke up the band. It’s also worth noting that Jocketty owns a home in Arizona. So you can look forward to hearing his name as a potential candidate to wind up in Phoenix at some point.
“They’ve got some loyalty and history there that’s hard to ignore,” said an American League personnel man.
But the situation is far too complex to be filed under two old baseball pals reuniting for a final run at glory. For starters, Jocketty was La Russa’s boss in St. Louis, and the roles would be reversed this time. Jocketty is president of baseball operations and general manager with the Reds, and Derrick Hall is firmly ensconced in the role of president in Arizona, so the Diamondbacks might have too much front-office star power to add another big shooter to the mix.
Finally, Jocketty has what appears to be a very strong relationship with Cincinnati owner Bob Castellini. Would he give that up to work in Arizona for Ken Kendrick, who appears to approach the game from more of a knee-jerk, fan’s perspective?
“I don’t know if Walt is tired of Cincinnati or not,” said a fellow general manager. “And if he’s looking to slow down, is that really slowing down? It would certainly to be different.”
How immersed is La Russa going to be?
This is the big question. A lot of people asked why La Russa would leave a cushy job with the commissioner’s office and jump back into the fray with a team. The answer was readily apparent to anyone who entered his office at 3:30 p.m. and saw him immersed in his lineup card and the injury reports on game days. La Russa missed the competition and the heat of the battle in a way that fielding media inquiries about replay and the “transfer rule” simply couldn’t fill.
But the demands of this new CBO role will test his judgment and his patience. La Russa needs to view the proceedings from 35,000 feet, delegate authority to the people below him and develop a vision. That’s not necessarily going to be easy for a guy whose mood varied solely according to what happened between 7 and 10 p.m. for 33 years.
In the final analysis, La Russa isn’t going to make his mark as CBO by hiring the most St. Louis Cardinals' employees or proving that gut instincts and scouting judgments trump statistical analysis. The final chapter of his illustrious baseball career will be judged on whether he can bring a winner to Arizona.
I imagine Tony La Russa, of all people, wouldn’t want it any other way.