The San Diego Padres midseason firing of Josh Byrnes was the equivalent to pushing another reset button for an organization that changes general managers – and owners – like the Kansas City Royals change hitting coaches. It’s a frustrating cycle – bringing in a new chef and allowing him to rearrange the kitchen only to have to start over again in short order when things don’t pan out.
After dismissing Byrnes, the Padres went through a drawn out and very public search for his replacement. Whether the public nature of the GM search was due to the Padres process or the Age of Twitter we may never quite know, but either way it seemed like another misstep for a front office that hasn’t been able to stay out of its own way since trying to publically negotiate a contract extension with Chase Headley back in 2013. Since then – and you know the list – questionable firings (Masur/Anthony), BeerGate, the National University sign, anti-Bring Back the Brown sentiments, Johnny Manziel, and BS Plaza are just some of the head-scratching decisions that have, to varying degrees, enraged a large portion of the fan base*. (And that’s leaving off a number of other gripes.)
*At least the large portion of the fan base that hangs out on the internet.
With all of those issues in the recent past and the public GM search nearing its climax, the Padres made – get this — an excellent hire in Texas Rangers assistant GM AJ Preller. One of Baseball Prospectus’ top ten GM candidates (from June), Preller is almost universally praised, whether you’re looking to saber-types, old-school scouts, or internet scribes. But you know the story on Preller. In short, in a season of managerial missteps, the Padres new(ish) front office put its best foot forward when it mattered most, putting the future of the organization into the hands of an up-and-coming star and hopefully stashing the reset button for the next decade or so.
In Arizona, the Diamondbacks have had a similarly disappointing season. In fact, they’ve performed much worse than the Padres on the field, posting a record of 63-96 record (as of this writing) while dealing with a pitching staff that fell apart with injuries and ineffectiveness and an offense that had just one regular (Paul Goldschmidt) crack the 100 OPS+ threshold.
The D’backs, fittingly enough, fired their GM Kevin Towers in early September and have been conducting their own search since then. Their initial list of 10 candidates contained three names that were rumored for the Padres job – Larry Beinfest, the D’backs own Ray Montgomery, and Billy Eppler, who made it to the Padres final four. In the end, however, the D’backs hired Dave Stewart as their senior vice president and GM and De Jon Watson as vice president of baseball operations (h/t: Inside the ‘Zona). Both will report to chief baseball officer Tony La Russa, who was hired by Arizona in May.
On the surface, these hirings may not seem bad at all (and they might not be). La Russa reached the major leagues as a player and has 35 years of experience as a manager, including three World Series titles. Stewart won 168 big league games and has experience as a pitching coach, front office staffer, and player agent. Watson has spent the last seven years in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization and has 25 years of scouting experience. That’s a bunch of cumulative baseball knowledge, for sure.
The problem in Arizona, as I see it anyway, might be with delegation and information gathering. While Dave Stewart is the general manager, he clearly isn’t going to be the final decision maker, as Tony La Russa will get the nod there. Further, as Nick Piecoro notes in the linked article above, the fact that both Stewart and Watson will report to La Russa suggests that they are on equal footing. That’s a setup that we as Padres fans are familiar with, as the Sandy Alderson-Kevin Towers-Paul DePodesta front office had a similar structure. While that wasn’t necessarily a problem in San Diego, both Alderson and Towers were experienced baseball executives. La Russa and Stewart have far more experience as players/coaches/managers than they do in the front office, and most successful GMs/executives these days don’t take that route to land their gig.
Here’s what La Russa had to say about the D’backs sabermetric approach just prior to the Stewart/Watson hirings:
On a conference call Friday, La Russa talked about how he wanted the club to do more with metrics but then added that might come in the form of an entry-level hire, which, in the eyes of rival executives, suggested he doesn’t truly appreciate the impact a strong analytics department can have.
“If they put a kid or two in the back room, they’re going to be like a gerbil on a wheel — running but going nowhere,” one executive said.
You don’t have to be a sabermetrically-inclined team to succeed today but – and perhaps this is just my saber-bias showing through – in an age of Statcast, PITCH/HIT/FIELD/fx, heat maps, and big data, purposely eschewing that side of the game puts your team at a competitive disadvantage. It’s really all about information gathering, and then interpreting that information to inform decisions. Whether that information is a coordinate on a PITCHf/x graph or a scouting report on a teenage Dominican, the teams that can do the best job at both gathering and deciphering that kind of data are – in the long run – going to win the most games.
The Padres appear to have the best of both worlds, with AJ Preller both well-versed in scouting and sabermetrics, and a solid analytics group already installed. The D’backs, on the other hand, appear to be swaying the pendulum heavily toward scouting, with a couple of major players — La Russa and Stewart — severely lacking in front office experience. While the D’backs can succeed without a Moneyball-style front office, I’ll take my chances with the Padres current regime any day.