Kevin Towers, "One of the best at what he does" - Geoff Young
We resume our review of the best general managers in baseball with a darkhorse candidate. While he doesn't get much publicity, Padres GM Kevin Towers has been performing well for several years with limited resources. So, we asked Geoff Young, author of Ducksnorts to review Towers' abilities. (FYI: If I am correct, Ducksnorts is the oldest baseball blog on the net. It is also one of the best.)
Is Kevin Towers the best general manager in baseball? Philosophically speaking, I'm not sure this is an answerable question. Practically speaking, I'm glad he's running the show in San Diego. As a former pitcher (he was a college teammate of Wally Joyner at BYU) with a scouting background, Towers has solid knowledge of the game from a couple different perspectives.
Before we get to the good stuff, let's talk a little about why Towers isn't the best GM in baseball.
The Bad Stuff
Rule V Draft
Throughout his tenure with the Padres, Towers has had an infatuation with the Rule V draft. Given his budget and the resultant need to look toward non-traditional sources for talent, this is somewhat understandable. Towers has done well in many areas, but the Rule V is not one of them. In his defense, aside from the Marlins, who selected Johan Santana in the 1999 draft (and promptly traded him to the Twins), nobody has made a meaningful pick in the Rule V since Towers has been at the helm.
Unfortunately, the search for "diamonds in the rough" has left the Padres with the likes of Will Cunnane, Donaldo Mendez, Kory DeHaan, Shane Victorino, and Jason Szuminski occupying space on a big-league roster better filled with big-league players. Don't get me wrong, all of these kids had talent, and I have no doubt that Towers identified some real potential in each. But none of them was ready for the Show. Given proper time to develop (not possible with the Rule V, which stipulates that draftees must remain on the drafting team's big-league roster for the entire season), some of them might have turned into useful ballplayers. Rushed into service, and often not getting enough meaningful playing time to sharpen their skills, these "diamonds in the rough" had flaws that could not be polished and quickly lost their luster.
I could discourse at length about the problems with the Rule V draft and how it's long outlived its usefulness, but for our purposes it will suffice to note that Towers has not had success finding usable big leaguers via this route, possibly passing over more ready internal options in the process.
Another trouble spot with Towers has been big contracts. Although these might be inconvenient for a team with virtually unlimited resources, such as the Yankees or Red Sox, they can be downright crippling for a club like the Padres. On a few occasions, Towers has either traded for a player with a big contract or rewarded mediocre talent with a long-term deal based on one good season. Among the former, Randy Myers and Jeff Cirillo most immediately leap to mind. Kevin Jarvis, Bubba Trammell, and Wiki Gonzalez are a few of the players who fall into the latter category.
Even now, guys like Ryan Klesko and Phil Nevin (who are anything but mediocre) have contracts that make them untradeable. The upshoot of this is that there is extra pressure on them to perform. If they don't, there isn't a lot Towers can do to remedy the situation other than lament over their contracts. In a nutshell, there isn't much margin for error in terms of contracts on a team like the Padres; even a marginally bad contract will be magnified in this environment, as there is less "pie" to be divided.
Again, due at least in part to budgetary constraints, the Padres have made some questionable choices with their first-round picks under Towers' watch. Sean Burroughs (1998) and Khalil Greene (2002) have turned into contributors, but the likes of Matt Halloran, Kevin Nicholson, Vince Faison, Omar Ortiz, Casey Burns, Mike Bynum, Nick Trzesniak, Mark Phillips, and Jake Gautreau have fallen by the proverbial wayside. Although the early returns on Tim Stauffer (2003) are good, those on last year's first pick overall, Matt Bush, are not so glowing. Bush was considered a first-round talent but not someone worthy of the #1 pick. He was, however, cheaper than some other alternatives.
To Towers' credit, he has been willing to reach for high-upside guys in later rounds with decent success. And the hiring of Grady Fuson, architect of some great drafts for the Oakland A's (Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, Eric Chavez, Jeremy Bonderman, etc.), suggests that Towers a) understands that a "small-market" club such as the Padres needs to do very well at scouting and signing amateur talent, b) recognizes that the draft is an area in which the Padres haven't done as well as they might have, and c) is willing to go out and find a way to improve the situation. Incidentally, this latter point - Towers' willingness and ability to analyze his own performance and make adjustments as needed - is a strong point in his favor. The Moneyball rage isn't, or shouldn't be, all about drawing walks and hitting the ball out of the park. It's about finding ways to maximize resources and remain competitive on an uneven playing field.
The Good Stuff
So, having stated why Towers isn't the best GM in baseball, let's now look at the other side of the coin. There are several qualities that set Towers apart from many other GMs. Do they make him better than all the rest? On any given day, quite possibly they do. Over the course of time, though, they simply make him one of the best at what he does.
On a general level, Towers' greatest strengths are his flexibility and his humility. He will try many different and sometimes unconventional things to give his team an advantage. They don't always work (e.g., Rule V draft), but at least he is willing to think "outside the box" and not just automatically do something a certain way because "that's the way it's always been done."
But enough with the philosophy, let's get to some specifics.
Waiver Wire/Indy League/International Signings
Unlike with the Rule V draft, where players generally aren't yet ready for the Show, Towers has had success plucking guys off the waiver wire (most notably Scott Linebrink), from the independent leagues (e.g., Jeremy Fikac, Brian Tollberg, Cory Stewart), and through international scouting (e.g., Oliver Perez, Miguel Ojeda, Akinori Otsuka, farmhand Chris Oxspring). Linebrink, released by the Astros in early 2003, features a mid-90s fastball and has become one of the most consistent setup relievers in the NL. Fikac and Tollberg were nothing special but each provided some value - certainly more than reasonably could have been expected from indy league refugees - while Stewart showed enough to be included in the package that brought Brian Giles from the Pirates. Another part of the Giles deal, Perez signed with the Padres as a free agent out of Mexico for almost nothing. Youthful inconsistency notwithstanding, he is well on his way to becoming one of the better left-handed pitchers in the game. As for Otsuka, he came over from Japan with a resume similar to that of former Mariners' closer Kazuhiro Sasaki. In his first season on this side of the Pacific, Otsuka put up better numbers than Sasaki did as a rookie, for a fraction of the cost.
Identifying Pitching Talent
Towers has done a good job, for the most part, of identifying pitching talent. In addition to the signings of Linebrink, Otsuka, and Perez, he also managed to draft rotation mainstays Brian Lawrence (1998, round 17) and Jake Peavy (1999, round 15) relatively late. And with a few notable exceptions (Brian Loyd for Randy Myers and his bloated contract [Aug. 1998], Woody Williams for Ray Lankford [Aug. 2001]), Towers generally comes out ahead in deals involving arms. Trades that I personally did not like at the time but which turned out well for the Padres include Scott Sanders for Sterling Hitchcock (Dec. 1996), Joey Hamilton for Woody Williams and change (Dec. 1998), and Andy Ashby for Adam Eaton and change (Nov. 1999). Another deal that I hated when it was made was the one that sent Mark Phillips and Bubba Trammell to the Yankees for Rondell White in Mar. 2003. I thought moving Phillips was a mistake and that he would end up coming back to haunt the Padres. Instead he has fizzled as a prospect, and his chances of making a noticeable impact are minimal.
Towers also has shown the ability to flip marginal players for talented prospects. The jury is still out on some of these, but Ed Sprague for Dennis Tankersley and change (Jun. 2000), Steve Reed and change for Jason Bay and change (Jul. 2002), Ismael Valdez for Travis Chick (Jul. 2004), and Humberto Quintero for Tim Redding (Mar. 2005) are the kinds of deals you like to see your GM make. Not all of these guys will pan out, but the moves all result from a good thought process and the understanding that it's okay to move spare parts for potential impact players; even if the latter don't realize their potential, what have you lost?
In short, Kevin Towers is not the best GM in baseball, but he's pretty darned good. A few things we know about him from his tenure with the Padres:
- He has placed too much emphasis on the Rule V draft in past years, saddling his club with players who were not ready to contribute at the big-league level.
- He has handcuffed himself with some bloated contracts that prevent him from improving other areas of the ballclub.
- He has not had a great deal of success with his first-round picks; some of this is due to budgetary constraints that keep him from paying top dollar for top talent.
- He has shown the ability and willingness to adapt and learn as necessary; he isn't afraid to admit when he's wrong and will try ideas that maybe are outside the mainstream if he thinks they will help his team win.
- He does a good job of finding players in undertapped sources and is an astute identifier of pitching talent.
Towers didn't participate in the Rule V this past winter, and he's hired Fuson presumably to help with the amateur draft, so there is at least some progress in those areas. There are still some contract issues that won't go away in the immediate future, but the hiring of Sandy Alderson should eventually help reduce some of the bloat. As long as Towers continues to learn and adapt, and as long as he continues to scour the nooks and crannies for talent, the Padres should be in good hands with him. Towers may not always get it exactly right the first time, but he's generally headed in the right direction, which is more than can be said of many big-league GMs.