At this time last year, my expectations for the season were severely-muted: "Let's not finish last" was about the extent of them. But, now, we head towards the 2012 campaign in an entirely different state of mind, with the team as defending NL West champions, and apparently possessing a bright future. One of the main architects behind the stunning turnaround is General Manager Kevin Towers, who was in charge of putting together the roster which got us to the playoffs. Earlier in the week, we had a chance to talk to Towers, and in the opening part of this interview, pick his brains on bullpen construction, clubhouse chemistry and narrowly dodging a shaved head...
AZ SnakePit: Going back to the very beginning, what attracted you to the position of Diamondbacks GM?
Kevin Towers: I was out of the GM sphere for a year after working with the Yankees in 2010, and was approached by Derrick Hall about a potential opportunity here. After being out for a year, I guess my #1 priority was working with good people, and I'd heard good things about Ken [Kendrick] and Derrick, and of course, the NL West is a division that I was very familiar with, having been in it for most of my career, with San Diego. I was familiar with the team here, just through having played them so many times head-to-head, and it's close to home, me being a West coast guy, so it seemed like a perfect fit.
KT: No, actually, I thought I was going to come over here in '05. Being a GM, it's a terrific challenge, for teams that are at the bottom of the division. I knew that there was some untapped talent here, some good players in the farm system, so I looked on it as a tremendous challenge, and something that I looked forward to taking on.
AZSP: One of the first things you did was give Kirk Gibson a permanent position as manager. What did you see in Kirk to make him the right man for the job?
KT: First, knowledge of the players. If you're bringing in a new GM and maybe a new manager from outside the organization, we'd both be trying to learn the product and learn the organization. Gibby had spent some time here as a bench coach, and as interim guy, and I felt that he had a pretty good feel of the club and its players and their makeup, their strengths and weaknesses, as well as the farm system.
I'd always admired him as a player, loved the way he competed. I'd spent a year in the minor leagues with the Tigers, and know how he was taught the game with Sparky Anderson, a little bit "old-school" mind-set - back to the basics, the fundamentals, playing the game the right way. Loved the intensity. He was determined. In the discussions that I had with him, it was very obvious that he just needed somebody to give him an opportunity on a full-time basis, to take it and run. To me, I never really looked at anyone but him. It became very apparent to me that I thought we would work well as a team, and after a year of being together, it couldn't be better.
AZSP: Even before coming to Arizona, you had a reputation as a someone who could create a good bullpen, as you did in San Diego. That was a major factor in last year's success, so what are the keys to building a successful bullpen and what do you look for in a reliever?
KT: I probably built bullpen in San Diego more by default, I just didn't have the wherewithal, the resources, to go out and go after everyday players and front-end of the rotation starters. With our resources, where we could compete within the industry was really the bench and the bullpen. I've always felt that baseball games, more often than not, come down to the last two or three innings, and we had some success in San Diego because we had solid bullpens. I believe in guys that can command the fastball. I like different looks from relievers - I don't think you can have a "cookie cutter" bullpen, if they all throw 95 with the same look, it's not a good thing.
In putting a bullpen together, it's always, first, fastball command, two, finding guys who have a different repertoire of pitches. What you see in the sixth is different from what you see in the seventh is different from what you see in the eighth and ninth. And I think we've done that. J.J. Putz is different from David Hernandez. Brad Ziegler is different than Joe Paterson. Bryan Shaw is different than all the others. Now with [Takashi] Saito, he's different. It's all about throwing off the hitter's timing, guys with different arm angles, different repertoires of pitches, and ultimately guys that don't walk people and command their fastball.
AZSP: Do you think there is such a thing as a "closer's mentality," that makes a pitcher particularly appropriate for use in the ninth inning?
KT: No. To close is difficult. It's very hard to get those last three outs. J.J. had had a lot of success in Seattle - though he hadn't done it for a couple of years, he had been highly successful at one time or another. David Hernandez, he reminded me of a young Heath Bell, they had similar routes to the big leagues, came up as starters, ended up back in the 'pen. Big, strong lower half, overpowering fastball and someone we thought had the right head on his shoulders, could handle the last frames of the game, which he did a great job of, during J.J.'s absence when he was on the DL.
JM: Despite losing so many games in 2010, you were resolute in a belief the team could compete last year. Why were you so sure?
KT: There was a lot of talent that I inherited. On the other side, in San Diego, I got to see a lot of Upton, a lot of Young, Drew, Montero. Up the middle, Kelly Johnson was coming off a good season, some good young arms in Hudson and Kennedy. It was really just adding some experience to the bench, bringing in some good character guys that would help change the character of the clubhouse, beefing up the bullpen and letting the other guys go out there and do what they do well. It was more or less trying to change the mindset and the culture, rather than doing an overhaul of the entire club. I didn't think it needed that.
I just think they were a group of guys that didn't have a lot of experienced players in there, or the experienced players they did have, didn't have leadership skills. They had a young coaching staff as well, so bringing in experience to the coaching staff, and bringing in guys like Blanco, Bloomquist, Putz, Blum, that have been around winning teams, I think that took a lot of pressure off some of our good, young core players. It was a club I thought could win, it just underachieved the last two years.
AZSP: You mentioned good clubhouse guys. When you're adding players like Putz or Blanco, how do you assess their impact within the clubhouse?
KT: A few of those guys, I'd had in San Diego, so I knew what they were all about, what they brought to the table. With Willie Bloomquist, even though I'd never had him, I saw him a lot when he was in Seattle. We talk to players, talk to coaches: I think we did our due diligence in checking on these guys' character as well, the type of people we brought in. J.J. was another guy I saw a lot in Seattle when he was over there, and heard a lot of good things about him. To me, the character evaluation is as important, almost more important, than skill evaluations. I think we've got some really good people here, that came in and really help changed that culture.
AZSP: The 2011 season didn't get off to a good start. The results in spring were pretty bad, and at one point in May, Arizona were in last place. Were you concerned, and what did you see as turning things around?
KT: We did not have a good spring, we didn't play very well. We actually did early on [in the season], we just lost a lot of one-run games [in particular, five straight, on the road in San Diego and San Francisco, May 8-13]. We were playing well with our opponents, we just weren't getting the big hit when we had to. I think some guys were pressing, they were stressing a little bit.
The defining moment was probably in LA when Gibby had a team meeting that had nothing to do with not performing, so much as supporting one another, even during the tough times. I think our guys really came together and once they experienced a little bit of the taste of winning, they never looked back, winning 18 out of 20 right after that. I don't know if I was concerned so much as disappointed, just because I really believe in the team and the players, and you always want to get out of the gate well, especially after our poor spring-training performance. We could very easily have reverted back to the way we were over the past couple of years, or put that behind us and focus on what was ahead of us - and the guys did a nice job of being able to do that.
AZSP: Were that a point at which you realized the team was now firing on all cylinders?
KT: I would say in May, when we reeled of 18 of those 20 games. We were winning the games we were supposed to, and we weren't giving games away late - the bullpen was doing a nice job of closing the door when we had one-run leads or two-run leads. Our guys started played with a lot more confidence, we started playing a bit more aggressive baseball, rather than waiting for the game to us, I think our guys put pressure on the opponent, not just defensively but offensively, running bases, etc. Our guys never lied down: even those first six weeks, they were frustrations, certainly, but no-one ever gave up and hung their heads, they always were focused. I think they knew that they were good, and a lot of it is a testament to the players and their make-up.
AZSP There was a fair amount of roster turnover during the year, with a number of players released or sent to the minors, e.g. Melvin Mora, Aaron Heilman, Armando Galarraga. Is it hard to suppress the ego and let players you signed go?
KT: No, I don't think you can in this job. I learned a long time ago, from Jack McKeon, when I was a young executive, once you identify a mistake, you correct it. Don't hang on to something that you know is wrong, hoping that it's going eventually to turn around and be a good decision. All you do is lose games, you remind your fans, you remind the media, of the mistake that you made. The best thing to do, once you identify a deficiency, is act. If it's sending them down, releasing, bringing new people in...to me, that's critical. I think that's why a GM has to have his thumb on the pulse of the club, almost at all times during the season, just to know when to make these tough decisions. Not let your ego get in the way and try to make something that's a wrong into a right, when you know all along that the probability of that is less likely.
AZSP: You came within one game of having to shave your head in September, when a winning streak ended at nine. Where did that idea come from?
KT: That came from Derrick Hall, he didn't get it from me! He's the one that put it out there. I would have been more than happy to shave my head, since we were playing the Giants, it was an important game. But we lost that game, though we started off on another streak once again [Arizona won nine of the next 11], so it probably couldn't have worked out any better, now that I have hindsight and know we eventually won the division. A good streak after that, and I got to keep my hair, which was nice...
AZSP: Tell us about clinching the division at home, against the Giants. It must have been an amazing evening.
KT: That's what we're in the game for - going to post-season play. Without being in the business, people don't realize how difficult it is, over 162 games, to win a division. There are a lot of people who contributed to our success: even Juan Miranda with some big hits, who wasn't even with us at the end. Players that came up from the minor-leagues, and went back down. It was a tremendous feeling, especially being able to do it against the defending World Series champions, and Bruce Bochy - we spent so many years together, with him as my manager. To be able to knock them off, in front of our home crowd, and Paul Goldschmidt, someone that came through our farm system, to have the big hit: it was great. Especially when you see your fan-base getting involved and excited about the team once again - it was tremendous for all of us.
[The second part of this interview will appear next Thursday, covering the post-season, the moves made this winter, and the upcoming spring training season.]