Of Kendrick, Drew, Upton and the 2012 Diamondbacks Season

PHOENIX, AZ - MAY 12: Justin Upton #10 and teammate Stephen Drew #6 of the Arizona Diamondbacks wear Phoenix Coyotes Beat LA Whiteout t-shirt during batting practice prior to a game against the San Francisco Giants at Chase Field on May 12, 2012 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Arizona Diamondbacks organization wore the shirts in support of the Phoenix Coyotes who are playing the Los Angeles Kings in the 2012 NHL Western Conference Finals. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
I am frustrated. I'm a true fan and I have expectations like a fan does. When a team has performed well and it's essentially intact going forward and it's added to the talent base, so your expectations are built around your history with the team, I had pretty high expectations going into the season. They certainly haven't played up to my expectations. I'm frustrated about it.
-- Ken Kendrick

Kendrick's thoughts on Justin Upton and Stephen Drew, speaking on XTRA 910, triggered one of the bigger firestorms to surround this Arizona team since A.J. Hinch and Josh Byrnes were shown the door. However, I think it's the above paragraph with which I felt most empathy. As a true fan, I'm similarly disappointed, on a very large scale, with the performance of the 2012 Diamondbacks. As reigning champions, with no significant losses over the winter, for them to be below .500 and battling for the fourth place in the NL West is as unexpected as last year's success was - but in completely the opposite direction.

A couple of days have passed since Kendrick's original comments. I deliberately didn't write much about them at the time: I wanted to allow time for the dust to settle, and others connected with the team to have their chance to respond, along with those like Upton and Drew, directly referenced. After the jump, let's review and chew over events of the past few days.

I'm going to be real direct about Stephen. I think Stephen should have been out there playing before now, frankly. I, for one, am disappointed. I'm going to be real candid and say Stephen and his representatives are more focused on where Stephen is going to be a year from now than on going out and supporting the team that's paying his salary... All you can do is hope that the player is treating the situation with integrity. Frankly, we have our concerns.

Here's the original audio, if you want to listen to it - I'd recommend doing so, as tone and inflection are not necessarily captured in a cold transcript. [Thanks, incidentally to Nick P, for doing the legwork on that] It is not the first time, of course, that Kendrick has made comments in interviews that have been perceived as critical of current players on the team. In June 2006, he told the Republic, "There have been certainly whispers about Luis Gonzalez. Because he's such a high-profile guy and you can make a case of his numbers five years ago versus his numbers today and therefore he must have been doing something."

However, this seems a little more calculated. The Gonzo comments seemed a lot more off the cuff somehow: this felt like a heel promo from WWE. The problem, from a fan perspective, is not knowing the whole story. Obviously, some train of events or circumstances triggered Kendrick's doubting Drew's integrity. What were they? And it's one thing to think this - coming out and publicly stating it is quite another. We didn't see anything like this during, say, Brandon Webb's rehab, and he cashed the paychecks written by Kendrick, basically for two entire seasons without taking the mound. So one has to wonder, what purpose did he hope to serve?

We can only speculate in regard to both matters, without much concrete data on which to go, so this is just my guess. I would suspect there may have been some issue with regard to Drew's option for 2013: it's a $10m mutual one with a $1.5m buyout. I say this since I do note Kendrick said "focused on where Stephen is going to be a year from now," rather than "focused on free-agency," which would be the obvious line. Perhaps Drew's agent, Scott Boras, presented an ultimatum: exercise the option now, or we'll walk.

That wouldn't be implausible. But it's harder to see any practical purpose served by going public, rather than Ken snorting derisively in his office and firing off an email, politely declining. This approach burns bridges with Drew, and doesn't exactly help a relationship with Boras, who has other clients - most notably on the Diamondbacks, Ian Kennedy. Drew, as you'd expect, said nothing, at least initially. I think he'd shrug phlegmatically if Kendrick accused him of being a baby-eating member of Al Qaeda. Boras, however, was not silent, telling Nick [and, while we're here, much credit to Mr. Piecoro] for covering just about all the bases possible on this story]

I think achieving the success that Mr. Kendrick has in his life that he would respect the commitment and focus and the effort of Stephen Drew, who has demonstrated that on the field when he went all out to score for his team from second base and badly injured his ankle at home... If you're talking about what the best thing Stephen can do for himself, that's to play baseball and play a lot of it... That's the best thing he can do for Stephen and for his team. Why would he not want to play? The guy's going to be a free agent.

As someone mentioned during Tuesday night's game, it's an odd sensation to find yourself agreeing with Scott Boras. It's a bit like having to say, "That's a good point there, Beelzebub." But it's difficult to argue with the point, though I note Boras basically writes off the option, stating Drew is "going to be a free agent." It is in his best interest to be back and playing as soon as possible, demonstrating his health to potential employers. A season of play would be better than three months, in terms of assuring other teams Drew's ankle has recovered, and he's still the top-class shortstop he was previously.

The rest of the Diamondbacks' front-office and management staff didn't rush to get in line with Kendrick:

  • Manager Kirk Gibson: "I wouldn't comment on something like that. Ken is a very passionate owner, we know that. He cares a lot about the city, about the team, about the organization and baseball in general, and I'm not really privy to those comments and I don't think it's appropriate for me to sit and comment on that situation. Stephen is coming in here and he's doing what I ask him to do, and I've told you all along when he's comfortable and he's ready to play ... we can't force him to play."
  • GM Kevin Towers: "He’s got every right. He’s the owner. He has every right to vent if he feels he wants to vent. I think he stands by his comments... He’s a good person. He cares. I’m just proud that I work for an owner who cares that much. He watches the game, follows the game and feels like he has his thumb on the pulse and wants to get better. I don’t really know all the reasons behind it. Maybe it was a shot over the bow to all of us, like, ‘Hey, let’s go.’ Who knows, maybe it will motivate us."

However, I think most fans had more or less come to terms with the fact that Drew's tenure with the team was basically over. The signing of Montero to a long-term deal seemed to be the final nail in the coffin, leaving the team committed to over $50 million in salaries next year, with a pair of veteran shortstops already signed for 2013, in Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald. But there were also Kendrick's comments on Upton.

I think Justin is an enigma at this point. I know he had an injury early on and may be a little bit of a nagging injury. But he's played. He's certainly not the Justin Upton that he has been in the past and that we would expect of him. He's 24 years old and it's time for him to be a consistent performer and right now this year he's not been that... Justin has been a streaky player. As slow as his start has been, all of a sudden Justin can catch fire and we need to be mindful of looking back over the history we have with players. But frankly the talent is there for us to be performing at a level above where we are.

That's certainly a lot milder than the criticism of Drew, and would not be out of line with the thoughts many of us have expressed here this season. Indeed, just a couple of days earlier, shoewizard's Fanpost made many of the same arguments, concluding, "I realize better than anyone that he is still very young, and his overall career arc could still take a steep upward climb. But you know what? It's time. We need him NOW." We all know how good Upton can be - and a .243 average, with the lower OPS than Bloomquist that we have seen so far, is not that player. Not much of what Kendrick said was out of line with the general consensus.

However, again, the purpose of saying this at all was unclear. Maybe it was the "shot over the bow," to which Towers alluded. Initially, it certainly did not appear to have the desired effect on Upton: was it coincidental that the interview came out at the same time as Gibson announced that Upton would be benched a bit. Upton basically dodged the media before his first game on the bench. Afterward, he said he hadn't heard Kendrick's comments, and after they were read back to him by Jack Magruder, responded:

That’s his opinion. To be honest with you, I don’t have a comment on it. He’s going to say what he needs to say. He’s the one who makes the decisions around here. Whatever he thinks about me, that’s ultimately his decision.

He wasn't any happier to be out of the line-up, saying, "I want to be on the field every single day, but at the same time, none of you all are blind, Parra deserves to play. Whatever they need to do, they do. Today was pretty unproductive. I sat around and really didn’t do much. I’m still pissed off about the way I’m playing… and not playing." It's worth quoting Nick Piecoro's opinion on the clubhouse atmosphere at that point in some detail, because it really did not sound good:

Things have already gotten ugly. But it feels like it’s close to getting really bad. In the years I’ve been around this team, I don’t remember comments so pointed from anyone in a position of leadership aimed at specific players... And then there’s the Upton/Gibson thing. I remember a couple of players – Doug Davis and Jon Rauch – getting into little rifts with A.J. Hinch. But that was Davis and Rauch – not Upton. If Gibson loses Upton, he probably loses Chris Young, too... Upton didn’t sound happy to be out of the lineup on Saturday in San Diego, but it didn’t sound like things were getting toxic. It sounded pretty bad tonight.

Wow. But something odd happened. With Upton benched, and management, ownership and leading players apparently at odds... The team went out and played arguably their best back-to-back contests of the season, crushing the Colorado Rockies by a combined margin of 16-1. The near "toxic" atmosphere in the clubhouse - and I've no reason to doubt Piecoro, who has probably spent more time in there over the past few years than any other writer - did not appear to translate into anything negative on the field. And by the following day, Upton seemed back on a more even keel, having texted back and forth with Kendrick:

Obviously, he's frustrated with the way the team is playing. I am. We're both on the same page with that. The good thing is that he was honest. He didn't sugarcoat it. I think everybody's done sugarcoating things around here. We really just want to get back to winning. That's the biggest thing. Obviously, I'm here for one reason, he's here for one reason, and that was point of everything that went down... I respect that he said what he meant, and he said what he felt from his heart, and he's always backed his team. We have to move on past that. We're not going to sit here and linger.

Which all raises one of the great debates in baseball: does winning generate good clubhouse chemistry, or is it the other way around? Last year, there was a great deal of talk about the great atmosphere in the D-backs locker-room, and how crucial that was in their winning the West. This season, we have much the same players, but the results haven't been anywhere near as good. And then, when the team shows all the chemical stability of nitroglycerine, and appears to be on the verge of tearing itself apart... Did the Rockies get the number of that truck? Because they just got flattened. #cantpredictbaseball

Two games is not enough to determine much: we need to see how things go the rest of the season. If the team turn it round, we will look at this as the tipping point, just as our one-hit win over the Dodgers in LA was last year. What a genius Ken Kendrick is! If the team implodes, then similarly, we nod wisely and say how owners should stick to writing checks and stay out of management. And if the team continues to muddle along, somewhat below .500, it'll suggest Jim Leyland was right when he said, "Take all that clubhouse [stuff] and all that, throw it out the window. Every writer in the country has been writing about that [nonsense] for years. Chemistry don't mean [anything]."

I suspect that the last-named is the most likely outcome, and that this is one of those moments that will probably seem like a molehill rather than a mountain when we look back and write the record of the year, come the end of the season. We'll leave the last word to Drew, who finally broke his silence this afternoon - hopefully, it'll be the last word and everyone, from players to fans, will be able to focus on more victories like the past couple of nights.

I understand Ken's frustration. I was just disappointed that he questioned my integrity. I want to be out there for my teammates. I want to be able to play the game that I've loved my whole life again. No one wants me to be out there more than me. I'm doing everything in my power... And anyone who knows me, knows my integrity and how important it is to me and how much I love playing this game.

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