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Season Preview: New front-office brooms sweep clean for Arizona Diamondbacks

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As we noted yesterday, there has been a lot of change to the roster since Opening Day. But the change has not been limited to the on-field personnel.

Norm Hall/Getty Images

There has also been a radical shake-up among the front-office staff since Opening Day 2014, beginning with the appointment of Tony La Russa to an entirely new position, Chief Baseball Officer on May 17. The decision was likely triggered by the disastrous start to the season, Arizona having gone 16-28, and being 11.5 games back at the time of the announcement. This was a role not in existence at any other club, but La Russa's position was described at the time as "to evaluate the entire baseball operations department and make changes if he saw fit." Said owner Ken Kendrick, "It's not working like we wanted it to, so you've got to try something different," explaining:

"He has a free rein to do whatever he thinks he needs to do to make the organization better. There's always been an ultimate authority, either Derrick or me, but we're not experts. You tend to, maybe at times, you question decisions that are made, but you want to let somebody that you've hired have the authority that goes with the responsibility."

While it was stressed that La Russa would first need to evaluate all aspects of the organization, there was a general consensus that his arrival made GM Kevin Towers a dead man walking. The subsequent floundering of the team to the bottom of the major-league standings sealed his fate, and on September 5, the hammer fell. Towers was relieved of command, though curiously, La Russa offered him another position within the organization [Towers subsequently declined, and is now a special assistant for player personnel in the Cincinnati Reds] Manager Kirk Gibson also got his marching orders, just before the end of the season, and the "Help Wanted" signs went up.

Let's take a look at the five men, including La Russa, who are perhaps most at the forefront of building the Arizona Diamondbacks, as they seek to recover from their worst season in a decade.

Chief baseball officer: Tony La Russa

Since the end of the 19th century, only Connie Mack has managed more major-league wins, leading his teams to 14 playoff appearances in 33 years, with six pennant wins and three World Series championships. But can that success translate to a front-office position, one unknown not just to La Russa, but to baseball in general? He said, "I never missed the managing, but boy, I missed the winning and losing," and there's no doubt he'll bring the same intensity and baseball intellect to this role he had in the dugout. But being a great rocket-scientist doesn't make you a brilliant brain-surgeon. We need to see if his talents are as effective in constructing a roster as managing one.

Senior VP, baseball operations: De Jon Watson

Nice to steal someone away from the Los Angeles Dodgers, where Watson spent eight seasons in total. For the last two, he was their head of player development. That meant he was in charge of all appointments for the Dodgers' farm system, as well as transactions therein and evaluation of players. He also was an adviser to Los Angeles's GM Ned Colletti on the 40-man roster. He'll likely fill a same role here, concentrating on the pipeline of players coming up towards the majors. That will be an increasingly important role, if the team's apparent focus on young prospects is indeed core to their philosophy, going forward, especially with the first overall draft pick this year.

General manager: Dave Stewart

I kinda have some slight cause for concern about Stewart, based on early wobbles. First, there was the confusion over whether the Yoan Lopez signing counted against the team's major-league budget for the season: first it did, then it didn't. Then there's apparent vagueness over which pitchers have options left. This, I'd have thought, would both be the kind of things a GM should be on like a steel-trap. I appreciate it will be a learning experience for Stewart, as he makes the transition back to the front-office, after more than a decade working as an agent. It may be one of the good things about the structure here, which should offer checks and balances to guard against gaffes.

Manager: Chip Hale

Like all of the above, this is Hale's first time in this particular role, though he's spent time both as a manager, in the minor leagues, and with the Diamondbacks, spending six years in that role with Missoula, El Paso and Tucson. His final year, 2006, he took the Sidewinders to a 91-53 record, the best by a Pacific Coast League club in the past decade, and his overall record of 405-317 is also solid. As a manager, I think he's likely to stress the importance of solid fundamentals, and playing the game "the right way", but with eight seasons since he last occupied the role at any level, we'll have to wait and see what his tactics in-game look like, and how they evolve over the season.

Director of Baseball Analytics and Research: Dr. Ed Lewis

We've already asked, how much will the Diamondbacks use analytics, because the signals being sent out have been mixed, to say the least. However, the hiring of Dr. Lewis to this newly created position seems reason for optimism, even if La Russa said, "It stops before the first pitch is thrown." While that seems an unnecessary restraint on analysis, it does appear that it's an area which will have a higher official profile than under the previous regime. But there's no point in doing the analysis, if those you hand it to do not take it into consideration when making their decisions. Whether the team's choices become more sabermetric going forward will be the true test.

Conclusion

For the players, we generally have some element of track record to go on. Paul Goldschmidt was good last year; he'll probably be good again. But in the front-office, no-one has previously done the job they will have here, with another major-league team. How will they perform? It's an entirely new structure too, significantly different from the one which has evolved into place at the other teams. Will that be better or worse? I'm curious how the pieces fit together, but the same likely goes for the D-backs as any other organization. Clear areas of responsibility, good lines of communication, and everyone pulling in the same direction, is likely more important than job titles.