Monday, October 3, 2016: it was eight days after his second anniversary on the job, that the announcement was made: Arizona Diamondbacks General Manager Dave Stewart had been fired by the team. That was about half the time lasted by the man who preceded him in the position, Kevin Towers, and so Stewart easily replaced Towers as the shortest-tenured GM in team history (discounting interim men Bob Gebhard and Jerry DiPoto). Indeed, every permanent General Manager in Diamondbacks history, has lasted less time than the one before; they apparently don’t get job security, they have a half-life... I’m hoping Mike Hazen reverses that trend.
Stewart had perhaps been emboldened last winter by having “overseen” a 15-game improvement in 2015. However, those quotes are used advisedly, since as I wrote in late 2014, teams which are that bad tend to be about 10 games better the next year anyway (something Bill James called the Plexiglass Principle) and our player health in 2015 was also much better. Those two factors, rather than Stewart’s skill, would explain basically all the improvement. It seems to be the fate of D-backs GM’s to experience quick success and misinterpret it: both Byrnes and Towers won the division in their early years, but it was all downhill from there. I wonder if Stewart did the same?
In hindsight, his fate was sealed by that 48-hour period mentioned yesterday, when he signed Zack Greinke and traded for Shelby Miller. It was the archetype of a team entering “Win Now” mode. Stewart effectively went all-in with a hand that he thought would end up containing at least three aces, but ended up more in the “busted flush” camp. There was a tremendous amount of second-guessing after those moves, in particular the Miller deal; even at the time, 31% of respondents to the SnakePit poll considered it a “terrible” trade. As early as the end of April, with Grienke sporting a 5.50 ERA and Miller at 8.69, Stewart’s position already seemed to be growing tenuous. But it was after the All-Star break that the heat really seemed to get turned up.
In August, word came out that the team was dragging its heels in regard to exercising the options they on 2017, for the services of both Stewart and DeJon Watson, the team’s senior vice president of baseball operations. A week later, a certain ESPN pundit utterly eviscerated the team’s front-office, saying since Stewart and Tony La Russa had been hired, the franchise “has done nothing but go backward,” calling it “as mistake-filled as any front office regime in the last five years, with most of their gaffes becoming public embarrassments to the organization, contributing to the perception around the sport that Arizona's front office is a laughingstock, falling well behind the rest of the industry in its processes and capabilities.” #SickBurn
The end of August came and went, bringing with it the deadline for exercising those options. But the silence from the team with regard to Stewart’s future was deafening, particularly in contrast, to the eight-year contract given to Derrick Hall that same month. Said President
-for-life Hall, “We’ve decided we’ll go until the end of the season and then we’ll evaluate everything... There’s a lot to think about here. They’re all very hard-working people and very knowledgeable. It’s not for lack of trying or hard work. Just a lot hasn’t gone their way. As Tony says often, we’re in the results business, and this year it’s been tough when it comes to results.”
Matters were not helped by more bad press the following month. Ken Rosenthal reported friction between Watson and farm director Mike Bell, saying “The differences between the two are so significant, some believe that Bell might leave the organization if Watson stays.” While this report was categorically denied by Stewart and the team, if it was the state of affairs, it didn’t take long for ownership to make their choice and stand behind Bell. For Watson didn’t even reach the end of the season before his fate was sealed, the team having announced on September 18 that his services would not be required the following year.
Meanwhile, on the field, the Stewart-constructed team limped to the finish line. The D-backs escaped the cellar of their division only with a sweep of the Padres over the final weekend, and finished ten games worse than the previous season, 22 behind the Dodgers. Hall’s promise - “we’ll go until the end of the season, then we’ll evaluate everything” - didn’t take long to fulfill. Less that 24 hours after the final pitch, the Dave Stewart era was officially over. The decision was almost the only credible answer for most fans, who had grown more than tired of their team being the punchline for jokes to the rest of the baseball world.
Stewart’s departure was far from alone, the team engaging in a significant reshuffle of staff and responsibilities. Most obviously, manager Chip Hale went the same day, while the first incumbent of the “Chief Baseball Officer” post was its last, La Russa being demoted to “Chief Baseball Analyst/Advisor.” He accepted a lesser role, saying he still hoped to contribute to something better than a 90-loss team, but acknowledged, “I’m not a Hall of Famer when it comes to working upstairs.” The team also replaced Director of Baseball Analytics and Research Dr. Ed Lewis, with a man less than half his age - 28-year-old Mike Fitzgerald, a graduate in applied mathematics from MIT.
This was very much a radical change in direction for the team, and it remains to be seen what impact the new personnel will have, and how long it will take. But after the yawning chasm between fan hopes - and, indeed, expectations - for the 2016 season, and the harsh reality which unfolded, I think we’re all ready to try something different. After five consecutive years without a winning record, I’m certainly more than keen for the Diamondbacks to turn the page.