Revamped front office key to turnaround
La Russa, Stewart lead staff with help from Johnson, Gonzo
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The D-backs have washed away the immediate past, utilizing Major League Baseball's storied past to do it. As pitchers threw their bullpens in the cages at the gleaming Salt River Fields at Talking Stick complex on Sunday, general manager Dave Stewart and his new assistant Joe Carter were watching them work. Tony La Russa, the club's chief baseball operator, rode a golf cart from field to field and station to station.
Luis Gonzalez and Randy Johnson -- two former D-backs stars who are among a quartet of special assistants to team president Derrick Hall -- were not even on the premises. That's a whole lot of baseball expertise for Arizona players of any level to tap into.
"I think it's going to be great," new D-backs manager Chip Hale said. "We mentioned that in the first meeting with the pitchers and catchers. We have World Series heroes, guys who ended World Series games. That's pretty impressive. Hall of Famers, Randy is going to be around. He's going to talk to the team [on Monday]. I think it can be nothing but positive."
To Hale's point: Carter is one of only two players to end a World Series with a walk-off homer, doing it for the Blue Jays in 1993 over the Phillies in Game 6 at what was then called SkyDome. Stewart, the right-hander with 10 postseason wins in his career, was a teammate that season and was named MVP of the American League Championship Series over the White Sox. Stewart was 8-0 with a 2.03 ERA in 10 ALCS starts for Oakland and Toronto.
Gonzalez won the 2001 World Series for the D-backs over the Yankees with a dump base hit in the ninth inning of Game 7 at what is now called Chase Field. The epic single came off Mariano Rivera and sailed over the head of shortstop Derek Jeter, who was pulled in to the infield grass to make a possible play on the runner on third at the plate. Johnson pitched the top of the ninth of that game in relief to earn the win and was named co-MVP of the series along with Curt Schilling.
La Russa won six pennants and three World Series titles as manager of the A's and Cardinals and Stewart won 64 games for the La Russa-led Oakland teams that snagged three successive AL pennants from 1988-90, winning at least 21 each year. He also won 20 games for the A's in 1987.
La Russa was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame last year along with fellow managers Bobby Cox and Joe Torre. Johnson was elected to the Hall this year and will join fellow pitchers John Smoltz and Pedro Martinez, plus 3,000-hit Astros star Craig Biggio, in Cooperstown, N.Y., on July 26.
Even Hale has been to the postseason four times under Bob Melvin since 2007.
"We've had a lot of success and that's the whole key," said Carter, who hasn't worked in the Major Leagues since retiring at the end of the 1998 season. "Young guys come into this organization and they see myself, Dave and Tony and you know we are guys who know about winning. There's kind of a different pep in everyone's step because of that and the expectations. You forget about what happened last year and learn from that. And as you go forward you know these guys want to win."
The D-backs lost 98 games last year during a season that was beset with injuries to almost every key player on the roster: Patrick Corbin, Bronson Arroyo, Brad Ziegler, A.J. Pollock and Paul Goldschmidt. At one point, the D-backs had five pitchers recovering in some stage from Tommy John surgery. Goldschmidt and Pollock were both hit in the hand and suffered fractures that caused them to miss a huge chunk of the schedule. All of them are either ready to play or are getting there.
It was too much for any management team to overcome. La Russa, who retired after his Cardinals defeated Texas in the 2011 World Series, was hired in May to conduct a complete evaluation. Who needed to go? Manager Kirk Gibson or GM Kevin Towers? In the end it was both of them. Towers was replaced by Stewart, earning a long overdue chance to run baseball operations for a big league club. Hale, a coach under the highly-regarded Melvin in Arizona and Oakland, won a derby among nine candidates scrutinized by La Russa and Stewart. Hall put his stamp of approval on the choice.
"I'm very happy with the way it all worked out," Hall said about his star-studded executive team. "They're hard working. They're all on the same page. I don't think there's any confusion over whose roles are what. They're not looking to take the credit. They're all looking to win. I'm very impressed, especially with Tony. His leadership, his success, his mentorship has been tremendous. I just worry because the guy is here seven days a week, 20 hours a day. But they're all that way."
La Russa is 70, but acts like a 30-year-old. In fact, he was already on the go at 7:30 a.m. on Sunday, sitting in on early meetings, chatting it up with players and coaches. Barely even saying hello, La Russa said:
"Don't pick us to finish last. I don't know how good we're going to be, but we're going to be highly competitive, a very tough team to play."
One would expect nothing less from a La Russa-led team. After all, as a manager he finished third all-time behind Connie Mack and John McGraw with 2,728 regular-season wins and second to Joe Torre with 70 postseason victories.
Don't pick the D-backs again to finish last in the tough National League West?
"Well, you've got to have confidence. A lot of us like what we see here," said La Russa later in the morning after making the rounds. "I like our talent. I like the way our guys are working. We're going to be tough. You keep score. We'll see. Talk is cheap."
Yes, it is. But this kind of executive talent is not. Its value is priceless. The sky may be the limit if the D-backs players take advantage of it.