After 14 roller-coaster years as general manager of the San Diego Padres, Kevin Towers certainly kept local baseball fans on the edge of their seats. He’s a likeable guy, intelligent and possesses good instincts. The Oregon native has also enjoyed measurable success in the form of four division titles and a World Series berth. But Towers often rubbed people the wrong way with his cockiness and gunslinger moves.
So, when personal matters forced Padres owner John Moores to sell the team to former agent and Arizona Diamondbacks shareholder Jeff Moorad, a new group of executives emerged. Towers, the odd man out, was given a Rolex watch as gratitude for his longtime service and shown the front office door. It’s a bit ironic then, that after a brief stint as an assistant with the New York Yankees, Towers would resurface this year as the new general manager in Arizona. And instead of battling the Padres for a spot in the basement of the National League West, as most experts had projected, the Snakes are about to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
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Baseball fever in Phoenix has folks scratching their heads in amazement. How can the Diamondbacks be so good when they used to be so bad? Was it Towers who turned this team around in less than a year? Not really. But he’s certainly helped by blending in and going with the flow. In other words, Towers basically reinvented himself.
Kevin Towers used to be a pretty good pitcher when was drafted by the Padres out of BYU in 1982. He threw hard and one spring day, he was determined to impress his manager, the late Dick Williams, while tossing batting practice. But in an attempt to juice up the velocity, Towers encountered a wild streak that had Padre batters bailing out of the box. After a tirade of four letter words, the crusty Williams suggested his young prospect take an early shower. It was exactly that type of aggressiveness, however, that vaulted Towers up the executive ladder once his playing days were over.
In 1993, Kevin was hired by then-Padre general manager Randy Smith as the club’s director of scouting. That was the year of the infamous “fire sale” in San Diego, and when Smith left to grab a better gig with the Detroit Tigers two years later, Towers would become the new boss of a gutted franchise. But with fresh ownership under Moores, he was given the green light to start reconstruction. Towers would soon acquire established stars like Kevin Brown, Greg Vaughn and Jim Leyritz. It was those players, together with Tony Gwynn, Wally Joyner and Steve Finley that led the Padres to a Fall Classic 1998 showdown with the Yankees.
Except a trade involving pitcher Randy Meyers that would cost Moores a bundle, Towers was on a roll and continued to make bold moves in the coming years. Mixing and matching seemingly on impulse, he dealt for veterans Woody Williams, Ryan Klesko and Brian Giles, while shipping out Vaughn, Joyner and talented youngsters Jason Bay and Oliver Perez. In a hallmark trade in the winter of 2006, Towers finally hit a homer when he swapped pitchers Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka to the Texas Rangers for Adrian Gonzalez and lanky hurler Chris Young. The blockbuster deal would prove lucrative for the Friars and shape the roster for several years to come.
Most knowledgeable observers consider Towers a sharp talent evaluator, given his extensive scouting background. He will always be remembered though, for a colossal blunder in 2004 when the Padres selected local high school shortstop Matt Bush as the opening pick in the first round. The organization never did their homework on Bush, who would turn out to be less than a model citizen, injury prone and difficult to coach. The error in judgement cost the Padres over three million dollars and endless aggravation.
Truth be told, only a handful of Towers first-round picks have enjoyed more than a cup of coffee in the big leagues. He’s had better success with later selections, such as Jake Peavy and Xavier Nady. Insiders also allege that Kevin’s “win now” philosophy came at the expense of the minor league system. For whatever reason, the cupboard was bare on the farm when Towers left, with catching and middle infield prospects virtually nonexistent.
Although hype has always swirled around Towers, history will likely show that he has been an above-average lead executive. He was a good fit for the Padres for many years, but clearly saw the handwriting on the wall when Moorad assumed control of the team. In Arizona we have seen a wiser and more conservative Towers. That’s likely due to his short association with the Yankees and former boss, Brian Cashman, who knows there’s a time to be splashy and a time to be patient.
Towers can’t take credit for the Diamondbacks who were there when he arrived. Players like Stephen Drew, Justin Upton, Miguel Montero and Chris Young were assembled by others before him. What Kevin did was summon inexpensive, veteran bench guys who would fit team chemistry. His old favorites such as Sean Burroughs, Geoff Blum and Nady haven’t done much, but Willie Bloomquist has worked miracles in subbing for the injured Drew. And Towers has also shored up the bullpen by acquiring setup man David Hernandez and closer J.J. Putz. Even the trade for Jason Marquis looked good until the much traveled hurler broke his right fibula.
Probably the best thing Towers has done in the desert is a mere, rubber-stamp approval. Retaining energetic manager Kirk Gibson and allowing him to jell with coaches Don Baylor, Alan Trammell and Charles Nagy has accounted for the main difference in the Diamondbacks turnaround this season. Gibson and staff have presented a professional, no nonsense approach, and the team has responded.
As for Towers, he’s done an excellent job of tweaking things here and there and making a personal adjustment. It’s possible to contribute and run the show without being the center of attraction.
Sometimes, makeovers can be rewarding.