The Mets are facing an offseason of stark changes, and the front office will be no exception. General manager Omar Minaya likely will be reassigned within the organization, opening the door to a fresh start for a franchise that seemingly has lost its way over the last few seasons.
Several names have emerged as prospects to succeed Minaya, including Mets assistant general manager John Ricco, former Arizona Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes and Chicago White Sox assistant GM Rick Hahn. The Wilpons’ top priority in the evaluation process will be experience, and the best track record among the speculated candidates belongs to Kevin Towers.
Towers spent 15 years as general manager of the San Diego Padres before being fired following the 2009 campaign. During his tenure, Towers built a reputation for being shrewd both on the trade front and in the draft – efforts that helped the Padres make four playoff appearances and emerge National League champions in 1998. Though Towers no longer works for the Padres, the three most valuable players on their current squad – Adrian Gonzalez, Heath Bell and Mat Latos – serve as prime examples of his shrewdness.
Gonzalez, who has become the unquestioned face of the Padres franchise, was acquired along with starter Chris Young from the Texas Rangers for Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka prior to the 2006 season. Gonzalez had taken considerable time to develop after being selected first overall out of high school in the 2000 draft, and both the Florida Marlins and Rangers organizations grew impatient. Towers pounced even though he already had Ryan Klesko entrenched at first base, and the ensuing results have been outstanding. Gonzalez has averaged 31 homers and nearly 100 RBI in his five seasons with the Padres.
A year after nabbing Gonzalez, Towers acquired arguably the premier closer in the National League – though he was simply a middle reliever at the time. In two seasons since taking over for all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman, Bell has saved 84 games while striking out well over a batter per inning and posting a 2.31 ERA. Yes, Bell is the same guy who spent three pedestrian seasons in the Mets bullpen before being acquired by Towers along with Royce Ring in exchange for pitcher Jon Adkins and outfielder Ben Johnson.
During the 2006 campaign, Towers scored Latos as a draft-and-follow in the 11th round. In 2010, Latos has emerged a Cy Young candidate on the strength of his major league-record streak of 15 consecutive starts with at least five innings pitched and fewer than two earned runs allowed. Latos has become the staff ace in the wake of last year’s trade of former Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy, who himself was a 15th-round steal for Towers in 1999. Budget constraints led to the deal of Peavy, who since has won 10 games for the Chicago White Sox. Clayton Richard, who was among the players Towers received from the White Sox, has won 12 games for the Padres in 2010.
Other astute trades on Towers’ resume include the acquisition of center fielder Mike Cameron from the Mets for Xavier Nady following the 2005 season and third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff from the Cleveland Indians for Josh Barfield. In addition to playing Gold Glove caliber defense, Cameron averaged over 80 RBI in his two seasons with the Padres. Similarly, Kouzmanoff averaged 82 RBI in his three seasons in San Diego before new GM Jed Hoyer dealt him to Oakland last offseason.
Like most experienced general managers, Towers also has had some trade clunkers. For example, he dealt Jason Bay and Oliver Perez to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Brain Giles. Given how Bay and Perez have performed this year, however, Mets fans might just give him a pass on that one. He also was the man responsible for arguably the biggest bust in draft history, as he took Matt Bush first overall in 2004 ahead of the likes of Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver, Billy Butler, Philip Hughes and Stephen Drew.
The Padres’ tight budget played a role in Towers not going after the most highly regarded talent in the 2004 draft, with signability concerns and contract demands far exceeding what the organization could afford. In fact, Towers continually has been hamstrung by a team whose Opening Day payroll ranked in the top half of the major leagues just once (1998) during his reign. In Towers’ final year with the Padres, only the Florida Marlins had a smaller payroll. By contrast, the Mets have had a payroll that has ranked in the majors’ top five each of the last eight years.
In his current role as special assignment scout with the New York Yankees, Towers likely has gotten a taste of what it’s like to be in an organization where the purse strings are loose – if they even exist at all. If he were to become the next general manager of the Mets, the Wilpons could be assured that their money would not be spent frivolously. Having a general manager with a small-market mentality on a big-market team could be the recipe that gets the Mets, who have not made the playoffs since 2006 despite an average payroll north of $134 million the last four years, back to playing in October.