Alex Anthopoulos

Alex Anthopoulos

The first good news I’ve heard in a very long time. Alex Anthopoulos is just about the best possible General Manager the Braves could have chosen, for two reasons:

1) In Toronto, he made a lot of very good moves. Some of them didn’t work out, but the process behind all of them looked really solid, at least from the outside, and he built that team into a perennial contender in the toughest division in baseball.
2) He is a French-speaking Canadian who has never worked in the Braves organization in any capacity. He is the outside voice that the team has so badly needed for so long, and rather than hiring him into a vague “special advisor” capacity like Hart, or a vague apprenticeship like Coppolella, the team is quite publicly handing him the reins. Thank goodness.

We still don’t know quite what the final fallout will be from the Braves’ infractions in the Latin American market, and it’s possible that players now in the Braves organization will not be there come 2018. Ultimately, that has to be priced into the Coppolella era. Later this offseason I’ll try to write a retrospective on him, maybe along the lines of what I wrote here; it’s hard to reach full emotional closure without knowing the full extent of the team’s crimes and the degree to which he was operating entirely outside the knowledge of the rest of the team’s upper management. (I find it hard to believe that Schuerholz, Hart, Cox, and McGuirk were unaware of anything improper whatsoever, considering that it was an open secret throughout all of baseball that the Braves had reached an agreement with Kevin Maitan long before he was of legal age.) But that’s hard to know for now.

I am fairly ecstatic about Anthopoulos, whom I at one point believed was the best GM in baseball. He made his share of bad moves, but he made a hell of a lot of good ones. The contrast with his predecessor is extraordinary.

The Blue Jays he inherited in October 2009 were not a very good team in the majors or minors, after a decade of indifferent management and terrible drafting by J.P. Ricciardi. The Jays went 642-653 in Ricciardi’s eight seasons, finishing in 3rd place four times, in 4th place twice, and once in 2nd place and once in last. It was Ricciardi who gave out Vernon Wells‘s comically disastrous contract extension and B.J. Ryan‘s terrible free agent contract. As John Sickels wrote a couple of months after Ricciardi got axed:

The Jays under former general manager J.P. Ricciardi took a lot of flak for focusing in polished college players in the draft. However, even when they brought in tools players, such as the high school hitters drafted in 2007 and various Latin American investments, the results were poor, leading me to wonder if the problems are as much in player development and coaching as much as in the drafting. The debacle of the 2009 draft is a huge blow: failing to sign the second, third, and fourth round picks speaks to serious problems with the Jays organization as a whole and hampers depth at the lower levels of the system for ’10 and beyond.

Worst Move:
• December 2009, Roy Halladay to Phillies for Kyle Drabek, Travis d’Arnaud and Michael Taylor
Anthopoulos’s first move as GM was possibly his worst move as GM. Two months after assuming the job he traded away the team’s most recognizable and valuable asset, the late Roy Halladay. (God, I hate having to write that.) As the Toronto Star wrote years later: “Upon taking the reins from Ricciardi, Anthopoulos’ first order of business was trading franchise ace Roy Halladay, who would only consent to a deal to Philly. At the time it looked like Anthopoulos made out alright, netting a trio of highly touted prospects. But this deal has soured in hindsight. While Taylor was flipped for Brett Wallace, who was traded for Anthony Gose, who was traded for Devon Travis, and d’Arnaud was part of the package for R.A. Dickey, the centrepiece of the deal, Kyle Drabek, flamed out and was released by the team this season.”

That said, this trade looks a lot worse in retrospect than it did at the time. Immediately after he made it, Toronto’s farm leapt from 28th place to 18th place in Baseball America’s rankings, an indication of just how bad shape it was in, and also of just how highly regarded were those prospects. The elementary-school-lunchbox series of swaps that turned Taylor into Travis was a really nifty bit of work. But Drabek did what young pitchers too often do, and d’Arnaud starred in perhaps Anthopoulos’s second-most unfortunate move, when he sent him along with Noah Syndergaard to the Mets in return for 38-year-old Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. Dickey was decent, and d’Arnaud was injury-prone, but Syndergaard turned into a bona fide ace of the kind that Drabek simply didn’t.

That’s the bad stuff. Here’s the good stuff:

2010: Aaron Sanchez (1st round), Noah Syndergaard (1st), Justin Nicolino (2nd)
2011: Daniel Norris (2nd), Anthony DeSclefani (6th), Kevin Pillar (32nd)
2012: Marcus Stroman (1st)
2013: Kendall Graveman (8th)
2014: Jeff Hoffman (1st)

Not all of their top picks panned out, but they got a lot more guys into the farm than they had when he took over. He had some extremely noteworthy trades, of course:

Best Trade:
• November 2014, Brett Lawrie, Kendall Graveman, Franklin Barreto, and Sean Nolin to Athletics for Josh Donaldson
Lawrie was an enigma who rarely seemed to live up to his talent, but it was still remarkable to see him as the centerpiece of a deal for Donaldson. The previous season, the 27-year-old third baseman had played his first full season in the majors and finished fourth in the MVP ranking; two years later, he won the MVP for his new team. Barreto’s still a good prospect, but it’s hard to trade for an MVP candidate in his prime at any price, let alone at Costco prices.

Most Unbelievable Trade:
• January 2011, Vernon Wells to Angels for Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera
Prior to this, Wells was viewed for years as having a literally immovable contract, with $86 million remaining on his contract after his age-32 season in 2010. He had a resurgent year that year, hitting 31 homers, more than double his total the previous year, and Anthopoulos jumped at the chance to give him away to Arte Moreno. Most incredible of all was that he got a very good player back in Napoli. Anthopoulos outthunk himself a couple of days later, turning around and trading Napoli to the Rangers for closer Frank Francisco; Francisco had a fine year, but Napoli bashed 30 homers and hit .320/.414/.631 in the friendly confines of Arlington.

Most Important Overall Transactions:
• December 2010, Signed Edwin Encarnacion as a Free Agent
• February 2011, Signed Jose Bautista to a Five-Year Extension

Anthopoulos may not deserve all the credit for acquiring two of the best power hitters in baseball for next to nothing (and a third, Donaldson, for virtual scraps), but he deserves a hell of a lot of it.

Encarnacion spent the first part of his career in Cincinnati, and came to the Blue Jays for the first time in a deadline trade for Scott Rolen in 2009. He had some power but was an indifferent defender, and the Blue Jays left him exposed to waivers, and the Athletics selected him off waivers in November 2010, then granted him free agency just weeks later. The Blue Jays got him back a few days after that. In 2011, he hit 17 homers. In 2012 he hit 42 homers and turned into Edwin Encarnacion. In the middle of the summer, as he was in the middle of his breakout, the Jays signed him for an absurdly cheap three-year, $27 million extension with a two-year buyout.

Bautista, likewise, was originally acquired under Ricciardi, and he likewise took a couple of years to blossom. He came over from the Pirates in August 2008 for a PTBNL. In 2009, he hit 13 homers. In 2010, he hit 54 homers and turned into Jose Bautista. That offseason, they offered him a five-year, $65 million extension.

A Whole Lot of Other Trades:
You could describe Anthopoulos’s style as frenetic. In November 2012 he traded a bunch of prospects (Henderson Alvarez, Justin Nicolino, Anthony DeSclefani, Adeiny Hecheverria, and Jake Marisnick, along with Yunel Escobar and Jeff Mathis) to the Miami Marlins for higher-salaried players the South Florida cheapskates had mostly soured on: Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, John Buck, and Emilio Bonifacio.

That didn’t work out that well, but Reyes and Buehrle played decently, and in a playoff push in July 2015, Anthopoulos made Reyes the centerpiece of a 2015 deal for Troy Tulowitzki, and two days later traded prospects for a three-month rental of David Price. Thad led the Jays to their first 90-win season (not to mention their first division championship) since 1993, when they won their second consecutive world championship. They lost in the ALCS, but it was hard to argue it hadn’t been worth it.

He had no compunction about trading players who had been with the team for years and appeared to hew to Branch Rickey’s adage that it was better to trade a guy a year too early than a year too late. In 2011 he traded Aaron Hill, who had been drafted in 2003 and was an All-Star for the team in 2009, along with backup infielder John McDonald to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Kelly Johnson; Hill was great in 2012 but has struggled to produce and stay healthy since then. (So has Johnson, for that matter.) In 2014 he traded Adam Lind, who had been with the team for a decade, to the Brewers for Marco Estrada; Lind has remained an occasionally very good backup 1B/OF while Estrada has given the Jays 90 starts of 111 ERA+ ball.

But none of that holds a candle to the magic of trading Shaun Marcum, a soft-tossing 3rd-round draftee from 2003, for Brett Lawrie. Marcum underwent Tommy John surgery in 2009, came back and went 13-8 in 2010, and Anthopoulos traded him to the Brewers for Brett Lawrie, at the time a highly-regarded Double-A prospect who had been taken in the first round two years prior. Flashing power, defense, and speed, but not often at the same time, Lawrie tantalized in Toronto four two years before Anthopoulos flipped him for Donaldson. Meanwhile, Marcum simply could not stay healthy, and after a wonderful 200-inning season in Milwaukee in 2011, he only tossed 237 1/3 innings over the rest of his career, which included shoulder surgery in 2014.

Then there was the huge trade with the Cardinals in July 2011, where he sent over Octavio Dotel, Edwin Jackson, Corey Patterson, and Marc Rzepczynski and received Trever Miller, Brian Tallet, P.J. Walters, and Colby Rasmus. Miller, Tallet, and Walters didn’t do much, nor did Patterson. Dotel, Jackson, and Rzepczynski pitched pretty well for St. Louis, who appreciated the help en route to a world championship. But Rasmus had the talent to be the best player in the deal, and at least in 2013, he lived up to the billing, producing five wins and putting together the best year of his career. The rest of the time, of course, he was Colby Rasmus, but you can’t win ’em all.

In the AL East, the Yankees and Red Sox had absurd amounts of money, and after years of being division doormats, the Rays and Orioles had by the early 2010s emerged as well-run and fierce competitors. To survive in that environment, Anthopoulos needed to get lucky — as he did with Bautista and Encarnacion — and he needed to try moonshot after moonshot. Playing it safe simply wouldn’t have been enough. So I don’t fault him overly for his failures, because I think they were the product of the right process: high risk, high reward.

The Bottom Line
No, Anthopoulos wasn’t perfect, and by the time he and the Blue Jays parted ways, plenty of people were willing to remember his failures as much as a lot of his successes. But if you want someone who will be willing to take chances and push his chips to the middle of the table as soon as he sees an opportunity, he’s your guy. I couldn’t be more excited.

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