So Far So Good For Alex Anthopoulos

January 10, 2010

by Jeremy Gibson…  When 32-year old Alex Anthopoulos became the fifth general manager in Toronto Blue Jays history, it came with little fanfare. Most of the media attention focused not on who was hired, but on who was fired – the much maligned JP Ricciardi. Ricciardi was hired in 2001 to restore the Blue Jays to their winning ways. Despite his efforts, his failure to produce a playoff spot lead to his dismissal, and at the same time brought out the vultures to second guess his every move. The team that he leaves behind is probably the weakest Blue Jays club since he took over eight years ago.

The squad that Anthopoulos inherited on October 3rd was not good enough at the major league level, thin at the minor league level, and faced two major concerns: a dwindling fan base, and the impending exit of their franchise player. Roy Halladay is likely the greatest player the Blue Jays have ever produced – an outstanding athlete, a hard worker, a positive influence on teammates, and a model citizen. But above all he is a winner, and with Toronto unable to offer him a realistic opportunity at the post-season he was not going to return after his contract expired. In the summer, Ricciardi alienated and angered his star player by hanging him out to dry during trade talks. Anthopoulos had to be careful to not do the same. Not exactly the greatest welcoming gift.

It is impossible to judge how well a general manager has fared until the games on the field are played. For Anthopoulos it will take a few years to see the true picture of his accomplishments this winter, as all depends on the successful development on acquired prospects. But on paper, the first three months of his tenure have been a success, equally in terms of the moves he has made, and those he has avoided.

The Moves He Made

The Halladay Deal

Roy Halladay to Philadelphia for Kyle Drabek, Michael Taylor, and Travis D’Arnaud. Michael Taylor to Oakland for Brett Wallace

It’s difficult to picture a more daunting task than what confronted Alex Anthopoulos upon his coronation as Jays GM: trade Roy Halladay. Accomplishing a trade is difficult enough in modern sport, but the Halladay deal added three further complexities:

  1. The need to appease Halladay, who had a full no-trade clause, was upset with the way Ricciardi treated him in the summer, preferred a contender, and deserved to be treated with utmost respect.
  2. The need to appease the fans already jaded after last year’s debacle of a season.
  3. Trying to get full value for Halladay when every team in baseball knew full well that a trade had to happen.

With that in mind, it is amazing that Anthopoulos was able to pick up the prospects that he did. Think back to the summer when Ricciardi was negotiating with the Phillies. He would not trade Halladay unless 22-year old pitching phenom Kyle Drabek was part of the return package. Philadelphia balked and the trade died. Yet when Anthopoulos released the names of the players acquired from the Phillies, who topped the list? 22-year old pitching phenom Kyle Drabek.

By expanding the deal to include Seattle, Anthopoulos ensured that the Phillies received solid prospects, thus restocking their system to help offset the loss of Drabek. Ricciardi was not able to accomplish that in the summer, through lack of time or effort. In addition to Drabek, Toronto acquired Michael Taylor and Travis D’Arnaud, Philadelphia’s 3rd and 4th highest rated prospects according to Baseball America. D’Arnaud joins JP Arencibia as Toronto’s catchers of the future, giving them a very solid outlook behind the plate. Taylor was subsequently flipped to Oakland for Brett Wallace, a power hitting corner infielder and one of the top prospects in all of baseball. Wallace was traded virtually straight up for slugger Matt Holliday last summer, giving an indication of his value.

In a perfect world Halladay would have remained a Jay. But a perfect world it is not, and with his hands tied, Anthopoulos made out like a bandit. While the true value of the acquired prospects won’t be known for several years, ending up with three of the top prospects in the game sets Toronto up well for the future.

Brandon for Brandon

Brandon League and minor leaguer Johemyn Chavez to Seattle for Brandon Morrow

Brandon League was Toronto’s closer of the future, complete with electric stuff and a menacing, tattooed appearance. The problem for League and the Jays was that he was also Toronto’s closer of the future back in 2004, 2005, 2006, etc. He was never able to harness his vast potential in a Blue Jays uniform. Last year was his most complete season, with 76 strikeouts in 74.2 innings pitched. But he also sported a 3-6 record, blew three saves in three attempts, surrendered eight home runs, had an unsightly 4.58 ERA, and ranked 6th in the American League with nine wild pitches. He was as maddeningly inconsistent as ever, and it was clear he was never going to be anointed Toronto’s closer.

Maddeningly inconsistent also describes Seattle’s handling of Brandon Morrow. Drafted 5th overall by Seattle in 2006, Morrow had the tools to become a dominant starting pitcher. However, in 2007 Seattle promoted him to the major leagues as a reliever. In 2008 he filled in for injured closer JJ Putz, and finished a solid 10/12 in save opportunities, seemingly finding a place in the bullpen. But upon Putz’s return, Morrow’s career stuttered. The Mariners shifted him to the rotation to finish ’08, then moved him back to the bullpen to begin 2009, before once again converting him to a starter at the end of last season. His numbers dipped as a result of all the changes, but he finished strong, with eight shutout innings of one-hit ball in his final start.

Most telling about Morrow was the fact Seattle fought hard to hang on to him in the Halladay trade talks, preferring to part with top pitching prospect Philiipe Aumont instead. The fact that Anthopoulos was able to pry him from the Mariners is impressive, as is Toronto’s potential top three starters in 2010: Shaun Marcum. Ricky Romero, and Morrow. A great trade by the new GM.

The Shortstop Situation

Signed Alex Gonzalez (1 year, $2.75M), re-signed John McDonald (2 years, $3M), did not re-sign Marco Scutaro (received two compensatory draft picks from Boston)

The initial reaction on hearing about the signing of Alex Gonzalez was disappointment. Though he slugged 23 home runs for Florida in 2004, he is traditionally a weak hitter who can’t get on base and strikes out too much (career .247 avg, .294 OBP, nearly 4 strikeouts per walk). Paired with Johnny Mac, Toronto now had two all-glove/no-bat shortstops. The signing also signaled the end of the Marco Scutaro era.

But hearing Anthopoulos explain the rationale behind the signing, as reported by Will Hill of tsn.ca, brightens the picture substantially. Toronto quite possibly has the best 1-2 defensive punch at short – if not in baseball, then definitely in the AL East. Toronto also has one of the youngest pitching rotations in the league now that Halladay is gone. Take your pick from the following: Morrow (25 years old), Marcum (28), Romero (25), Litsch (24), Cecil (23), (24), McGowan (27), or Purcey (27). Not only are those pitchers young in terms of age, they are also babies in terms of major league experience. With immaturity and inexperience comes fragility, especially in confidence. Nothing shatters confidence more than weak ground balls skipping to the outfield, botched double plays, or inaccurate throws to first allowing base runners. When things go awry defensively, young pitchers have a tendency to try and strike every batter out, leading to further trouble both mentally and on the scoreboard. By keeping the infield defense airtight, Toronto is only going to help build the confidence of these young pitchers, not destroy it. Re-signing a 34-year old shortstop coming off a career year with average to below-average defense to a multi-year/multi-million dollar contract would have been ill-advised. Kudos to Anthopoulos for recognizing this and accepting the two compensatory draft picks to help build for the future.

The Moves He Avoided

Overbay for Snyder

Catcher has been a revolving door for the Blue Jays since the days of Ernie Whitt and Pat Borders. Many different players have crouched behind Toronto’s plate in the last several years, including Darrin Fletcher, Benito Santiago, Bengie Molina, Kevin Cash, Guillermo Quiroz, Rod Barajas and Raul Chavez. Though Barajas hit 19 HR last season, his .226 batting average and horrific .258 on-base-percentage were among the worst in all of baseball. The decision to let him leave as a free agent was not surprising. What was surprising was the rampant rumour that Toronto was on the verge of acquiring Chris Snyder from the Arizona Diamondbacks for first baseman Lyle Overbay.

It is no secret that Overbay is not the player he was in 2006, his first season in Toronto, likely the result of a hand injury suffered a few seasons ago. But over the past three seasons his slugging percentage, on-base-percentage, doubles, and home runs have actually increased each year, and he still plays a serviceable first base. Chris Snyder gets on base much more frequently than Barajas did, but hits for a lower batting average and only slightly more power. He is often injured, including a gruesome testicle injury that made him the punch line of many pop culture jokes, and an ongoing back problem that saw him miss over 100 games last season.

With JP Arencibia and now Travis D’Arnaud on the way, Toronto needs a stopgap catcher for one or two seasons, not a long term addition. With Brett Wallace and possibly David Cooper still a few seasons away from providing first and/or third base help, the Jays still need a competent first baseman. Trading Overbay would force either Adam Lind to play first or the premature major league promotion of Wallace – two options that would do more harm than good. By signing John Buck to a one-year contract and hanging on to Overbay, Anthopoulos made the right move.

Jason Bay

When rumours surfaced in the Toronto Star in late November that the Blue Jays were a potential landing spot for Jason Bay, one name instantly came to mind: Corey Koskie. JP Ricciardi was three years into his reign as GM when he signed Koskie. What better way to appeal yourself to your fan base than by making a big money free-agent splash, signing a Canadian to give fans a new native son to support. Of course, Koskie flamed out spectacularly as a Jay, and was gone one year later.

It is safe to assume that Bay’s career will not flame out, but Toronto signing him was a move that did not make sense. Having a 31-year old power hitting outfielder (and a Canadian at that) in the middle of the lineup is always good, but having 20-25% of your payroll tied up with one player is not. For a rebuilding team, a huge free agent splash is very risky, and for a team that is three or four years away from contention (as Toronto likely is) it is ill-advised. By the time Toronto’s prospects would have been ready to make an impact at the big league level, Bay’s contract would have been expiring. In addition the $16-million-plus a season would have severely crippled Toronto’s payroll flexibility. It was a move that reeked of desperation to sell tickets, a move designed to give young fans a new Canadian hero. It would not have helped the team in the long term. Let’s be thankful that Anthopoulos listened to his baseball smarts and not his marketing department.