Alex Anthopoulos was hired to be the fourth General Manager in Toronto Blue Jays history in October of 2009. He was instantly seen by Toronto baseball fans as a beacon of hope, a man set to usher in a new era of success, and lead the Jays out of the rubble of the Ricciardi era.
And why not? He was young, he was Canadian, and he worked his way up from the bottom. In a few short years people around baseball were referring to him as “Boy Genius”, “Wunderkind”, and “The Silent Assassin”.
He brought change to the team in many ways. He revamped the uniforms, putting the ‘blue’ back in Blue Jays and once again displaying the Canadian maple leaf on the jerseys and caps. He completely overhauled the scouting system, investing money where others had not in order to make the Jays an attractive destination to international players. Most of all, he transformed the on-field product through a series of shrewd trades and signings – moves that replenished the farm system and once again made the Jays a contender.
It seemed he was King Midas – everything he touches turns to gold.
Or does it?
Four years into his tenure, has Alex Anthopoulos really made the Blue Jays a better team? Using hindsight – the most accurate of all judgments – we can look back and assess just how shrewd his trades and signings were. Has everything actually turned to gold, or is it starting to turn to dust? Is he still a genius?
A GM is responsible for many things, but there are really four main areas that actually contribute to the on-field success of a team:
1) Hiring a manager
2) Player Signings (Free Agency or Waiver)
4) The Draft
Armed with four years of data we can now take a look back at how successful he has been in each of those areas. This week we will take a look at the first two: the manager and player signings.
Hiring a Manager
In his tenure, AA has twice been given the opportunity to hire a manager. In 2010, after the retirement of Cito Gaston, he tabbed John Farrell to take the reins of the Jays. It looked like a sound decision at the time. Farrell was a well-respected baseball man, a pitching coach who had led the Red Sox to the World Series and deserved a shot at managing his own team. But after two middling to poor seasons, Farrell jumped ship at the first opportunity he got and fled back to Boston.
Is AA to blame for this? It can be argued either way whether or not he should have known Farrell was a flight risk (I personally can’t see how he can be blamed for letting him go), but the bottom line is that Farrell left – end of story. Like it or not, fair or not, that reflects poorly on the GM.
Faced once again with the chance to bring in fresh blood to lead his troupe, he instead chose to recycle John Gibbons, last seen on a Jays bench in 2008. Though many around these parts were screaming for Gibbons’ head this year, I think he did an excellent job navigating the bullpen and guiding the team through a massive injury list. It’s tough to win when the starting pitching is terrible and the lineup is hurt.
It’s difficult to pass judgment on how successful Anthopoulos has been with the manager at this point. In terms of hiring somebody who knows how to influence a game, I’d say so far so good. But a manager is ultimately graded on his win-loss record, and Gibbons will have a lot to prove in 2014.
There are two ways that GM’s can sign players for their teams: through waivers or through free agency. For the most part, the waiver wire is a way to increase minor league depth. It is rather rare to acquire any impactful major leaguers through the waivers as the only players who are exposed to waivers are those destined for the minors who are out of options. But every so often, a GM can unearth a diamond in the rough.
Using Baseball Reference’s transactions database, AA has signed players 39 times using the waiver wire, and a total of 13 have actually made it to Toronto, the most notable being Mike McCoy (acquired from Colorado in November 2009), and Todd Redmond (from Baltimore last March). While not superstars, they provided solid major league depth.
The most newsworthy way to improve a team is by signing players through free agency. Over the course of his time as Jays GM, Anthopoulos has signed an incredible 104 players to contracts. While that sounds like a lot, many of them were added for minor league depth, guys such as Wille Collazo, Sean Henn, and Bill Murphy to name a few. Every team signs players like that, and those aren’t the types of moves that a GM should be judged upon.
No – the way to tell a good GM is to look at both the major signings he makes and doesn’t make.
For the most part, despite the number of players signed, AA has only been a bit player in free agency for a variety of reasons. For one, many players don’t want to come to Toronto. They are reluctant to play in Canada, nervous about playing on turf, and want to play for a contender. Names like Carlos Beltran come to mind. Also, until last offseason, ownership didn’t really open the purse strings to allow for a major signing, meaning the top names available often weren’t even a possibility.
That said, he has made plenty of good moves:
Alex Gonzalez (Nov ’09): In half a season he hit 17 HR and put up a .793 OPS before being dealt for Yunel Escobar.
John Buck (Dec ’09): Buck hit .281 with 20 HR, an .802 OPS and made the All-Star team
Kevin Gregg (Feb ’10): The much maligned closer signed a 1 year / $2 million deal and saved 37 games with a 3.51 ERA.
Edwin Encarnacion (Dec ’10): After letting him go to Oakland on waivers, AA picked up him back up in free agency. The rest is history.
More recently, he also fared pretty well with Darren Oliver, Neil Wagner, Juan Perez, and the lovable Munenori Kawasaki. None of those players (except EE) were ever going to be a part of Toronto’s core moving forward, but excelled while they were here.
Similarly, the decision to not enter a bidding war for players like Prince Fielder and Jonathan Papelbon might also prove prudent down the road.
But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. The Jays were outbid during the Yu Darvish sweepstakes, a loss that still stings considering how bad Toronto’s pitching was last year and how good Darvish has been. And for all the good signings mentioned above, there is also a laundry list of busts, including Joey Gathright, Corey Patterson, Chad Cordero, Octavio Dotel, Jon Rauch, Omar Vizquel, Francisco Cordero, and Vladimir Guerrero.
As it stands now, his two biggest free agent signings last offseason – Maicer Izturis and Melky Cabrera – also look to be busts. Only time will tell if they can turn it around.
Free agency is a risky game, and while Alex Anthopoulos doesn’t have a great record, he certainly doesn’t have a bad one. Just ask the Angels (Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton), the Cubs (Edwin Jackson), and the Braves (B.J. Upton) if they’d like a mulligan. The last thing we need in Toronto is another albatross contract handcuffing the team.
With a lot of holes still to plug, this winter is a very important one for Alex.
Next Week: Player signings are one way to improve a major league team. But in this new era of developing and signing young talent through their free agent years, excelling in the draft and through trades can be a much more effective method. We’ll examine just how good AA’s drafts and trades look today.