A couple of years ago, I wrote an article for this site defending Alex Anthopolous (AA). At the time, it wasn’t a popular position. And it became increasingly less popular until last July, when suddenly Alex shifted direction and turned this team into the playoff team that it became. As we start 2016, Alex has moved on, and we are left with the glow of a playoff run that came up just a little short. We are also left with one of the best offenses in the game, but a mediocre pitching staff and no big league ready prospects. So now that some time has passed, what does Alex’s Blue Jay legacy look like?
I need to state from the outset that I was, and still am, an AA fan. I rooted him on for his entire Blue Jays tenure, right from the beginnings where he was finding his footing, through the times where he believed that on a tight budget, talent was more important than character, through to early 2015, where the list of his fans and supporters was becoming shorter and shorter. Throughout his time, he convinced me of one thing: no one that I had ever seen in his chair had worked harder and was better prepared than he was. His detractors disliked his inability to make the big move. They rightly pointed out that his early philosophy of picking up talent without regarding character was not a good way to build a baseball team. But I held firm to the belief that if something about the team was obvious to the casual fan, AA had already thought of it, and his decisions were rooted in more preparation and knowledge than any of us had.
The question on the minds of so many Jays fans is: why did AA leave his dream job after finally breaking through and making the playoffs? It’s an answer we may never fully know, given AA’s desire for privacy. Maybe he’ll write a book one day. Like most Jays fans, I have a theory. It isn’t one I’ve heard talked about a lot, but it’s my attempt to make sense of a situation that doesn’t add up on the surface. My theory is this: that AA knew he was not coming back to the Jays, he had decided this long before the trade deadline in July, and that decision impacted everything that followed.
In early 2015, it was a pretty common expectation that AA was in his last year with the team. At year-end, the retiring president (Paul Beeston) would be replaced, and along with that change there was likely to be wholesale changes in the organization. In late July, the Jays were in their customary position of being a .500 team that many felt was not living up to its potential. They were 8 games back of the Yankees. Many of us in the fan base were resigned to another year as also rans, and expected AA to make some deadline moves with 2016 in mind. What happened next was totally out of character for him. AA threw caution to the wind, and traded a healthy chunk of the team’s prospects with an aim toward winning it all now. It was a bold and daring move. It has to be said that it was a move with a big chance of failure. An 8 game lead is substantial. To overcome that, you need to either play extraordinarily well or hope the team in front of you falters.
Fortunately for all of us, the trades all worked out perfectly, and the Jays went on a historic two month run that landed them in the playoffs at long last. As a fan, I loved the trades immediately, even as I acknowledged that they were a huge risk. I loved that there was exciting baseball in Toronto again. I loved that we were basically trotting out an all-star team every day. It was great fun for us, the fans. But we don’t have to worry about things like having good prospects for the future, having a team that is a sustainable winner, and meeting a payroll budget. Those are all problems for the GM. As fans, we just want a winning baseball team.
It also needs to be said that the Jays had an enormous run of good fortune along the way. Almost everything that could go right, did. The starting staff, which was one of the worst in baseball for the first couple of months, suddenly was unstoppable. Obviously adding David Price helped, but he is only one guy, and the rest of them collectively got it done as well. Price himself pitched better than we had any right to expect. Sure, he’s an ace, but he was a .500 pitcher for the Tigers last year as a deadline acquisition, so there was no guarantee that he was going to come in and dominate the way that he did. We had good health for the most part, and when guys did get hurt, we had replacements come in and play well above expectations. Basically, we got all the breaks this year, and it was a wonderful ride.
Let’s contrast that with the first big splash AA made, in the winter of 2012. He pulled off a blockbuster deal with the Marlins, netting Josh Johnson, Mark Buerhle and Jose Reyes, three big talents, for parts and prospects. The deal had people questioning the league about its apparent one sidedness. He then traded for the reigning Cy Young award winner in RA Dickey and picked up a troubled but super talented hitter in Melky Cabrera. The Jays went from also-rans to World Series favourites practically overnight.
2013 was the opposite of late 2015 in many ways, in that everything that could go wrong, did. Our top two starters succumbed to injury and ineffectiveness. Melky tried to play through pain and had an off-year. The team just never managed to come together. In the end, the World Series favourites collapsed to a last place finish.
Somewhere along the way, I feel like Rogers ownership lost faith in AA. The Marlins trade increased their payroll significantly, but still left the team with huge holes. Those holes were even bigger by 2014, but the money had seemingly dried up. The logical assumption is that Rogers believed that the spending in 2012 would lead to more wins, and that wins would lead to more revenue. When that didn’t happen, the spending taps got shut off. I remember thinking that this team was like a house where they built a beautiful second floor but ran out of money for the stairway so you had no way to get to it. By the 2014 trade deadline, the Jays were leading the wild card spot. Fans and players alike were begging for action. AA stood pat and the team sputtered to another middling finish.
Why did AA act in 2015 and not 2014? The 2015 team was lower in the standings with a bigger hill to climb. However, there were some differences. The division in 2015 was weaker than 2014, leading to a potentially greater opportunity. The prospect pool was more advanced, so AA could deal the likes of Daniel Norris and Jeff Hoffman for value and still hold on to Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez (who were the likely cost of doing business in 2014). Also, the team in 2015 appeared to be better than its record, with underperformance and some bad luck that was expected to turn around over the course of a year. Still, there were plenty of reasons not to make the bold moves in 2015. It’s hard to justify the steep cost in prospect capital for a team that far out of the race. So, any way you look at it, the 2015 deadline deals were a big gamble.
Why the sudden shift in thinking? I believe it was because Alex knew he was leaving. I believe that these were the moves of a guy who knew there would be no next year for him. So, given the choice between doing nothing and leaving quietly, or gambling with someone else’s chips, he gambled.
Did the gamble pay off for the team? That depends on the goal of all of the dealing. If the goal was give Toronto some late season excitement, the moves paid immediate dividends. The Royals series in early August was one of the highlights of the season for me and many others. If the goal was to bring playoff baseball to Toronto, it succeeded as well. We got the comeback, the bat flip, and the unfortunate early ending with a tough loss to KC. The goal of a world championship was not met, but I would argue that no series of moves will ever guarantee that. However, AA’s often stated goal with every move he made was to have one eye on the present and one eye on the future. If this was a goal, then these moves were a failure. I will admit that from my standpoint, prospects are unknowns, and at some point, you need enough known quantities to win baseball games. Who knows how good guys like Hoffman and Norris (let alone the long list of lesser regarded prospects that were dealt) will turn out to be? It will be many years before we know the true cost of these trades, but there is no question that the deadline flurry cost the jays a lot of medium term potential, and cost them some short and mid-term flexibility.
The result of all the deadline dealing is that Alex was able to ride out of town as a hero. The challenge of sustaining a winning team with a depleted prospect pool is the next guy’s problem. I would wager that at no time in the history of baseball has a team gathered enough excitement that a group of fans would travel to a visiting stadium and start an audible chant thanking the general manager. This is without precedent. So, did the gamble pay off for Alex? Without question, it did. He guided a team he has been a lifelong fan of to the end of a long playoff drought. He had the team begging him to come back. He leaves as a conquering hero, riding off to an open ticket to the next job of his choosing. For AA, this could hardly have gone better.
There is an old saying that I love that says “timing has a lot to do with the outcome of a rain dance”. AA made two big gambles, one in 2012 and one three years later. If the first gamble had worked, I would wager that he would still be here today, having avoided the year or two of non-confidence and doubt that led to his departure. Had the trades of 2015 not worked, he would be gone, but the fans would have been relieved rather than shocked and saddened.
I am thankful for the excitement that Alex brought to this city. A lot of things fell into place to make this year’s run happen. The guys who were brought in energized the rest of the team, and collectively they outperformed all reasonable expectations. Price was made available at the last-minute and the Jays had the necessary pieces to win the bidding for him. Alex showed a willingness to pull the trigger that many had been waiting for. The fans responded in a big way and made the Dome the place to be again. The question that it all leaves for me is: was this all the carefully orchestrated work of a calculating genius, or was it simply the time for rain?