What Happened to the Ninja?

Part 1 – Alex the Great

During his first lap around baseball as the Blue Jays General Manager, Alex Anthopoulos succeeded with flying colours at both invigorating a disillusioned fanbase and earning himself a bevy of endearing monikers. He became a “genius”, a “god”, and a “ninja”, all within the span of one season and a couple of offseasons.

He was young, creative, energetic, bold, and progressive.

After taking over the helm in October 2009, his first order of business was to move the trade-demanding team Ace and icon of the franchise, Roy Halladay. Working with little leverage, Anthopoulos was able to land a package of top prospects from the Phillies. Kyle Drabek, Travis d’Arnaud, and Michael Taylor were all top 100 prospects at the time, according to Baseball America. Taylor was immediately flipped for the hefty kid with a sweet swing, former 13th overall draft pick Brett Wallace. It seemed like a good start to Alex’s tenure as GM.

His first stroke of “genius” came shortly thereafter. Just one week after completing the Halladay deal, Anthopoulos dealt Brandon League and a fringe prospect, Johermyn Chavez, to Seattle for Brandon Morrow. Morrow was the 5th overall pick by Seattle in 2006, but he’d been jerked around between the bullpen and rotation in Seattle and had fallen out of favour with the Mariners organization. He was coming to Toronto to start, and the “value in” for Toronto in this trade was substantial. When you have the opportunity to trade a non-dominant relief pitcher and little else for a young, cost controlled starting pitcher with two plus-plus pitches, you do it seven days a week and twice on Sunday. League would give the Mariners just 2.2 fWAR during his 2+ seasons in Seattle, while Morrow would provide Toronto with 3.6 wins in 2010 alone. It was a legitimate “fleecing” from AA, and the first of several.

The next would come in the midst of the 2010 season. Anthopoulos chose to sell high on the unsustainable power surge of stopgap shortstop Alex “Sea Bass” Gonzalez, packaging him with relief prospect Tim Collins and C+/B- infield prospect Tyler Pastornicky in order to acquire Yunel Escobar from Atlanta (along with future fan favourite, Jo-Jo Reyes).

AA sold high and bought low just like you’d expect someone with an Economics degree to do. He showed, yet again, that he understood the readily replaceable nature of relief pitching. He demonstrated a keen long term eye, essentially acquiring an above average, young, and controllable player at a premium defensive position for some spare parts and a loose end (a general formula that he would repeat one more time, a year down the road). The excellent moves would continue. Yes, “AA” was starting to look like a bit of a GM phenom.

Nothing highlighted the precocious side of Alex Anthopoulos more than his obsession with draft pick acquisition. From 2010 to 2012, the Blue Jays turned nine (mostly) mediocre major league players (Scutaro, Barajas, Downs, Buck, Gregg, Olivo, Francisco, Rauch, Molina) into eleven (mostly) promising prospects (Sanchez, Wojciechowski, Nicolino, Anderson, Musgrove, Smith Jr., Comer, Norris, Smoral, Nay, Gonzales). Anthopoulos took advantage of Major League Baseball’s free agent compensation system like perhaps no other GM. He let relievers walk categorically, again demonstrating that he know how readily replaceable they were. He acquired Miguel Olivo solely to buy him out, because he wanted the compensation pick. With remarkable quickness, AA transformed a Blue Jays farm system that was decidedly below average into one of the best in baseball.

The draft pick hoarding tied in with a philosophy that focused on toolsy, high upside athletes. Anthopoulos put together the largest assemblage of scouts in the business, was more active in the international market than Toronto had been in the past, and focused on young, exciting prospects. On the prospecting/farm system side of the coin, Anthopoulos was almost everything that the Blue Jays former GM, J.P. Ricciardi, wasn’t.

Ostensibly, Ricciardi fit right into Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: he wasn’t a big fan of scouting, he liked safer College players in the draft, etc. He put together decent teams that were never quite good enough, partly because his “progressive” Moneyball style philosophies had quickly become archaic. Today, most would recognize that numbers are essentially meaningless in amateur settings, or even in the very low minors. There, good scouting that looks at the right things holds the significance and importance that a modern sabermetrician might place on statistics at the MLB level. When the draft philosophy of Anthopoulos’ regime was observed in conjunction with all of the shrewd moves he was making at the major league level, it certainly seemed like he got it – like he was an evolutionary step forward from Ricciardi. In fact, the brightest point of AA’s heyday was probably his miraculous dumping of Ricciardi’s most infamous mistake.

In late January, 2011, a confused Tony Reagins, at the reported insistence of Angels owner Arte Moreno, called up the Blue Jays GM and offered to take Vernon Wells off his hands. The Vernon Wells contract, which many considered to be the worst contract in baseball at the time, was supposed to doom the Blue Jays financial situation until 2015. Wells, barely an average player anymore, was still owed nearly 90 million dollars of the $126 million committed to him by J.P. Ricciardi after the 2006 season, an amount that would all but cripple a mid-market team like Toronto. Yet Anthopoulos, in an apparent stroke of genius, was able to wriggle out of essentially the entire deal.  He would immediately reappropriate a portion of the funds into what would prove to be a team friendly contract extension for Jose Bautista.

Alex Anthopoulos, who at this point could do no wrong, had just done the impossible. He might as well have walked on water. The ninja wasn’t done there though.

Trading Wells had opened up a hole in the middle of the Blue Jays outfield. For half of the 2011 season, said hole was plugged with the likes of Rajai Davis and Corey Patterson, and the results were both statistically and optically unbearable. The Anthopoulos rumour mill had been swirling around Colby Rasmus in the meantime, as the young and toolsy CF clashed with Tony La Russa and fell out of favour in St. Louis. It was a logical connection given Anthopoulos’ penchant for buying low on young, core players, and the emergence of Jon Jay in St. Louis which afforded John Mozeliak the opportunity to deal Rasmus in order to reinforce his pitching starved Cardinals team for a playoff run. The inevitable happened in late July, 2011, and in true Ninja fashion, Anthopoulos was able to bring in Rasmus without sacrificing any single piece of substantial value. Out were three relievers (Frasor, Rzepcynski, Dotel), a flailing prospect (Zach Stewart) and Corey Patterson as a throw in. In was Colby Rasmus, the CF of the future, along with a handful of small negative assets (Mark Teahen + contract, Bruce Tallet, etc). St. Louis got the pitching they wanted (Edwin Jackson by way of the White Sox), and they would go on to win the World Series.

In jumping ship on Zach Stewart while he still had value, Anthopoulos replicated what he’d done with Brett Wallace the previous summer, when he sent Wallace to Houston for toolshed Anthony Gose. Walrus has flamed out hard in Houston, never hitting enough for his defensive profile thanks to some problematically wide hips and an inability to turn on inside pitches. Stewart would also bust, getting rocked in a couple of brief big league stints amidst getting traded, DFA’d, traded, and DFA’d again. AA would do it one more time before the 2012 season, selling high on a prospect (Nestor Molina) who would tumble in status almost immediately after leaving Toronto. Anthopoulos was selling on highly regarded prospects at just the right time – his army of scouts was apparently paying off. He had also buying them at just the right time.

Shortly before shedding the massive Wells contract, Anthopoulos had dealt the popular Shaun Marcum for a high upside AA position prospect without a true position, Brett Lawrie. Marcum only had two years of control left, and to sell your expensive, aging arms for controllable young position players is practically sabermetric dogma these days (see Tampa Bay, almost every offseason). Brett Lawrie would break out immediately for Toronto, abusing the hitter friendly PCL with an OPS North of 1.000 before energizing the fanbase with a brief 43 game Major League performance of nearly the same magnitude. He also found a home at third base, comfortably putting to bed all concerns that his hands were too “boxy” for the infield. Again, it was a big value win for Toronto. And again, it seemed to demonstrate something special going on in the Blue Jays front office – a unique blend of shrewd analytics, modern baseball thinking, classical scouting, and youthful energy.

AAAA

Morrow, Escobar, Lawrie, Wells, Rasmus. The drafts and investment in minor league talent.

These weren’t just good moves, they were excellent moves. Toronto unquestionably extracted value in every one of those five keynote trades. These events looked to be the early pillars of a potential dynasty.

Alex Anthopoulos knew when to buy and sell prospects, and when to buy low on players, thanks to his army of scouts. He knew that relief pitching was fickle and easily replaceable – he traded them liberally and he let relievers walk categorically for compensation picks. He knew how to think critically and exploit loopholes in the CBA. He sold starting pitching when it got old and expensive, and he looked for up the middle talent to build his team around. He wasn’t old school, yet he wasn’t Moneyball either. He was the best of both paradigms. Blue Jays fans considered him a baseball diety. He was seemingly as bright a baseball GM as any in the game, quickly earning his place amongst the likes of Friedman, Daniels, Beane, and Mozeliak.

So what happened to the Ninja? How has he changed since the Rasmus deal?

Part 2 – Alex the not so Great

Anthopoulos’ GM tenure to date has been dichotomous. Nearly everything he did up until and including the Rasmus trade was objectively excellent, and most of the things that he’s done since have been frustrating, terrible, or at least objectionable.

Herein follows a lengthy but not necessarily exhaustive catalog of Anthopoulos’ post-Rasmus errors and flaws.

The Happ Trade

What’s the point of gaming the CBA for compensation picks to build up your minor league depth if you’re just going to turn around and deal a boatload of said depth for the right to pay a backend starting pitcher 9 million dollars for two seasons of control? That was the question on a lot of minds after Anthopoulos traded Asher Wojciechowski, David Rollins, Joe Musgrove, Carlos Perez, and Kevin Comer for JA Happ and a couple months of Brandon Lyon at the 2012 deadline.

And that’s exactly what Happ is. He’s a below average, back end starting pitching. Take a glance at his fWAR season by season (-0.2, 0.4, 1.5, 0.9, 0.3, 1.7, 1.2) and you might mistake him for a relief pitcher. I suppose he’s a fine #5 and depth piece, but what’s the logic behind trading so many minor league assets for such a pitcher’s final two arbitration years when guys like Baker, Feldman, and Marcum were only commanding ~5 million on 1 year deals in the open market?

It was certainly a weird trade to see Anthopoulos make. You’d have been forgiven for calling him a “value whore” based on his previous trades, yet in this deal he seemed to sacrifice a lot of value in order to plug a short term need. The Blue Jays would finish 2012 with just 73 wins, and they weren’t particularly close to a playoff spot at the deadline. They should have been selling rental players like Brandon Lyon, not acquiring them. It was like AA was flushing assets down the proverbial toilet.

The jury is still out on all of the prospects that Anthopoulos gave up. None of them are currently blossoming or cracking top 100 lists. They could all flame out and the trade would end up as a long term non-factor. Anthopoulos’ past ability to jump ship on prospects at just the right time should be mentioned here, but so should the progressive, analytic, and forward thinking nature of Jeff Luhnow’s new Houston Astros front office. Maybe Anthopoulos and his army of scouts had identified fatal flaws in each one of these prospects before shipping them out, but even then, it would be awfully early to give up on guys that you spent supplemental round picks and bonus money on barely 12 months earlier (Musgrove and Comer).

The Happ trade was reactionary, short sighted, poorly timed, and a probable value loss. And above all, it was a weird trade to see the precocious young GM make… actually, it was the first of several.

The Marlins “Fleecing”

It was a trade that had the few remaining Marlins faithful calling for Jeffrey Loria’s head. For a package of some decent prospects and flawed young major leaguers, Anthopoulos acquired Reyes, Johnson, Buehrle, Bonifacio, and Buck – basically every Marlin worth rostering that wasn’t named “Giancarlo”. The deal was so apparently lopsided that Major League Baseball held a token investigation to appease the one fanbase in uproar. So this must have been like Anthopoulos’ past capers, where he walked away with a wheelbarrow of surplus value, right?

Unfortunately, no.

Reyes and Buehrle signed free agent contracts to play in Miami. Josh Johnson was in his final arbitration year, which typically means a near-market salary. If you were a Major League GM with ~40 million dollars in payroll space, would you trade a bunch of tangible young assets and depth pieces in order to acquire last year’s free agent contracts, or would you just, well, sign some free agents? Clearly, anyone in their right mind would rather keep the prospects and the organizational depth. However, it’s not necessarily that simple when you’re running Canada’s only Major League baseball team.

Attractive free agents tend to be apprehensive about signing north of the border. The most notable recent examples of this would be Carlos Beltran in 2012 and Anibal Sanchez in 2013, both of whom received and turned down competitive and lucrative offers to become Blue Jays, at least according to the rumour mill. But even if we grant Anthopoulos the fact that the trade route was the only way to bring in this type of talent, he can’t be excused for choosing to trade for free agent contracts. There really isn’t any reason why names like Escobar, Marisnick, Nicolino, and Hechavarria couldn’t have brought back younger talent with better contract situations. Getting talent that’s on the left side of the aging curve, and in sub-free agent fiscal situations, isn’t really too much to ask for when dealing so much young prospects and depth.

Jose Reyes was owed nearly 100 million dollars through 2017. He was not very likely to provide any surplus value on such a deal. The same went for Mark Buehrle relative to the 48 million he was owed through 2015. These two players, literally, are not assets, unless we’re factoring Reyes’ beaming smile into the equation. Yet Anthopoulos paid handsomely to bring them in. Josh Johnson, the other marquee player who came to Toronto in the deal, could have been considered a small asset at best. If he were to have simply repeated his 2012 production, Johnson would have been worth perhaps $10M more than the $13.75 million he was slated to be paid in 2013 (not including the value of a potential compensation pick). Obviously, in hindsight, the Johnson buy unfolded in a worst case scenario for Toronto. Even in context though, Johnson looked like a flawed asset. He was a power pitcher with a declining fastball that averaged 92.8mph in 2012, down by about two full ticks from his peak in 2009-2010. His production was also down, with his 2012 3.4 fWAR looking more like solid mid rotation production than the Ace level performances he gave to the Marlins in his age 25 and 26 seasons. If Anthopoulos thought he was buying someone with #1 upside at the time, he probably wasn’t.

Looking solely at 2013, Toronto received about 4.8 wins from the players acquired in the Marlins deal, at a 2013 cost of something like $27.75M. That’s a measly little surplus value of $5.37M, and the backloaded portions of Reyes and Buehrle’s contracts haven’t even kicked in yet, so the year-to-year outlook going forward is probably just as underwhelming.

Yunel Escobar alone had a 3.9 win season at a cost of just $5M. That’s a surplus value of 21.91 million dollars.

Woops.

Henderson Alvarez had a productive season in Miami, and ZiPS/Steamer now project him to be a league average pitcher. That’s about a full win better than JA Happ currently projects. Marisnick had an .840 OPS in the minor leagues and cracked MLB.com’s top 100 prospect list. Nicolino had a decent season and did the same. Anthony Desclafani also appeared to develop well in 2013. (Hech sucked).

This wasn’t a very fleecy fleecing.

reyes

Reliever Fetish

  • Napoli for Francisco
  • Aviles and Gomes for Rogers
  • Snider for Lincoln
  • Thames for Delabar
  • 4.5 Million for Francisco Cordero

Taken individually and in context, most of these transactions are defensible. Yet when examined together, they paint a disappointing picture – Alex Anthopoulos has an unhealthy affinity for relief pitching.

The one obvious win on this list would be the Thames-Delabar swap. Delabar is missing bats and providing value for Toronto, while Thames doesn’t even play baseball in North America anymore (although Anthopoulos didn’t realize Thames’ ineptitude before 2012, questionably giving him the starting LF gig. I guess the organization couldn’t resist one last chance to mess with Travis Snider).

The returns for Toronto on the Snider-Lincoln swap are immaterial; both players have been more or less replacement level since the deal (Snider is still with Pittsburgh and Lincoln has been turned into Eric Kratz and Rob Rasmussen). Returns on the Napoli-Francisco and Gomes/Aviles-Rogers swaps haven’t been good for Toronto, however, which is exactly what you open yourself up to when making a habit of dealing useful position players for volatile relief pitchers.

Francisco was a half decent reliever for one season in Toronto before turning into one of those compensation pick things, while Napoli provided the Rangers with eighteen times as much on field production across two seasons of control, the first of which was a nearly unbelievable, 5.4 WAR, star level power year. Napoli’s breakout wasn’t predictable, nor did the 2011 Blue Jays necessarily have a roster spot open for him after receiving him as essentially a throw in during the Vernon Wells contract dump, so it’s probably not fair to skewer AA for missing out on Napoli while running with JPA behind the dish and Lind at first base. Some minor criticism is definitely warranted, though: Napoli was a consistent 2+ win player in limited playing time for the Angels, and the Blue Jays were planning on rolling with a rookie catcher the following season and a first baseman that was coming off of a -1.0 WAR season. In context, Napoli would’ve been a pretty solid depth piece for Toronto to keep.

The Gomes/Aviles for Esmil Rogers deal is easier to criticize in context, considering the pre-2013 Blue Jays infield situation. Aviles can play either position up the middle, and the Blue Jays had questions at both heading into 2013. They had nobody whatsoever under control at second, and their shortstop depth chart started with a guy that everyone figured would be shipped out of town at the earliest opportunity (Escobar) and ended with a player that couldn’t even hit minor league pitching (Hech!). There was reason to keep Aviles, who had just had a nearly league average season in Boston, for the time being. But Anthopoulos flipped him for another reliever, Esmil Rogers, who ended up being a fairly underwhelming swingman for Toronto. The Blue Jays chose to start 2013 with the infamously injury prone Jose Reyes as their only viable shortstop on the roster. They also bled runs at second base nearly all season long, with Izturis and Bonifacio combining to put up a somewhat remarkable negative 2.5 fWAR for Toronto, demonstrating why they had never really been full time players with their past organizations (save for Bonifacio in 2011). In hindsight and in context, it’s not hard to envision Mike Aviles providing some stability up the middle for the unfortunate 2013 Blue Jays. Similarly, it’s depressingly easy to imagine Yan Gomes as an extremely useful piece for Toronto to currently have in the organizational fold.

Gomes was a stud for the Indians last year. He combined a 131 wRC+ with well above average defense to give Cleveland almost 4 fWAR in little more than half a season. As with Napoli, the offensive outbreak probably wasn’t foreseen by anybody – Gomes’ peripherals in the minor leagues never seemed to indicate that he’d transition to the big leagues so well. But how did Anthopoulos’ “army” of scouts completely whiff on Gomes’ defensive skill set? More importantly, why was the 25 year old Yan Gomes given up on so that Toronto could cover the three defensive positions Gomes alone can insure (C/3B/1B) with a pair of ~40 year olds? (I’m well aware of the answer, Mark DeRosa brought vetrin presents and Henry Blanco was supposed to be some kind of mythical knuckleball caresser). All told, Anthopoulos’ Blue Jays would get 0.4 fWAR out of Esmil for the league minimum, while Cleveland would pay about $4M combined to Aviles and Gomes for 4 wins. That’s a profit of around $21.3 million for Cleveland in 2013.

The Francisco Cordero signing might actually be the most indicting of the five examples here. Despite a 2.45 ERA and 37 saves, Cordero wasn’t a good pitcher for Cincinnati in 2011, his age 36 season. The veteran showed markedly reduced velocity to go with a bottomed out K rate and defensive independent pitching metrics above 4.00. When guys his age lose it, generally speaking, it’s gone for good. Yet Anthopoulos signed him for a high leverage bullpen role, and then allowed him to throw 34.1 horrendous innings for the Blue Jays before shipping him off to Houston as a throw-in in the JA Happ deal. It was a puzzling signing at the time, with the only possible explanations being ERA, saves, and veteran presence. Surely AA the wunderkind wasn’t making signings based off stuff like that, right?

Taken in totality, this list of moves illustrates a somewhat troubling tendency that the young Toronto GM has. Alex Anthopoulos habitually pays too much for relief pitching, while simultaneously being unable to identify what makes a good relief acquisition (admittedly a hard thing to do for anybody, given the volatility of such players). It’s certainly not a trait that most forward thinking GM’s would exhibit, and it’s in stark contrast to how Anthopoulos operated during the first two years of his reign, when he would throw relievers around without thinking twice.

The Dickey Trade

I don’t feel like it’s fair to criticize Anthopoulos for making the RA Dickey trade. d’Arnaud and Syngergaard kind of seemed like an overpay at the time, at least to some degree, sure, but Dickey was coming off of a 6.2 RA9-WAR Cy Young season, knuckleballers have traditionally aged very well, and AA was able to get him to agree to a pretty team friendly contract extension as part of the deal. At the time, it was completely possible to perturb the projection and prospect value numbers in some fashion in order to make the trade look like something of a fair swap (and I probably did this at the time in one setting or another). There’s also something to be said for an optical contender overpaying a little bit in order to get a durable Ace.

In hindsight, however, this trade appears to shed a rather negative light on the talent evaluation skills of Anthopoulos and his army of scouts. Noah Syndergaard, six feet six inches of flamethrowing Texan, was neck-and-neck with Aaron Sanchez for top pitching prospect in the Blue Jays organization at the time of the trade. AA kept the latter, but it’s Syndergaard who really broke out in 2013, and he’s now unanimously the more highly regarded of the two. In part #1 of this self-indulgent diatribe, I outlined how adept “Alex the Great” was at selling high on flawed prospects. Syndergaard looks like a real chink in that armor, unfortunately, and so do a couple of the prospect pieces that Anthopoulos dealt in the Marlins deal.

Travis d’Arnaud did not break out in 2013 – he struggled with injuries yet again – but the Blue Jays still look rather foolish for trading him. At the time of the trade d’Arnaud was in the conversation for the best catching prospect in baseball. By trading him, Toronto was showing faith in the long term efficacy of JP Arencibia, and…. well, I suppose you can carry this line of reasoning out to its logical conclusion on your own.

Intangible Obsession

Francisco Cordero, Omar Vizquel, Mark DeRosa, and Henry Blanco – what do these players have in common?  Wasted money and wasted roster spots on old, broken, no longer talented players who don’t contribute on the field anymore. Each of these players was signed and rostered mainly for the sake of veteran leadership, clubhouse chemistry, closer role experience, and so on. The only attractive things about Cordero coming off his 2011 season were ERA and career save numbers. Nothing about his peripherals (velocity, DIPS, etc.) would have predicted a “good” 2012 for the veteran reliever. Vizquel was a 45 year old coming off of a 58 wRC+, so his only selling point was probably his experience. DeRosa had homered once since 2009, and the Jays pulled him out of retirement because he was the best butt tapper on the market. Henry Blanco was signed because RA Dickey said Blanco could catch a knuckleball. Blanco was a catcher on the wrong side of 40, coming off of replacement level play. It’s no wonder that he only lasted a month or so.

All told, these four intangible based signings put up a combined -1.1 fWAR in the season before Anthopoulos signed them. During the next year, they produced a combined -1.9 fWAR.

And then they all retired.

But not before Cordero and Blanco would fail to even finish the season in Toronto. And not before Vizquel would clash with the Blue Jays coaching staff. And not before DeRosa would butt-tap the Blue Jays to such good clubhouse chemistry that they would go from preseason odds on World Series favourites to a 74-win last placed team.

There’s also the (mis)handling of Yunel Escobar – a relatively massive positive asset that was essentially GIVEN away because of the homophobic eye black slur incident. The phrase that Escobar scribbled on his eye black, “Tu Es Maricon”, means something between “You’re a faggot” and “You’re a sissy/pussy”, depending on who you ask (specifics of the Spanish, such as context and region, seem to matter). Regardless, the incident could have been managed in Toronto. Escobar could have been PR’d into a redemption story if the team really wanted. But no, the same intangibles that got him sold by Atlanta for pennies on the dollar convinced Toronto to punt him and all of his attached value. Predictably, the number crunching Rays scooped him up and he did some really good baseball stuff for them.

Roster Mismanagement

Anthopoulos’ obsession with intangibles in 2012 and 2013 resulted in the signings of players like Vizquel and DeRosa, bench spots utilized on players from which the team can reasonably expect to receive zero (or less) wins. In an era where shrewd teams are milking added wins out of platoons, defensive specialists, shifts, and robust roster construction, both Vizquel and DeRosa serve as notable examples of roster mismanagement by AA. This is another recent fault that has crept into the GM’s repertoire.

Last season Anthopoulos called up Sean Nolin, who got hammered in his first big league chance and subsequently demoted. It was a mind boggling way for the organization to handle a legitimate prospect like Nolin. Did they really deem Nolin major league ready and then change their minds based on 1.1 innings?  In a lost season, it was absolutely a wasted option year for Nolin, thanks to borderline egregious roster mismanagement by Anthopoulos.

Also in 2013, the Blue Jays started the year with Jose Reyes at shortstop and no viable backup SS on the roster. It seems (and seemed) completely nonsensical. Maybe they thought Izturis could cover SS, but even if that is the case, that would be a pretty big indictment on the organization’s pro scouting and talent evaluation skills, since Izturis arguably didn’t even seem to play a passable defensive 2B on turf.

In 2012, we can look at Eric Thames. The Blue Jays gifted him a starting left field job out of the gate, and then when he didn’t perform, they traded him for a reliever mid-season. Ostensibly, the team went into 2012 with a left fielder that they didn’t even believe in. Either that or they lost faith in Thames remarkably quickly. And starting the year with gaping holes in the starting nine position players is no rare thing for the studs and duds rosters of the Anthopoulos era Blue Jays.

In 2013 Toronto began the year with two bench-quality players (Izturis and Bonifacio) fighting for playing time at 2B, a player behind the dish who seemed more likely to provide replacement level production that league average play, and a DH who had been worth -0.9 wins in the last three seasons combined. Lind would surprise many in 2013 by simply not sucking, but the other two starting nine spots would predictably crumble. It was a lot of highly questionable roster spots for a competitive team to head into a season with, and 2014 doesn’t look that much different. Second base doesn’t look much better than it did last year, unless you think Ryan Goins is the best defensive infielder to ever play for Toronto. At catcher, the Blue Jays are banking heavily on the sustainability of Dioner Navarro’s 2013 offense (performed in a 266 PA sample). At DH, Anthopoulos seems fairly content to run with Moises Sierra as Lind’s platoon partner (Sierra had a .309 OBP in AAA last season and he provides little to no defensive utility as a strong armed clunker in the outfield). There’s also Melky Cabrera getting penciled into the LF spot with little competition in sight, despite having put up a lower than replacement level season last year, albeit with a freak injury playing a factor.

A lot of the blame for Toronto’s collapse in 2013 has gone towards the injury bug, but when you waste 25 man roster spots on clubhouse-only contributors and start the season with multiple quagmires in your starting nine position players, it’s hard to blame Lady Fortuna when your team can’t stand the test of a 162 game season. Volatility hits every baseball team, some more than others, but a robust roster construction can go a long way in fending off the assaults from unpredictable injuries and random underperformance. By mismanaging his rosters and putting forth thin, fragile 25 man teams, Anthopoulos only has himself to blame for the crumbling team that we witnessed in 2013.

Handicapped Drafting

Under AA, the Blue Jays have skewed their drafts heavily towards high school pitching. College players tend to be safer bets to develop into big leaguers compared to high schoolers, and pitchers fail at a tangibly higher rate than position players (higher risk of injury). By taking mostly high school arms, AA and friends are compounding risk on top of more risk. In the long term, this type of draft strategy is very likely far from optimal.

Sure, the team has hit on guys like Sanchez and Syndergaard, and some evaluators like BP’s Jason Parks are in love with the Jays’ collection of high upside low minors arms, but by the simple nature of what they are, a good portion of those high upside arms will turn into dust and become non-assets.  The system as currently constructed also suffers from an alarming lack of position player depth, especially in the upper minors, after shipping out d’Arnaud and Marisnick. Carrying the hitting load for the Blue Jays system would be guys like DJ Davis (19, rookie ball), Mitch Nay (20, rookie ball), Franklin Barreto (17, rookie ball). And with AJ Jimenez regarded as a defensive specialist and likely backup catcher, there is essentially nobody on the farm horizon who could help on the offensive side of the ball any time soon.

In addition to that, AA and his draft team have whiffed on higher first round picks at a frustrating rate. The “safe” low-upside pick Deck McGuire has turned into nothing but in org guy. In 2011, Tyler Beede did not sign with Toronto after holding out for $1M more than the Jays were willing to offer (Beede is now consistently ranked as a top 5 pick for upcoming draft, and he should be able to get more than the $3.5M he was looking for three years ago). Last year, 10th overall pick Phil Bickford spurned the Jays as well. The Beede and Bickford non-signings aren’t necessarily disasters because the team received compensation picks, but it’s still a lost year of prospect development, which does matter.

With picks 9 and 11 in this summer’s draft, it wouldn’t exactly be surprising to see Anthopoulos pick a couple of high school arms, and then fail to ink one of them.

Alex the Enigma

To say that Alex Anthopoulos’ GM tenure to date has been a roller coaster ride wouldn’t be a perfect illustration, unless that coaster starts up high and contains just one sharp plunge at the midway point.

Maybe Drop Zone would be a more appropriate metaphor.

Like a prospect that breaks into the league with a bang but then gets “figured out” by his opponents, AA made all the right moves at the start and looked like a management phenom, but he’s whiffed on a large number of his decisions and transactions in the past two years and he’s failed to live up to the early hype.

Perhaps there’s a baseball motif at play here: the small sample size. It’s possible that Alex was simply never as good at being a GM as he first appeared to be, and heading into his fifth season at the helm, his flaws are finally showing through the noise.

Or maybe the bright young executive is still in there somewhere, and a combination of luck and outside circumstances have thrown a wet blanket over his recent set of maneuvers. Big splash moves like the Marlins trade and the Dickey swap, as well as the overall push towards contention and moving up of the organizational timeline, could have come from above. If Beeston and PaPa Rogers were leaning on AA to take the team in a certain direction, to increase payroll by X amount before a certain point in time, to field a freshly branded competitor in those crisp new blue and white uniforms, well then that could certainly be muddying the recent waters when we try to analyze the executive talent running the Toronto Blue Jays.

Blue Jays fans can hope that the latter effect is at play here, and The Ninja still his all of his ninja skills lying latent within that increasingly rotund body, but if projection systems existed for General Managers they’d certainly be weighing AA’s more recent bad transactions more heavily than his relatively distant awesome maneuvers.

At this point, what to expect going forward from the enigmatic Anthopoulos is anybody’s guess.

2014 CC (Chris Carruthers) Player Projections
AA 2014 To Do list: Upgrade SP

Author: Nikolai Ballevski

Nikolai Ballevski moved to Toronto at a very young age to live with his aunt, after his parents were suddenly imprisoned for unknown reasons immediately following the attempted and failed 1991 coup d'etat of Gorbachev by the KGB. Nikolai fell in love with baseball during the players strike of 1994, and became a fan of the Blue Jays when they signed Otis Nixon prior to the 1996 season. Follow Nik on twitter @NikBallevski

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8 Comments

  1. great article Nkolai ! … very balanced and “eye-opening” to say the least. Thanks

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  2. Great read.
    Excellent description. A totally radical change.
    The ninja is gone!!

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  3. I hope you’re getting paid for this caliber of writing. Excellent piece again.

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  4. Good summary. But how can Aaron Hill trade and subsequent mismanagement of Kelly Johnson be ignored here?

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    • Thanks for the props, 5 guys.

      On the Hill trade, I see it as a fairly even swap in context that just totally did not work out for Toronto. And I love Aaron Hill, he was my favourite Blue Jays, but he was a sack of hot garbage for two straight seasons in Toronto. He was a tough statistical case to interpret and I don’t really blame AA for being wrong about him.

      And on the tangent of stuff that could have been included here, there were some other things I would have liked to touch on but at ~6000 words already, I just couldn’t talk about everything. It’s already so long as is that the majority of readers probably give up half way!

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  5. On point as always. I still think there is an entire systemic issue with the org as well though.

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  6. Great article. AA’s obsession with back-end/swing-man/relievers and mediocre veterans is killing me and as time passes, even his earlier dealings look worse. I’m basically at the point where I don’t see why he or anyone else in the front office should remain employed. He’s done very little to make the team any better.

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