New Blue Jays GM has work cut out for himself in rugged AL East
Alex Anthopoulos, 32, replaced J.P. Ricciardi as the Blue Jays' GM this winter
One of his first moves was to trade Roy Halladay, but he got three top prospects
Anthopoulos knows Toronto needs to win at least 95 games to make the playoffs
Before you give Alex Anthopoulos a hard time, let's get one thing straight: Yes, he was on his Blackberry the night before his January wedding, and also the next morning, and from 5 to 7 a.m. every day on his honeymoon in Hawaii, and when his wife, Cristina, closed her eyes on the beach.
But ... "I put it away before the ceremony," Anthopoulos said.
Anthopoulos has no time to spare and no energy to waste. He is the new general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. He is trying to make the playoffs in a division with the free-spending (and smart-thinking) Yankees and Red Sox, the loaded Rays and the up-and-coming Orioles. This is like trying to strike out Albert Pujols when you're pitching from second base.
"It's had a major impact on how we go about doing things," said Anthopoulos, though he insists "we're not going to make excuses about the division."
Anthopoulos is a Montreal native and is only 32. He knows as well as anybody that the Jays haven't made the playoffs since 1993, and that the odds get longer every year. But where others see desert ahead, he sees a nice place for a lemonade stand. While others think a team from Canada can't possibly stand toe-to-toe with New York and Boston, he says "When I look at the market size, we're really drawing on a country."
Anthopoulos has worked for the Blue Jays since 2003, but since taking over for J.P. Ricciardi this winter, he has shifted the team's philosophy dramatically. He traded Roy Halladay, arguably the best pitcher in the game, to the Phillies for prospects Kyle Drabek, Brett Wallace and Travis D'Arnaud.
This week, Baseball America released its top 100 prospects. There were three Jays on it: Drabek, Wallace and D'Arnaud.
In Bill James's new Young Talent Inventory rankings, he ranks the Jays' young talent 22nd in baseball. Tampa Bay is first. The Red Sox are fifth. The Yankees are seventh. If I were a Blue Jays fan, I'd need a fifth.
But Anthopoulos grew up in the information age, when fans know a player's medical history and park-adjusted power numbers and WARP and whatever else they want to know. He thinks fans are smart enough to be patient, and to agree with him when he says the solution is not "throwing money at the problem."
Ricciardi was known mostly for saying nonsensical things in public, but in J.P.'s defense, his brain was probably scrambled from banging his head against a wall. He tried to win the arms race against the Yankees and Red Sox, and it was impossible.
Ricciardi figured there are two ways to beat the Yankees and Red Sox.
One way is to lead the league in sucking for several years in a row, then use your top-five draft picks wisely to build your farm system. This is what the Rays did, and it worked marvelously.
The other way is to bet on your own players, give them big contracts, try to make smart free-agent signings and hope everything falls into place. This is what the Jays did, and it didn't go so well.
Most of Ricciardi's teams managed to be just good enough to be irrelevant.
In 1998, Toronto won 88 games, which was all that Texas needed to win the AL West, and one game less than Cleveland needed to win the AL Central. The Blue Jays finished 26 games behind the Yankees. (And four behind the Red Sox for the wild card.)
In 2003, the Blue Jays won 86 games. That and a few thousand bucks could have gotten them front-row seats to the ALCS. between the Yankees and Red Sox.
In 2006, Toronto won 87 games. That was actually better than the Red Sox, but the Jays still finished 10 games behind the Yankees and six games out of the playoffs.
In 2008, the Jays scored 104 more runs than their opponents. That was the second-best run differential in the American League. And what did it get them? They won 86 games and finished fourth. Fourth!
Meanwhile, the Dodgers won the NL West with 84 wins. Attempts to hold a Blue Jays Second-Best Run Differential In the American League Ticker-Tape Parade never got off the ground.
This is not to say that Ricciardi was simply unlucky. He handed out some bad contracts and made some tactical mistakes. Ricciardi started his tenure with a relatively low payroll and a lot of it tied up in one player, Carlos Delgado. He figured he needed cheap major league talent, so he drafted a lot of college players. He got cheap major league talent, but not great major league talent.
Anthopoulos learned a lesson.
"The last 10 years you need at least 95 wins or more to get in the playoffs (in the AL East)," Anthopoulos said. "You better have some high-impact, high-ceiling guys on the diamond. You're looking at 95 as a minimum."
In order to get 95 wins at a minimum, you need to make sure most of your organization is operating at a maximum. In a sport where much of the talent comes from the Caribbean or Central America, it's always great for execs to speak two languages. Anthopoulos speaks three. Unfortunately, his other languages are French and Greek. That will come in handy if Anthopoulos tries to woo a Cuban defector by ordering a nice Cabernet or a spanakopita.
The good news is that Anthopoulos has learned some Spanish, too ("enough to get by," he said). Also, he would never buy a spanakopita for a prospect. It's too fattening.
Anthopoulos is pulling the Blue Jays away from baseball's longstanding eat-what-you-want culture. If you go into a baseball clubhouse, you will often find boxes and boxes of candy. Players compete every day on a sugar high.
Anthopoulos realizes that if the Blue Jays are going to go through the Yankees and the Red Sox, they can't stop at Krispy Kreme. On the road, the Blue Jays bring extra money so the clubhouse guys can get fruit and other healthy foods. Anthopoulos also hiked the daily meal money for minor leaguers from $20 to $25 so they could eat higher-quality foods. (Major League Baseball has since done the same.)
The Toronto Blue Jays will not be outeaten, outworked or out-e-mailed. That, though, is just the start. Anthopoulos said he is aiming for "a conveyor belt of talent." That's the only way to compete against the sport's most vaunted machines.
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