Alex Anthopoulos, Vernon Wells and Ancient Questions Answered in Toronto

Posted on January 25, 2011


Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos played unstoppable force to the immovable object that was outfielder Vernon Wells’ mammoth contract this weekend, swapping the long-time Jay to Los Angeles for Angels catcher Mike Napoli and outfielder Juan Rivera. Wells will make $86 million over the next four seasons, but Toronto sent no money to the Angels in order to get the deal done.

Anthopoulos is the archetypal heir to Theo Epstein’s throne, the wunderkind with an economics degree who views the game so critically as to seem almost cold. Just 14 months into his tenure as head honcho in Toronto, he has dealt away the franchise’s two cornerstone pieces from the first decade of the 2000s. Last December, he traded pitcher Roy Halladay to Philadelphia, and the second-youngest general manager in the game has gotten more and more aggressive since.

The Jays managed to post a respectable 85-77 record in the AL East last season. In fact, given their level of competition, that record is more than respectable, though it was only good enough for fourth place in the division. In order to take the next step, however, the Jays needed to achieve a greater degree of fiscal flexibility. Wells made $12.5 million in 2010, roughly one sixth of the Jays’ Opening Day payroll. Rather than be saddled with the $10.5 million raise Wells will receive in 2011, Anthopoulos traded for two players whose 2011 salaries cannot exceed $12 million themselves. Both players project as full-time players, too, so the Jays now have more money and fewer holes.

This was not a magic trick, nor did Anthopoulos pull the wool over the eyes of Angels GM Tony Reagins: LA needed to trade Napoli to make room for superb catching prospect Hank Conger, and Wells will man center field well in Los Angeles. Both teams got rid of players whom they either no longer needed or could no longer afford, and each got something they valued more highly in return. Still, Anthopoulos is clearly a brinksman, the kind of cavalier who could well return the once-proud Jays to prominence over the next few years—or drive them further into ruin. Let’s review his major acquisitions since taking control, to determine just how much intellect informs his aggression.

November 2009: Blue Jays sign SS Alex Gonzalez

Renowned as an excellent fielder with occasional pop, Gonzalez came to the Jays on a one-year deal worth $2.75 million. Gonzalez would play just 85 games in Toronto before being traded, but he hit 17 home runs and slugged .497 as a Blue Jay. Overall, it was the best offensive year of his career, and he played sparkling defense throughout. When erstwhile Blue Jay Marco Scutaro signed with Boston eight days later for $12.5 million over two years, the merits of the Gonzalez deal were confirmed.

December 2009: Two huge trades

It was in December 2009 that Anthopoulos traded Roy Halladay to Philadelphia for three highly-touted prospects, thereby establishing his reputation as an unabashed button-pusher. Halladay was set to become a free agent after the 2010 season, and Anthopoulos felt the former Cy Young award winner had reached his peak trade value.

In return for him, the Jays got elite pitching prospect Kyle Drabek, who made four starts in the big leagues in 2010 and should be in the Opening Day rotation this year; Michael Taylor, a 24-year-old outfielder who seemed on the cusp of the big leagues and hit for abundant power; and Travis d’Arnaud, a very young catcher who was and remains far from big-league ready. Anthopoulos traded Taylor soon thereafter for Oakland prospect Brett Wallace, whom he would later deal to Houston for Anthony Gose, an outfielder who will be just 21 in 2011 but may someday be a legitimate starting center fielder in the big leagues. Only Drabek was or is a known entity, so it is too early to break down this deal entirely, but it seems that Anthopoulos got roughly the expected balance of certainty and upside risk one might have expected in return for Halladay.

The other big deal came only a week later, when the Jays traded reliever Brandon League and a minor league outfielder to Seattle for another pitching Brandon, 2007 first-round pick Brandon Morrow. The Mariners had taken Morrow ahead of Tim Lincecum in that draft and felt he could be unhittable when right, but he struggled with control during his time in Seattle and big-league success evaded him.

Anthopoulos took a flier by snagging the enigmatic Morrow from a Mariners team that overestimated its ability to win in the short term, and the deal turned into gold during 2010: Morrow pitched arguably the best game of the season, a 17-strikeout one-hitter against Tampa Bay in August. Overall, he whiffed 178 batters in 146.1 innings and posted a 3.19 FIP for the season. No other starter struck out as high a percentage of their batters faced. He also lopped roughly 40 percent of his walk rate, his greatest source of difficulty during his time in Seattle. Morrow is now a fixture in the Blue Jays’ rotation going forward.

July 2010: Escobar arrives

By mid-season, of course, the Blue Jays were far from serious contention in the vicious AL East, and Anthopoulos saw an opportunity to trade present value for future upside. The Atlanta Braves, fed up with the infamous attitude of shortstop Yunel Escobar, were desperate to rid themselves of the Cuban defector. Escobar, however, is a tremendous fielder with the potential to hit as well as perhaps any shortstop in the American League, and thus, Anthopoulos stepped forward and volunteered to take on Escobar in exchange for Gonzalez.

Escobar was arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter and made $2.9 million. He is under team control for the next three seasons. Anthopoulos took a risk with this acquisition, but the potential reward is more than worth that risk investment.

November 2010: Rajai Davis deal sets a stage

Faced for the second consecutive off-season with a too-tight budget and a team ill-equipped to take on the behemoths of the AL East, Anthopoulos set his long-term plan in motion in mid-November. He acquired Rajai Davis from Oakland for a pair of minor leaguers, giving the team depth in center field and adding the first substantial speed element to the team. The full impact of this deal would not be felt for two months, but it gave Toronto flexibility and a new dimension in its offense.

December 2010: The Milwaukee trades

December saw two more key moves. First, the Blue Jays traded for Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Carlos Villanueva. Villanueva, who fanned 67 against 22 walks in 52.2 innings in relief for the Brewers in 2010, immediately helped shore a bullpen to which Anthopoulos clearly did not expect Kevin Gregg or Scott Downs to return.

Three days later, Toronto made a trade at which many were surprised, swapping Shaun Marcum (perhaps their 2010 ace) to Milwaukee for 20-year-old second baseman Brett Lawrie, a minor leaguer with a very high ceiling. Anthopoulos took heat for seeming to lay a chance to field a top-tier rotation on the altar of cost efficiency. It will be a bitter pill for Blue Jays fans to spend 2011 wishing desperately for a fifth starter yet again, but the procurement of Lawrie (not unimportantly, a Canadian) should soften that blow.

January 2011: Building a contender

After losing Gregg and Downs, Anthopoulos clearly was not entirely at ease with Villanueva and Jason Frasor at the back end of his bullpen. Therefore, he inked Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch to one-year deals this month, each with club options for 2012.

Obviously, it all led up to the Wells deal. Anthopoulos clearly believes his franchise can compete in 2011 and win outright in 2012 or beyond. Given that expectation, the flurry of trades and signings he has undertaken makes all the sense in the world.

Two more things make Anthopoulos’ first year at the helm interesting. One is environmental, and somewhat inevitable: The fan base exerts a constant mandate upon the team’s decision makers to maintain a roster that disproportionately represents their country. That helps explain the Marcum-for-Lawrie switch, although a number of other factors played into that choice.

The other is seemingly unique, and it is tough to determine who deserves the credit for it. Toronto has made a habit, since Anthopoulos assumed control, of acquiring players with well-known flaws, then turning those weaknesses into strengths overnight. Morrow discovered his command and emerged as a potential co-ace; Kevin Gregg gave up 13 home runs for the 2009 Cubs, then surrendered just four in 2010 with Toronto; and John Buck and Alex Gonzalez tapped into their power more effectively with the Jays in 2010 than ever before in their careers. It is possible the coaching staff under retired manager Cito Gaston worked some sort of tremendous magic with each player. It is also possible that Anthopoulos’ background in economics helps him or his staff identify players whose struggles are easily correctible or never existed to begin with.

In any event, Anthopoulos got a big win for the franchise Friday, and it could pave the way for the team to scale the heights in the AL East over the next few seasons. Their youth will serve them well as the Yankees and Red Sox inevitably age (they are each locked into contracts with players whose value figures to decline substantially over the next few years) and the Rays fight to achieve an adequate revenue stream to seriously and consistently contend. Clearly, should they ever appear ready to make a run toward the post-season near the trade deadline, they have the right man behind the big desk.