Griffin: Q&A with Alex Anthopoulos
The Star spoke with Blue Jays' GM Alex Anthopoulos in his office at spring training, as he enters his third season as a major-league GM. The Jays went from 85 to 81 wins but have more talent at this camp -- no Jo-Jo Reyes vying for a spot. The true strength of this organization is a year or two away, so how do the Jays plan on competing in the meantime and how do changes in the CBA affect their future.
Richard Griffin: Entering your third season as GM, you came in with your style of gathering information, of finding out as much about what every team needs in advance. Having that information with you when you make future calls, even with forming three-way deals. Have other GMs made adjustments to your style and do you need to make adjustments back, like players do?
Alex Anthopoulos: I don't know that...I know it's adjustments, but it's relationships, right? To me it's two years into the job. Hopefully I've built relationships, greater relationships, stronger relationships. The 29 other GMs are the guys that I've got to work with, right. I've always said, the trade avenue is an important one for us. We haven't been big into free agency, so scouting, development and trades are going to be a big part of it. I don't think there's a style. You know, my style when you talk trades with GMs, it's not...I think some people talk about, you think about making trades and it's like fantasy sports. I never try to sell or convince anyone of anything. Everyone has their own scouting departments. Everyone has their own reports. Everyone has their own analysis. I think it's more just frank, candid conversations...this what I'm going to do, this is what you're willing to do. It's not up to me to tell you what I think about it. I think it's a slap in the face for me to even dare try to do something like that because obviously it's not an objective viewpoint. In the same way, if someone's trying to convince me, it's not objective as well. I don't think it's a style thing. You become more comfortable with the people that you deal with and you know what everyone's plan is and what they look to do.
RG: Just specifically this winter and as a follow-up to what we're talking about, I believe part of what you like to do is sort of set up parameters of “We're interested in this guy,” and then work on specific names they can have, later. With some starting pitchers that were available this winter, does that sometimes work against you where a team might have jumped in if there was specific names from another team out there before you had a chance to finish your talks. Do you know what I'm saying?
RG: Or do you make that adustment and start offering names from now on, moving forward?
AA : I don't think it comes down to that. I think of all the guys that were traded, we had an opportunity to acquire all of them except one. The one we didn't have the opportunity to acquire strictly because we didn't have the right fit in terms of now players. There was a lot of deals where we could strip the big-league club and it was robbing Peter to pay Paul. Get a good player, but we'd lose another good player, so the strength of the team is in the same spot.
But this winter we had the ability to say yes to a lot of deals for some of the other guys that were traded. Just for us – and it's not a knock against asking prices that were out there – it didn't make sense for us. It was a comfortable “No”. It just didn't make sense for us. We just didn't believe in that deal.
There was one deal, it was never a matter of us saying no. It was a matter of -- and the GM had told me this at the time – we had a lot of very good players available, but there was something very specific that they looked for. They needed players that were going to be on the big-league roster right away. So that was an easy one too. It wasn't even a matter that we weren't in line, that we weren't in a position to go at a player and strip three players. We were going to strip three minor-league players or four or five minor-league players, sure. But it never got to that point, so once you're not a clear-cut fit, no matter what we were offering from the minor leagues – and the only way we were going to be able to get back in was if that other team dropped out.
RG : When you talk about now players are you going to have more now players next winter, because all your young players were pretty much a year or two off? Are you going to have more now players, is that part of what is going to change things next winter and give you more trade opportunities?
AA: Sure, I would hope so. I would think as the minor-leagues get better, everybody talks we've got great prospects. They're exactly that though, they're prospects. But they're a year closer and you look at that group that was in New Hampsire arguably they're two steps away. Now they get to graduate to Las Vegas and hopefully they get to Toronto at some point. So, now all of a sudden you do have players that can go to the big leagues right away. Again, with some teams, they were fine with taking prospects and they gave us a price and we knew about it and it wasn't going to work for us or we decided to say no. Then there's just one other scenario with one player and it wasn;'t a case that we didn't have more talent, it's that team wasn't in a position to wait a year or two for these guys to pan out.
It would be almost like when we traded Roy Halladay. We could have gotten players that could have come into the big leagues right away or be a year away. It was a few deals on the table that we had talked about that could have happened, but for us, where we were and what we were trying to time it for, we didn't mind taking guys that were 3-4 years away, because they were going to fit more from a philosophical standpoint.
RG: You talked about the difficulty that you had even afterwards in coming to grips with trading Nestor Molina. Did you realize at some point this winter that maybe Brett Lawrie was as close to an untouchable moving forward as you had.
AA: I guess I don't look at it that way from a roster standpoint. I always say that you're open-minded to any player off the team. It's not that certain players are judged by how important they are to your club, so you value them and make them almost untradeable. I just don't believe there's any untradeable players, because what if somebody's going to knock your door down. That rarely if ever happens, because that probably means it's a win-trade for you and you're never going to get that deal. But there's players -- we don't have any players on this team with a no-trade clause -- but there's a lot of players that have been here for a while and are probably going to be here for a long time because of their importance and their value to us, to what we're doing. We always talk about timing and where the timing is with this club. It makes it harder to trade them. It makes them virtually untradeable, but on a one in one-million chance you get a knock-em-out deal you have to consider it.
RG: Is it harder from the outside to read this organization because of the Vegas Factor where some of your younger starting pitchers you maybe don't want to move up there before their full double-A season's over. Does that make it harder to gauge where prospects are in this organization, specifically.
AA: From our standpoint...
RG: No, from an outside standpoint.
AA: You know what, I understand the question. It makes sense to ask it. I don't know that it does, because if you're a position player you're going to go in and scout and you're going to scout tools. There's no question from a performance standpoint you might say, okay, batting averages, things like that and from an ERA standpoint, but if you're looking at tools for a position player, swings, and you're looking at stuff – I mean, I don't think Henderson Alvarez, if he's in Las Vegas or New Hampshire, any scout's going to go in and see his sinker and velocity and athleticism and strike-thowing ability, no matter where he's at. And whether it's Kyle Drabek as well. His stuff was still the same in Las Vegas, his command just wasn't there. If Kyle's throwing strikes, he's going to get a lot more outs. So, it's not as clean, it's not as easy, but I don't know that it impacts things a whole lot. I mean Arencibia's winning the MVP in Las Vegas. He had 30 home runs in New Hampshire two years earlier and he was a first round pick with huge power. It didn't matter what park he's in, people know he has power.
RG: But just a follow-up on that question, does it impact a kid like David Cooper who wins a batting title and people are talking about other minor-league first basemen far more than they're talking about him in terms of Baseball America prospects and that sort of thing.
AA: Yeah, I don't know and, you know what, I think that last year, because David the year before in New Hampshire didn't have a great year. In the second half of the season, I remember Jon Lalonde was in there scouting, he was Jon Lalonde's draft pick, and David asked to see his draft tapes. Jon got his draft tapes sent down to New Hampshire and David went back to his college swing, college setup and in the second half of the season, the numbers were not unbelievable, but he led the team in hard-hit balls, just lineouts and so and so. Then he came to spring training last year and had a great spring training. He hit the cover off the ball. There was a fundamental change, so the fact that David hasn't gotten the hype is because the performance part, prior to last year hadn't been there. So I think now you're going to see David come on the map a little bit more because he's had the success. The first two-week callup, and he even said, was a little bit deer in the headlights. But in September, he had an outstanding month. He had close to a .900 OPS, he hit the ball on the screws and he's having another grerat spring as well. So he hasn't gotten the accolades because his career was a bit of a slow start, but I think now you're going to start to see his name float around.
RG: In May of '09 when you were an AGM, we talked and you spoke about Canadian farm teams and you couldn't understand why there weren't more teams with Canadian affiliates. You got Vancouver, but it sounded at the time like you were interested in more than one. Are you still interested in more.
AA: The problem is we don't own our affiliates. So, from a Canadian baseball perspective it's great, it's great for the game. I don't see why with all these small towns in the United States have teams, with so many Canadian cities that should be able to support baseball. I wasn't around or wasn't as involved in the game to understand why those other markets failed – whether it was Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, what have you. St. Catharines, Medicine Hat, I mean there was a lot of them, then all of a sudden, they vanished. Even Vancouver had to go down to a short-season club. Something changed, but I wasn't around. I think the more success that the big-league club has it's going to help in terms of the popularity of the sport. Would I love to see there be more Canadian minor-league affiliates, sure, but that means leagues have to be willing to go in there and there are certain stumbling blocks and you need to have ownership and stadium and then help from everybody else involved. Of course I'd rather see minor-league affiliates here, but there's so many steps to go over. If it was a matter of we owned all our affiliates fine, but it does not work that way.
RG: Would you rate Vancouver a huge success?
AA: Huge is an understatement. I don't know that we could have dreamed of the atmosphere. I didn't get to go until the end, but all our scouts that went through there said what an unbelievable...I think opening night the word was electric, in terms of the atmosphere. And the fan base and the excitement, the people that were there that run the place, Jay Kerr, Jeff Mooney, Andy Dunn, they do an unbelievable job of sellouts, yet in an environment that I would tell everybody they should experience it once. It's that much fun.
RG: In terms of free agents, I talked to Jose Bautista and he said he was not even aware there was a team policy of nothing beyond five years, that he was happy with the length of the deal he signed and wasn't even thinking about length. But has years now, for this organization, become more of an impediment than money?
AA: It hasn't come up yet, I mean it hasn't become an issue. It hasn't been where we were right there with a free agent and our policy became a stumbling block. So right now it hasn't become an issue yet. Even with Jose's deal, our first choice, length is always a concern.
You know Paul's had a long-standing belief that length is the thing he's most concerned about and I understand. He talked to me about it over and over again, just the fact that when they ran things, him and Pat, how the team would make mistakes with long-term, more years. Guys get hurt, guys don't perform. He would always rather go shorter, so five's as far as he would go. Even when we did Romero's deal, we did the five but again that took a little bit of time to end up getting through that. So it hasn't come up yet. There hasn't been a free-agent deal that's come up where we wanted to do more than five years and policy came into play, We just haven't been in the market for free agents that have signed for more than five years. Free agents, not guys under club control. With all due respect to the clubs and the players, it's probably not something that's going to fit for us.
RG: Imagination is a word that you like to use a lot in terms of the rules and all sorts of ways of dealing with the way the game is regulated. Now, with Jose for instance, if Jose hit another 45 home runs and this team was not moving forward...we don't even need that part. But, just if he had another big year and it looks right now like he's one of the biggest bargains in baseball, is there a creative thing where you could extend from the end of his current contract and make that new deal reach to five more years, as in effect you would have lengthened that original deal to eight.
AA: I guess there's always ways to look at things...
RG: But are you always looking for imaginative solutions?
AA: I think I know when I was discussing Romero's extenson with Paul, he was strong on three years if he pitched, five years for position player. Part of the hurdle was being able to get over the fact that it was five years for Romero was that two of those years were zero to three years, minimim salary years, so it wasn't like free-agent years. He wasn't even in salary arbitration yet. So, yes it was five years and I was kind of the way that we settled our...we debated for months and that's the way we found common ground and Paul finally gave the go-ahead. It took a long time and the term was the problem there, because Paul wanted to keep it a lot shorter. From that standpoint, I don't ever want to say never, have absolutes, put lines in the sand and box yourself in, but there's a reason we have things in place . It's probably to police ourselves from ourselves.
RG: We've asked this before, but when Rogers got involved, negotiating for MLSE – and that was before the winter meetings and then they announced it right after – was there a change in what you guys were going to do until that whole Maple Leaf situation was...
AA: I didn't know anything about it. That Maple Leaf thing, I found out about it the morning it was announced and that's fine. It's not my area. I'm worried about the baseball operations, the baseball team and that's a million steps removed from what head office is doing, so...
RG: Did you think back and go, “Oh that explains that.”
AA: No. I mean communications is always good. I deal with Paul 99.9-percent of the time. That's the person I deal with. Obviously he deals with ownership. Sure there's times I deal with Keith Pelley. There's times I deal Nadir Mohamed. But Paul is the point-man for me and the one that I bounce ideas off of. Our offices are right beside each other and the fact that we could just deal, we could just interact, but he always knows what my thought process is and so on. I know there was a lot of talk in the off-season about payroll and things like that. I just felt like, I always talk about our fans being able to think along with us.
It's not our fans agreeing with us, because that's not going to happen, no matter who's doing the job, but I just want them, as we make transactions, as we do things, to say, 'Okay, I understand why. I may not agree, but I understand why and at least there's a consistency in terms of the plan. At least there's a consistency in terms of what we're being told the club is goung to do.'
That was why I felt that things had spun so far out of control with respect to the national media, both in the United States and Canada, the MLB Network at the winter meetings saying the Blue Jays are going to go crazy. We're going to ramp up the payroll, $80 million above. It was just completely fabricated and obviously I don't come out and talk about everything every day, for obvious reasons, for me just to be able to do our work. But there are times where I come out and say things. There are times when I don't talk about rumours and speculation, but like the man in white last year, there's things that are that prevalent, that out there, where I have to step out and say something. I have to address it, so , it's not that black and white where you don't ever speak. There's times I did need to address things to set the record straight and that's all it was.
RG: Have you asked Sergio Santos about the man in white. He was in that Sox bullpen.
AA: No. It's so...here's what I will say. I let my emotions take over because I was so irritated and so blown away by what a ridiculous story it was. My one regret was my comment at the start, my opening statement of 'This is stupid.' That's not me. But it's like you're sitting with your buddies and ...it's just ridiculous. I heard about it and I figured, ah, whatever. It is what it is, but all of a sudden it's getting all this attention. I said are you kidding me. This is getting all this attention. This is getting that much play.
RG: I know you like to make up your own mind about people, but there seems to be an organizational , sort of a negative vibe towards Scott Boras clients. Is that something you've inherited. There's never any issue of a Scott Boras guy coming here.
AA: There's no negative view. I mean we drafted James Paxton two years ago. Scott Schoenweis was here. Scott Boras client. We've had a bunch of minor-league free agents. Josh Banks was here, Guillermo Quiroz. We don't look at it and say, okay, Scott Boras client. We look at the players based on talent and ability. So, again, some years we have a lot of clients from a certain agent, other years it changes. We had a lot of, back in the day when Paul was here, there happened to be a lot of Hendricks Brothers clients. Obviously that can change over time. The thing is players change agencies so much. Let's say in the two years that I've been as GM, players hire and fire agents, it seems like every six months, so there's no way to track that.
RG: Just one more on free agency. You and Tony LaCava flew to Japan and sat in the stands. Don Nomura signed Dice-K for five years. Was a turning point for Yu Darvish when six years was on the table or is it a fact that in advance nobody knew that this guy wanted six years?
AA: It was a secret negotiation, but I'm sure there was a scenario where someone would have preferred five years but I can also see the argument for six because of the money that they've had to put up front for the posting. I think any player will tell you the shorter the term the more money on the table, depending on age and things like that.
RG: How do the new rules change your approach to international free agency, the draft and in-season trades where you may have had a guy who was compensation worthy? Those were three areas that you used nicely, but the rules have changed.
AA : The international signings you have to be more selective, when you only have a certain amount of money to deal with. I guess you can go over but it's more than a slap on the wrist, it's like getting your hand chopped off if you go over. So I don't think we want to get our hand chopped off. I think we'd rather just stay with where we're at. Knowing that, I think we have to be more selective and it makes good scouting that much more important. Whereas in the international market you can go spend x amount of dollars, it's almost like you mine for gold. Before, you could spend all that money and whatever it ends up being is fine, but now you just can't do that. You basically have to go into that pile and pick out every piece and make sure you're right. Scouting has always been important, but it became that much more important from an international standpoint.
The same goes for the draft. I think you're going to see a lot more high school players go to school and that's just because, we take a kid like Drew Hutchison in the 14th round or whatever it was, we can't pay that guy $400,000. We could but it's not a slap on the wrist. It's getting your hand chopped off. You don't want to lose your draft picks. It's got to be some kind of talent. We have to make the decision if we want someone for that price, we better draft him up high enough and then there's the opportunity lost. So you can't say we're goung to take a flyer. When we signed Hutchison that year, we hadn't signed Paxton, we hadn't signed Eliopoulos, so we had a little bit of money left over. We said, 'You know what, we'll pay a little bit more to get the player,' but under normal circumstances we didn't draft him high enough and he wasn't going to be signed unless that money was freed up back then. So that will change.
And then from a trade standpoint, without compensation I think you're going to see more players traded that aren't going to factor for a team long-term. Teams are going to look for salary relief is what I think is going to happen. I may have a dfferent opinion a year from now. But, if you're not going to get a draft pick and you're out of the race and you want to play a young player you'll see players moved out for salary relief, get whatever you can get for them. I don't see the benefit of keeping the player unless you're obviously right there competing or close to .500. Obviously you always want to win games, but developmentally I don't see a player staying on the roster if he's going to block a young player.
RG: So the new CBA is good for university programs.
AA: I think so.
RG: Did they consult the GMs at a GM Meeting?
AA: Yes. We were told but you have 30 clubs with 30 completely different agendas. So there was a committee led by John Schuerholz when it came to the draft, Evey club had a chance to give their opinion and input. They try to balance all the demands, the requirements, the ideas of the clubs and then also had to bring it back and negotiate it with the union. So it's not an easy process at all. They did as good a job as they could, but it's not an easy thing to do at all.
RG: You've got 49 Dominicans, 42 Venezuelans. Is that number going to go down under the new agreement.
AA: It's not like $2.9 million internationally is a bad amount of money. Some clubs don't even spend that kind of money. We've spent more the last two years, but again, we don't look at it like we're getting x amount of players or we don't look at it like we want to sign 10 players or two players or five players. We're never of the mindset that we're going to spend for the sake of spending. It's going to have to be the right players.
There was many times last year in the international market that we could have spent more. And there was players that we liked that we offered significant dollars to and they got even more money than that. They got millions more. And at that point we didn't feel comfortable so we walked away. So I don't think it changes. One, the prices will come down, because everyone's going to have to adjust accordingly. I don't know that your volume's going to change a ton. Your volume of elite, high ceiling guys might, in terms of big dollar guys.
RG: Is that the first step to a universal draft.
AA: I think so. I think there's been a lot of talk about that and I think the way the rules are set up now there's a lot of sentiment that it might make things go towards a worldwide draft. Because everyone has a certain amount of money to spend and if it's a $2.9 million cap, last year you saw some players sign for $4-5 million. Well, automatically that can't happen unless you want to lose the ability to spend the following year. So certainly clubs don't want to do that. If the highest guy got $4-million last year well does the highest guy this year get a million, a million five, two? Is a team going to spend $2.9 on one player? There's already a ton of risk. I don't see clubs spending a hge chunk of money on one player. It doesn;'t make a whole lot of sense.
RG: So the rafts might start drifting to south Florida again.
AA: That still happens anyway, but there are rules that if you're over 23, you won't be part of that. But Adeiny Hechavarria was young, He would have been part of that cap. Chapman would have been part of that cap.
RG: Is what you've done with this organization, with you and your staff, is what you've done here almost an addiction where you can't leave Toronto until you see what happens with these kids?
AA: We could be told to leave. But would we by choice leave. I hope not. I hope our staff wouldn;'t want to leave unless they have opportunities to better themselves.
RG: But you specifiucally. Are you hooked on what you've done here to the point where you just physically need to see it out?
AA: I don't know that I look at it that way. I love the job. It becomes more enjoyable when you start seeing the fruits of the labour that we've all put in. It's starting to show itaself a little bit. We won 85 games, we won 81 games. We haven't done anything yet. But it does feel better to look on the field and see more talent, see better athletes. You start to see what's been put in place. I don't know how it's going to translate. The thought and the hope and the plan is that it translates into wins. But there's no question that what we set out to do is starting to show itself in terms of being more athletic, high ceiling players playing the game a certain way, That's starting to show itself. All that being said the reason we set it up that way is to win games, win the World Series, make the playoffs and so on. We'll find out over time, but it's starting to show itself.
RG: Last question. If you started 20-10 or you started 10-20 does that change anything for you.
AA: No, it shouldn't. It all depends I think. You look at last year, Tampa started 1-8, Boston the same. It's too long a season. It's the same as you look at teams collapse at the end too. I got asked this last year and we may have lost seven or eight in a row and we won six in a row. It's too long a season to get caught up in anything. It really is. But three years ago the Diamonbacks had the best team in the game at 24-10 and in the end they finished at .500. The year 2009 is not lost on me at all. Six weeks in, I think we had the best team in the game. It was exciting. It's a six month season. You don't have to go pole to pole, start to finish. The Cardinals last year weren't in it and they accelerated at the end. The Braves and Boston came back at the end the year before. The Rockies were out of it and they accelerated all the way to the end. I've told myself repeatedly, I'm not going to get too high or too low. We've seen it happen and I know no matter what happens if we play well for a stretch we're going to be planning the parade and if we play poorly for a stretch, the sky is falling. I understand it. It's not work in sports, Its fun. We just try to block it out and keep our eye on the prize. As much as you tell yourself not to, you do live and die with every loss.