Getting Blanked caught up with Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos at the end of last week for an extended chat about the current state of the team, changing philosophies, injury woes and his self-critical ways.
Interview was conducted before the Yunel Escobar situation came to a head. Also: the quote in the headline actually came from a line not included in the text below. I just liked the way it sounded. Apologies if it is misleading in any way.
I think I can safely say 2012 hasn’t gone exactly to plan, what are some positives to come out of 2012?
You can go through the roster. J.P. Arencibia just before he got hurt started to get hot, started to do a good job. His home run totals were going to be past what they were last year, the periphial stats were still the same — the walks, the strikeouts — were about the same but defensively he continued to make strides.
Obviously, Adam Lind has not had the same season he even had for half a year last year; Kelly Johnson hasn’t played as well as he’s capable of playing; Yunel’s taken a step back offensively from what he did last year though he’s still been very solid in the field.
Brett, the energy he brings and everything else. We only got five, six weeks of him last year but the defense he’s played … he continues to make strides with the bat.
Colby’s streaky but better than what we saw at the end of the year last year. Jose, before he got hurt, was finally getting hot again – he was cold the first month. Raj has been better in left field for us. Whether it was Thames or Snider I would’ve liked to have a young guy who was going to be entrenched, going to be a long term solution but certainly that didn’t happen.
Encarnacion’s been a huge boost, that goes without saying.
Rotation-wise, Brandon Morrow before he got hurt looked like he was turning a corner, starting to emerge. Romero has taken a step back. Alvarez, we only had 60 innings last year, but last night (Thursday) was really encouraging with his changeup. I talked to him after the game and that’s the changeup we haven’t seen pretty much all year and if he has that, it changes the whole game for him. I think just getting the innings and being up here the entire year’s been good [for Alvarez].
Cecil, we weren’t sure what we were going to get. He was optioned last year but finished last year pretty well in terms of quality starts and going deep but [this year] obviously didn’t have that so now we’re trying him out in the ‘pen.
Drew Hutchison, when he was up here, I think really started to make strides before he got hurt, that was a big blow. Villanueva has been ever better than last year, even though he had a sub-2.00 ERA out of the pen before we moved him into a starting role.
At this stage we look at individual performances more than anything else. Casey Janssen had a great year last year, it’s been as good or ever better. When you consider he’s shown the ability to pitch the ninth and get saves.
Aaron Loup, if you had asked me last offseason, he would not even been talked about as a top prospect. He’s someone that went into the season as a guy eligible for the Rule V draft, so we were going to watch him to see if he’s someone we would even protect. He made that type of jump for us. Even Luis Perez really established himself and did a good job.
You mention Escobar, Johnson and Rasmus as guys who took steps back or were good for small stretches. They’re also players who appeared to play hurt at certain times through the year. How much do you attribute disappointing seasons to injury, while understanding that playing hurt is part of the job?
Some guys fought through stuff. Take Colby, for example: there were a lot of times where he could’ve probably gone on the DL. He hurt his groin the first time, we sat him out three or four games, he started playing again and then he re-aggrevated it and then we were waiting. The tough part was all our position players were down. I think we had two out of the starting nine from Opening Day and these guys feel a sense of responsibility to be out there if they can play.
I don’t want to make excuses for players – and they’ll tell you they’re fine and they can play. I know that Kelly Johnson really played through some issues that he had with his legs. [At one point] it was like “let’s just get to the All Star break” where we can get him some rest and so on but he wanted to play through it.
How is it for you – is it tough to resist stepping in? You want to let the players be the players but it may sometimes look like they’re taking away from the club by staying out there at 60% or 70%.
You rely on the players. I remember talking to Jason Frasor after the All Star [Game], asking him if there are any concerns and he said “I’m good, I’m good” but players aren’t always honest with you. (Ed Note: Jason Frasor went on the disabled list on July 21, just after the All Star break.) And that’s the problem. If a player isn’t telling you or your training staff when you’re asking “how is your arm or how are your legs” and they don’t say anything? It is hard to say if they’re 70% or 60% because we’re relying on the players.
Unless we see something – if someone is limping or their velocity is dropping, then you can [say], “I don’t care what you say, it is pretty obvious something is wrong.”
You see a player like Colby Rasmus, who you mentioned, going day-to-day, reluctant to go on the disabled list. Does he see a guy like Anthony Gose called up and think “this is the guy behind me on the depth chart.”
I don’t think Colby looks at it that way. You’d have to talk to Colby but I don’t think he worries about who is coming up behind him. I think he’s pretty confident in his abilities. All these guys want to win batting titles and home run titles and all that kind of stuff. I don’t think it even crossed his mind. We have three outfield spots and a 21-year-old kid just coming up, knowing just about everyone goes back down or struggles at some point. I just don’t think it enters into the equation. Maybe if you’re older or in the last year of your deal, that might be when it starts to creep into your mind.
Colby’s had times where he’s been great and other times where he’s been streaky and gone real cold. Overall if you look at the production you’re going to get in centerfield, for the most part you’re going to get an OPS in the low .700s, mid-700s on average across the league.
In Anthony Gose, Jake Marisnick, and even Hechavarria, you have players who some feel you promoted rather aggressively. Is this part of an ongoing philosophy?
It might seem that way but Marisnick finished the 2010 season in Lansing then spent the entire 2011 season there. Played a half season in the Florida State League before moving him to New Hampshire for what, 140 at bats at the end of the year? Maybe it seems aggressive if the “normal” track is giving him the full season in the Midwest League and a full season in the Florida State League. Then he’s scheduled to start in New Hampshire next year anyway – though we like to try and get these guys to the level they’re going to be in ahead of time. Maybe he could have 100 extra at bats in the Florida State League where he had a .800 OPS in a very tough league to hit in and had a very slow start in New Hampshire.
Both Anthony Gose and Travis D’Arnaud got off to the same starts in AA. They both hit .180 or .190 during their first month and even Jake had some things we were working on. The last ten games it seemed like he finally got what we were trying to do, have him get ready on time. It wasn’t anything crazy, more of a timing thing with his load which really started to click.
As for Anthony Gose – could he have repeated a level along the way? We talked about when we first got him [from the Astros] he had spent the entire year in the Florida State League: do we have him repeat the level versus going to New Hampshire. I don’t think it was too aggressive. I don’t think it was like what we had with Travis Snider where we just ran him from the Midwest League to the big leagues in one year. (Ed. Note: lol.)
Every teams covets prospects and seems determined to build their system for a trade that may never materialize. Are teams overvaluing minor league prospects and waiting too long to pull the trigger?
It is harder and harder to get value for players. Teams like Oakland and Tampa Bay and San Diego have to churn players due to financial issues. They need to be a little bit ahead of it. Off the top of my head, ten years ago you could get pretty good value for a player with one or two years of control left. Now it is starting to shift a little bit, it is three years of control or four years of control.
You look at Mat Latos had four years of control left and, I can’t speak for San Diego, to get maximum value you have trade these players earlier than later. If you look at a lot of players who are one year away from free agency and what the return is for established stars it is not as great as what you would expect.
Teams ultimately say: 1) I’m paying a higher salary as you get further along into arbitration so it costs more on your payroll 2) the player is closer to free agency, which is a greater impact with the changes to the draft picks. 3) I’m giving up multiple players – because you can’t do one for one – that could have six years of control each plus the added component of minimal salaries for the first three years.
You start adding up all your return, you say if I can go get three/four players making the minimum and clear the salary of the one player I traded and on top of it add another 18 years of control?
Granted they all might bust. But if you hit on two or three you’re better off for franchise. Or you can stay the course and let the player walk away for a draft pick or not get anything for him.
So do we overvalue prospects as an industry? We always do but that’s gone on forever. At the same time I understand why teams do what they do. Even for us, we trade Shaun Marcum – an established starter, our Opening Day start. I’m not saying he’s a 1 but he’s got good numbers in the American League East and two years of control yet. We didn’t shop him but we’re trying to get Brett Lawrie who was in Double-A at the time.
He was one prospect who has a ton of risk like any prospect but I don’t think we were going to do better in terms of getting a return and getting value. If Shawn Marcum had three years of control or four years of control like a Matt Garza or someone like that, you’re getting that much more back in trade. It’s part of the equation.
Just as the industry covets prospects, more and more average fans follow the minor leagues much more closely. Do people now approach you at the coffee shop demanding ETAs for low-A pitchers? Your predecessors didn’t have to deal with this added level or scrutiny.
It’s part of the hype. We’re aware of it: when we did the Wallace/Gose trade, I told Paul (Beeston, Jays CEO) look: we’re going to get killed for this. There’s a lot of hype to Brett Wallace. He was part of a big trade, he’s having success in Vegas. There’s an expectation he’s going to be here in September.
Anthony Gose was hitting .250 or whatever in low-A, getting caught stealing 48% of the time with a lot of strikeouts but we ultimately believe this is the right move. You realize you’re going to get killed but we realize we have more information than anyone else and that is normal. And a lot of that information we just can’t share. I’d love to be completely transparent and share everything but then you’re going to offend somebody along the way, whether it’s a team or players.
The optics battle is one you continually wage. The money question is one you are continually asked. While most people assume money to equal free agents, that isn’t always the case. If the money will be there, do moves like the Dodgers/Red Sox trade represent creative ways to spend it away from the free agent market?
It is not so much a willingness to make a deal like that – everyone wants to make the club better. It is more about what’s realistic, what do you have to work with? Sometimes you just have to accept it.
What the Dodgers and Yankees can do is different than what other teams can do. Rather than cry about it and stick your head in the sand, you don’t worry about it and you deal with what you have and you work with it. Our payroll is not top 5 but I think it is a solid payroll to have. There is room to go up but it isn’t going to go up for the sake of going up.
Sometimes it is viewed that the GM doesn’t want to do this or ownership doesn’t want to do this, it is not that black and white. If somebody says “spend $300 million on payroll, we don’t care.” then there is no such thing as a bad contract. As long as the player is good, you can pay someone $40 million dollars it just doesn’t matter. But it just doesn’t work like that.
It is a balancing act. I told the media the other day: I have an area that I’m asked to stay around. In the right circumstances, that is where my conversation with Paul comes in. I’ll sit in his office and I’ll say “there’s a chance to get so-and-so and this is how it will impact payroll” so there is dialogue about it.
I know it is not what everybody wants to hear but it is the truth. It is a combination of things. Our payroll has gone up and if everyone expects it to be significantly greater than it is but it isn’t in a bad area.
The bullpen was overhauled this year in a unique way. In addition to seemingly targeting pitchers with more “swing and miss” stuff, did your approach to building (or rebuilding) the bullpen change in 2012 specifically because of changes to the CBA?
It was a general change based on where the team is at. Going into 2010, we knew we were trading Roy Halladay and Marco Scutaro and Rod Barajas were free agents while our farm system was ranked 28th or so. We talked about shuffling the deck and make some changes.
We go into every season trying to win as many games as we can but realistically we knew we were going to have our challenges. You weren’t going to see us delve into any big free agents so our first priority was: where can we try to create future assets from the free agent market.
With the CBA the way it was, we earmarked all the relievers — and position players such as John Buck and Jose Molina — who we projected could potentially turn into draft picks.
Once you have a player under contract for one year deal you know they don’t have a lot of trade value. Having an option attached can add a little bit but, like we talked about before, a year or two years of control means you aren’t getting much.
Knowing you’re not likely to trade these guys, you’re going to have them for a year and you’re going to pay salary and they’re going to help you win as many games as you can in a year when you have clear challenges, let’s try to make sure there is some kind of asset attached to that.
We looked at all the free agents that could qualify, based on projections and so on, and out of that group we looked at “who should we go out and sign?”
Where as now there is none of that. The team is in a position where we are trying to win, trying to get to the World Series so who is the best player to help us win games. There is no component of trade value or getting a draft pick it is strictly “who is the best player for this team?”
It wasn’t as if the bullpen wasn’t important in my first two years but we had so many other issues to address that it felt like the bullpen was something we could address when we were closer to having our core in place and a good foundation with our farm system.
Now we are more interested in guys who will be around for a while and have some swing-and-miss stuff. We can now be more specific in looking for guys who can help the team put up zeros rather than looking for guys who can perform/have a trade value/will net a draft pick. That’s hard to find. Now it is strictly “who is the best guy?”
You were recently quoted saying something to the effect of “arbitration years ARE option years” when asked about the potential of signing your players to extensions. Is this a new outlook?
It has always been that way. It depends on each individual player. There isn’t once specific mindset in terms of first, second, or third year of arbitration. Sometimes you just try to gather information.
There were times where we haven’t talked at all to players, sometimes we had dialog with players two years in a row. Sometimes we want to see them play a little more if they want a certain salary level.
With Romero it was easier because there were a couple contracts that were in line. You had (Yovani) Gallardo, you had Jon Lester. Everyone was in the same spot and the numbers were the same and that was what it was going to be.
As for Brandon Morrow, he was getting built up with innings. We wanted to see the workload ramp up before we really were to make a significant move. He was up to 149 innings and then we got him up to 180 innings. He was two years away from free agency but with him up to 180 innings we felt like we knew him after two years and it was the time to do it. There’s no formula, it always comes down to price.
Then there’s Encarnacion, we kicked it around in the offseason briefly. We thought there was something there after the second half of the year so should we potentially talk about doing something long term with him or should we wait and see if it carries over and is more consistent.
Once he started performing well again it was like “okay, we’re ready to go.” We talked about because the walk rate spiked and everything spike in the second half last year and we felt like it could carry over. It isn’t the worst thing in the world to wait.
Paying a little bit more after his success in 2012 isn’t the worst kind of problem to have.
Exactly. Sometimes it can be more damaging to do it too early and tie up your payroll versality flexibility rather than having a player who is playing well but will cost you a little bit more money but if he is playing well, everyone will be happy.
When you have issues is if a player doesn’t play well or they get hurt. It is a balancing act as they get closer to free agency and you run into length of term, the salaries go up – it’s a balancing act. You try to predict what the player is going to do and what the market is going to do. We’re not always right by any stretch but I’m much more comfortable with waiting.
It is something I got from Paul (Beeston). He really drilled into my head the value of term and length, looking for shorter term deals. I see it more and more as I observe the game: players change, things change. Players get hurt and you tend to forget six or seven years is an awfully long time.
You look at Vernon Wells deal, it was seven years. He had four years left when we moved him on his deal. It felt like he signed his extension a long time ago but he had four years left. You forget how long some of these deals are.
Would you say there is reluctance to overpay on the back end of these deals for short term gains.
That is where you have to be careful when you’re signing these deals. If people say “you’re not going to production out of those last two years” and you’re doing a seven year deal, then you better take the total value and divide it by five, because that’s the AAV. You better be objective and realize what you’re paying for and what you’re getting.
So many things can happen, so many things can go wrong. Having the flexibility to watch a player and know his health such that you have to pay a little more…Paul always says he doesn’t mind waiting. He says “we will back up the truck” when it is time.
We’ve done it. Encarnacion is a great example. We could have done this earlier but if we were wrong it is not only the money, you almost lock in the position on the field. If you start making too many of these mistakes you can’t hide everyone on the bench.
It’s a balancing act. But it is not the worst thing in the world to wait a little bit and pay a little bit more but at least you know what you are paying for.
You mentioned “trying to win as many games as you can” every year. No matter the talk about “bridge years” and “rebuilds” winning is still number one. Combining this with strategic long-term planning makes managing fan expectations tricky, doesn’t it? Is that even something you consider part of your job?
It is part of the job. I just think you can’t let it dictate what you do because that’s when you get in trouble, you can make mistakes. Everyone respects the fans, I mean I can roll out every cliche that everyone says in any industry but at the end of the day, if you ask any fans, they want to win. They want to win for a long time.
Just like we can get emotional at times with what we see, fans can get emotional. We have to remain objective, if we can. I had people coming up to me asking “when are you going to release Edwin Encarnacion?” last summer. I get it, when guys are not playing well it can be hard to watch. Fans are throwing stuff at their TVs and yelling but I’m not hired to react to the whims and the emotions.
I’m supposed to do what I believe is right. Whether it’s going to be popular or not? The mandate is do what you believe is right and what you believe is going to put this organization in a position to win. If I make a lot of wrong decisions, somebody else is going to be sitting in this chair.
Part of it is we have more information. There are more facts at our disposal that just don’t get out there. It doesn’t mean we are always right – we are wrong plenty. I’m wrong plenty. But if we just react to how the fans feel about everything, it’s tough.
Do you think you are growing into the job? Do you change the way your approach things based on mistakes in the past?
Mistakes for sure. If I’m going to be arrogant enough to think I never make mistakes or never re-examine, I’m not going to last. Not in this job, let alone in life. We, as an organization, try to look back at everything we do and re-visit a lot of things to try and learn something new. I’ll never accept “oh, we did something wrong, we made a mistake – it happens.” No way, I want to learn something from it. Right or wrong, I want to take something out of every mistake.
With more time spent in the job, it is natural that you get more comfortable in your own skin. At the same time, you get to know your own media so well and build relationships. You can let your guard down at times.
To be honest with you, I get sick of having to be so guarded. It is exhausting. I know it is important to stay consistent but it is exhausting. Sometimes you want to feel like you’re just talking to your buddy over a beer and just have a conversation but the unfortunate part is you just can’t be like that in this job.
Everyone understands that to, which is why you are never going to see me do things though the media or rip someone apart. It is just not my style. There is no reason to go down that path. Everyone realizes that, too.
On some level is has to be pretty cool when people call you a ninja.
I don’t buy into any of that stuff. I’m a fan of sports so I always cringe if people say anything nice about you or compliments or whatever. I’d rather not be in the limelight and be below the radar to not have to deal with the highs and lows of it.
Not to say you’re not going to be ripped, not going to be complimented, that comes with the job. But I don’t buy the hype or “dig” myself because of the position. I know that whatever attention I get or people that approach me and want to say hi, it is not because of Alex it is because of the position.
If they give you the job tomorrow they’re going want to speak to you and want to do an interview with you. I’ve seen it happen, these jobs go fast. If you let it get to your head or think you’re pre-ordained or better than the next guy, that’s not my style or who I am.
If you gave me a choice of doing my job and hopefully bring a World Series winner and not get a compliment or not get criticism or anything, I’d be okay with that.
In your job, it seems like a key thing is being able to own your decisions.
You have to stick with it. It is a huge part of it, and it is something I’m getting better at. I self analyze a lot, I’m very analytical to a fault. Take away the fans and the media and outside forces, you have staff around you. Scouts, coaches, development people, front office – everyone has an opinion. When there are big decisions to be made, I have to find the balance. It isn’t a one-man show but, at the end of the day, the responsibly falls on me. Not to sound arrogant but if things don’t work out it is nobody’s fault but mine. I’m the one with the ability to overrule somebody and it is my decision to make.
I have to balance being a good leader and someone who involves everyone and listens to all opinions. I’m not doing this by myself but I have to ultimately be comfortable with the decision.
Everything that we’ve done, right or wrong, the right has been because of the group and the wrong has been 100% on me. And that’s fine.
It bothers me more if there is a mistake made or decision made that I was on the fence about or wasn’t sure so I may have leaned on someone a certain way, that’s not their fault, that’s my fault. I’d rather be wrong doing it my way or be wrong knowing it was my decision. That is something I’m doing better with but that is a delicate balancing act because I still know I need everyone around me. There are a lot of people that help me do this job and a lot of things we’ve done are the result of a lot of people putting in a lot of time, giving me a lot of good ideas, and putting in a lot of hard work.
I beat myself up more when something didn’t go right and I was reluctant and wasn’t sure about and went with the group. I’m much more at peace when we make a mistake and I know that’s the decision I wanted to make. If I went with it and it didn’t work out, I sleep much better at night.