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April 29, 2011

Prospectus Q&A

Alex Anthopoulos

by David Laurila

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He’s too humble to admit it, but Alex Anthopoulos has done an outstanding job since replacing J.P. Ricciardi as the general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays in October 2009. He has orchestrated high-impact trades, most notably deals involving Roy Halladay and Vernon Wells, as well as prudent, if not as newsworthy, free-agent signings. Just as importantly, he has been placing a huge emphasis on scouting and player development, which should come as no surprise given his background as a scouting coordinator. A 33-year-old native of Montreal, Anthopoulos has an economics degree from McMaster University.

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David Laurila: Who are the Toronto Blue Jays—what is the identity of the franchise?

Alex Anthopoulos: I think the first thing is Canada’s team. That’s what we’re striving to be. We’re also striving to be a first-class organization, top to bottom. That goes from the janitor to the grounds crew and all the way up to the CEO and the players and the manager. I know that’s painting it with a broad brush and that those are pretty lofty goals and expectations, but we want to be a championship organization.

We’re judged on wins and losses as we do these jobs. We scout and develop players, and do everything we do, to ultimately win a World Series. That’s the goal. Beyond that, we want to be a first-class organization and get Canada behind us. We’re the only team in the country and the blueprint has already been drawn up. We’ve had success here, winning two World Series and drawing four million fans in back-to-back years. I don’t know if four million is obtainable again or not, but three million certainly should be. There are markets like Milwaukee that have drawn three million for three years in a row. We’re the seventh-largest market in North America.

DL: How important are the media to the health of the franchise?

AA: The media is important because they’re our conduit to the fans. Everybody says—whether it’s an Academy Award winner or someone winning a Grammy—that they’d like to thank the fans and without the fans they wouldn’t be anything. The reason they say that is because it’s true. The fans support us. They go to our website, they buy tickets and come to the ballpark, they watch the games on TV.

Whatever we need to convey to the fans, we do through the media. That’s how our fans get their information, and it’s not lost on me. I’m a sports fan and I rely on the internet as well as newspapers, radio, and TV to follow my favorite teams. That’s what makes being a sports fan great. It’s a thirst for more knowledge and information about your team, and over time it’s more and more. Fans are incredibly knowledgeable and well-versed. They’re more knowledgeable than they were 20 years ago, and I think the primary reason is all the information the media is able to disseminate to them. I think the media is a critical component of sports, whether it‘s baseball or any other sport.

DL: A big part of your job is assessing performance. How would you rate the job you’ve done since you became GM?

AA: Wow, that’s a loaded question. I don’t want to say that I’m a negative guy, because I don’t think I am, but I feel I’m more productive when I dwell on things we could do better—when I’m looking for areas in which we could improve. I guess I would say that I haven’t done a bad job, although I know I could have done a much better job. We, as a group, can do better than we’ve done. I hope that as long as I’m in this job, I can get better every day, and I’m learning each day in this role. You learn from your mistakes and I’ve made a bunch, but it’s hard to answer that question with a blanket good, bad, or medium.

DL: How would you define the Blue Jays’ organizational philosophy?

AA: There are so many layers to it, but there’s no doubt that part of it is born and bred by the division we play in, as well as the market that we play in. We are in a large market in Toronto, we are in a large market in Canada, and we play in a division where—and I always say this—it’s not the resources that the other teams have that are the most challenging, but the brain power their front offices have. All four of the other GMs have been to, or even won, a World Series. That’s pretty telling.

From a philosophical standpoint, we’re looking to get elite players. That’s because we need to build 95 wins-plus teams, which is what it takes to get to the playoffs from the American League East. Ninety-five wins seems to be the floor, at least over the last 10 years or so, and in order to get to that level you’re going to need to have elite players all over the diamond. Without getting too scientific about it, we need to have great players. We can’t get by with average players.

DL: In a given season, does it matter if the team wins 85 games as opposed to 80 or 82?

AA: You always want to win as many games as you can, but there’s always a goal and for us that’s to build a sustainable winner, year in and year out. With our upside and our market… Rogers Communications is one of the largest companies in Canada and one of the wealthiest owners in Major League Baseball. You combine that with our country and our city—everything we have—and 80-85 wins isn’t good enough. That’s not a winner; that’s not a playoff team, at least not in the American League East. I know that years ago the Cardinals got into the playoffs with 83 wins and went on to win the World Series, but in our division you can’t get into the playoffs with that win total.

From our standpoint, absolutely you want to win as many games as you can, but we’re not satisfied. We need to get to that 95-win level and everything we’re doing is geared toward that, and then sustaining that performance year in and year out.

DL: Some teams rely more on statistical analysis than others. Where would the Blue Jays rank among the 30 organizations in that regard?

AA: I would think we’re in the middle. I say that because I don’t have a complete understanding of what every other team is doing, but I’d like to think middle because we like to blend them. I think that everyone would tell you that you can’t go too much toward one side or the other. It’s an inexact science. If scouting was the only way to do it, everybody would do it that way, and if statistical analysis was the only way to do it, people would do it that way. I think that everyone has seen over time that you have to combine the two.

DL: How is your in-house statistical analysis structured?

AA: It’s something that’s still developing. It’s something that we were lacking in a little bit when I first got the job. I didn’t want to rush and just hire a bunch of different people. All of us in the office have a pretty good knowledge of statistics, but we probably didn’t go as in-depth as I would have liked us to have gone. There are a lot of things… I love information. The more information the better, whether it’s on the scouting side or the statistical side.

Jay Sartori is our assistant GM, and he certainly has very good statistical knowledge. We hired Joe Sheehan—not the Joe Sheehan who writes for Sports Illustrated and used to be with Baseball Prospectus—and he was with the Pirates last year. Jay had a relationship with him and brought him on board. Again, we’re continuing to grow in that area; we’re continuing to evolve and develop. I don’t think we’re done, or that we’re ever going to be done, because we’re going to try to continue to come up with new and creative ways to do things.

DL: John Farrell brought a solid knowledge of statistical analysis with him from Boston. How important was that to his hiring?

AA: I think it just helped make him a more-well-rounded candidate. I don’t know that it was more important than anything else, it just added to the package of what made him the right fit for us. He had experience as a player, experience as a coach, experience as a farm director, and those were with two of the better organizations in the game, in my opinion—Cleveland and Boston. There’s also who he is as a person and a leader, his character. All of those things made him a well-rounded candidate that we think has the ability to be a great manager one day. So it’s not something we felt was mandatory, but his exposure to and understanding of that stuff certainly didn’t hurt.

DL: How much of a role does your economics degree play in your job?

AA: Education is extremely important, but I don’t know that I practically apply anything. Maybe if I had gone to grad school and been an MBA… and maybe there are things I’m applying that I don’t realize I’m applying. I’d probably say that my work experiences, life experiences, and baseball experiences are what I apply more than anything else. I’m also utilizing the experience of the people we have who have been in the game longer than I have.

DL: The Vernon Wells trade had a big economic component to it. What impact did it have on the franchise?

AA: I think anyone that has any understanding of math can add up a payroll and know that it’s going to free up money and give you the ability to spend it somewhere else. I don’t think we’ve ever necessarily applied a lot of economical theories, per se. It’s more about “Look, that was a trade where we were trading an All-Star that was the face of the franchise; he was a good player for us last year—30 home runs as a middle-of-the-diamond player—and he made the All-Star team, but we were able to free up those commitments going forward.”

I guess the one thing I got from studying economics is the meaning of opportunity cost. That’s probably what sticks out more than anything else, but you could learn that in a high school economics class.

DL: Are you surprised that you were able to swing that deal?

AA: No, not at all because I had a team call me last summer to ask about him. In the offseason, I had several teams ask about him, just about his availability—would we talk about him, and so on. So, there was interest in the player. I think part of it is that I think everybody unanimously agreed that with the way the contract is structured, with the $86 million over four years, that’s probably not what he would have gotten as a free agent. But he bounced back. He was finally healthy and he had a 30-home run season. He was also much better defensively in center field in 2010 than he was in 2009. With some of these other free-agent signings… he was going to play this year at 32 on a four-year commitment, and there are some other 32-year-old players that got five-, six-, and seven-year commitments. Just like anything else, guys that are on shorter commitments tend to get higher AAV in terms of their contract.

The way the deal came together—the timing of events—I think there’s no question that Anaheim, had they signed Carl Crawford or Adrian Beltre, then Vernon wouldn’t have been a fit for them. Also, with Vernon’s full no-trade clause, there were only certain places he was willing to go and that impacted things as well.

I think a lot of people lose sight of the fact that we took away a very good player from our team. Everybody is so caught up on the financial component, which is fair, because his contract was back-loaded. Really, his contract was an $18 million AAV, but it was back-loaded because of where the franchise was at the time. They needed the relief in those early years, and Vernon was fine with back-loading it. The remaining money was the remaining money, but I think everyone does lose sight of the fact that he’s still a very good player, a very productive player. He’s off to a slow start, but a lot of players across the game are. For the most part, I think everybody has a good idea of what he’s capable of.

DL: What are your thoughts on long-term deals as a rule?

AA: I know our CEO, Paul Beeston, is definitely an opponent of them and that comes from his past and working with Pat Gillick. The two of them had a policy that they pitched, that they didn’t want to go more than three years with position players. I don’t think they want to go much more beyond that. Their philosophy, at least Paul’s, is to stick with shorter-term deals. I certainly can see the merits of that, but I’m not necessarily opposed to length.

I think most people would tell you they’d rather have shorter-term commitments. Even five years, for me, is a lot of years, but I would never put myself in a box and say that I’d only do so many years. It all depends on the player—the age of the player, the health, the makeup, all those type of things.

DL: Does the division you’re in impact those types of decisions?

AA: Good question. I guess maybe in a roundabout way it does, because you’re trying to compete and you’re trying to win. I can tell you that I would have preferred to give Jose Bautista a four-year contract rather than a five-year contract. I think that goes without saying. But I was comfortable enough giving him a five-year deal because of his age—he’s going to be 34 in the last year of his deal—the way he takes care of himself, his makeup, the on-base percentage. Things like that. From a protection standpoint—as much as we may think we’re right, we’re wrong an awful lot in this game—you want to try and protect yourself and keep things as short as possible.

I guess on one hand, knowing whom you’re competing with, and wanting to get a player, maybe indirectly it does. But, I don’t know that they’re linked that way like, “Oh, we’re in this division, so we have to do this.” I’m not a believer of ever saying, “We have to sign this player, or we have to make this trade.” We don’t have to do anything, and I think when you feel that you have to do something, that’s when you can make a mistake rather than evaluating the transaction on the merits of the transaction itself instead of some outside factor. We try to insulate ourselves from outside factors, whether it’s media, or pressure from the fan base, to make the right decision with the information we have.

DL: When a notable trade is made in baseball, are you usually aware that something might be going down with the players in question?

AA: Not all the time; I don’t think you’re always aware. I think there are some deals that are surprises. Trade-wise, though, a notable trade? I’m trying to think of some notable trades that have occurred since I’ve been a GM, and if I was aware of them beforehand.

DL: The Adrian Gonzalez deal this past winter might be a good example.

AA: I think everybody knew on that one. I think Jed Hoyer even came out and talked about Gonzalez being traded prior to it. I don’t think it stunned anybody when Adrian Gonzalez was traded, and I think everybody also knew that he was linked to the Red Sox for a long time. I don’t think that was a surprise.

Everyone knew Dan Uggla was available and was being traded. I mean, look, there’s no way you’re going to keep up with what the other 29 teams are doing and a lot of teams are going to keep things quiet for obvious reasons as well. Zack Greinke was a significant trade, but I think everyone knew that there were teams involved and that they were working on things and so on. I think most GMs, especially in the offseason when there is so much going on, and there is so much dialogue, have an idea of who’s available. But I don’t think anyone has that type of knowledge, to know what players are going to be exchanged. You do have an idea of who’s available and which teams might be players for certain players from other teams.

DL: How many viable trade options did you have for Roy Halladay?

AA: What do you define as viable?

DL: Something that would have been a reasonable trade to consider, as opposed to not getting adequate value back.

AA: I guess what I would say is that if we hadn’t gone with Philadelphia, would we have traded him somewhere else? Probably not. We probably would have kept the player at that point in time. Things may have changed, but with his no-trade clause I think it was apparent that there were only so many places we could trade Roy to. I don’t fault the player; he negotiated the no-trade clause into his contract and the club agreed to it. Obviously the years of service and the production that he gave us exceeded the value of the deal from our standpoint. On the flip side of that, the player was six months away from being able to choose where he was going to play and he made it clear that wherever he was traded, he wanted to have the opportunity to stay there long-term. So, it made a whole lot of sense that Roy wasn’t going to want to be moved somewhere for six months. If he was going to get traded, he wanted to go somewhere and not have to be moved again.

Our options were extremely limited as we got closer to making a deal. In terms of viable at that time, there’s no question that Philadelphia had the best trade on the table for us. It also fit Roy’s desires as a place he was willing to go to.

DL: What role did your scouting background play in that deal?

AA: I think it played a significant role. Your scouting background as a general manager should always play a role. It allows you to ask different questions of your front office and scouts because you understand. You’ve sat in their shoes before. You can ask them questions about what they’re seeing. When you watch film and video of players, you have a feel there.

I had seen Travis D’Arnaud; he worked out for us before the draft. We actually were lined up to take him and then Philadelphia took him one pick ahead of us. Brett Cecil was the next pick, which worked out great. So I was familiar with him. I had seen Michael Taylor that summer. We had spoken to the Phillies that summer about trading Roy there. We were playing the Orioles and I rented a car and drove to Harrisburg, and saw Taylor there. In the interest of familiarity and comfort level, I think my scouting background figures into everything we do.

DL: What is your role in the June draft?

AA: Our scouting director certainly runs the draft, but I like to see players. To be honest with you, I enjoy scouting more than anything else in this game, including being a GM. That’s my passion and that’s what I enjoy. I love going to the ballpark to see players. One of the advantages of this job is that I get a chance to go see as many players as my time allows in the amateur draft. I know GMs might only go see one or two players that they’re considering in the draft, but if I have an off day in spring training—or, for example, we have an off day tomorrow with the big-league team—I’m going to take that day and go see a player for the draft. Not because I have to, but because I enjoy it and I have the opportunity to do it.

When it comes to your first-round selection, as with any GM, your scouting director presents you with who he wants to take and you ultimately stamp it. Beyond that, your scouting director is going to make the selections anyway, but I like to sit in on our draft meetings. I like to see how the process is going. I like to ask our scouting director, and our group… maybe food for thought. If there is debate, bring in other components, bring in another perspective. I love the draft. I think our scouting director, Andrew Tinnish, does an outstanding job. I have a tremendous amount of faith in him. But the one part of the game that I enjoy more than anything else is scouting.

DL: You’ve talked a lot about the importance of building a strong farm system. How do you go about doing that?

AA: One, you need to make sure you have the right evaluators making the right evaluations. There are a lot of ways to do it, either through the amateur draft, international free agents signings, through trades, the waiver wire, minor-league free agents, and so on. But for the most part, you’re going to do it through the draft.

What can’t be overlooked is that ownership has given us the resources to spend in both Latin America and the amateur draft. An old scout once said, “We’re not in the business of drafting players; we’re in the business of scouting players.” If ownership doesn’t give you the resources to sign players, you can get all the evaluations right but if you don’t have the resources to sign the players, it won’t matter at all. It really starts there more than anything else.

I think J.P. Ricciardi and Jon LaLonde don’t get nearly enough credit for the draft success that they had. You look at what was spent on bonuses, both in Latin America and in the amateur draft in the eight years that J.P. was the general manager, and the six or seven that Jon was the scouting director, and you see a lot of the players on the field today in Toronto: Romero, Arencibia, Lind, Snider, Hill, Cecil, Rzepczynski, Janssen, Litsch, Marcum. The list goes on and on. That 85-win team last year was fueled on their draft picks and the successes that they had. They did a great job. We’re just starting. We don’t know what the results are going to be five or six years from now.

DL: It has been suggested that the Blue Jays put a minor-league affiliate in Montreal. What are your thoughts on that?

AA: I was born and raised in Montreal; that’s where I began as a baseball fan. To me, anything that encourages or promotes any type of baseball in that city I’m going to be for, whether it’s major league or minor league. I’d rather have some baseball than no baseball at all. I know there is a passionate baseball fan base there. That organization was there for a long time. I think what happened with that franchise, a lot of it was stadium-related, a lot of it was ownership-related, but they did show that when the team won, the fans did come out.

 I don’t know what the ramifications would be of having a minor-league affiliate there, but I’m certainly pro having as many minor-league affiliates as possible in Canada. If there could be a rebirth of minor-league baseball in Canada, I think that would be great. 

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