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November 14, 2012

Overthinking It

The Moves Alex Anthopoulos Made Before the Blockbuster

by Ben Lindbergh

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In last week’s Lineup Card, we identified 13 areas of need facing selected teams this winter. One of those teams—the only team with two entries in the article—was the Toronto Blue Jays. One Toronto entry was about how the starting rotation would need help.  (Evidently, Alex Anthopoulos agreed.) The other entry, by Colin Wyers was a bit more broad. What the Blue Jays needed, according to Colin, was “something other than a reliever.”

Look at Toronto’s transaction logs leading up to that Lineup Card, and you’ll see what Colin meant:

10/17: Claimed RHP Cory Wade off waivers from the New York Yankees
10/18: Claimed RHP Tyson Brummett off waivers from the Philadelphia Phillies
10/23: Claimed RHP David Herndon off waivers from the Philadelphia Phillies
10/31: Claimed LHP Scott Maine off waivers from the Cleveland Indians
11/3: Traded Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes to Cleveland Indians for RHP Esmil Rogers

To make matters—well, not worse, necessarily, but certainly more confusing—some of these relievers had less staying power on Toronto’s roster than Yunel Escobar after a bad eye-black day. When Maine was claimed, Herndon was designated for assignment (and later claimed by the Yankees). Two days later, Maine went the way of Herndon. It was as if Anthopoulous had to have each right-handed reliever on whom he received a report.

Undeterred by our article, Anthopolous added two more relievers in the next two days:

11/8: Traded cash to the Kansas City Royals for RHP Jeremy Jeffress
11/9: Signed free agent RHP Justin Germano

This wasn’t unprecedented behavior: in July, Anthopoulos picked up Brad Lincoln, Steve Delabar, Nate Robertson, and—in a single trade—Brandon Lyon, David Carpenter, and J.A. Happ. So I wondered: Was this selective memory at work, or was Anthopoulos really acquiring an abnormal number of relievers? And if he was, why was he?

The answer to the first question, as it turns out, is “a bit of both.” Yes, it’s true that Anthopoulos goes through relievers like Octavio Dotel goes through teams. Since he was hired in October of 2009, the Blue Jays have acquired more relievers* than any other team, and since the start of last offseason, their lead is even lengthier:

*Defining “relievers” as pitchers who pitched out of the bullpen in at least 80 percent of their outings in the season in which they were acquired (or, if they were acquired over the winter, in the previous season).

Relievers Acquired in the Anthopoulos Era

Team

RP_ACQ

Blue Jays

77

White Sox

73

Yankees

65

Astros

65

Mariners

65

Pirates

62

Nationals

60

Red Sox

59

Dodgers

58

Athletics

58

Relievers Acquired Since Last Offseason

Team

RP_ACQ

Toronto Blue Jays

21

Houston Astros

13

Texas Rangers

11

Boston Red Sox

11

Pittsburgh Pirates

11

Chicago White Sox

11

Los Angeles Angels

10

Seattle Mariners

10

Chicago Cubs

10

A tendency to target relievers isn’t inherently good or bad. It’s probably bad if you’re, say, signing a few Francisco Corderos every offseason, but good if you’re picking pitchers up off the scrap heap and then resisting the urge to pay  sticker price for the ones who succeed. Building a bullpen might be the most fleeting way to win, but maybe Anthopoulos’ rampant reliever acquisition isn’t so much a futile attempt to master the most unpredictable aspect of team-building as it is an admission that relievers are replaceable commodities.

But as I indicated a couple paragraphs ago, there is some selective memory at work here: Anthopolous’ acquiring isn’t restricted to relievers. The Jays acquired five players in their trade with Miami, and barring a meltdown by Mark Buehrle or Josh Johnson, not one of them will pitch out of the bullpen. If we look at the team’s reliever additions as a percentage of total acquisitions, we find that 29.2 percent of the Jays’ acquisitions have been relievers in the Anthopoulos era, only the seventh-highest figure. Even over the past year, the Yankees and Reds have had higher reliever acquisition percentages. So yes, the roving eye of Anthopoulos is often trained on relievers, but it spares plenty of time for other positions, too. On his watch, the Jays have also acquired the most outfielders, the most shortstops, and close to the most catchers.  

Here are Toronto’s ranks by transaction type among all teams during the Anthopoulos era and since last offseason (not including the trade for almost all of the Marlins you still knew the names of). The first four types are ways to add players to an organization (“Signed” is reserved for recent draftees). The last two refer to call-ups: “Recalled” is used with players who are already on the 40-man roster, while “Selected” is used with players who aren’t.

Where the Blue Jays Rank Among Teams By Transaction Type

 

Anthopoulos Era

Since Last Offseason

Claimed off waivers

2

2

Signed

2

3

Signed as free agent

6

3

Trade

2

2

Recalled

7

2

Selected

9

2

Some of Toronto’s high raw transaction total is attributable to the team’s commitment to signing its selections in the amateur draft. Some of it can be chalked up to injuries: when one player gets hurt, another has to replace him, and sometimes the replacement has to come from outside the organization. Since Anthopoulos took over, the Jays are tied for eighth in pitcher DL stints, many of which struck last season (which helps to explain the recent increase in the frequency of recalls and selections).* But those factors explain only part of the picture. Mostly, the man just likes to make moves.

*The Athletics’ and Orioles’ willingness to use their minor-league affiliates as an extension of their major-league roster received, and likely deserved, some credit for their surprising success this season: the A’s and Orioles ranked second and fourth in recalls, respectively, and the O’s ranked first in selections. The Jays actually made more combined recalls and selections than either of those teams in 2012, but they mostly had to make them for the wrong reasons.

On today’s episode of Effectively Wild, my co-host Sam Miller said:

I generally have thought that Anthopoulos has done a very good job during his time, but mainly he’s been in tinker mode. And I’ve liked his tinkering. And so now he’s finally got a team where he’s added enough starpower that the tinkering—the stakes of the tinkering—go up.

Before yesterday, the big trades that had defined Anthopolous’ time with the team were all ones in which he surrendered the highest-paid or most-established player: the Brandon League trade, the Shaun Marcum trade, the Vernon Wells trade, the Edwin Jackson trade. The Jays were generally regarded to have gotten the best of those deals. Yesterday’s blockbuster was the first time that Anthopolous was on the receiving end of a big salary dump/rebuilding deal, and the reviews—at least in terms of the trade’s long-term outlook—were more mixed.

This trade might mark the moment when Anthopoulos went from consolidating Toronto’s strengths and putting his stamp on the team to trying to win right away. In his first few years, the constant moves on the margins allowed Anthopolous to rebuild the farm system and remake the roster. Now, roughly 24 of the players on the Jays’ full 40 man (depending on its makeup after the trade is approved) are Anthopoulos acquisitions, including the overwhelming majority of the ones who’ve made their major-league debuts. Every AL East team but the Blue Jays and Red Sox has made the playoffs in at least one of the last two seasons, and Anthopolous’ actions suggest that he thinks his club can join the club next season. Soon we’ll see whether his taste for tinkering persists, or whether better health, better players, and a more talented team lead to a less active Anthopoulos.

Thanks to Andrew Koo for research assistance.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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