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June 13, 2014

Pebble Hunting

Alex Anthopoulos' Amazing Offseason

by Sam Miller

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As the 2013 season concluded, Alex Anthopoulos’ chair in Toronto was, per reports and common sense, wobbly. “He needs a winning season in 2014 or he will likely be fired,” wrote Richard Griffin, in an article that suggested opposing teams had cracked his tactics, putting the Blue Jays in a disadvantageous position on the trade market. Now, of course, the Blue Jays are the class of the AL East, the most improved team (by winning percentage) in baseball from a year ago, and as likely to make the playoffs as the Tigers are. Clearly, Anthopoulos had a tremendous offseason. Clearly, he’ll be in contention for executive of the year. Anybody who foretold his dismissal clearly didn’t see this incredible act of General Managing in the winter of 2013-2014. Let’s review the seven key moves that Anthopoulos made:

7. Signed Tomo Ohka
Ohka hadn’t pitched in American professional baseball since 2009, but after shoulder surgery in 2011 he began to rely on a knuckleball. The Blue Jays took a flier on him in December, invited him to spring training, then released him. He’s now pitching in the independent Atlantic League, where he has 13 strikeouts and 25 walks. But while Ohka isn’t contributing directly to the Blue Jays’ pennant run, Mark Buehrle has cut his ERA in half and has the American League’s 10th-best WARP. He has allowed more than two earned runs only twice, and the Blue Jays are 11-2 when he starts. Because of this, Anthopoulos’ efforts at strengthening the Blue Jays’ rotation clearly worked.

6. Signed Dioner Navarro
The Blue Jays’ catchers last year were terrible at the plate, hitting .194/.235/.348 with the AL’s worst OBP, third-worst OPS, and second-worst True Average. Most of that rot came from J.P. Arencibia (.194/.227/.365) and Josh Thole (.175/.256/.242), so Anthopoulos non-tendered Arencibia and replaced him with Navarro, who had been (by True Average) the National League’s best-hitting catcher in 2013. He’s been a bit of a mess at the plate this year, but Thole, sweet Thole, has been much improved. Only one AL catcher has a higher OBP than he does in 50 plate appearances or more. Thole’s VORP as the backup catcher has been all by itself a nearly one-win upgrade for Toronto. Because of this, Anthopoulos’ efforts at strengthening the offense from the catching position clearly worked.

5. Came darned close to getting Ian Kinsler in a trade. Really darned close!
Boy, Kinsler sure would have been a nice fix for the Blue Jays at second base, where in 2013 the club was somehow just as bad as at catcher: .216/.258/.297 cumulative line. Anthopoulos pulled off quite the coup in nearly getting Kinsler, though. Kinsler invoked his no-trade clause, so he's not actually on the team, but that was really an impressive near move. Steven Tolleson, though, is, and the minor-league free agent is hitting .280/.333/.500. That’s quite an upgrade over 2013 Emilio Bonifacio, who was traded last summer (and who has also been quite an upgrade this year over 2013 Emilio Bonifacio). (They’ve also benefited from the presence of Juan Francisco, which has allowed Brett Lawrie to slide to second base at times; but Francisco was signed just after the season started, so, unfortunately, Anthopoulos can’t claim him as part of his spectacular 2013-2014 offseason, and neither will we.) Because of this, Anthopoulos’ efforts at strengthening the second base position clearly worked.

4. Re-signed Munenori Kawasaki.
Kawasaki nearly got away from the Blue Jays, who declined his $1 million option in November and expected him to return to Japan. But far from conceding the season, the Blue Jays fought, struggled, and clawed, and eventually re-signed Kawasaki in December. Huzzah! Kawasaki, who hit .228/.326/.308 last year, is hitting .250/.308/.333 this year. But last year he batted nearly 300 times, and this year he has batted just 14, spending most of the season in Triple-A. Because of this, Anthopoulos’ efforts at getting the absolute most positive production out of Munenori Kawasaki clearly worked.

3. Claimed Brent Morel off waivers.
The Blue Jays were not getting enough power production out of the middle of the order, and Morel—who hit eight home runs and slugged .553 in September 2011—seemed like he might help. He has helped! The Blue Jays waived him and lost him to the Pirates in February, but look at how much more production the Jays are getting out of the middle of the order:

No team in baseball has received more production from the 3-4-5 spots in the lineup this year. Probably. I mean, those numbers look good, so probably that’s true. Because of this, Anthopoulos’ efforts at getting more power production out of the middle of the order clearly worked.

2. Signed Juan Perez.
Juan Perez spent 2013 in San Francisco, where in part-time play he’d put up staggering defensive numbers without showing that he could hit in the majors. Perez is the sort of player who is easy to fall in love with, a guy with a specialized skill set who can play up when deployed correctly. This is not the same Juan Perez that the Blue Jays signed. Theirs is a pitcher, and he was released before the season starts, but the point is that Juan Perez the outfielder might very well have seemed like the right kind of guy to sign to help the Blue Jays’ outfield situation, which featured a big hole in left field. There’s sure no hole now, what with Melky Cabrera bouncing back and once again hitting just as well as he did during his breakout season in Kansas City. Probably deserves to be an All-Star. Because of this, Anthopoulos’ efforts at fixing the hole in left field clearly worked.

1. Didn’t trade for Doug Fister.
Sure wanted to, it sounds like, but for whatever reason the Tigers weren’t interested. So instead the Blue Jays are outperforming their run differential and third-order winning percentage, after underperforming both last year. Because of this, Doug Fister was clearly a trap, and Anthopoulos cleverly avoided it.

The great news for Anthopoulos is that he seems likely to have made a few other great moves recently. For instance, he recently optioned Bobby Korecky to the minors. You can’t predict baseball, but I’d be shocked if this didn’t lead to the Blue Jays’ bringing their offensive stats with runners on base in line with their offensive stats overall, leading to a higher-scoring team. They also drafted 17-year-old Tanner Houck in the 12th round, and though he hasn’t signed yet, I’d be awfully surprised if their bullpen (which currently sports the third-worst ERA in the AL) doesn’t pitch more like the unit that had the fourth-best ERA last year—or, at least, more like a league-average group.

We’re always on the lookout for the next market inefficiency, but Alex Anthopoulos seems to have found it just before last winter: Having lots of good players on the roster, and waiting for them to play as well as, or perhaps just a bit better than, they should.

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

Related Content:  Toronto Blue Jays,  Alex Anthopoulos

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