Alex Anthopoulos won't return as Blue Jays' GM in surprising departure
Teams aren't supposed to announce major hirings and firings during the World Series, but that hasn't prevented the news faucet from leaking information with regards to the comings and goings of managers and general managers. In a stunning development, Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos has rejected an offer of a contract extension and will instead leave the team for which he has worked since 2003 and overseen as GM since the end of the '09 season. His departure comes after guiding Toronto to its first postseason appearance in 22 years and within two wins of a trip to the World Series.
Thanks to a wave of blockbuster trades, Anthopoulos was named the Sporting News MLB Executive of the Year just hours after the news of his departure broke, and he was widely expected to return. Just two days ago, CBS Sports' Jon Heyman reported, "Alex Anthopoulos is expected to be brought back, but quietly. [Incoming team president] Mark Shapiro isn't even intending to announce it when he extends Anthopoulos."
Reportedly—and perhaps not so surprisingly—Shapiro and Anthopoulos had already clashed. The hiring of the 48-year-old Shapiro away from the Indians to replace retiring team president/CEO Paul Beeston in late August (he officially takes over next Monday) had already created an apparent roadblock to the 38-year-old Anthopoulos's upward mobility within the organization, as he may have hoped that with a new contract would come a promotion to president of baseball operations.
That’s been the trend in other organizations around the game, though such moves have generally gone to older GMs with longer track records of success. Theo Epstein in Chicago, Dave Dombrowski in Boston and Andrew Friedman in Los Angeles are among those who had previously built teams that at least won pennants (in Boston, Detroit and Tampa Bay, respectively) and gained promotions by moving to new teams. Among those who didn’t switch teams, the Giants' Brian Sabean moved upstairs after building three World Series winners in San Francisco, and the Athletics' Billy Beane did so by overseeing eight teams that have gone to the postseason over the past 16 years. By contrast, Anthopoulos’s Blue Jays never finished higher than third in the AL East prior to this year. The team was just six games over .500 (489–483) during his six years since taking over for J.P. Ricciardi, who was fired near the end of the 2009 season.
Promotion possibilities aside, TSN's Rick Whitehead reported via a team source that the Jays offered Anthopoulos a three-year extension with a mutual option for a fourth year within the past week, that after offering one- and two-year extension deals during the season, presumably before Shapiro's arrival. The only meeting between Shapiro and Anthopoulos did not go well, with Whitehead's source characterizing the newcomer as having "scolded" the GM. Via his full report:
During his only meeting with Anthopoulos and other team executives, Shapiro said he was concerned that the Jays had given away so many blue chip prospects this season.
That conversation has been confirmed by two sources.
“Mark is a pretty direct guy and he was basically questioning giving up so many great prospects,” the team source said. “He basically was trying to point out Alex really was going for broke.”
If that's true, it becomes easier to understand Anthopoulos's departure, because not all of his blockbuster deals have worked out—but then, which general manager's do? Dialing back to December 2009, the trade of Roy Halladay to the Phillies for Kyle Drabek, Travis d'Arnaud and Michael Taylor itself delivered no major league value to Toronto, though Taylor was traded for Brett Wallace, who was traded for Anthony Gose, who was traded to the Tigers for second baseman Devon Travis last December; Travis produced 2.4 WAR in just 62 games for the Blue Jays this year before being lost to a shoulder injury.
Looking at Anthopoulos's two mega-deals in 2012: The 11-player trade with the Marlins in late November cost the Jays the services of Henderson Alvarez, Anthony DeSclafani, Yunel Escobar and Jake Marisnick. But Mark Buehrle delivered 6.7 WAR and 604 1/3 innings over his three seasons with the Blue Jays, earning All-Star honors in 2014, and Jose Reyes produced 5.8 WAR in '13–14 before struggling this year and eventually being traded to the Rockies in the deal for Troy Tulowitzki. The December trade of A ball prospects d'Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard to the Mets in a seven-player swap brought reigning NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey and now looks like a mismatch because both youngsters have helped New York to a pennant. But the knuckleballer has delivered 654 2/3 innings and 6.5 WAR over the past three seasons, a solid return for the $29 million he's been paid, and his return to form in the second half certainly helped Toronto secure its AL East flag.
More recently, Anthopoulos's acquisition of Josh Donaldson from the A's for four players, including the injury-riddled Brett Lawrie, brought the Blue Jays a player who may well be this year's AL MVP, as the slugging third baseman bopped 41 homers and produced 8.8 WAR. His one-for-one deal of Adam Lind to the Brewers for Marco Estrada last November brought back Toronto’s most valuable starter during the regular season (3.6 WAR in 181 innings) and postseason (2.33 ERA in three starts, two of which saved the team from elimination). His deadline acquisitions of Tulowitzki and LaTroy Hawkins for Reyes and three pitching prospects, of David Price for three prospects (including Daniel Norris), and of Ben Revere and Mark Lowe in smaller deals represent one of the great midseason makeovers in recent history. The flurry turned a team that was muddling along at 50–51 into a juggernaut; the Jays went 43–18 the rest of the way, making up an eight-game deficit on the AL East-leading Yankees and then coming back from a 2–0 hole against the Rangers in the Division Series before finally losing to the defending AL champion Royals in a six-game ALCS last week.
Not to be lost in this are the successful extensions of late-bloomers Jose Bautista (five years and $65 million covering the 2011–15 seasons) and Edwin Encarnacion (three years and $29 million for '13–15) on Anthopoulos' watch. The former, signed when Bautista was fresh off a 54-homer breakout in his age-29 season, has paid off several times over, as he's bashed 173 homers and produced 26.9 WAR (eighth in the majors) over the past five years; picking up his $14 million option for 2016 is a no-brainer. Similarly, Encarnacion's deal, signed in July 2012 when he was en route to a career-high 42 homers during his age-29 season, has seen him hit 109 homers and produce 12.4 WAR over the past three years, and picking up his $10 million option for 2016 is an easy call, too. Meanwhile, the first year of Russell Martin's five-year, $82 million deal resulted in a 3.3-WAR season at a cost of $7 million, not to mention the backstop's eighth trip to the postseason in a 10-year career with four different teams.
While Anthopoulos would have faced a considerable task to replenish the Blue Jays for 2016 with Price, Estrada and Buehrle hitting free agency, the criticism from Shapiro—if it's been portrayed accurately—had to be galling. Since coming within one win of a trip to the World Series in 2007 (blowing a 3–1 ALCS lead to the Red Sox, alas), his Indians played exactly one postseason game (the 2013 AL wild-card game) in the past eight seasons, that in the third season of five since he was promoted to team president, with Chris Antonetti taking over GM duties. The team had been expected to contend more often than not since Shapiro was promoted, but fell short while waiting for a stable of young pitchers and hitters to produce at the same time as free-agent deals to the likes of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn produced mediocre returns. Meanwhile, the Indians’ attendance has declined sharply, from 2.27 million in 2007 to 1.39 million this year, second-to-last in the AL. Anthopoulos's Blue Jays went from just shy of 1.5 million in 2010 to 2.8 million this year, fourth in the AL, and the Rogers Centre was rocking during the playoffs.
It's easy to understand, then, why Anthopoulos may have resented the arrival of and criticism from Shapiro, whose initial focus was believed to be on the business side, overseeing renovations of the Rogers Centre. In turn, one can put some of the blame for this fiasco on ownership, which fumbled its attempt to replace Beeston last winter, creating lame-duck situations for both the team president and GM. Fresh off captivating a sizable portion of the entire country—11.5 million Canadians, nearly 1/3 of the entire population, watched some part of the fifth game of the Division Series—the franchise has created a PR nightmare. Via the Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur:
The Blue Jays picked up this city, and took it on the best ride it's seen in over a decade, and are now reduced to spinning this. Sports.— Bruce Arthur (@bruce_arthur) October 29, 2015
It's not clear where Anthopoulos goes from here, with no GM openings currently available, though it's possible another team could bring him in as president of baseball operations or kick its own GM upstairs to facilitate an addition. More likely, he'll sign on with a team in a special assistant role until a better job opens up. As to where the Blue Jays go from here, TSN's Whitehead noted that there's "a good chance" vice president of baseball operations Tony La Cava and director of pro scouting Perry Minasian will depart. Manager John Gibbons, whom Anthopoulos brought back in 2012 after the skipper was fired by Ricciardi in '08, is under contract through next season, with a vesting option for '17 if he's still the manager as of Jan. 1 of next year. In other words, Shapiro may well wind up needing to rebuild the entire front office this winter.
For both parties, this may be for the best: Sooner or later, Shapiro would have wanted to hand-pick the parties on whom the fate of his tenure in Toronto would rest—just as, say, incoming Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto wanted to choose a new manager to replace Lloyd McClendon or Friedman wanted to look beyond the inherited Don Mattingly. Similarly, Anthopoulos will land on his feet with an organization that grants him fuller autonomy via a longer-term commitment. Such executive level maneuvering may be inside baseball to most, but ‘tis the season for such intrigue.