Alex Anthopoulos works very well with Billy Beane. The Toronto Blue Jays GM’s relationship with his Oakland Athletics counterpart began during his days as an assistant GM under predecessor J.P. Ricciardi, one of Beane’s best friends, and the bright, fast-talking kid quickly connected with the savvy, analytical executive. The continued growth of their rapport now gives Anthopoulos a little more leeway to throw out extra texts and emails when he wants something from the A’s. Something like Josh Donaldson.
To say their bond is the main reason why the Blue Jays were able to acquire the all-star slugger for third baseman Brett Lawrie, righty Kendall Graveman, lefty Sean Nolin and shortstop prospect Franklin Barreto would be silly. But it is worth keeping in mind that Ricciardi often bragged about Anthopoulos being able to talk a starving dog out of a steak. In prying Donaldson — the heart and soul of the Athletics for the past two years — away from Beane, that’s essentially what he did.
This is how it happened.
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet Magazine
Monday | Nov. 24
Two weeks after the GM meetings and two weeks before the winter meetings, the Blue Jays were looking for an impact bat to replace the offence lost when they traded Adam Lind to Milwaukee earlier in the off-season. Late in the evening, Anthopoulos was on the phone discussing a different matter with Beane when he again brought up Donaldson — something he’d been doing off and on since October.
"‘Look, I can’t,’" Anthopoulos recalls Beane replying. "‘I’m not going to move him. We’re still going to try to win next year, it would just create a huge hole in my lineup and I can’t afford it — I don’t have anyone to replace him.’" This time, however, Anthopoulos had an idea to break the deadlock. "I said, ‘Well, what if Lawrie was coming back?’"
The Jays didn’t want to part with Lawrie, preferring to shift the sparkplug third baseman over to second while also adding Donaldson, but it had become clear that a prospects-only deal was a non-starter. A significant now-piece was needed to get Beane to open the door, which is precisely what he did when he replied, "That would help soften the blow." Still, it’s no eureka moment. A stumbling block had been removed, but any deal needed to be Lawrie-plus, and both teams had to figure out exactly how much plus would be enough.
"We said, ‘OK, let’s just chew on it,’" says Anthopoulos. "I needed to internally examine this. Is this going to make sense for us? It was very noncommittal. There were no proposals or anything."
Tuesday | Nov. 25
Anthopoulos’s office at the Rogers Centre is right next to that of team president and CEO Paul Beeston. The next morning, the GM walked into his boss’s office and told him that Donaldson was on the table, but the price would hurt.
"I said, ‘You’ve got to look at something like that.’ I really wanted to keep Brett Lawrie to play at second base, but he had to be part of the deal," says Beeston. "You just don’t get a bat like [Donaldson’s] for the number of years of control that he has, which I admit at that time I didn’t realize was four more years. There was a genuine excitement at getting a bat like that knowing that you had both Bautista and Encarnacion, and figuring, wow, what are we going to have with this from a power point of view?"
Beeston gave Anthopoulos his blessing and looped ownership in that something might be going down. Money wasn’t going to be an issue, Beeston knew, because with Donaldson slated to earn a projected $4.5 million in arbitration, he "clearly fit in the financial framework." Meanwhile, Anthopoulos began breaking down every angle of a potential deal with his assistant GMs, scouts, player-development staff, analytics group, manager John Gibbons and others. What would giving up Lawrie mean? What was the projected ceiling for each of the prospects Oakland liked? How would Donaldson impact the payroll beyond 2015? Were they ready to shut the door on their free-agent negotiations and other trade possibilities? How would they round out the team if they did close the deal? Hanging over everything was doubt that the A’s would actually trade their star.
"You talk to someone, you think maybe there’s a little traction and then the next day you talk again and it’s like, ‘Yeah, I slept on it. Nah, it’s not something we’d do.’ That happens all the time," says Anthopoulos. "We still don’t know exactly what Oakland wants. We know who they like, we don’t know ultimately what the package would have to be."
That night, Beane and Anthopoulos talked by phone. The A’s were still interested. Names were exchanged.
Wednesday | Nov. 26
Excitement over the prospect of landing Donaldson was turning into tension in the Blue Jays office with a holiday looming.
"You never know if it’s going to happen," says Beeston. "It’s a concept, it’s an idea, it’s a wish. You figure it’s not going to happen in the next few days because it was American Thanksgiving."
Talks resumed between Anthopoulos and Beane in the afternoon, with Graveman and Barreto introduced into the conversation as part of a group of names. The GMs paused and picked up the thread again that night.
"Discussions go so many places — bigger, smaller," says Anthopoulos. "We were exchanging ideas."
Thursday | Nov. 27
Despite the holiday, Anthopoulos and Beane spoke again when morning hit on the West Coast. There was more back-and-forth, but nothing was settled. Kicking around the options — whether or not the price of the deal made sense, what his alternatives were — Anthopoulos debated another round of talks with Beane but decided against it.
"At some point you have to make a decision," he explains. "I’ve dealt with Billy enough that I got the sense we were hitting a wall . . . It was get it done, or shut it off and go in another direction."
That night, they chatted again.
"If you’re prepared to do this, I’ll do the four guys [Lawrie, Nolin, Graveman and Barreto] for one. I’m ready to get the deal done if you are," Anthopoulos says. "Give me a little time to get back to you," was the reply. A short while later, Beane called back with a simple message: "I’m good."
Pending medicals and capping a day of mixed emotions, the deal was done.
"At one point Alex is phoning me at home saying, ‘We ain’t getting this deal done,’" recalls Beeston. "The next thing I know he’s phoning me at home saying, ‘The deal is done.’ We were excited. We knew there was some risk, but it’s a potential win-win for both organizations."
Anthopoulos called Blue Jays trainers George Poulis and Mike Frostad to let them know about the trade so they could contact their Athletics counterparts to exchange medical files, and the doctors for both teams were given the heads-up that they’d be needed to vet the players.
"At that point it was all systems go," says Beeston. "This moved a lot quicker than I thought.""
Friday | Nov. 28
The trade was now in the hands of the doctors. Things were much simpler from the Blue Jays’ end as they had just one player to check. The medical process can be as easy as having a single doctor review a file, although a team may consult a specialist or even ask that a player take a physical. There was no need for that from Toronto’s point of view, and Anthopoulos informed Beane that his medical staff had signed off.
The Athletics needed more time, so the trade wasn’t expected to be finalized until Saturday. Knowing that, Anthopoulos headed home in the afternoon to pick up his wife and daughter before returning downtown to watch the Toronto Raptors take on the Dallas Mavericks. It was his daughter’s first time at the Air Canada Centre and by halftime she was done, her ears ringing from the banging of thundersticks behind the visitors’ hoop. The noise aside, a bucket of popcorn and meeting the mascot ensured that it had been a good night.
"We had parked the car at the Rogers Centre and left some things in my office to not have a bunch of extra stuff at the game," says Anthopoulos. "When we went back to my office to get my keys, I got word from Billy that he was good with the medicals. As I was driving my family home, I let everyone know."
After dropping off his wife and daughter, Anthopoulos returned to his office to approve the trade in Major League Baseball’s system. He asked assistant GM Tony LaCava to inform Nolin, Graveman and Barreto while he phoned Lawrie, who missed the call but quickly picked up the voice-mail message.
"He just said it was important I call him back," Lawrie remembers. "I called him back real quick and, sure enough, shortly into that conversation I was no longer a Blue Jay and I was an Oakland A. I was at a loss for words to be honest with you . . . It happened so fast, it’s almost like I was dreaming."
The two spoke for about 10 minutes. "It was tough," says Anthopoulos. "I respect the way he plays the game, how much he cared about the organization, so it’s never easy. You get attached to these guys being around them."
Beane, meanwhile, was breaking the news to Donaldson. Word of the trade leaked out around 9:45 p.m., and 40 minutes later the Blue Jays made an official announcement. Anthopoulos spoke with the media at 11:15 p.m. Five days after he first floated the idea of including Lawrie in the deal, it was finished.