Alex Anthopoulos has an image problem.
Until R.A. Dickey threw the first passed ball to J.P. Arencibia in the first inning of the 2013 season, the Toronto Blue Jays general manager was a boy genius. The double-jointed adjective was almost his middle name from the moment he was promoted to run the Blue Jays in October 2009, taking over for his own boss, J.P. Ricciardi.
He seemed a homegrown member of the smarter, younger, data-driven tribe that had already taken over Silicon Valley and the financial markets and were now infiltrating baseball.
He played the part.
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Early on Anthopoulos won hearts by meticulously accumulating low-priced assets in the form of young arms, draft picks and under-appreciated veterans, with the latter often blossoming in Toronto and subsequently signed for contracts that are laughably team friendly now.
He was even able to trade overpaid outfielder Vernon Wells.
It was the safe approach of someone seeking staying power in any business: sacrificing the present at the alter of a distant, shimmering, future. Anytime things weren’t going well with the big club, all anyone had to do was look at the K/9 ratio of the teenage flamethrowers on the Lansing Lugnuts or read another ooh-and-ahh report from the New Hampshire Fisher Cats.
It was prospect porn, and Anthopoulos had everyone glued to their screens.
But then came the off-season of 2013 and the Blue Jays transformation from a team of the future to a win-now lineup thanks to a pair of bold prospects-for-pedigree deals that an entire industry agreed were the kind of smart, aggressive moves that alter the course of an organization.
And as the product on the field has generally failed to meet those expectations, new adjectives are being heard all the time: Cheapskate. Not a baseball man. Gun shy. The guy who should be fired.
The Blue Jays are 138-149 since flipping the switch in 2013. They were never in the playoff race a year ago and now, after going 4-10 so far in August, they look like a long shot at even earning the second wild card spot in the American League.
It’s not much of a return for $260 million or so in payroll.
And so the next six weeks promise to be a referendum on Anthopoulos’s future.
The debate has begun already. While a report on Sunday from Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons cited a “bevy” of sources saying Anthopoulos was already going to be brought back, Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi quoted Rogers Media president Keith Pelley as saying there hadn’t been any discussion about Anthopoulos’s future.
Davidi also goes on to point out that Blue Jays president Paul Beeston may well be headed for retirement after this season, which adds another layer of uncertainty to the endeavour.
But at its nut, the question really is simple: Should Anthopoulos be back.
And the answer here is equally simple: Absolutely.
He’s still young — Anthopoulos doesn’t turn 38 until next season — but he’s now been on the job for nearly five years, long enough to be judged by his track record of signings, picks and trades.
And the track record stands up well, even if the record on the field hasn’t reflected it.
Get rid of Anthopoulos?
The same guy who has Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion — perhaps the best pair of all-around sluggers in baseball — under team control for two more season at $23 million combined?
The same guy who took a chance on Melky Cabrera and kept the faith with him after a lost season in 2013 due to a tumour growing on his spine and who is producing one of the best hitting seasons in the American League for $8 million this year?
The same guy (wisely it appears) who took a wait-and-see approach with Colby Rasmus rather than locking the mercurial centre-fielder down on an expensive long-term extension after what appears to be a career year in 2013?
The same guy who didn’t trade Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchison or Daniel Norris, the young left-hander who has racked up 148 strikeouts in 113 innings pitched at three levels of the minors this summer?
All those names were part of trade packages the Blue Jays were being offered to add veteran starting pitching — a clear need during the off-season — that is beginning to show now with Stroman and Hutchison showing signs of fatigue.
That Anthopoulos stayed the course certainly didn’t earn him any fans within his own clubhouse, if the comments by Bautista and Casey Janssen after the Blue Jays stood pat at the trade deadline are any indication.
But even as the Blue Jays look likely to miss the playoffs for the second time in what Anthopoulos and Beeston described as a three-year window to contend, the current roster is a better argument for Anthopoulos returning than him getting the boot.
There is good young pitching. There is elite talent at reasonable prices. The big contracts that are on the roster — Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes in particular — are still performing at a high enough level that they can still conceivably be part of a contending lineup either here or somewhere else.
The Blue Jays next task as an organization will be deciding if retaining veteran talent like Bautista, Reyes, Dickey and Buehrle is the right path, or if a better route is moving them for younger pieces that better matches up with the long-term potential suggested by the club’s young pitching.
The irony is that even as his big bet hasn’t paid off and likely won’t, Anthopoulos’s approach has never appeared more sound. The assets he gathered were valued throughout baseball. Those that remained are showing signs of being elite level contributors.
What level of commitment Rogers provides him (or his replacement) to work with is the wild card. Beeston has said the club’s payroll will increase for 2015, but what if it doesn’t? That’s not Anthopoulos’s call, yet he’s shown he can manage on a budget.
You only get once chance to be a boy genius GM and Anthopoulos’ days with that title are now past. It was an image that served him well.
Steady, disciplined and patient aren’t adjectives that are as easily crafted into a saleable image, but they are the qualities that make for a good executive. Anthopoulos has them and going forward the Blue Jays are going to need plenty of all of those attributes, which is why he deserves the chance to extend his run.