TORONTO – Shortly after Jorge Soler hammered the third pitch of the World Series opener over the left-field wall, Fox Sports play-by-play announcer Joe Buck detailed Atlanta’s clever pre-deadline remake of its outfield.
President of baseball operations and GM Alex Anthopoulos had, in Buck’s estimation, “one of the best Julys a GM has ever had.” Given the transformational impact Soler, Adam Duvall, Eddie Rosario and Joc Pederson have delivered since joining the sputtering club, which extended into Tuesday night’s Game 1, 6-2, victory over the Houston Astros, it’s hard to argue.
Still, for Toronto Blue Jays fans, Buck’s comment opened an interesting debate: Is Anthopoulos’ work this summer better than that in 2015, when his frenetic deadline-week acquisitions of Troy Tulowitzki, LaTroy Hawkins, David Price, Mark Lowe and Ben Revere helped end a 21-year post-season drought?
There are parallels and differences, but in both cases the augmentation of .500 clubs led to deep post-season runs, the Blue Jays losing in six games to the Kansas City Royals in the 2015 American League Championship Series, Atlanta now three wins away from a championship.
Without doubt his four trades this summer were masterstrokes, all accomplished without spending any significant prospect capital:
Pivotal was the July 15 acquisition of Pederson from the Cubs, a deal completed over the all-star break to ensure his players would return to a boost days after Ronald Acuna Jr., was lost to a season-ending knee injury. Atlanta was only 44-45 at the time, and the trade sent a message that there would be no retreat -- something reinforced on deadline day when, despite a 51-53 mark, Anthopoulos swung the other three deals, building an entirely new outfield mid-season.
That sparked a 37-20 finish and wins over Milwaukee in the division series and the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, all with minimal risk in terms of assets surrendered.
It’s exceptional work and the dividends continued pouring in during Game 1, when Soler’s homer set the tone, Pederson’s base hit helped set up Soler’s RBI groundout in the second and Duvall’s two-run homer in the third, immediately after a Rosario single, made it 5-0 and knocked out Valdez.
Anthopoulos’ deals in 2015 were similarly impactful, although the players acquired – and the prices paid to get them – were more substantial.
The Blue Jays were 50-50 when they made the Tulowitzki deal and 52-51 when they swung the other three trades, addressing the defensive deficiencies of a declining Reyes at shortstop, bolstering the rotation with an ace in Price, shoring up the bullpen with Hawkins and Lowe while plugging a hole in left field with Revere.
An epic 43-19 finish followed, rejuvenating a long moribund franchise, but the moves turned out to be the last of significance Anthopoulos would make in Toronto, as he left after the season, just as Mark Shapiro took over as president and CEO.
Shapiro pointed to the high cost of the deals after his arrival and a thinned-out farm system that had to be rebuilt afterwards. But there’s some eye-of-beholder in looking back at the deals now, as Anthopoulos seems to have sold high on many of the players in the deal, Hoffman and Norris prime among them.
Of everyone traded away that summer, Boyd leads in career WAR at 7.7, as calculated by Baseball Reference, followed by Norris at 5.4. and Castro at 3.6. Everyone but Tirado and Wells has at least touched the majors, but none of the prospects traded would have prevented the down years of 2017-19, and they helped set up the magic of ’15 and ’16.
With some better fortune, the 2015 Blue Jays would have faced the New York Mets in the World Series rather than the Royals, but it didn’t turn out that way for Anthopoulos in his first try at one of the best Julys a GM has ever had.
He’s already further along in his second attempt.
Other takeaways from the World Series opener:
• Game 1 came up Atlanta in so many ways, but the right fibula fracture suffered by ace Charlie Morton could play very big the longer this series goes.
Morton is the bedrock of Atlanta’s staff and, while Max Fried in Game 2 and likely Ian Anderson in Game 3 still provide a qualitative advantage over Houston’s starters, that edge ebbs the next turn. Jose Urquidy starts Game 2 for the Astros followed by Luis Garcia in Game 3, and neither offers much certainty.
But Houston will be able to turn back Valdez for Game 5, and he was much better in his second ALCS outing than he was in his first, while Atlanta won’t have an answer for that without Morton.
• In terms of gutsy post-season moments, Morton shaking off the Yuli Gurriel second-inning comebacker that struck him in the leg to get two more outs that inning and another in the third before coming out of the game ranks right up there. He threw 16 pitches after the injury, eight of them at 94.2 m.p.h. or harder, topping out at 95.9. He’s expected to be ready for spring training next year.
• A.J. Minter took over for Morton and provided 2.2 innings of crucial relief, allowing a run on three hits, Luke Jackson followed with 1.2 frames, carrying Atlanta to its leverage arms.
Tyler Matzek, who allowed a run in 1.1 innings, and Will Smith in the ninth closed things out.
• Neither team hit particularly well with runners in scoring position, Atlanta was 2-for-9 while Houston was 1-for-9, which again underlined the importance of big-blow offence.
Soler and Duvall both went deep, accounting for three runs, while Yordan Alvarez and Gurriel both launched rockets off the wall.
Alvarez’s triple was cashed in by a Carlos Correa groundout while Gurriel was thrown out at second by a strong relay by Rosario, who smartly fielded the drive off the wall in the eighth.