2015 was a banner year for the Toronto Blue Jays, who shook off their infamous ‘longest North American sports team without a playoff berth' tag. General Manager Alex Anthopoulos served as a key cog in transforming the franchise over the course of the last five years. Given the circumstances of the past eight or so months, the ending probably seemed a bit harsh. With Mark Shapiro taking over as the head of the Jays' front office, AA was seemingly pushed aside despite all that he did for the club over the past half decade.
Anthopoulos' tenure with his home-country squad can be criticized or praised depending on the perspective, but the moves he made, particularly in the last 12 months, will have a lasting positive impact on the club.
Anthopoulos took over the Toronto front office from JP Ricciardi in October 2009. Ricciardi served as GM for the Jays from 2002 to 2009, a period of seven years that yielded zero playoff berths and only four seasons above .500. Ricciardi did not leave Toronto under the best of terms, as the team finished higher than third place only once, and ill advised long-term contracts were left behind for the next front office.
Whether or not the Riccardi-signed contracts were the cause, leadership did not allow Anthopoulos to pursue new free agent contracts great than five years. The edict essentially tied the Jays' hands, and took them out of the bidding for nearly every high-profile free agent during the new regime's tenure. Despite being handcuffed, Anthopoulos demonstrated creativity in finding and trading for talent.
In one of his first highly-publicized moves, Anthopoulos managed to unload aging slugger Vernon Wells' contract to the Angels in order to clear money to build around younger players such as Jose Bautista. This undoubtedly generated good will among Jays fans, as Wells went on to post 0.3 fWAR (2011), 0.4 fWAR (2012), and -0.6 fWAR (2013).
In his first season with the Jays, Toronto improved by ten games (from 75 to 85 wins) but still finished in fourth place, 11 games behind the first place Rays. Despite the improvement in record, the stands remained largely empty; Toronto packed only 1,495,482 people into the park - their lowest total since 1982 (the year following the 1981 strike, when low attendance plagued all of baseball).
Throughout the Anthopoulos years, attendance improved, as the Jays moved from 12th in the AL to 4th in six years.
In 2011, Anthopoulos made his biggest splash in the trade market, when the Jays traded away Jason Frasor and Zach Stewart for Edwin Jackson and Mark Teahen. AA immediately flipped Jackson and a number of lesser / older players (Mark Rzepczynski, Octavio Dotel, and Corey Patterson) for Colby Rasmus. Rasmus played miserably in Toronto for the remainder of the season but rebounded in 2012 to post a 104 wRC+ and 0.9 fWAR. The success of the trade came to fruition two years later when Rasmus led the Blue Jays in fWAR with 5.1 wins despite playing in only 118 games and getting 458 plate appearances.
Though the team finished within spitting distance of 90 wins in 2010, Toronto took a step back in 2011 by finishing at 81-81, 16 games behind the Yankees. With three teams in the division finishing with 90 or more wins, Toronto's playoff drought seemed endless. 2012 and 2013 were similar, as the Jays never finished with more than 74 wins.
Trying to shake things up in 2012, AA landed J.A. Happ, Brandon Lyon, and David Carpenter. In exchange, Toronto sent Francisco Cordero, Ben Francisco, and several prospects who never had a major league impact. Although few players in this mid-season deal created much value for the Jays, the blockbuster four months later turned the tides in Toronto.
In November of 2012, the Blue Jays traded some of their young talent along with others, including Yunel Escobar, Adeiny Hechavarria, Henderson Alvarez, Jeff Mathis, Justin Nicolino, Anthony DeSclafani, and Jake Marisnick, for a plethora of veterans from Miami. Although this wiped out a good portion of the farm system, the haul of Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, John Buck, and Emilio Bonifacio set the team up for success and offered other major league talent trade chips that would eventually land superstars.
Buehrle has put up the most value of anyone in the trade thus far, getting 2-3 wins since 2013 and eating between 198 and 203 innings annually, but the biggest prize was the acquisition of Reyes, who would play a key role in the 2015 blockbuster deal with Colorado.
In the offseason, Anthopoulos took a chance signing Melky Cabrera. who previously served a PED suspension. Not only was Melky coming off a performance-enhancing-induced vacation, but he also had some health issues as a tumor was removed from the base of his spine during the time off. Cabrera showed mixed results, posting a terrible -0.8 fWAR in 2013 but rebounding with 2.5 fWAR in 2014. This move can be viewed as a wash, though the opportunity cost of signing Melky probably makes it a negative mark on Anthopoulos.
Later in the 2012 offseason, Anthopoulos made the biggest miscalculation of his Toronto tenure. Toronto acquired Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets (with Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas thrown in as well) for Travis d'Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard. My colleague Spencer Bingol wrote an excellent piece breaking down how the Mets won that trade, and it gets only worse as Syndergaard and d'Arnaud continue to develop.
Despite all the wheelings and dealings, the Jays did not break through to the postseason until 2015, in large part because of Anthopoulos' persistence in the trade market.
As an aside, while I was attending Saber Seminar in Boston, someone in the audience asked Ben Cherington if the Red Sox considered acquiring Josh Donaldson. Cherington replied by saying he was told by Billy Beane, the A's GM, that Donaldson was not available and credited Alex for making something work when the Red Sox just moved on to other trade partners.
Anthopoulos traded Brett Lawrie, Kendall Graveman, Franklin Barreto, and Sean Nolin for Donaldson, who looks to be the favorite to win the American League Most Valuable Player Award. While Lawrie has flashed offensive potential, the prospects remain buried deep on the farm. Although the A's probably took a defensive step forward adding Lawrie, Beane likely regrets the decision, as Donaldson posted a career-high 8.7 fWAR. Perhaps the Athletics thought they saw his ceiling in 2013 or 2014, but Anthopoulos managed to get one of the best hitters in the game on his team for a relatively nominal cost.
With the aging lineup and Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion under contract only through 2016, this seemed to make sense. It came to fruition this year as the Jays had easily the biggest bats in the majors.
Complementing the sluggers, AA signed Canadian-born-and-bred catcher Russell Martin. Martin had a decent 2015 and is under contract through 2019. Five years is certainly a long time to give a catcher on the ‘wrong-side-of-thirty', but if the Jays can remain competitive, and Martin can post another 3-win season, that signing should be viewed as a win.
In his last big splash at the helm, the 2015 trade deadline, Anthopoulos packaged Jose Reyes and pitching prospects Jeff Hoffman, Miguel Castro, and Jesus Tinoco for Troy Tulowitzki in one of the more polarizing trades on both sides. Rockies fans thought Colorado would get a great deal more, while the Jays took on the risk of an oft-injured, expensive shortstop. Tulo cemented the lineup as a power-laden juggernaut and served as a key piece in the 2015 ALCS run. It's possible one of the pitchers breaks out in Colorado, but this deal clearly improved the Jays in the shorter-term.
In addition to Tulo, AA nabbed David Price from the Tigers by sending to Detroit more prospects in Daniel Norris, Jairo Labouert, and Matt Boyd. This deal represented a huge upgrade in pitching for a team that was slugging their way to a division title.
The team surged after acquiring Tulo and Price and left the Yankees in their wake en route to their first playoff appearance in two decades. Alex Anthopoulos created an offensive powerhouse and supplemented just enough pitching to make a run in the playoffs.
Assessing the Toronto tenure of AA shows that he's not afraid to trade prospects for superstars, which most GMs are wont to do, but he's also shown a propensity to trade younger players on the farm for marginal improvements...some of whom work out, and some of whom don't.
The legacy of Anthopoulos is mixed, depending on the perspective. Mark Shapiro is now leading the charge for a team with a depleted farm system and stars under contract for the next year. He'll be left with a mid-30s catcher and an aging, fragile shortstop, and this all could come to a head in the next two to four years.
In the present however, Blue Jays fans should be thankful that Anthopoulos pulled off some of the deals he did, because it reenergized a city and franchise. Even the ownership group should be happy to once again be relevant. Rogers Centre has been a cavernous vacant space for far too long, and AA's reign was instrumental in bringing the fandom back to the city.