Like a cat with an unusually good grasp of numbers, Alex Anthopoulos has become the baseball executive who always lands on his feet.
For the fourth year running, and with a third different team, Anthopoulos has made the postseason. If once is good luck and twice is a coincidence, then three times means you’re doing more than the usual general manager hocus pocus (i.e. “We feel good about our club” until it all goes wrong and you switch seamlessly to “We feel good about our minor-league system”).
Over the course of his first year there, Anthopoulos’s Atlanta Braves went from one of the most depressingly average teams in baseball to one of the most exciting. They have the shoo-in for National League rookie of the year (Ronald Acuna) and one of the game’s best starters (Mike Foltynewicz).
At points this year, they fielded the youngest roster in the majors. Atlanta is built to last.
Since he’s only just shown up there, does the former Toronto Blue Jays GM have much to do with this sudden rise? Probably not.
Does he still get the credit? Of course, because if it went sideways he would most certainly get the blame.
This leads Blue Jays fans to a very special new October ritual – it’s time to gather around the living room table and play another game of “Where did it all go wrong?”
This year’s instalment is going to require three or four boards taped together. Was it Aaron Sanchez’s finger, Josh Donaldson’s brittle bottom half or the decision to take a pass in the Christian Yelich sweepstakes? Was it figuring out that Troy Tulowitzki needed both feet chopped off and replaced in April, working out that 14 mediocre infielders equals one good one (it doesn’t) or Roberto Osuna’s criminal charge? You could go on.
By the end, it was as bad as it could get. What else can you say about a season that ends in the farce of allowing an injured catcher to manage the final game?
On a prorated basis, Russell Martin earned US$123,000 to stand in the dugout looking authoritative for three pointless hours. (Anthopoulos’s bench boss, Brian Snitker, got $800,000 for winning the division. Which took a whole year.)
So that’s the Blue Jays’ one superlative of the 2018 season – “briefly employed highest paid manager in the history of baseball.”
If you play this game long enough, you eventually wind back to the foundational change that turned the Jays from a good news story into the beginnings of a bad one – letting Anthopoulos go after the 2015 season.
You can argue about which player Anthopoulos should or shouldn’t have traded, and how those decisions have rippled forward into the present. That’s all debatable.
What you cannot dispute is that as long as Anthopoulos was in the captain’s chair, things felt like they were moving in the right direction. And then, all of a sudden, they didn’t.
There isn’t much point in dwelling on it now, or blaming anyone – which has never stopped anyone from doing both.
But if there’s an instructive lesson to be learned from that fiasco as the Jays face the bleakness of the years to come, it’s this – change is overrated.
It is especially overrated in sports. And especially especially so when it comes to the people who run the teams.
The (often enjoyable) hysteria of sports encourages the people who follow them to become the world’s most reactionary homeowners. When told the roof is leaking, their instinct is to burn the house down. The first thing that gets torched is the executive.
This creates a frenzy of renovation – hire new assistants, new consultants, new scouts, new coaches. This process has a way of sprawling, as each new guy would like to hire another new guy and so on.
In so doing, everyone wedges themselves into a corner of the organization like termites – it gets hard to pull one out without eliminating the whole colony.
Once everyone is settled (a years-long process), they begin a round of “evaluation.” That goes on for a while, and might work out through the law of dumb luck. (In the Jays’ case, it has not.)
Then the tinkering begins. Remove player X and replace him with almost identical player Y. Trade away estimable player Z for spare parts and talk a lot about the future. In the end game, begin wildly spending on free-agent name brands. And then you get fired.
The impetus for all this flailing is the certain knowledge that everyone will be sacked in relatively short order. How well do you think you would do your job if someone told you that you had three years worth of leash and, unless you’d become the best salesman on the eastern seaboard, then you were getting strangled with it?
You might be better, I suppose. But you’d probably be a lot worse. All your decisions would have the short term in mind, like the fidgety gambler who puts his whole stack on red.
Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro, general manager Ross Atkins and their army of lieutenants now find themselves at this crossroads. Things have gone poorly. All the familiar faces are gone – meaning there’s no one left to blame. They’re the ones taking the direct hits from now on. Some of those are landing.
It can’t yet be said they’ve made bad decisions (though it can be said they’ve done a poor job explaining the ones they have). Given the poverty of ownership’s ambition, the Jays were always going down before they could get back up. We won’t know for a couple of years whether the plan is succeeding (or if there is a plan).
But it would be good to bear in mind that, having committed to this course with these people, it makes no sense to start lighting torches now.
Starting over with a new management team now would be change for change’s sake. It would be a knee-jerk reaction. The Anthopoulos ouster has already demonstrated how well that usually works out.