In gushing Tuesday about the present Blue Jays lineup and potential for brighter days ahead, Alex Anthopoulos also shared some of what he has learned from his experiences in Toronto.
On a day the general manager brought back John Gibbons to be the 13th skipper in team history, and discussed a 12-player trade with the Miami Marlins that netted the Blue Jays five proven major leaguers, he remembered two player acquisitions from 2005 that didn't turn out well.
During an eight-day span, the Blue Jays filled a couple of needs by signing closer B.J. Ryan to a five-year, $47-million US contract and fellow free agent, starting pitcher A.J. Burnett, to a five-year, $55-million pact. Toronto released Ryan in 2009 after he failed to return to form after elbow ligament replacement surgery while Burnett walked the same year as a free agent following three seasons of mixed results.
At the time, Anthopoulos was an assistant to GM J.P. Ricciardi, so he's well aware of the risk the Blue Jays took in rolling the dice on two big-name free agents.
"Those deals went until December and there were times that we could have potentially lost those deals," said Anthopoulos at Tuesday’s 54-minute news conference. "I think ultimately we went to more years and more money [on Ryan and Burnett] than anybody else."
Had those deals fallen apart, the Jays would have been sitting empty-handed in the middle of the off-season, and presumably would have settled on a less attractive free agent.
Anthopoulos wanted no part of that this winter with Toronto coming off a 73-win season – one that many consider to be among the worst in franchise history – and needing to find a manager after John Farrell was released to fulfill his "dream job" in Boston.
Free agency an option
Sure, free agency was an option for Anthopoulos, but as he scoured the open market for starting pitchers, he said it was tough to pin down player agents on what their clients sought in terms of term and salary.
It also reminded Anthopoulos of the events that led to the Ryan and Burnett signings.
"I thought, do we keep our prospects, roll the dice that we can get one of these free agents without any certainty and any assurances?" he said. "Clubs have been used all the time with free agents and we could have absolutely fallen in the trap [of] thinking you’re right there [close to a deal] and then you’re the runner-up."
So, Anthopoulos did what he has preferred to do in his three seasons as a big-league GM. He went looking for a dance partner, or fellow GM, to make a deal.
"We try to stay out of the free-agent market. That trade avenue is a lifeline for us. You know exactly what you’re going to get. You have a guarantee that you’re going to get the players," Anthopoulos said. "And, with the impact this [Marlins trade] has on our payroll, it really allows for better planning. We have so much time left in the off-season."
In the end, Anthopoulos acquired starting pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, all-star shortstop Jose Reyes, infielder/outfielder Emilio Bonafacio and catcher John Buck, whose most productive season at the plate came in 2010 with Toronto.
Heading to Miami is shortstop Yunel Escobar, pitcher Henderson Alvarez, catcher Jeff Mathis, infielder Adeiny Hechavarria and three prospects.
"It wasn’t that we went into the off-season saying we need to make a 12-player trade," said Anthopoulos, who also confirmed the signing of free-agent outfielder Melky Cabrera to a two-year deal worth $16 million. "It would have been fine making a two-player trade if it was the right players. It just happened to [evolve into a bigger deal]."
Johnson the focus
The conversation began in early November with Marlins president Larry Beinfest at the GMs meetings in Indians Wells, Calif. Anthopoulos was only thinking about Johnson at the time, a 28-year-old right-hander who led the National League with a 2.30 earned-run average in 2010.
"When they [Miami] asked for some of our better young players at the GMs meetings, I said, ‘Well, if we’re going to have to be giving up some of our better young players we better try to go big here and really impact the club.’ And if it’s going to hurt [our long-term future] let’s make sure that we really get some value back and some impact back and let’s expand this. And Florida was willing to do that."
From Day 1, Blue Jays president and CEO Paul Beeston has told Anthopoulos that team ownership, Rogers Communications Inc., would make the money available for the right trade. Beeston told the GM to "stay on" the trade with Beinfest and he would make the necessary calls to get a deal done."
'He’s one of the better GMs to deal with because he’s such a straight shooter, no nonsense.' — Anthopoulos on Marlins GM Larry Beinfest
The trade talk grew to include Reyes and Buehrle before getting hung up on Bonafacio, who can play second base, shortstop, third and the outfield. The 27-year-old hit .258 in an injury plagued 2012 season but stole 30 bases in 64 games. In 2011, Bonafacio had a .393 on-base percentage in 152 contests.
Anthopoulos said the Mathis/Buck component was the last part of the trade and held up negotiations for an additional "five or six hours." He pointed to his relationship with Beinfest for the deal not falling apart.
"He’s one of the better GMs to deal with," Anthopoulos said, "because he’s such a straight shooter, no nonsense. "A number of years ago we talked about [second baseman] Dan Uggla in a trade and I had experiences dealing with Larry [then]. The one thing is [the Marlins] don’t play games and you appreciate that as a GM.
"I think we were better equipped to move fast because I knew who I was dealing with on the other end. And I knew that they weren’t going to start pulling back [players] and playing games. … Five, six days we got it done.
"I don’t think there’s a better example of the importance of our [scouting] and player development staff when it came to this trade."
Anthopoulos said the Blue Jays still have needs, citing more depth in the starting rotation, bullpen and from a position player standpoint "I think there are always areas to improve.
"Right now I feel good about the team," he added, "but you’re not going to hear me make any grand statements about how much better we are."
Anthopoulos had stopped gushing. Well, until his next move.