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Braves sidestep pitfalls with independent Anthopoulos

While his overall effectiveness will be determined over the next few seasons, the Braves’ decision to hand the reins to Alex Anthopoulos avoids some of issues they may have been primed for.

Toronto Blue Jays Introduce R.A. Dickey Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Just like that, our not-that-lengthy fandom-wide nightmare of not having a GM is over. (The nightmare of penalties looming continues, however.) In case you’ve missed it, the short of it is that the Braves have hired erstwhile Toronto Blue Jays GM and Los Angeles Dodgers Vice President of Baseball Operations Alex Anthopoulos to be their next General Manager.

What’s more is that the Anthopoulos hire appears to represent somewhat of a sea change for the Braves: Anthopoulos will function as an “executive vice president” in addition to general manager, and appears to be the main player in the hierarchy. John Hart, who presumably had some kind of pull in the organization under the previous arrangement, where John Coppolella was the GM, has been shifted to a more advisory role.

Overall, I’m not convinced that this is the Front Office personnel decision equivalent of manna from heaven, at least not in a vacuum. The proof is going to be in the pudding, where the pudding is going to be the next few years (Anthopoulos received a four-year contract), and the amount of success the Braves have therein. Anthopoulos has had a fair bit of head decision-maker experience over a six-year stint with the Blue Jays, but the team was 16th in baseball in aggregate wins during that stretch, with only three seasons over .500, only two with 85 or more wins, and only one playoff appearance. Even if you take the most skewed view, where you give Anthopolous a two-year grace period to shed any barnacles left to him by predecessor and mentor J.P. Ricciardi, and include the 2016 Blue Jays (largely assembled by Anthopolous) in his ledger, the win total only jumps to 14th-best in MLB, though you do get two playoff appearances in five years, which is somewhat better than the expectation (10 playoff teams and 30 total teams means you’d expect about a 33% playoff rate).

(Note: The Blue Jays’ payroll situation during the Anthopolous years is kind of interesting in how static it was. For the first three years of his tenure, it was either 22nd or 23rd in MLB; for the next three years, it was ninth or tenth. There were no playoff appearances with the low payroll, which is reasonable but unexciting, and one playoff appearance with a high payroll, which is about as expected.)

With all that considered, though, my big takeaway is that by going with Anthopoulos and giving him a degree of independence, the Braves have sidestepped potential pitfalls that they could have brought on themselves with a different move. That’s perhaps a particularly unexciting way of describing the hire, but I think it’s an important one. If there’s a high degree of uncertainty in future outcomes (and make no mistake, there definitely is), minimizing downside risk is a big deal. Here’s why I think the Braves have done just that, in no particular order.

Alex Anthopoulos hasn’t been involved in (m)any clunkers

If you’re of the opinion that the Braves currently have enough talent in their organization to chase a playoff spot if they are just patient with their prospects, Anthopolous seems like a very sound choice. As Matt kindly reviewed in his exhaustive treatment of Anthopoulos’ Blue Jays tenure, there aren’t really massive clunkers in there. Sure, there are some trades you could probably criticize (giving up Yan Gomes for a failed starter-turned-reliever-with-a-decent-half-season is just weird), and one that stands out in hindsight as unfortunate (the Syndergaard and d’Arnaud for R.A. Dickey swap), the process doesn’t really seem particularly problematic in any of his moves or free agent signings.

That matters, for a couple of reasons. First, the other potential candidates in the running for the position have had their fare share of clunker moves. Most GMs do, and you all know that even John Coppolella was far from immune to making a boneheaded move here and there. And that’s before getting into things like the Ian Kennedy contract (Dayton Moore), whiffs on two big ticket free agents that really ate into the resources of even a very wealthy team (Ben Cherington), or the very mixed bag of multiple transactions presented by Jim Hendry (seriously, do a review of all his moves, there are so many). Second, and while your mileage may vary here, the Braves might be in pretty decent shape as it is. Some embellishing around the fringes, some nice roster adornments, and this could be a playoff team. That seems to be fairly consistent with the way in which Anthopoulos ran the Blue Jays, and that would be highly welcome here.

Alex Anthopolous is perhaps the best mix of youth and experience

Right now, it seems like there’s a bit of a divide in baseball Front Offices. Some are run by old hands, such as 69-year-old Sandy Alderson or 61-year-old Dave Dombrowski. But, there’s also been a youth infusion into the GM ranks these days. New Twins’ GM Derek Falvey is just 34; Matt Klentak in Philadelphia is 37; Mike Chernoff of the Indians is 36; and David Stearns, GM of the Brewers, is a sprightly 32. Of course, this isn’t unprecedented, lest we forget that Theo Epstein became the youngest GM in history at the age of 28. But, despite being around and in the news for a while, Alex Anthopoulos is just 40, and was just 32 when he became a GM for the first time.

At this point in his career, Anthopoulos has worked for three organizations, holding the executive role in one, and an assistant executive role in another. But, he’s done so in an age where baseball has evolved more than in any past era, and has not had the opportunity to rest on his laurels or his connections in the way a much older executive could.

The main lesson of innovative approaches to roster construction is never going to be about “scouts versus analytics;” I think we’ve mostly all acknowledged that this is a false dichotomy by now. Instead, the lesson is that teams and Front Offices need to adapt, need to improvise, and need to be both flexible and thorough in how they collect, filter, understand, and use all sorts of data to meet their ultimate goal of winning baseball games. Being involved in that milieu for the last decade-plus in different contexts means that Anthopoulos has less of a blind spot than someone who would have gotten the job due to his interpersonal connections or his ability to project an aura of being an “old time-y baseball guy.” That can only help the Braves, who will need every advantage they can get so long as their payroll remains constrained.

Seriously, though — take a scan of all the potential GM candidates out there, not just the ones rumored to be Coppolella’s replacement, but anyone that comes to mind. Who else has the same combination of youth and experience? Theo Epstein? Andrew Friedman? Sure, those are the obvious answers. But there aren’t a lot of available GM candidates that fit Anthopoulos’ mold, and that makes him a very interesting choice for the Braves. Whatever risks there may be for the Braves in hiring him, the fear that the game has passed him by really shouldn’t be one of them.

Alex Anthopoulos has the keys to the kingdom, and shouldn’t be constrained by other voices...

This is not really a commentary on Alex Anthopoulos himself, but it may be one, depending on how willing or loath the Braves were to have John Hart (and John Schuerholz, Bobby Cox, and any other voices in the Front Office) take a step back depending on who was hired. In other words, to the extent that those parties will be taking a step back because it was Anthopoulos who was hired, and not another party, this was a great move.

In another universe, the Braves could have selected a relatively less emphatic GM that would have less autonomy, at least in the early going. The problems with this would be myriad, and hopefully, self-evident. Having too many cooks in the kitchen can be a problem for decision-making, especially when one party is tasked with executing on a vision but can’t do so due to competing objectives or modes of analysis. And when there’s fundamental disagreement about exactly how one goes about their duties, as has been rumored (but never really substantiated), it’s hard to see how dysfunction or organizational rot isn’t the result.

Now, this isn’t to say that a singular viewpoint and a top-down hierarchy is the best-case scenario, and it doesn’t seem like Anthopoulos would initiate that anyway (see below). Rather, it’s more that, before this hire, there was the very real outcome that the Braves would continue to be run as a more-of-the-same franchise, with the franchise greats exerting some measure of control that muddled the incentives for the selected GM. That’s not going to be the case in Atlanta any more, unless something has gone terribly wrong.

...but the anecdotal evidence suggests that he’s a questioner and collaborator, rather than a top-down tyrant

Media pieces about baseball executives are really weird. Or, perhaps, not weird at all. They are almost always positive, unless the team is struggling and some beat reporter or disgruntled columnist decides to do what is effectively a hit piece. Detailed, in-depth pieces don’t tend to be hit pieces unless they’re postmortems of a fall from grace: after all, why would an executive give a reporter access if the reporter was going to turn around and excoriate the executive and their process?

With that said, there are two really interesting things that Anthopoulos has had all along, and picked up along the way.

First, if this great bit of longform journalism from MacLean’s (full disclosure: it’s run by Rogers, which owns the Blue Jays) is to be believed, one of Anthopoulos’ driving principles is his need to talk to everyone, and more importantly, to ask them questions. As a huge, huge fan of asking questions as a way of building knowledge and interfacing with the world, this is only a good sign. Again, maybe this is all a puff piece. Or, perhaps, with greater experience, Anthopoulos has gained a sense of world-weariness and no longer feels the need to interact with everyone from the cook on up and incorporate their take into his decision-making process. But, if that’s not the case, and he’s still the guy so lovingly described in this piece, that can only be a great sign. (Hat tip: commentariat member ShooterMcGavin1 for sharing that awesome article in the comments. Well done.)

Second, Anthopoulos spoke for a bit during Monday’s press conference about how he, Farhan Zaidi, and Andrew Friedman functioned something like co-GMs in Los Angeles, divvying up the responsibilities of GMs by player. That sort of collaborative experience can only be a boon to an organization that, apparently, if reports are to be believed, was beset by some rather antisocial or tyrannical outbursts from the late GM. (And, really, both late GMs — the Frank Wren toxic personality meme was apparently vindicated, after all.) Having yet another top-down, power-by-fiat general manager would lead the Braves down the same path they didn’t quite enjoy traipsing down twice before; a change in this regard seems welcome for the organization as a whole.

Gathering as much data as possible, and using that data in a resourceful, appropriate way is really the calling card of front office decision-making. Asking questions helps with that. Working in a collaborative environment helps with that. Making everyone in the organization feel that their opinions are valued helps with that. If that’s the kind of organization that Anthopoulos will build with his leadership, the Braves will be in good hands.

With Anthopoulous now anointed to lead the franchise, the Braves will be able to fully participate in the GM Meetings taking place imminently, as well as next month’s Winter Meetings. Penalties still loom, but the franchise will no longer be hamstrung by a lack of leadership as an offseason plan needs to be put together and executed. I don’t know what Anthopoulos is going to do: he’s got many avenues towards approaching 2018 and beyond, but they’re all fairly mutually exclusive. Soon, the usual scrutiny of every move, every public statement, and so on will begin, just as it happens with every GM. But, at least with Anthopoulos in the fold, the concerns above won’t be hanging like a Sword of Damocles over everything. Instead, we’ll have to find new things to worry about, new implications to nitpick, and new questionable motivations to ascribe to the moves we don’t like. It’s gonna be a lot of fun.

(Special thanks to Eric, siegeface, and BravesRays for sharing their thoughts with me and letting me crystallize my own thinking in regards to this move.)

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