Heading into his fourth season as general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, 35-year-old Alex Anthopoulos is fresh off his busiest winter yet. Two blockbuster trades netted some of the biggest names in baseball—from Cy Young knuckleballer R.A. Dickey to all-star shortstop José Reyes—and boosted team payroll by more than US$40 million. With opening night set for April 2, fans are salivating for something they haven’t tasted in 20 years: the playoffs. Expectations could not be higher. Maclean’s caught up with the architect of the Jays’ revamped roster in Dunedin, Fla., the team’s spring-training home.
Q: Last time we spoke, two spring trainings ago, you talked about how thorough you are—almost obsessive, as you put it—in the pursuit of useful information. You said you even canvassed the team cook for his opinions.
A: I’m still the same way. But I think the one tweak or adjustment, if you want to call it that, is that I have to remember my vote should count for more. That’s not to sound arrogant. If things don’t go well, they are my decisions anyway. Sometimes when I look back, the things I regret are things that I may not have been completely sold on. What I think I’ve come to is: canvass everybody, get everyone’s opinion, but it’s really my vote.
Q: So after 3½ years on the job, are you trusting your instincts more?
A: Yes. Certainly, I’ve made plenty of mistakes trusting my instincts, but the mistakes I regret the most are the ones where I went against my instincts. Those drive me crazy.
Q: When you took over the general manager’s job at age 32, your philosophy was to invest heavily in scouting and player development and stock the farm system with high-ceiling prospects. Then, this off-season, you traded away some of the team’s biggest prospects for established stars, and significantly boosted team payroll. Was there a strategy shift?
A: It wasn’t a change of strategy. The whole time you are drafting and signing young players, you know they’re all not going to play for you. It was just one of those things: the time had finally arrived. It was three years’ worth of a lot of draft picks, a lot of dollars spent, a lot of work in player development. It’s like cultivating a crop; it takes time for them to grow. After a few years, as they start to graduate from level to level, it’s like a fruit that’s starting to get ripe. All of a sudden, it’s a lot more appealing to eat—and they become much more attractive to other clubs. We didn’t go into this saying, “2013 is the year the payroll is going to go up, or certain prospects are going to be traded.” It was always going to be opportunistic, and as we made these trades, we had a separate list of our minor-league prospects. We always looked at what was left. It was very important that we didn’t empty the cupboard.
Q: Some fans may assume you put all your chips on the table for this one season. But that’s not accurate, is it?
A: Exactly. If everyone we acquired were scheduled to be a free agent at the end of 2013, I would say: ‘absolutely.’ But if you look at this roster overall, everyone is under contract, other than [starting pitcher] Josh Johnson, for the next three to five years. So no matter what happens, this is not a team built for one year. It’s built for quite a few years. And even though payroll has gone up, the funding for scouting and player development has not gone down. We’re never going to deviate from that because that is going to continue to be our backbone.
Q: Was your dramatic off-season triggered, at least in part, by a sense that there is a window of opportunity because the Yankees and Red Sox, your wealthy division rivals, appear weaker than they’ve been in a long time?
A: Windows—no pun intended . . . throw them out the window. I’ve been asked that question a lot, and the answer is: not at all. No one is good enough to predict who is going to do well, and that’s why I cringe a little bit when people try to predict what we’re going to end up doing. Case in point: the Baltimore Orioles and the Oakland Athletics. Nobody—nobody—picked either of those teams to be in the playoffs last season. And for somebody to try to say that the two teams with the most resources in the game—the Red Sox and the Yankees—may be down or weak this season, I just don’t think it makes any sense. Because of their resources, there is no down period.
Q: The expectations haven’t been this high for two decades. At one point, Vegas had the Blue Jays as the favourite to win the World Series.
A: On the one hand, I understand the excitement. You add talented, established players. Ownership is showing commitment to the fan base, taking the payroll to the level it’s at. But at the same time, there has to be humility. We finished fourth in our five-team division, and those other teams have not gotten worse. We’re trying to get to the playoffs and everything we’ve done is designed to do that, not just for one year but for an extended period. I understand the expectations and the hype, but you still need to go out and play.
Q: Do you personally feel any extra pressure this season because of all that hype?
A: No, because I don’t look at it that way. We’ve done what we can. You try to assemble the talent. You try to put the team together. All we can do now is sit back and watch, and react as things happen during the season. But if you told me I could fast-forward and skip to the last day of the season, I would do that right now. I’d like to see how it turns out.
Q: Do you have to make the playoffs in order to consider this a successful season?
A: No. Your goal is to make the playoffs because everyone’s goal is to win the World Series. But look at the Detroit Tigers last year. They won the American League Central with 88 wins and they made it to the World Series. Anaheim won 89 games but didn’t make the playoffs because the American League West with Oakland and Texas was better. Can I really look at the Angels’ season and say it was a failure? Absolutely not.
Q: Your most controversial move, hands down, was signing a two-year, US$16-million contract with outfielder Melky Cabrera—who is fresh off a 50-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs.
A: There are a lot of other players in the league, whether it was Andy Pettitte, whether it was Jason Giambi, that have gone through something similar and have continued their careers and done well. We talked to a lot of his former teammates, a lot of employees with clubs that he’d been on, and our manager [John Gibbons] had been with him in Kansas City. The feedback was unbelievable. Obviously, no one condones what he did. He is certainly not the first one to do it, but we have said that we would give someone a second chance. I would be lying if I didn’t say, first and foremost, we think he can help us win, and the price was right. Absolutely, there is an element of risk, but we felt we did as much work as we could on it and we felt good about the decision.
Q: Your own backstory is almost unbelievable. After your dad died in 1998, you made it your mission—a 23-year-old from Montreal with no baseball resumé—to beg and borrow your way into the game you love. Do you ever find yourself wondering: how the hell did I get here?
A: You know, it’s funny. We were watching the game today and [assistant GM] Tony LaCava, [director of pro scouting] Perry Minasian and I were talking about internships. Mine came up. Tony was saying: “You really grinded it out.” But I just don’t know that I would have had the mindset if my father hadn’t passed away. I said to Tony and Perry: “I wish I could go back in time and meet myself, to know what the heck was going through my mind.” Sometimes I just think: “Was I crazy?” I needed something so jarring to happen to me—obviously losing a parent is right up there—and that’s probably the only way I would have had that type of mindset. But I never sit back and say, “Wow,” because I know how much work we have to do. You know how many people are counting on you.
Q: You and your wife recently welcomed a son, your second child, and you named him after your father.
A: It’s a Greek tradition. We always talked about it: John Anthopoulos. It’s a way for me to remember my dad every time I see my son.
Q: Do you love the game as much as you did when you were that teenager watching the Montreal Expos at the old Olympic Stadium? The sounds? The smells?
A: No. And I know that sounds terrible to say. I think that’s why I enjoy some other sports so much—because you don’t know enough. You don’t know the inner workings, in terms of the personalities of the players, some of the backstories, the good, the bad. It’s innocent, and you can still root for a team. I really enjoy following the NBA. I can just watch the game as a fan and I can cheer and I can yell at my TV screen. When you work for a team, you’re always in work mode, evaluating, worrying. You lose the ability to be a fan.
Q: Is your ego still in check?
A: Yes, no doubt about it. I will never, ever let this job get to my head. I know how fast it could be gone, and that’s why I’m sheepish about getting accolades before we’ve even done anything. If I could just be behind the scenes, and let the players and the manager be the guys at the front of the line, I would sign up for that right now.