Alex Anthopoulos And Rogers: A Case Of Terrible Timing
Even though the season ended short of the World Series promise it held for the last half of the season, Rogers Communications, the Canadian multi-media giant which owns the Blue Jays, the stadium they play in, the broadcast network which carries its games on radio and television, and many of the mobile devices fans watched their games on, should have spent this week basking in the glow of a successful on and off the field season. Rogers, which had been battling Bell Media for Canadian communications supremacy, seemingly had won the war between the two that had been going on for some 17 years, the final blow being the record tv ratings their flagship cable network Sportsnet had captured, topping Bell’s TSN for the top spot in Canadian Sports Media. A huge boost in ticket and merchandise sales had also boosted Rogers profits considerably. Everything seemed in place for the corporation to build on its market share over the off season, and continue to grow the Blue Jays brand.
GM Alex Anthopoulos, who took over almost six years ago to the day, shocked the baseball world when he announced that he had rejected an extension to his contract, which expires on Saturday.
It was, to say the least, a stunning blow. Many had thought that the Montreal native, who attended Hamilton’s McMaster University, and cut his teeth as an executive in Toronto, would be returning to the fold. Even when it was announced that Cleveland President Mark Shapiro would be taking over from the retiring Paul Beeston at the end of the month, the thinking was that the two would create a great partnership, with Shapiro taking care of the business side (including long-overdue renovations to the Rogers Center, and a new spring training stadium in Dunedin), and Anthopoulos attending to baseball matters.
But it didn’t turn out that way.
To his credit, Anthopoulos, who spoke with the media in a hastily-arranged conference call this afternoon, took the high road, giving Rogers and Shapiro credit for being “outstanding” during talks about a new contract. In the end, he said, it was his decision, but “it was not a good fit going forward.”
Reporters asked Anthopoulos if his departure was because he would still have to have baseball decisions (like last July’s trade bonanza) approved by upper management, Anthopoulos said that he “always respected the chain of command,” but declined to elaborate. Reading between the lines, it’s likely that Shapiro, a former GM himself, was not content to limit himself to the business side, and envisioned a role for himself like that of Theo Epstein in Chicago, Andrew Friedman, or Dave Dombrowski in Boston – a kind of czar of all operations, with a figure head GM in place.
And clearly, as well as understandably, that was not for Anthopoulos. Nor should it have been.
Rogers had to have known this was coming. Shapiro, who was announced as President almost two months ago, but does not officially take over for 48 more hours, had obviously made his conditions for accepting the position, including the last word on all matters affecting the baseball side, abundantly clear. And he has an impressive resume, with a solid background in player development and analytics, as well as being a mentor to young front office staff like current Pirates GM Neal Huntington. Demand for final say in baseball matters was not something that came from Shapiro when the Blue Jays play off run ended. It had been in the works for some time.
Rogers regained legions of lapsed fans over the past three months, and captured a whole new generation of them. People were talking about baseball everywhere you went not just in the Greater Toronto Area, but across all of Southern Ontario and much of Canada as well. And the frustration of many of them is palpable today. Fans are rightly wondering why the club would mess with success.
This was, above all else, a business decision, and Rogers, rightly or wrongly, felt that the direction the team would take with Anthopoulos having more autonomy would not have been sustainable going forward. The Anthopoulos approach was to roll the dice: draft high risk, but high upside prospects (and for every Marcus Stroman he has chosen, there’s a Matt Smoral, who hasn’t made it out of short season ball since being a first round pick in 2012), and bet the farm to trade for players who would upgrade the major league roster. And in truth, while one can’t argue with the results (and there are some high ceiling players left in the minor league system), emptying your organization of prospects every few years is a high-wire act, one that can backfire spectacularly when those traded prospects prosper elsewhere. Clearly, the upper level management of Rogers was not comfortable with that model. Unfortunately, for Blue Jays fans, Rogers did not feel fit to at least try to get out ahead of the coming bad news. This was about all that was coming out from their side today:
You certainly can’t blame Anthopoulos. Like pitcher Marco Estrada, he picked a great time to have a career year. His value as a General Manager can’t be much higher. He claims he has not job offers, but that won’t be the case for long.
In hindsight, perhaps we should’ve seen this coming earlier in the week, when Anthopoulos gave his end-of-the-year press conference. Anthopoulos said that the farm system is in great shape, listing the name of top prospects like Anthony Alford, Rowdy Tellez, Conner Greene, Sean Reid-Foley, Richard Urena, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr as evidence. In truth, the system falls precipitously off of a developmental cliff after that, and it will take several years to rebuild it. And the beginning of the end of the Shapiro-Anthopoulos relationship may have come very early:
Source: In their 1st & only meeting, new Jays prez Mark Shapiro scolded Alex Anthopolous & staff for trading so many top prospects this yr
— Rick Westhead (@rwesthead) October 29, 2015
At the end of the day, it just doesn’t look great. Blue Jays fans, already feeling stung by the dramatic and controversial events of Game 6 against the Royals, were just getting to the acceptance stage of grieving over their team’s final loss, and were ready to get on with the process of looking forward to next March.
Now, at least until we hear more from Blue Jays ownership, there is a huge vacuum. This tormented fan base, which had suffered through baseball’s longest playoff drought in a city full of post season demons, deserved better.