LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- If the hiring of Alex Anthopoulos wasn’t a grand slam for the Braves, it was at least a two-run homer.
Because with one hire, the Braves went from being viewed as somewhere between tarnished and pitiable – yes, the gold standard was no more -- to being a once-proud franchise that suddenly seems well on the road back to respectability and, in due time, back to prominence.
That’s not overstating the impact around the baseball world that was made by the Braves with the hiring of Anthopoulos, the former Blue Jays wonder-boy GM who built a division winner in Toronto, then helped get the Dodgers to a seven-game World Series in his second season as vice-president in a baseball operations triumvirate headed up by Andrew Friedman.
Did we mention that Anthopoulos, by all accounts an extremely sharp fellow and endearing sort from a working-class Montreal background, is still just 40 years old despite six years of experience as Blue Jays GM and, prior to that, seven years in scouting with the Expos and Blue Jays? And how’s this for humble beginnings: His first job in baseball in 2000 was an unpaid, part-time position with the Expos sorting out players’ fan mail. Seriously.
He’s come a long, long way since, and those who know him have no doubts that he was a perfect choice for the Braves at this juncture and that Anthopoulos will bring a lot of energy, creativity and baseball knowledge – his own plus that of all those around him whom he mines for more – along with being well-liked and respected by seemingly everyone he’s worked with or met during his entire professional life.
"He works hard and does a really good job, you're going to like him," Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said.
Anthopoulos is well-spoken and left a trail of well-wishers behind in Toronto even after turning down the Blue Jays’ extension offers following his successful stint as GM there, which ended with the 2015 division-winning team that captivated the city and snapped a 22-year Toronto playoff drought that was the longest in the majors. The good folks of Toronto understood that Anthopoulos had been put in a tough spot when the Blue Jays brought in Mark Shapiro as president, effectively dividing control of baseball ops at the precise time when Anthopoulos had proven he merited full control.
So the Greek Canadian took his wife and two young children to La-La Land and help Friedman and another Canadian, Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi, build a pennant winner that came within one win of a World Series title.
Anthopoulos ran the operation with payroll restrictions for much of his time in Toronto, where the Blue Jays have a high profile and a large media contingent – they are marketed as Canada’s team -- and he was part of an L.A. organization with unmatched resources and the constant media spotlight. So it’s not as if stepping into the Atlanta market and being tasked with guiding a prospect-rich team in the final stages of a rebuild that’s taken three years and counting is going to be overwhelming for this guy, even if MLB slaps the Braves with sanctions that could including restrictions in free agency or the draft for a while.
As much as I think Royals GM Dayton Moore, the first choice of some in the front office and a segment of Braves fans, would’ve done a great job if K.C. had let him interview with the Braves and he had then decided to take the job, to me things might’ve actually worked out better with the selection of Anthopoulos. Hear me out.
I think that’s the case because for a lot of Braves fans, he’s a breath of fresh air and a break with a Braves past that, while certainly something to be proud of, has also begun to feel like a crutch at times for some who don’t believe the Braves haven’t lately exhibited the urgency that should prevail in an organization that last won a postseason series in 2001. And yes, there’s a difference between doing-things-the-right-way urgency and completely-ignoring-entire-sections-of-the-rules-in-a-reckless-pursuit-of-talent urgency.
Anthopoulos and some other new hires in the front office and coaching staff come to this with neither jaundiced view or beholden to any players or prospects, or to any rigid framework of a rebuilding plan. Anthopoulos has shown before that he’s willing to trade prospects or veterans if it’ll help him get his team where he thinks it should be or could be now rather than later.
At the same hour that Anthopoulos was being introduced as the Braves' new GM and executive vice-president during a news conference Monday afternoon at SunTrust Park in Atlanta, the rest of baseball’s general managers were doing a media session at a posh Orlando hotel on the first day of the annual GM Meetings, where Anthopoulos will join them on Tuesday.
“I have a deeper appreciation for the Atlanta Braves, for everything that they are going through and how I know that they will strategically manage the situation going forward to make things right,” Moore said to a few reporters in a courtyard outside the Waldorf Astoria Orlando. “The first step obviously was hiring Alex Anthopoulos. He did an unbelievable job in Toronto and he brings a lot of energy. He’s highly enthusiastic, so I expect he’ll take those character traits to that chair and begin to make good baseball decisions that are going to affect the Atlanta Braves in a positive way.”
Anthopoulos has been given the ultimate say in baseball operations, with John Hart stepping aside from president of baseball ops into a senior adviser role, not involved in the daily machinations of roster building. This GM isn’t going to have to get a move approved because he’s shown he knows how to make the right moves and the Braves brass is putting their faith in him doing it again and leading them during and out of the final stages of a rebuild that’s been painful, and could be painful a while longer especially if the penalties handed down by MLB are as bad as some believe they could be.
But the pieces are in place, most of the heavy lifting has been done, the farm system is fully stocked, there are a few building blocks on the major league roster, and the man from Montreal via Toronto and L.A. might be just the guy to bring this thing in from here. He might be just the change, just the break from a past that at times lately has seemed as much of a hindrance as a help.
Get the team back to the top of the standings and the accomplishments of the past can be celebrated again, but for now a lot folks are tired of hearing what the Braves did decades ago and want to see them make headlines again – the right kind of headlines, that is. The ones about winning and being held in high esteem.