Atlanta Braves Blog

The Atlanta Braves blog by David O'Brien, baseball writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Anthopoulos is the Canadian who’s had greatest impact on Braves


Mike Soroka, one of the more visible and promising young figures in Canadian baseball, will take the mound for the Braves tonight in a homecoming of sorts when he faces the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre.

But as terrific as Soroka has been so far in his fledgling career, the bigger impact on this Braves team has come from another young (relatively speaking) Canada native. The man who’ll be sitting in the visiting general manager’s suite tonight. 

Alex Anthopoulos.

Though he just turned 41 in May, he’s already in his seventh season as a big-league GM – plus two years as Dodgers VP of baseball operations – and Anthopoulos is doing for the Braves what he did for the Blue Jays as Toronto’s GM. 

And then some.

The Blue Jays improved by 10 wins, from 75 to 85, in his first season as GM after he took in October 2009 season firing the firing of J.P. Ricciardi. The Braves, after going 72-90 in their third consecutive season with at least 90 losses, are in first place with a 42-29 record and on pace for 96 wins.

The Braves hired Anthopoulos away from the Dodgers in November, after the forced resignation of scandal-plagued GM John Coppolella and not-so-subtle, pushed-out-the-door exit of president of baseball operations John Hart, who stepped down days after he was stripped of power.

Anthopoulos was in effect given the combined power that both Coppolella and Hart held before him, hired as GM and executive vice president of baseball operations and given full autonomy over all baseball decisions.

It probably was the only way the rebuilding Braves were going to get a GM replacement with the sterling reputation of Anthopoulos, who turned down a five-year extension worth a reported $10 million from the Blue Jays when he resigned in November 2017, a few months after Toronto hired Mark Shapiro as team president in a move that raised eyebrows and was widely viewed as undercutting some of the GM’s control.

Anthopoulos has full control of the Braves on the baseball side, and we’re seeing exactly why the organization felt he was the guy they needed to take over amid the stink of the scandal that brought down Coppolella and Hart and left a black eye on a proud franchise.

In eight months Anthopoulos has helped guide the Braves back to prominence. Not just in the standings, where the Braves have the National League’s best record and the majors’ largest division lead at 3-1/2 games over Washington, but also in terms of outside perception and, perhaps most important, optimism within the organization. 

Genuine optimism from top to bottom, throughout the team’s offices adjacent to SunTrust Park and across its minor league operations and affiliates. The Braves are back, they’ll tell you. 

And at this point, it’s tough to dispute that proclamation.

The big-league team is a year ahead of schedule, in the view of most of us who thought the rebuild was on course, but still at least a year from really taking a major step forward.

I think most team officials, if they’re being honest, would agree this was viewed more as a stabilizing year, especially after the scandal. You know, maybe improve a little on last year’s finish while getting the table set for a real run at the division title in 2019, when several young players would have a full season under their belts and a few pitchers would have gotten their feet wet and be ready to thrive.

Instead, the Braves are making that run at the division title now. And every time the naysayers predict, after the Braves have lost a series or had a bad week, that’re about to “come back to reality” and an inevitable collapse or at least slide toward .500 is at hand, they pound a team in a series or reel off a terrific homestand like the one they completed Sunday. And now, even many skeptics are starting to come around.

This team is good. And not a fluke.

They have an unusually effective mix of steady, strong-character veterans led by Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis and the best core of young talent in baseball led by Soroka, Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuna, Dansby Swanson, Sean Newcomb and others waiting in the wings. 

They have role players such as Charlie Culberson and Preston Tucker, who’ve done solid work and contributed big hits. And veterans such as Ender Inciarte and Julio Teheran, who’ve struggled at times but came up big at others and never moped or been a negative influence, even if their own personal performance hasn’t always been where they want it to be this season.

They’ve had a bullpen that, while often maligned – isn’t every bullpen in the majors maligned at times these days? – is ranked a decent ninth in the NL in ERA, sixth in opponents’ batting average and has allowed the fourth-fewest homers. But this is the area of need I think the Braves could ultimately prioritize as the trade deadline approaches at the end of July. 

Outside of Dan Winkler, who’s pitched like an All-Star; Shane Carle, who pitched like an All-Star for the first two months, and sometimes-shaky albeit usually effective closer Arodys Vizcaino, the Braves don’t have many relievers they can count on to lock it down most days. And with a rotation that relies so much on starters who haven’t gone through the rigors of a full MLB season, or made it through such a season in recent years, the bullpen could be a decisive factor down the stretch.

To answer the question many have asked, yes, the Braves were interested in Kelvin Herrera, who was traded to the Nationals this week for three prospects, none of them top-tier prospects. And yes, the Braves could easily have put together a package better than the Nats got him for and probably have done it without much impact on the Braves’ deep minor league system.

But Herrera was owed nearly $4.5 million for the rest of the season. And as we’ve said before, the Braves’ funds this year are quite limited after the decision was made to add about $30 million in payroll for 2018 through the five-player blockbuster trade that sent Matt Kemp to the Dodgers in December and offloaded Kemp’s salary for both this year and 2019. The Braves did that move to open a spot for Acuna and to clear the decks, so to speak, for a financial push next winter, when the Braves might have about $30 million available to add via free agency or trade(s) for players with big salary commitments in 2019.

They gave Anthopoulos full autonomy, but they also gave him a payroll to meet. And while he has never complained about that limit or indicated what the specific figure is, it’s clear he’s operating within it and that it’s not a very flexible limit. If it was, the Braves might blow through it and go for it now, spend some of the money they’ll make available to Anthopoulos this winter.

I don’t see them doing that. And I also don’t see that as something that will prevent them from finishing this season far ahead of expectations and competing for the division title until the end, even if the thus far underperforming Nationals right their ship and make a good run in the second half.

The Braves are good.

And they are not a fluke.

If you’ve watched them and watched the Nationals, you would probably agree there’s a difference in how they play. The Braves play with more energy, more excitement, more joy apparent in the faces of their young players.

That starts with having the right guys and with having a manager they love to play for. And with that manager able to do his thing and let his personality show and not feel like he’s got to impress the brass. 

After getting chewed out in the clubhouse by Hart following one mid-summer game last year when Hart didn’t like his bullpen management, Brian Snitker seemed unsure or uncomfortable at times for the rest of the 2017 season. Not now. He has a great relationship with his new boss.

“Snit” has been himself since Day 1 of spring training this year, laid-back and good-natured, always, in dealing with the media and public and especially with his players, most of whom seem to adore him the way players did Bobby Cox. The affection and appreciation they have for how Snitker deals with them, openly and on the same level as him rather than as subservient pieces of the machine, makes players respect him even more and, if they’re smart, not take advantage or try to exploit the lack of rigid rules.

And most of them are smart. They get it. It’s all part of the fabric of this team.

And it’s all part of the vibe that Anthopoulos has exuded since the day he took over.

Though hired relatively late in the offseason, he eventually got around to meet individually with every member of the front office and coaching staff and with plenty of others who have a significant impact on the daily operations of the team. A few were cleared out, but most were kept if he felt they were on the same page as he.

Anthopoulos then added to the staff by bolstering the analytics department with astute and proven people and having them, Snitker and the coaches work together to grasp exactly why they wanted the Braves to be moving forward, on the leading edge of data-driven modern thinking in baseball. 

It’s worked. Defense has been upgraded, hitting and pitching approach improved, and all, including players, seem in agreement that analytics has had a positive effect.

At the same time, the GM has been far more personable than his predecessor, not just improving relationships with key members of the front office, management and ownership teams, but also giving rank-and-file employees and players – role players, not just superstars -- a sense of importance, knowing where they stand and how crucial they are to the daily success of the operation.

Looking back, the Blue Jays improved by 10 wins in his first season as GM in 2010. They slipped from 85-77 to 81-81 the next season and didn’t have another winning record until 2014, when they went 83-79.

After that 2014 season, Anthopoulos, who had a reputation for hanging onto prospects, made a bold trade to get Josh Donaldson from Oakland in exchange for Brett Lawrie and three prospects. 

Then he had a frenetic and impressive series of transactions in July 2015 before the trade deadline: He got slugger Troy Tulowitzki and reliever LaTroy Hawkins from the Rockies in exchange for Jose Reyes, Jeff Hoffman and Miguel Castro – what was Colorado thinking? – and landed pitcher David Price from the Tigers for Daniel Horris, Matt Boyd and Jairo Labourt. 

He also picked up outfielder Ben Revere from the Phillies for two minor league pitchers, neither of whom has ever sniffed the majors.

The moves paid off immediately: The Blue Jays were 50–51 on July 28 and won 43 of their final 61 games to catch and pass the Yankees for the American League East title and their first postseason appearance in 22 years. Anthopoulos was named MLB Executive of the Year by Sporting News, as selected in balloting of 47 executives.

But at age 38, he stepped down from his Blue Jays post after that season. The Shapiro hiring had changed the dynamics of the job and had seemed to send a clear signal from ownership about wanting another powerful official in on the decision-making and not just the GM many viewed as a boy wonder at the time.

The Blue Jays’ loss has become the Braves’ gain some 2-1/2 years later, and no one doubts that Anthopoulos will make bold moves when he feels the timing is right.

There is no questioning who’s running the show for the Braves when it comes to baseball operations. It’s all Anthopoulos, who’s surrounded himself with a heady group of forward-thinking assistants, improved the morale of every part of baseball ops including professional and amateur scouting, and done it with a disarming, genial manner that never feels like he’s talking down to you or trying to sell you a car.

He’s got a way about him, a natural positivity and likeable nature that seems to have fallen from the sky for the Braves, for he is what they needed at the organization most stressful, darkest time in decades.

Or have we already forgotten how bad things seemed in October when the MLB investigation was hanging over the Braves like a black cloud?

That’s what I mean about Anthopoulos being the young Canadian who’s had the greatest impact on the Braves.

-- I’ll close with this classic from the late, great Leonard Cohen, a Canadian and a giant in music.

“WAITING FOR A MIRACLE” by Leonard Cohen

Baby, I've been waiting, 
I've been waiting night and day. 
I didn't see the time, 
I waited half my life away. 
There were lots of invitations 
and I know you sent me some, 
but I was waiting 
for the miracle, for the miracle to come. 
I know you really loved me. 
but, you see, my hands were tied. 
I know it must have hurt you, 
it must have hurt your pride 
to have to stand beneath my window 
with your bugle and your drum, 
and me I'm up there waiting 
for the miracle, for the miracle to come. 

Ah I don't believe you'd like it, 
You wouldn't like it here. 
There ain't no entertainment 
and the judgements are severe. 
The Maestro says it's Mozart 
but it sounds like bubble gum 
when you're waiting 
for the miracle, for the miracle to come. 

Waiting for the miracle 
There's nothing left to do. 
I haven't been this happy 
since the end of World War II. 

Nothing left to do 
when you know that you've been taken. 
Nothing left to do 
when you're begging for a crumb 
Nothing left to do 
when you've got to go on waiting 
waiting for the miracle to come. 

I dreamed about you, baby. 
It was just the other night. 
Most of you was naked 
Ah but some of you was light. 
The sands of time were falling 
from your fingers and your thumb, 
and you were waiting 
for the miracle, for the miracle to come 

Ah baby, let's get married, 
we've been alone too long. 
Let's be alone together. 
Let's see if we're that strong. 
Yeah let's do something crazy, 
something absolutely wrong 
while we're waiting 
for the miracle, for the miracle to come. 

Nothing left to do ... 

When you've fallen on the highway 
and you're lying in the rain, 
and they ask you how you're doing 
of course you'll say you can't complain -- 
If you're squeezed for information, 
that's when you've got to play it dumb: 
You just say you're out there waiting 
for the miracle, for the miracle to come.


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About the Author

David O'Brien has covered the Atlanta Braves for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2002.