Alex Anthopoulos became the Braves’ general manager Nov. 13, 2017. He presided over a National League East title last season, and the 2019 Braves hold a comfortable division lead. And yet, among some fans, the feeling persists that Anthopoulos hasn’t done enough. He spent a lengthy lunch this week offering his views on the team, his moves and what’s apt to happen before the July 31 trade deadline. The first half of that conversation follows.
» Anthopoulos interview, Part II: Liberty Media and Craig Kimbrel
Q. Do you think you have enough starting pitching to get you through October?
A. We have enough talent. I can't tell you what the performance is going to be, but we have as much upside as anybody. You look at who's in Gwinnett right now, and you've got (Kevin) Gausman, who's going to be there shortly; (Mike) Foltynewicz is down there; (Kolby) Allard; (Huascar) Ynoa's got electric stuff; Kyle Wright's throwing the ball well; Patrick Weigel just had a fantastic start. That being said, the ones who've been up here haven't pitched to their ability. We're going to take the month of July to really make that determination. We always look at the starting rotation through the lens of, "If we needed to have four guys start playoff games, who would we go with?" It's very hard to know what that's going to look like after the month of September. With injuries and performance, we want to have as much depth as we can. But we do have options internally; we just haven't gotten the results yet.
Q. How important is Foltynewicz this year and beyond?
A.There's no doubt what his impact can be. He started Game 1 of the NLDS for us last year, and it wasn't by default. He earned it. You look at the numbers he put up last year, with the strikeout rate and the ERA and everything else. The biggest change has been his slider is not the same. The development of his slider is going to be key for him.
Q. What happened to his slider?
A. There are all kinds of theories, and I've talked to him about it – whether it's the injury (the tender right elbow that slowed him in spring training) and he's totally healthy and whether he feels comfortable. There have been times when he's shown it this year. That outing on the road against the Cardinals (on May 24) was the most excited I've been basically all season because that was 2018 Mike Foltynewicz, stuff-wise. It's in there. Just from the consistency standpoint, we haven't seen it. The velocity's fine. As a result (of his slider struggles), he's had to throw more change-ups and curveballs. In Gwinnett he can work on (his slider). Rather than worrying about trying to get outs up here, he can actually work on it. That's going to be as impactful an acquisition as we can make.
Q. Are you concerned that the number of innings Max Fried and Mike Soroka are apt to work, and will you do anything to modulate that?
A. We're aware of it. We talk about it. We're on top of it. There's just an unknown of … we just watch start to start, in between starts, every day. Do they need to skip a side (session)? In certain games, if we have enough of a lead and (manager Brian Snitker) can save some bullets and pull a guy after six even if his pitch count is low, he'll look to do it. If we need to pop in an extra starter to deal with off-days, we'll do it. We don't have a number (of innings) in mind. I don't believe in that. I did early as a young GM (with Toronto). We shut guys down. We did all that. They still got hurt.
Q. Who’d you shut down?
A. We shut down Brandon Morrow. We shut down Brett Cecil. We shut down Drew Hutchison. We shut down Kyle Drabek. We shut down a ton of guys. In L.A., we shut down Julio Urias. And you can look across the industry: Plenty of teams have shut guys down, and it didn't prevent them from getting hurt. I don't have the solution. I don't think anyone does. I just don't think it's been proven to work in shutting guys down. I think we monitor it start to start, each outing and the work in between … and there may come a time when we need to shut them down, for whatever reason, if they are sore or they're ailing. But right now we plan to have them pitch the whole year. We're very conscious that the workload is going to be heavy, especially if we get to October.
Q. What’s your reaction when you see your much-criticized bullpen has the best ERA in the National League?
A. That it could change again. (Laughs.) I just think it's experience over time. I really don't react one way or the other. If you ultimately win and you have results, certainly you react. But I've been through enough seasons and enough failures and successes to know that we're at the beginning of July and a lot can change. We're halfway through the season.
Q. Did you ever think the bullpen was as bad as some among us in the media, myself included, were portraying it?
A. No. I know there was a lot of talk about, "Why wasn't it addressed?" We can't dictate what's out there in the market in terms of free agency. Certainly there were relievers that we liked; some of them we didn't like at a certain price. Some of the best deals when you look at it, three months into the season – some big-money guys, like Adam Ottavino (who signed with the Yankees for $27 million over three seasons), have done very well – but for the most part some of the best deals have been the lower-dollar deals. And I think every GM would tell you that, if everyone knew, they wouldn't have gotten those contracts. There was risk associated with that. I don't know that anyone's good enough to be able to hit on those guys all the time, but in terms of those big financial commitments, we didn't have the conviction to go big on multi-year deals, big AAVs (average annual value) for those relievers. We'd rather save those dollars for other opportunities. A Dallas Keuchel comes up, and we have the ability to go do that and outbid a team for him.
Q. Were you surprised that Anthony Swarzak, obtained at low cost from Seattle, has turned into the new Andrew Miller?
A. I will say this. We thought Anthony Swarzak was much better than he'd pitched in Seattle. We thought there was upside there. We'd actually worked on trading for him in April, and we just couldn't come to an agreement. We kind of stayed on it and continued to watch him, and we were able to get it done at the end of May. So I'd say this: We absolutely expected him to pitch better. Let's not forget, going into 2018 he signed a big free-agent contract. He was valued in the industry, and he'd had good success in 2017. Now, with what he's done for us, nobody would have expected that. I think everyone would be lying if (they said) they expected that.
With our bullpen and our rotation, we thought we had a lot of talent, and there was upside to all of them. We also liked the flexibility of the bullpen where, if some guy’s not performing, a lot of guys had options; a lot of guys were on non-guaranteed deals. We had enough inventory that we could churn and circle and make changes – because the most volatile area in the game is the bullpen, year to year to year. When you start giving out a bunch of guaranteed contracts in the bullpen, and inevitably – which is bound to happen, unless you’re Mariano Rivera – there will be volatility of performance, and (if) you have guys on guaranteed deals for multiple years and they don’t perform, you’re stuck. You can’t option him. You’re likely not going to release a player who’s on a three-year deal. You’ve got no choice but to continue to pitch him, which makes things worse.
Knowing there was volatility and upside, we liked having the flexibility. If we needed to turn over six of our eight relievers, not that that was part of the plan, we had the ability to do it without releasing guys on $10 million AAVs or three-year deals. We can survey the market, see who’s out there in trade, see who’s throwing well for us and make those changes.
Q. Will the bullpen again be an area you’ll try to address in the month ahead?
A. Everyone's always looking. It's the most challenging thing to get at the trade deadline because every team has that need. Same thing with a front-line starter. If you're searching for a position player at the trade deadline, it's team-specific. If we needed a second baseman or a left fielder, how many contenders are going to have those same needs? From a competitive negotiating standpoint, it's a lot easier. Every contender can add a reliever, a quality one. Every contender can add a starter. We'll explore that market. We did it last year, and those guys – both (Brad) Brach and Jonny Venters – had great success for us. If there's opportunities, we'll do it. We also really like the talent that we have. We're very excited about Chad Sobotka. Before he went on the injured list with his oblique strain, we asked him to make a change to his mix, and he did it in his second inning of work, and then he went on the IL. And when he went down to Gwinnett – this is a guy who has historically walked a lot of guys – his numbers were 9-2/3 (innings), two walks, 16 strikeouts.
Q. What was the change?
A. I don't want to get into too many details, but he's got great stuff. I don't know how long it's going to last, but we just noticed some things we thought he could improve. In the same way, we thought Anthony Swarzak could improve. That doesn't always work. We could say the same about the guys who are failing.
Q. Given that you’ve already moved for a starter with Keuchel, are you less apt to add another before the deadline?
A. It all depends on how well Gausman, Foltynewicz, Bryse Wilson, Kolby Allard, Kyle Wright, Weigel, those guys throw. We look at it through the lens of, "We need four starters for a playoff series." Also you look at results. Our starters' ERA is not where we need it to be. We've been able to overcome it because of our offense and our bullpen. When we went into the offseason, we really liked the (in-house) talent. The reason we targeted (Josh) Donaldson was we felt there was upside in our rotation and our bullpen because there were so many talented arms. Other than Austin Riley, we didn't have anybody we felt could impact 2019 in terms of an impact bat. We didn't know how (Ozzie) Albies was going to rebound from the second half he had – we were all optimistic on that – and Dansby Swanson (was) coming off the wrist. What if there's a reoccurrence there? What if (Johan) Camargo doesn't perform the same way he did? Over six months, we know we need to continue to have depth. From that standpoint, I would say rotation is right now … unless we have internal solutions and those guys start to perform, we'll look outside to continue to get better.
Q. Are you getting what you’d hoped from Donaldson?
A. Yes. Our offense dipped in the second half of the year, (and that) carried over into the playoffs against L.A. Half of all run-scoring is via the home run. That's just the reality of today's game. We needed a middle-of-the-order bat. When we surveyed the free-agent market in terms of power, in our minds there was (Bryce) Harper, (Manny) Machado, Donaldson. That's in terms of upside middle-of-the-order bats where we didn't have to make a trade or give up a draft pick. That was by far the best deal for us – short-term, (he) plays defense. We had Camargo at third, but it allowed us to use Camargo in various ways; it gave us depth. And it's a one-year deal. We paid an elevated AAV, no doubt about it, but the comparison for us was, we could go down the Machado path, $300 (million), or the Bryce Harper path at $330 (million). This made the most sense for us. With what he's done – if you want to look at things like WAR, the complete player – he's been very good, and he's got upside to be even better.
Q. Is it hard to sit back and take criticism when the criticism basically is, “Oh, you don’t want to spend any money, and you don’t really care about winning”?
A. It's not hard, and I say that with respect, not arrogance. As a younger GM, it's hard. Initially, your first year, you're reading everything, you're seeing everything. And then you just realize it's part of the job. You could be a Hall of Fame GM like John Schuerholz or Pat Gillick, and those guys are getting criticized. Everyone gets criticized. The best way to put it is … I save quotes in my phone. The best quote for me (checks phone) is Warren Buffett. I don't invest in stocks and I'm not a finance guy, but I'm interested in his quotes and his life, and he has this: "You're neither right nor wrong because other people agree with you; you're right because your facts are right and your reasoning is right. That's the only thing that makes you right. And if your facts and reasoning are right, you don't have to worry about anybody else."
I remember years ago, when I was in Toronto. I was going to a Maple Leafs game, and there was a lot of controversy – this would have been 2010 or 2011 – about a trade they had made. I was with a friend of mine, and we were debating it, and I was trying to explain the thought process of the GM and why he did it and why it made sense and why it may not have the effect everyone thought. And my friend’s response, and he doesn’t work in baseball operations, was: “I don’t care. It’s his job to be right.” There’s another quote. (Checks phone again.) Winston Churchill: “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”
Your thought process might be right, everything might line up, but at the end of the day, you need to be right. That’s all that matters. I’ve been through offseasons where I’ve won the offseason as a GM, Las Vegas has us as the favorites and I’m lauded and applauded and everything’s great. Once that credit card bill comes due and it’s the middle of the summer, you’re getting criticized anyway. I just never believed in going through an offseason to try and create a halo effect. Ultimately, if you win, that’s all that matters. But I completely understand that you will be criticized when things don’t work out. That’s the reality of the job.
Now available: Anthopolous Part 2, in which Liberty Media and Craig Kimbrel are discussed.