Column: Alex Anthopoulos traded in the Dodgers for first place in Atlanta
For the Dodgers to return to the World Series, they must conquer the other 14 teams in the National League. Andrew Friedman recently arranged a big party for the guy who runs one of those 14.
Although the Dodgers take pride in trying to exploit the most minuscule of competitive edges, Friedman was not trying to soften up the other guy to take advantage of him in trade talks.
Friedman threw a surprise party at his home. He and his wife hired lifeguards for the pool, commissioned a grand cake, and surprised the guests of honor by decorating the home with Atlanta Braves bobblehead dolls.
Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, wanted to bid a fond farewell to Alex Anthopoulos, one of his lieutenants for the previous two seasons, now the general manager of the Braves. The Anthopoulos kids are about to get out of school in Los Angeles and move to Atlanta, and they did not expect all this Friedman hospitality, and certainly not the assortment of Braves caps in the house.
“Their jaws dropped,” Anthopoulos said. “It was amazing. No one had ever done anything like that for us.”
Friedman and Anthopoulos could have exchanged the traditional party banter: How’s the weather? How are the kids? Can I get you a drink?
Anthopoulos was too kind to say: How’s your team? Mine’s in first place. Yours is in fourth.
The Dodgers’ struggle toward a sixth consecutive division championship is one of the intriguing story lines of the first two months of the season. The Braves’ sudden rise might be even more compelling, on the heels of three consecutive 90-loss seasons and after an international scouting scandal for which the team was stripped of 12 prospects and general manager John Coppolella was banned from baseball for life.
The Braves, five years removed from their last winning record, entered the weekend atop the National League East.
“It’s not a surprise when you look at the talent,” Anthopoulos said. “It was just impossible to predict when it would all come together.”
On the day between Games 5 and 6 of the World Series, as the Dodgers returned to Los Angeles from Houston, Anthopoulos flew to Atlanta to interview for the position vacated by Coppolella.
Anthopoulos, the former general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, insists he would have been happy to stay on as the Dodgers’ fourth in command, listed behind Friedman, general manager Farhan Zaidi and senior vice president Josh Byrnes in the team media guide. He liked the camaraderie among the brains in the Dodgers’ brain trust, October appeared on the schedule every year, and what Montreal native would not enjoy the L.A. weather?
“I felt like I had as good a job as there was in baseball,” he said.
The Braves had hoarded young talent collected in trades and international signings, and Anthopoulos said he appreciated the encouragement – in fact, the direction – to stay the course.
The Braves sold fewer tickets last year, in the first season of a new ballpark, than they did in 1994, when one-third of the home games were lost to a player strike. Back then, the team was in the midst of winning 14 consecutive division titles. Now, Anthopoulos said, the Braves’ ownership specifically advised him not to chase free agents who might make a modest difference in the standings and at the gate.
“I’ve seen it where people say they’re going to commit to a rebuild and then, within a year or two, they don’t have the stomach for it,” Anthopoulos said. “They stayed the course. They did the right thing from a baseball standpoint.
“That was encouraging to me. It’s hard to do. You know that it’s going to be painful.”
Anthopoulos shaped the Braves’ payroll more than he did the roster last winter. He saved $5 million by shipping reliever Jim Johnson to the Angels, along with $1.2 million in international pool space that helped the Angels lure Shohei Ohtani. Anthopoulos also swapped outfielder Matt Kemp and the two years left on his contract for four Dodgers with expiring contracts.
The easy part of a tank job is cutting payroll and amassing prospects. The future always looks bright from a distance.
If the prospects flop, well, you just wasted half a decade, and you lost credibility with the fans who granted you patience today in exchange for success tomorrow.
That would have been all the more agonizing for Anthopoulos, since he was betting on guys who were not his guys.
First baseman Freddie Freeman leads the league in on-base percentage. He made his major league debut eight years ago, at 20. Four years ago, when the Braves put their long-term eggs in the basket of Freeman rather than outfielder Jason Heyward, former general manager Frank Wren extended Freeman for eight years and $135 million.
“If he hadn’t done that, he wouldn’t be here today,” Anthopoulos said.
Second baseman Ozzie Albies, 21, is one home run shy of Bryce Harper for the league lead. Outfielder Ronald Acuna, 20, might be baseball’s most dynamic prospect since Mike Trout.
The Braves are packed with first-round picks blossoming together: shortstop Dansby Swanson (from the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Shelby Miller trade), pitcher Sean Newcomb (from the Angels in the Andrelton Simmons trade), and pitcher Mike Foltynewicz (from the Houston Astros in the Evan Gattis trade).
On deck: third baseman Austin Riley (21, drafted by the Braves in the first round) and pitchers Mike Soroka (20, drafted by the Braves in the first round), Luiz Gohara (21, a Brazilian not eligible for the draft, from the Seattle Mariners in the Shae Simmons trade), and first-rounder Max Fried (24, from the San Diego Padres in the Justin Upton trade).
This might not be enough. The kids might be hit with growing pains. Outfielder Nick Markakis, 34, might not continue to lead the league in batting. The Braves probably would need to add pitching help.
“We’re not actively going to look to do anything right now,” Anthopoulos said.
At the start of the season, Anthopoulos said, he would have considered a .500 season a success so long as the kids got experience. If the Braves stay in the playoff race this summer and trade to enhance their chance to win, he said, their top priority this season will not change.
“We’re going to be extremely committed to staying the course,” he said, “to giving playing time and innings to our young core.”
He offers no assurance that the Braves will make the postseason. He sounds far more confident that the Dodgers will.
“No doubt about it. I expect to see them in the playoffs,” he said. “I know how that front office runs. I know how good they are and how smart they are and how prepared they are.
“I’d never bet against those guys.”
Anthopoulos is in town this weekend, visiting his family, including the 7-year-old daughter who took her father’s NL championship ring to school for show and tell. For the first few months of his Atlanta tenure, as he commutes between there and Los Angeles, the Braves have set him up in an apartment in the Battery, the residential, retail and entertainment complex adjacent to the team’s new ballpark.
His commute from there to work?
“Like 30 seconds,” he said.
That is a long way from L.A., and not just in the standings, even if they seem to be upside down for both teams at the moment.
Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin
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