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Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Autonomy or Collaboration?: More On the Great (Insufferable) AA or Shapiro Debate

For Blue Jays fans (or, at the very least, people who read this website), relitigating the series of power plays that led to the departure of Alex Anthopoulos in the fall of 2015 probably feels a lot like relitigating the 2016 Democratic primaries probably does for American political junkies: an unceasing, inescapable, and thoroughly pointless nightmare that could have mostly been avoided had our beautiful world not descended into madness and evil almost immediately thereafter. Bernie would have won? Yeah, well Alex would have signed David Price!

OK, so maybe it hasn’t been quite that unbearable, but fans certainly don’t shy away from revisiting the way that 2015 offseason went down. And chatter on that topic has become especially noisy in the last week or so, as Anthopoulos has been announced as the new GM of the Atlanta Baseball Franchise.

Before he was fully immersed in the new job — and dealing with the disaster that commissioner Rob Manfred just laid at his feet because of his predecessor’s improprieties on the international amateur market — Anthopoulos did some media rounds, offering some words that weren’t too difficult to parse about why he left the Blue Jays, despite the club’s last ditch attempts to throw money at him to get him to stay. Ian quoted some of these over at the Blue Jay Hunter last week:

The one thing I always came back to is “who are you going to work with and who are you going to work for”.

Certainly, talent, the city, all those other things are very important. But at the end of the day, you can have the greatest organization in the world, if you’re working for people you don’t enjoy, you don’t believe in them, they don’t believe in you, what environment is that going to be? How rewarding is that going to be?

From what I had heard about [Braves chairman] Terry McGuirk, and then getting a chance to meet him and spend time with him and knowing he was going to be my direct report and would give me full autonomy on the baseball side, it was incredible to hear.

Ian offered his own thoughts on that passage:

There’s a lot to unpack there. The last part about having full autonomy sounded very important to Anthopoulos and that may have been a selling feature for him to become GM of the Braves. It also suggests Anthopoulos wouldn’t have full autonomy in Toronto after Mark Shapiro took over as team President in late August of 2015.

I’ve always believed that, while there seem to have been a number of factors involved, losing his baseball operations autonomy was primarily what drove Alex’s departure from the Jays — which was a shame, given that he’d built the best roster in baseball at that moment, and deserved to figure out for himself the down-the-road roster problems he’d created in so doing. Rogers, however, had hired a baseball ops person above him — and before that, had tried to hire another one in the form of Dan Duquette — something that the previous president of the club, Paul Beeston, very much was not.

And so, when these comments first emerged, I suggested that it was possible Alex wasn’t talking so much about Shapiro, but about the suits at 1 Mount Pleasant who created this situation in the first place. I was, however, very quickly told that the rumoured “scolding” that AA received from Shapiro — something Ian also mentions in his piece — was true, and that the tone was worse than reported. Perhaps, then, it was largely personal animosity between the two executives that caused Alex’s exit.

If that’s our conclusion, it’s probably not a great one for Shapiro. But this week we’ve been given reason to revisit this stuff yet again, and it goes back to that idea of autonomy.

Here’s Shapiro, speaking with our very own Ryan Di Francisco about it:

I’ve never understood and never felt that there is one person out there that is that much smarter, or that much better than a group of people, with a group of experiences, and collective intellect, and collective skill sets. If you were able to really create a culture where people feel safe and empowered, how much better can you be? That’s always been my thought.

And, speaking with Arden Zwelling and Ben Nicholson-Smith on Sportsnet’s At The Letters podcast this week, he’s Ross Atkins going even deeper into this aspect of the new regime’s culture:

Ultimately, if one person is making a decision all too often, or breaking ties, that’s not good enough. That’s fine, it’s just not good enough. It’s creating the best systems, and the best processes. Look those are big words that get thrown around a lot in business, and in professional sport now, but really it’s back to culture, right? If you have people who aren’t going to feel as though they have to be right, but are all motivated about getting it right, then you will have a good system, and you will have a good process, because everyone’s going to be contributing with their values, and understanding.

. . .

Here, with the Toronto Blue Jays, what I can tell you is, what I’ve seen from Tony La Cava, embracing Steve Sanders, and Steve Sanders coming in as a first year scouting director last year, and wholeheartedly wanting to have Tony every step of the way — as simple as that sounds, and as common-sensical as that sounds — it doesn’t usually happen that way. What people tend to revert to is, “You don’t think I’m good enough,” and “I can’t do this on my own.” And when you have people that are very smart, are very driven, are very talented, and still want all the help they can get, you’ve got a really incredible opportunity. And that’s happening across departments for us, with Ben Cherington and Gil Kim, and Angus Mugford and Clive Brewer, and Andrew Tinnish and Sandy Rosario, Joe Sheehan and Ryan Middleman, John Gibbons and Pete Walker. They’re not silos. They’re operating together and trying to help one another. We pick up the phone and are constantly working across departments, thinking about how we can help one another. It’s hard. It’s hard because it typically means you have to get out of your comfort zone, and it typically means you can’t just check a box and say, “I’ve got that done for today.” It typically means someone is saying, “Hey, we could do this a little bit better if we put a little more time into it, and we don’t do it the way that you think has always been right and worked.” That’s not typical, and it’s happening across our organization, and across our department, that is extremely inspiring, and is a great — I’m blown away with how much I’m learning from all the different individuals that are here.

More succinctly, he later put it this way: “If I were to think about, what is the one thing I’ve really learned — one or two things — it’s more confirmation that people, one person, is not good enough. Not Mark Shapiro, not Theo Epstein, not Ben Cherington, not one any individual.”

Now, I don’t think this stuff is insincere coming from Shapiro and Atkins. This isn’t the first way they’ve spoken this way, but this has certainly been the most emphatic they’ve been about it, as far as I can remember. Perhaps the “autonomy” talk from Anthopoulos struck a nerve and this all came out. Perhaps this is conscious messaging to try to make the case that their collaborative vision for the front office is better. Or perhaps it’s just genuine coincidence.

However it has come about, it gives us a little bit of an extra dimension through which to view the “autonomy” conversation that began with AA’s comments last week.

Now let’s please never talk about it again.

 

(Something we will talk about again, however, are the comments from Atkins on At The Letters, which were very much worth discussing beyond this old trifle, and will be explored more in a separate post.)

  • Ed Sprague Jr.'s kids

    Not to be a huge jerk, but LaCava (in hindsight – and I will admit I was wrong about at the time!) did more good as GM signing Estrada for two years and Happ than Atkins in 2 years so far (aside from the draft).

    • A Guy

      Wasn’t the piece about the Jays not attributing success or failure to individuals, so LaCava’s “success” was probably collaborative. In fact, didn’t LaCava turned down a more prominent role in the BJ FO and has spurned other teams offers to be a GM to remain in the shadows?

    • The Humungus

      Didn’t Atkins extend Estrada and Smoak? The Estrada extension is probably good and the Smoak one is a dream if he holds up next year (discount September because he was hurt, they even talked about it on the broadcasts that he had a nagging injury all month)

  • vic

    I’m on Shapiro’s side in this one. GM’s that operate the way Alex did from 2013-15 should not be given full autonomy. Look at the best run organizations today (Yankees, Astros, Cubs, Dodgers, etc). They do not operate this way. The best run orgs emphasize player development and use prospects to build the team, not trade them away in mass quantities. Not hating on Alex, he ended a painfully long drought and deserves credit for that, but it wasn’t a sustainable model, and Shapiro has to clean up the mess, which he has done quite nicely so far given the state of the farm system.

    • McGretzky

      Why do you assume that trading away prospects is an AA thing as opposed to a situational thing?

      Do you actually think AA was incapable of holding onto the elite farm system he built via acquiring extra picks and his army of scouts?

      We have absolutely no idea if going all in starting 2013 was a Rogers thing, Beeston thing, an AA thing or an amalgam.

      What we can say with confidence is the rotation was in shambles after 2012 (due largely to Ricciardi) and getting pitchers via free agency was challenging at the time.

      In any case, Rogers has never shown a willingness to spend like the Yankees or Dodgers or scorch earth like the Cubs and Astros.

      And the farm system/young ML talent AA left was a lot better than what he inherited.

      I’m not sure why a former GM is being compared to the current president.

      Shapiro and Atkins’ job is to take the attendance, roster and farm system they inherited via AA’s work and take the organization to the next level.

      The expectations should be higher because Shapiro and Atkins are starting much further ahead in the game.

      • Torontoguy

        “The expectations should be higher because Shapiro and Atkins are starting much further ahead in the game.”

        Except Boston and the Yankees are even more ahead. When AA took over, every single player in the Yankee starting lineup was over 30. The Jays had a short window where no other team in the East was fantastic (which is part of the reason AA kept going for it) The Yankees are now not only an elite team, they look to be setup to be an elite team for a long time. The Red Sox might have a smaller window, but they are also filled with young, elite talent. Also, this Jays’ front office was loaded with expectations that AA did not have when he took over. If the Jays had not made the playoffs in 2015, Shapiro would likely have handled things much differently and probably pushed for a rebuild rather than try to hold on to fan interest by maintaining a good not great team. So, is the major league team better? Yes. A lot of the rest of the factors are worse though.

      • vic

        I don’t think Rogers specifically said “trade X amount of prospects to win now”. Ricciardi was given the same type of payroll bump in the mid-2000’s and did a much smarter thing by simply overpaying in free agency. Unfortunately his drafting was so bad that holding on to prospects never amounted to much.

        Alex could have done a whole bunch of things instead of trading a truckload of prospects. He could have signed Martin two years earlier when he was a lot cheaper, but instead traded every catching prospect he had in order to give JPA full reign. He traded two short-stops making nothing (Escobar/Hech) in a deal where he got back a SS in his 30’s making $20M a year for five of his declining years. And so on. You can’t pin that on Rogers. Alex redeemed himself with a much better off season two years later (JD, Martin, Travis, etc), but he had to double down on his prospect trading from two years earlier to do it, especially at the trade deadline 2015.

        By the time AA left, the big league team was old and the upper minors was barren (still is to some degree, though getting better). The new front office was able to get one more playoff appearance out of it, but that was the extent of their window. The 2018 team has a chance for the 2nd wild card, but that’s really about it unless they somehow land Ohtani.

        The Jays are already on the path of building a top farm system. They do not need to scorch earth or spend like the Dodgers. They are linked to a top international talent for next year already, and have built up a farm system that is slowly moving up the ranks. Shapiro is going to build this team the way other well run teams are built today. If for some reason he decides to trade a bunch of prospects for vets before the team is ready for that step, then he’ll get the same criticism from me that Alex got.

        Jays are in better hands now than they were before, and Alex is in a better spot for him. Worked out well for both sides.

      • 1) The idea that it might have been Rogers or Beeston that forced AA to go all-in in 2013 is very convenient for people who want to protect the legacy of the golden boy, but there’s no reason for anybody to believe it was anybody’s call by Alex’s. He’d done so well with under market deals for Bautista and EE that it made sense to push the timeline to capitalize on that. We don’t need to give him extra credit.

        2) The rotation was in shambles after AA’s third full season in charge because of Ricciardi? Huh?

        3) You don’t have a “willingness” to go scorched earth, you do it because you’re so far up shit creek you have no other choice. Nobody should be pining for this team going to the depths that those teams did — this isn’t hockey (and even then, bottoming out doesn’t always work, ask Edmonton).

        4) Not setting the bar very high with the minor league talent that Ricciardi left, eh?

        5) Yes, you know why the GM and the president are being compared. No need to play dumb.

        6) The expectations are far higher for Shapiro and Atkins than when AA started — he had no expectations at first. But let’s not forget where AA left the team in terms of roster flexibility and depth when we talk about what Shapiro and Atkins inherited. They inherited some very good things, but also some very real challenges — no choice but to try to sustain the success, only limited financial resources with which to do it, and a roster getting worryingly old (especially given the way they were setup to have to sign even more aging players to help keep the success going). There was no simple solution there, and they’ve done nice work so far with it: playoffs in 2016, would have been in the conversation in 2017 if not for injuries and a couple FA misses, still a chance to be in that conversation, all while letting the books clear themselves and building the farm back up again. Shapiro and Atkins were started well on the road to short-term success, which they capitalized on in 2016; they weren’t started well on the road to *sustainable* success. Important distinction, I think.

        • The Humungus

          Hey man, I’m an Oilers fan. Can we not bring up the missteps of the management team that hired the guy who murdered a girl drunk driving and voluntarily played without a helmet until 1996 to make the important decisions into this? It’s a sensitive subject 🙁

        • drunk man walking

          As to point #1. Where does this even come from. That story has been retold a zillion times, how a trade discussion about Johnson expanded, and how Alex went to Beeston and how Beeston had to go to Rogers because they didn’t have the payroll room. Alex never had the authority of exceed the famous “parameters”, and Beeston didn’t either. This was just a standard payroll discussion between FO and ownership. What was unusual is that this one required Rogers to commit to significantly increasing payroll over a stretch of time, which they agreed to do, and I’m guessing soon regretted seeing how quickly they began trying to replace Beeston.

  • Norm Kelly

    It’s dumb to think that AA is making all the decisions without input from anybody else. I would assume he takes into account numerous people’s opinions before he goes forward, he just wants the final say on baseball decisions, much the same way Shapiro has the final say when it comes to Jays baseball decisions.

  • ErnieWhitt

    I’m torn on this one. I work in an industry where everyone sounds exactly like Shapiro and Atkins and to some extent I fully agree that collaborative work tends to produce solid work. It can also waste a whole bunch of person-hours to come around to an idea someone basically already had. It’s vetted and there is a consensus but I’ve also seen groups steer away from good ideas because the conventional wisdom got the numbers.

    On a recent Joe Rogan pod he talked about how in creative endeavors the type of collaborative business environments that Atkins is talking about is where great ideas go to die. People get involved because they have to prove their worth to the team and water down great thinking.

    It’s not entirely applicable but you think of AA’s top skill it was likely his ability to get on the phone with another GM and convince them to do something nuts. That kind of audacious thinking lands you Josh Donaldson.

      • ErnieWhitt

        Thats true.. Still that Miami trade.. Josh Johnson was worth 3.3bWAR the year before the trade and up in many people’s minds to be the top FA pitcher available if he had had a decent year in Toronto. Buehrle was worth 3.6bWAR. At the time of the trade Toronto had added 10+ wins giving up a bunch of prospects who didn’t become much of anything. It didn’t work out – but if we could dial the whole experiment back without hindsight I think it still makes sense.

        Dickey – that trade hurt at the time and still does even though he was not without value to the Jays.
        Tulo – I get your previous argument about not trading away prospects and the potential to not have to sign guys like Happ etc.., but still with what happened in 2015, its pretty revealing what AA was trying to do with that big time deal. He was taking his shot. Again – i’m not saying his way is better, only that its highly likely that he wouldn’t have gotten those deals past a group like the one we have now. That may be a good thing – in that your floor of terrible decisions is maybe raised. It could be that it also limits the ceiling (but I have no actual way of knowing that).

        • drunk man walking

          In order to upgrade a roster, teams have to use assets. Those generally are payroll room, 25 man roster players as trade chips, prospects as trade chips, and in some cases (+ or -) reputation. Given that in 2012, the roster was weak, the payroll was bottom ten, and no one wanted to go to Toronto, prospects were about the only asset that could be considered. Not saying that it was wise to spend them or that they were spent wisely, just that maybe if payroll were allowed to rise to $170M then, other choices might have been made.

  • RADAR

    A well balanced post. I don’t think the autonomy angle is correct. More of a different way of doing business.
    From former scouts to media, reports that AA enlisted advice from everywhere including the visiting clubhouse attendants.
    I too, am becoming weary of the conversation but everytime somebody tries to praise Shapiro it starts with the denigration of the previous administration . Let’s try to concentrate on the positives that Shapiro brings.

  • drunk man walking

    OED says that Autonomy is “Freedom from external control or influence; independence” What in the world is “full autonomy”. Essentially this seems to imply that the discussion is about the fact that AA ain’t happy to have “final” say in baseball ops decisions but also wanted “last final” say, which was a bridge too far him to demand. This is just a nonsense discussion. The bottom line is that oil and water don’t mix, and we seem to be trying to decide if that is oil’s fault or water’s. What I do not get is the obsession with Alex. He has been gone for 2 years. Why does it even matter why he left. Why does it matter if Shapiro is a jerk or the greatest guy in the world. In the end he will be judged by the quality of his team on the field, and that is not going all that well, and the argument that all of the fault for this rests on 11 prospects that were traded, non of them who have as yet amounted to a hill of beans, won’t hold up for long. And no one really cares about his FO team and their dynamics, which is much like the discussion about clubhouse dynamics which gets nothing but scorn. Many types of managers succeed. We all hope Shapiro does, even his skeptics. No one feels sorry for Shapiro and his missing 11, just like no one feels sorry for Alex and his missing 12.

    • lukewarmwater

      Well the guy comes in here with the moniker man walking which might give the impression he has been a fan of the old Drunken Jays title. The ultimate compliment you can get from Andrew is for him react and have him crap on you. Priceless.

  • Teddy Ballgame

    Stoeten ACTS like he hates this topic, but he returns to it so frequently I think he secretly loves it (or, perhaps, loves the clicks it generates).

    Personally, I think AA did a generally solid job given the circumstances, I think Atkins and Shapiro (can anyone think of a funny combined name?) have done a solid job given the circumstances, and I’m optimistic at what the organization will look like in 2-3 years under their leadership.

  • lukewarmwater

    Now to turning to current matters, no not Black Friday, but yes boys and girls it is the annual speculation time as to where all the free agents shall be a going. Will their current team resign them or as the eager beaver Toronto net works suggested tonight, the big fish in the deep pool, namely the Red Sox , Yankees, Dodgers, Giants and one or two other teams would be a biting soon. Jay Bruce was mentioned as a possible signing by the Jays but 36 homers might up the asking price considerably.
    Then there is the new kid from across the ocean, a lean and mean Babe Ruth they are calling him. Sorry only the richest of the richest will be bidding on this guy. But heh Yu might be available again. I’m sure sports beat guys, broadcasters, bloggers, will be kept a speculating all winter as there are some talented pitchers also possible as free agents. I wonder if there are any good out fielders who maybe have had a few injury problems which has limited them to say 106 games available for a nice cool $6 million. You never know what will be under the old Charley Brown Christmas tree.