McAuley: Q&A with Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos
ATLANTA – As the first half of the season gives way to the All-Star Break, the Atlanta Braves find themselves in the middle of a pennant race for the first time since 2014. Business will pick up quickly in the second half, which brings with it the non-waiver trade deadline at the end of the month.
The Braves are sending four players to the All-Star Game this season. First baseman Freddie Freeman makes his third appearance, while Nick Markakis, Ozzie Albies and Mike Foltynewicz all earned the honor for the first time. It caps a first half in which Atlanta has been in first place for 63 days. That position in the standings was a foreign concept for the club since the second half of the 2014 season.
With that success, the Braves are now looking for ways to strengthen their bid in the National League East race and find a way to use its considerable prospect capital to both enhance the big league roster and broker deals that may provide some missing pieces. Brian Snitker’s team has some definite needs, particularly on the pitching staff.
The man charged with making those roster decisions is Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos and he was nice enough to sit down with me and discuss that and more.
Grant McAuley: Let’s start with the All-Star game in general; I think it’s kind of indicative of what your club has been able to do this year. You have four players heading to Washington to represent this team. How excited does that make you about where this franchise is and what you guys have accomplished thus far this year?
Alex Anthopoulos: ”It’s obviously really exciting. It’s a reflection of the way the team’s played. When you have a good, competitive, contending team, you’re going to have more All-Stars. I think the most exciting thing that jumped out to me was the number of votes. It shows the passion of the fanbase, how broad the fanbase is. To have the leading vote-getter in a guy like Freddie Freeman speaks volumes. Obviously, Nick right behind him and everybody else. It’s an exciting time to be a Braves fan. I think everything is pointing in the right direction and certainly thrilled that I’m getting to be a part of this.”
GM: The All-Star Game, the voting and the Braves’ representation is indicative of what kind of success this team has had in the first half. We’ve talked since the Winter Meetings, through spring training and the early portion of the season, but now you get to one of those big markers where the first half is done. This is a club that’s been in first place. How surprised are you with what this team has accomplished?
AA: “We didn’t know what to expect. So, I don’t think I would have said that this season we would be in first place or a game behind or what not going into the break. That’s been a little bit of a surprise. But at the same time, the element that maybe was expected was that we knew this was a talented club and there were a lot of players that if they perform to their ability or expectations, they’ve been high draft picks and highly touted prospects, they all had the ability to be good and have breakout seasons and a lot of these guys have. So, players haven’t come out of nowhere to do what they’re doing. We just didn’t know when it would all come together. It’s been great to see. It’s a credit to them, first and foremost, and obviously it’s a credit to Snit and the staff for being able to work with these guys and beyond that the scouting and development.”
GM: Your first baseman is an MVP candidate, but the guy playing to his immediate right maybe not so much expected to be the source of power in the lineup. What have you seen out of Ozzie Albies and how incredible has it been to see what he’s produced in this first half?
AA: “He’s been great. I think power-wise we thought he could be a 20 home run guy, just not 20 home runs at the break, but 20 home runs over the course of a season. We definitely thought that was in there and he was capable of that. Defensively, I think has been the biggest change from last year to this year. Just our defensive production at that position if you look at where we ranked as a team then to where we are now. Not only does Ozzie have great range and hands and we’ve seen that, but the arm strength is something that’s very underrated at second base. Most guys that start at shortstop and the arm strength may not be there, you slide them over to the right side and second base is a spot. But when you can have a second baseman with the arm strength that he has, especially with the way we shift and move guys around and so on, and he can play deeper as a result, that’s been huge for us. The base running as well. Everyone will look at the power numbers, but the base running, the speed, this is a bright instinctive kid. And the defense, that’s been the most exciting part of his game beyond the obvious offensive power.”
GM: Really since we sat down at the Winter Meetings the very first time and you said there are some things we can certainly improve on in-house, defense was high-up on your list. I’ve been watching what Ron Washington has done as an infield instructor, but also how committed these infielders are. Come out to SunTrust Park just about any afternoon and you’ll see two, three, four, maybe more guys doing early infield work with Ron and then everything to prepare for the game. It seems to be that there’s the commitment and also planning and execution that’s really turned this infield defense into one of the best in the National League…
AA: “Yeah, it has. Wash, I didn’t know him, I knew of him. Obviously, a lot of people spoke highly of him, but being able to be around him day in and day out and see him work, he’s an impact coach. He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around, and I’ve been around some good infield guys. He’s right there with them. He gets the respect of the players. He’s outstanding and I think a lot of credit goes to him. A lot of credit certainly goes to the players. I think we’ve done some things analytically with our positioning that’s certainly helped as well. I think Dansby is the one that really jumps out. If you look at where he’s come from last year to the current year. Wash was right there when I took this job and I asked him about the infielders. I remember when I got to Dansby, the defensive numbers were not good. I mean, they were right there towards the bottom, and he didn’t bat an eye. He was convinced Dansby was going to be much better in 2018. He was very confident, and he stuck with it. Dansby has been an outstanding defensive shortstop for us. His range has been outstanding. His hands have been outstanding. Even analytically as well, he’s right up there with one of the best defensive shortstops in the game. It’s a credit to him for the work that he’s put in and a credit to Wash. Obviously, he’s tireless with spending time with these guys. And also credit to the two of them from a positioning standpoint, they’ve been very receptive to some of the information that our group has been able to provide.”
GM: Braves offense was probably on that list of pleasant surprises early on for this club. Big April, big May and a little tougher going in June and July. Where do you see this offense’s trajectory at the halfway mark and heading into the second half? What do you think they might need to get themselves kick-started and get back to where they were?
AA: “I think overall, we’ve been a good offensive team. I like the fact that we put the ball in play and can run the bases well. We’ve had our slumps and our moments. That’s certainly been apparent. Johan Camargo at times has been great then he’s gotten a little bit cold. But on the aggregate, you look at the numbers and they’ve been good for him. Obviously, Nick has had a tremendous year in right field, as good as year has he’s had in a long time. Ender’s not having the year he’s had the last two, but we know it’s in there and he’s capable of doing that. And then Dansby’s shown flashes, but for the most part he’s held his own and he’s been solid the entire year. Obviously, a guy like Ronald Acuña is still getting his feet wet. He’ll flash some moments where he can take over a game and there are other times where he’ll get opposed and the swing and miss will be more apparent. You know, I think we still have some upside and some room to grow. Like you said, Freddie’s an MVP candidate every time he steps into the box and every year. Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Flowers have done a solid job behind the plate. We’ve been a pretty solid offensive club. I think if everyone continues to play to their upside then we’re going to continue to be fine and we can come back to be the club we were early on in the year.”
GM: On the mound, the pitching staff at times has been a bit of a mixed bag. You had some bullpen struggles early, now the starters have had a little bit of a wavering time as far as getting deeper into the game. I know the trade deadline is coming up. I’m sure that you’re doing all of your due diligence to look around the league and see what deals and possibilities that might be out there with clubs that may have something offer. How do you size up the pitching staff the way that they look right now and with what you might look to add in the coming weeks?
AA: “I think for the most part we’ve been up there in starters’ ERA. We’ve been very good. We had that rough trip where we didn’t get good starts and as a result the wins weren’t there. But in terms of ability and what these guys are capable of doing, we have a lot of belief and confidence in these guys. I think a lot has been written and said and made of our starters not going deep, but I think if people look at where we rank relative to other teams in the NL, we’re in the middle of the pack in terms of our innings pitched by our starters. And if you look at our innings pitched by our relievers, we’re maybe a tick on the high side but definitely not at the top. I think sometimes you always have a heightened awareness of what’s going on internally, but for the most part we’ve done a good job in the rotation and done a good job in the bullpen with our innings. Of course, we can get better. But with young guys there’s going to be moments where they hit a rough patch. Even guys who are established like Julio Teheran have had rough outings and then bounced back and had great starts. That’s going to happen over the course of the year. You know, we weren’t going to have the number one starters’ ERA probably the entire year. Certainly not going to necessarily have the best offense the entire year. For the most part we still have a chance with the bullpen as well to be at the top of a lot of those areas.
GM: This club has shown you a lot in the first half and one of the big things a general manager or any club can do from a front office standpoint as you get into the race is to find ways to bring in those reinforcements. Where does the club stand right now sizing that up and creating a shopping list if you will?
AA: “We’re pretty active right now. We’re not close on anything. I feel like we’ve touched base with every seller. We’re not necessarily on the phone with buyers. I mean, we might check in if we think a buyer has depth or a contending team has some depth and there’s a big league for big league deal. That’s rare, but we’ve still checked in on those areas. I know a lot has been made about getting some bullpen help and potentially adding to the rotation. We’ve looked at it as what good players are out there to make our team better. Likewise, as much as there’s no one area that we’re going to look to on the position player side, if there’s a player out there that we think can be an upgrade for us, whether that’s at the starting spot or even improving our bench, we’ve explored that as well. We’ve pretty much been on top of all of it, starters, relievers, position players both bench and starters. These are times in a year and a window where teams are engaged and GM’s are engaged, so you need to just take advantage of this as a chance to acquire players and to access players that teams may not engage in at other times. So, we’re active. We’re not close. We certainly have the players to get things done. We just haven’t found deals that we thought made sense for us. Right now, in our minds, for what we’d have to give up it’d be too expensive in our minds, without being able to get into details about what those deals are.
GM: Wrapping it up with this, because that kind of touches on my last question. You want to improve this year’s team and you want to maximize when you have an opportunity to contend, but this has been a club that’s been in that transitional rebuild phase. It may be a little bit ahead of schedule according to how some people size it up, but how has this year’s success affected your long term plan as you look to take those young assets in the minor league system and integrate them into what’s happened already here on the big league side?
AA: “Sure, I mean this is where the job gets challenging. Everyone’s very well aware of what’s gone on here and the pain that this organization has gone through to accumulate a lot of young talent. I’ve said it many times, there’s a lot of credit that goes around for the work that’s been done. We’re not looking to throw that away. At the same time, every year is a valuable, precious, important year and you can’t lose sight of the fact of what’s going on in front of you. Guys having good seasons. Guys having healthy seasons. You can’t count on that. As much as you want sustainable model and contend every year, you just don’t know what’s going to happen from year to year with injuries and performance. So, we very much have our eye on 2018. We want to take advantage of our position in the standings, take advantage of some of the big seasons our players are having. I’d say for the most part right now, rental players and players that are scheduled to be free agents at the end of the year, they’re most available and rightfully so. That’s where it gets a little complicated to have to trade multiple young assets for players that could walk out the door two months for now. We’ll be much more willing to do that on players we have beyond 2018. At some point there’ll be a sweet spot and it likely comes the last week before the end of the month, where the prices start to come in line a little bit more. That’s why you’re not seeing a ton of trades. But, look, at any time, one phone call, one text, things could start to move. The one thing I can say is we will definitely continue to work it and continue to find opportunities to make this club better one way or the other. We owe it to the players. We owe it to the fan base. We owe it to the organization.”