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Wither the Farm System? Anthopoulos, Shapiro, and moving forward

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

In the wake of Alex Anthopoulos' departure, a lot of intrigue has surrounded the reported disagreements-real or perceived-between him and Mark Shapiro regarding the quantity of prospects that were traded away in July for rentals, and the wisdom of doing so.

An argument I've seen made many times in the last five days is that even if the farm system took a substantial hit due to moving all these prospects, Anthopoulos had already succeeded in building up the farm system twice and not only was there no reason he couldn't do it again, but in fact with his history it was indeed just a matter of time (whereas Shapiro didn't have a very good drafting record). I want to challenge this thinking, because at a minimum I think it relies on some shaky legs.

First, when it comes to drafting and development (or signing international free agents), it's far more about the team working for the general manager than the general manager himself. Like CEOs and even on-field managers, GMs get way too much credit for things that go well, and way too much blame for things that don't. The GM is certainly responsible for the overall strategy, and will be directly involved decisions on high picks or expensive signings, but beyond that it's about the scouts, crosscheckers, analysts, processes and scouting/international director that drive results.

One of the areas the Blue Jays really have excelled at since 2010 is finding value down the draft board and under-the-radar international free agent signings. Think about Dalton Pompey (2010 16th round), Kevin Pillar (2011 32nd), Matt Boyd (2013 6th), Conner Greene (2013 7th), Kendall Graveman (2013 8th). Or signing Miguel Castro, Jairo Labourt, Alberto Tirado and Jesus Tinoco for just over $1-million total and none over $400,000. Even Aaron Sanchez and Noah Syndergaard were modest signings, with bonuses around the MLB slots that were largely ignored. The GM has little directly to do with these kind of successes, beyond putting the team responsible for them in place (and that's not to minimize the importance of that).

For now, the team that is responsible for these successes remains. Hopefully, Shapiro understands the substantial value they have created, and was not just paying lip service in saying he wants to keep them, especially in light of poor results he had in Cleveland as GM. If over the winter and beyond, he starts bringing in people and there's an exodus, that will certainly be cause for real concern. But for now, caution is warranted over panic.

The second issue with this narrative is that the rules of the game have so drastically changed. As I outlined on Friday, in the first two years after Anthopoulos took over, there were no spending restrictions in the draft and on amateur IFAs, and the Jays took full advantage, spending around $40-million.

However, the 2012-16 Collective Bargaining Agreement introduced significant spending restrictions, with the result that in the four years since the Jays have spent about $37-million, or roughly half as much per year. And that's before considering that about $4-million in 2012 draft spending essentially carried over from 2011 (not signing Tyler Beede and additional picks under the old system). Beyond the pure financial restrictions, the opportunity to stockpile early round picks went out the door as well.

The result of this is it was going to be much more difficult to bring talent into the system, especially accumulating the quantity of lottery ticket prospects in the intermediate $250,000 to $1-million bonus range where most aren't going to work out but the few that do leave you way ahead.

Consider the 2011 versus 2015 international market. In 2011, the Blue Jays signed one of the premier pitchers in the class, Roberto Osuna. However, they were still able to give out two other bonuses over $1-million, as well as nine more under that but over $100,000. In 2015, they signed the premier bat in the class, Vladimir Guerrero. But that ate their entire budget and more, requiring moving Chase De Jong for more slot dollars, and still triggering restrictions for next year. It may well be worth it: but there's a huge opportunity cost that wasn't there before. If Guerrero fails, the entire class will fail. Had Osuna failed, there was plenty behind him to make up for it.

Another consideration: because of poor MLB performance in 2012-13, the Jays had pretty significant draft and international pools in 2013-14. With the success in 2015 and hopefully beyond, the pools will or should be much smaller going forward than they have been over the last four years. Nevermind if they need to sign free agents with qualifying offers that result in losing first round picks. That's going to make it a lot harder on anyone—Shapiro or Anthopoulos—to continue to bring in talent.

My final point is I'm not sure it's fair to say the system was actually rebuilt a second time. When Anthopoulos took over in winter 2009, the Jays had a consensus bottom-five system. As a result of all the talent they brought in, by the winter of 2012 they had a consensus top-five system before they made those big trades that dropped them down significantly. But it's important to note the nature of the farm system at the time: because of the focus on high school draftees and IFAs, the strength of the system was its depth of high-upside prospects in low-A or below rather than closer to big league ready talent that is most coveted.

While it's certainly true that by last winter, the farm system had recovered, a lot of that was the maturation of prospects that had already been in the system, compared to an influx of talent brought in afterwards. I think it's more accurate to say that those late-2012 trades skimmed the cream off the top, but there was plenty more cream beneath or well beneath the surface already rising to the surface. It's harder to see that being the case now, Anthopoulos or otherwise, because of the rules changes.

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One of the undisputed bright spots over the last six years under Alex Anthopoulos has been the sheer volume of talent that has been infused into and developed in the minor league system, regardless of how one views the way it has been ultimately been used. But he was not a magic oracle, it was never going to be as easy going forward, and losing Anthopoulos does not have to mean it cannot continue to be a relative strength.