Alex Anthopoulos, Vernon Wells, and Addition by Subtraction

by M.C. Antil on January 22, 2011

A few years back, Bulls president John Paxson came on board as GM and began laying the foundation for a club that a few years later would find itself fighting for supremacy in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

Alex Anthopoulos

And during that process, it wasn’t so much what Paxson added that triggered the turnaround, it was what he was able to get rid of.  Jalen Rose, Eddy Curry, Jamal Crawford and Tyson Chandler — each with a horrifically bloated contact, compliments of former GM Jerry Krause — were all traded away in exchange for less talent but far greater roster flexibility.

As a result, within two years Paxson had transformed the Bulls from a franchise destined to be hamstrung for the balance of the decade by contracts no right-minded GM in the world would touch, into one suddenly rich in draft picks, young legs and most importantly, cap space.

The key for Paxson was the fateful day he picked up the phone and called New York Knick GM, Isaiah Thomas, one of the most clueless and horribly under-qualified executives in NBA history.  That call led Paxson to pawning off his two worst contracts — those of Curry and Crawford — by virtue of his finding himself in a position to exploit not only Thomas’ inability to grasp the long-term financial implications of the deal, and the blind spot of his own ego, but the incredible pressure to win under which every GM in New York finds himself operating.

Vernon Wells: Dealt for two warm bodies and $84 million Get Out of Jail Free card

So while the drafting of Derrick Rose might have been the Bulls’ most impactful move of the past six years, Paxson’s ability to off-load those two horrible salaries was their most important.  Because that was the one move that made so many of the subsequent ones possible.

I thought of that deal this morning, as I was analyzing yesterday’s trade of Vernon Wells from Toronto to Anaheim for Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera.  At first blush, it seemed like a fair trade, with both teams getting a quality player, and Rivera serving as something of an X factor for the Jays.

But then I read that the 32-year old Wells was still owed $84 million over the next four years — the back-loaded portion of the mind-numbing 7-year, $126 million contract he signed in 2007.

Suddenly the trade became something else altogether — especially given the fact that Anaheim is apparently assuming every last one of those 84 million dollars.  (Editor’s note: It’s been subsequently reported that the Jays sent $5 million in cash to the Angels in consideration for their assuming Wells’ contract.)

When I read that, I began to realize the deal is Toronto’s version of the Bull’s Curry/Crawford trade with the Knicks; a swap of players in which one team takes a half step back in terms of talent, knowing it’s also taking a quantum leap forward in terms of positioning itself financially. 

It’s as though Toronto’s Alex Anthopoulos, a GM whose vision of the future becomes more evident with every move he makes, was able to trade a fringy All Star-caliber player for a catcher who really can’t catch, a power hitter who really doesn’t scare anyone anymore, and one big fat $84 million Get Out of Jail Free card.

Tony Reagins and Arte Moreno: Beats shopping at the free agent outlet store

I’m not sure who called whom, but once Angel GM Tony Reagins said he’d be willing to take Wells contract off Anthopoulos’ hands, I’m quite sure the Jays’ GM found himself trying his best not to do hand springs around the office.  He must have felt like he had died and gone to heaven.

Wells is a nice, solid player.  And he is probably the best hitter in the deal.  Heck, he might even have a career year still lurking in that thick, aging body of his.  

But when given the chance to crawl out from under an $84 million boulder — a boulder dropped on you by your former boss — you don’t quibble.  You don’t nitpick.  And you certainly don’t wait for a better option to come along.

You scramble to your feet and run to daylight. 

And that’s exactly what Alex Anthopoulos did.

Two to three years down the road Anthopoulos and his Blue Jays will find themselves better positioned than, perhaps, even the Yankees and Red Sox in the battle for supremacy in the now-brutal American League East

And just like Paxson once exploited a unique situation in New York, the Toronto GM took advantage of a perfect storm of circumstance in Anaheim.

After losing three free agents last off-season, and relinquishing what had been a three-year stranglehold on the division crown,  the Angels found themselves this off-season in need of a big bat, if not a complete offensive overhaul. 

And given owner Arte Moreno’s deep pockets and historically aggressive attitude toward free agents, it was generally assumed he’d do whatever it took to bring either OF Carl Crawford or 3B Adrian Beltre to the O.C., and quite possibly both.

But then Crawford signed with Boston, and Beltre with Texas, and before Moreno and Reagins knew it they were shopping at the free agent outlet store, sifting through bins of irregular, cut-out and second-quality bats.

Anthopoulos with new manager John Farrell: Classic addition by subtraction

Couple that with the fact that Moreno considers the McCourt divorce proceedings up the coast and the ongoing Dodger soap opera as a golden opportunity for his Angels to gain market share in L.A., and what you end up with is a highly exploitable set of circumstances — made all the riper-for-the-picking by all the great young talent percolating in Oakland, Texas and Seattle.

And that’s why this morning the Angels find themselves in bed with someone who I’m sure looked a whole lot prettier last night than she does in the harsh light of day, and why over the next three years Anthopoulos and his Blue Jays find themselves better positioned than, perhaps, even the Yankees and Red Sox in the battle for supremacy in the now-brutal American League East.

It’s also why in two or three years, when you find yourself amazed at the Jays’ sudden transformation into an A.L. force, you might be tempted to point to some recent trade that Alex Anthopoulos made, or maybe some free agent he signed that off-season.  But please, resist that temptation and do not be fooled for a minute. 

This deal will be the biggest reason the Blue Jays turned it around. 

Because just like sometimes the best deals a GM makes are the ones  he doesn’t make, quite often his most important additions come down to a simple matter of subtraction.

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