Courtesy of the Houston Astros
Atlanta Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos opened his iPhone one spring morning a couple of years ago, touched the screen twice, and handed it to me.
“Check this out,” he said.
There on the video was a very young Vlad Guerrero Jr. taking batting practice on a barren diamond in the Dominican Republic. Even then, his swing, stance, and approach to the baseball resembled the guy who is now one of baseball’s best hitters.
Anthopoulos was bursting with pride at the monstrous minor league system he’d help construct during his years with the Toronto Blue Jays.
I don’t remember the precise point he was making back then, only that he hoped to do for the Braves what he had done for the Blue Jays. That he has done.
The Braves have won five straight division championships since Anthopoulos arrived, and no major league team has produced more young talent in recent years (Spencer Strider, Michael Harris, Kyle Wright, Vaughn Grissom). Before joining the Braves in 2017, Anthopoulos worked his magic for the Blue Jays.
Dana Brown, 55, was an important contributor at both places, impressing his peers with his ability to hire good people, organize them and execute the two key elements of constructing a franchise that can sustain success: identifying talent and developing that talent.
This gift is why Dana Brown is the new general manager of the Houston Astros. As the man in charge of Atlanta’s scouting operation, his best work was in a 2019 draft in which Atlanta got a star center fielder (Michael Harris II) in the third round, their projected 2023 starting shortstop (Vaughn Grissom) in the 11th round and slugger Shea Langeliers in the first round. (Langeliers was the biggest prize in the trade that brought first baseman Matt Olson to Atlanta in a trade with the A’s.)
During his eight seasons as scouting director of the Expos/Nationals (2002-09), the franchise drafted more than 40 major league players, including seven All-Stars.
“Baseball is all I know,” Brown said. “It’s my entire life. I want to empty myself into this city and the fans and let Jim Crane know he made an excellent pick.”
Astros owner Jim Crane was effusive in his praise of Brown at the end of a search in which he interviewed or investigated dozen of potential candidates.
“Very analytics savvy,” Crane said, “a great talent evaluator, seasoned in player acquisitions, development and retention. Great people skills. Excellent communicator. Last but not least, he’s a baseball player and knows baseball in and out.”
From the it’s-a-small-world department: Astros Hall of Famer Craig Biggio and Brown were teammates at Seton Hall, and Brown drafted Biggio’s son, Cavan, for the Blue Jays.
“The thing I’m most proud about for him is he’s jumped through all the hoops to get to where he is today,” Biggio told MLB.com. “He’s learned from a lot of people. He’ll do a lot of good for the organization, and I’m excited to have his expertise working for us now.”
Brown is getting the kind of attractive position that seldom comes open, taking over the baseball operations of a franchise that has been to the World Series four times in six seasons and won it twice, including last season. He’s also inheriting a front office loaded with talent, from the holdover analytics crew to senior adviser Jeff Bagwell and team owner Jim Crane himself.
Crane could make at least one more significant hire: Brad Ausmus. Although Ausmus was a candidate for the general manager position, he made it clear he preferred to be an assistant general manager and have a chance to learn the inner workings of a front office.
Brown’s résumé could hardly be more impressive: Atlanta’s vice president of scouting for four seasons, Toronto’s special assistant to the general manager for nine seasons and scouting gigs with the Pirates and Nationals/Expos.
Crane’s first priority in his search for a new general manager was player development. In the last three seasons, Crane and Bagwell have been alarmed at the state of the Astros’ farm system.
Although it produced a steady stream of impact players, particularly Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker, Framber Valdez, Hunter Brown, etc., the Astros do not have enough depth to pull off the kind of trade deadline acquisition Crane’s original general manager, Jeff Luhnow, routinely made. Also, Crane and Bagwell believe the Astros could do a better job with developing the talent that enters their system.
To those that have wondered if the Astros would be less driven by analytics, Brown said: “I think analytics are a piece of the puzzle. We have a saying `You have to weigh all the evidence, and when you weigh all the evidence, you can cut out mistakes that are made.’”
Brown’s hiring comes near the end of an offseason in which the Astros front office ran smoothly, with Crane serving as his own general manager with advice from Bagwell and others.
The Astros have virtually their entire core of players under control for two more seasons. This off-season, they signed free agent first baseman Jose Abreu and re-signed reliever Rafael Montero and outfielder Michael Brantley. Now, the Astros will revert to a more traditional operation as they begin their quest to play in the World Series for the fifth time in seven seasons.
“I want to sustain the long term success in what we’re doing here,” Brown said. “I think it’s got a chance to be pretty special. I’m excited about it.”