DUNEDIN, Fla. – Over nearly three decades of work in scouting and the draft, Dana Brown developed a keen understanding of the difficulties in acquiring good players. If there’s someone with major-league value available, he believes, a team can’t allow him to slip through its grasp.
When the Toronto Blue Jays designated Matt Gage for assignment Jan. 31 after the free-agent signing of Chad Green, Brown, just hired as general manager of the Houston Astros, sensed an opportunity. His analytics department really liked the left-hander and manager Dusty Baker was pushing for a southpaw reliever, so once Gage ended up on waivers, they put in a claim.
But since the Blue Jays put Gage on release waivers instead of outright waivers, the 30-year-old had the right to reject a claim and explore free agency instead. He was leaning that way, too, after the Astros won the claim, having earlier in the winter turned down a chance to pitch in Japan to pursue a roster spot in Toronto, with whom he debuted in the majors last year.
Not interested in taking chances, Brown decided to force the issue, offering a signing bonus to prevent Gage from testing the open market. The move was so unheard of for a player on release waivers, he first checked with Major League Baseball to make sure it was within the rules.
Once the league office confirmed it was, the sides agreed to a signing bonus of $125,000 in a contract that pays Gage $770,000 if he’s in the majors and $175,000 in the minors, the waiver claim went through and Baker ended up with his lefty in unique fashion.
“It was unprecedented. I had to get creative,” Brown said during an interview earlier this week. “I actually had to call the MLB offices and say, can we do this? I’ve just started this job but I need to get this player, so what do I have to do to get him? And I found out once you get him, if he agrees to a bonus, you can put that in the contract once you sign him and we ended up getting him. I’m hoping that could be a big sign.”
The transaction is likely an indicator of how aggressive and out-of-the-box Brown, who spent nine years with the Blue Jays as a special assistant to the GM before rejoining Alex Anthopoulos in Atlanta as vice-president, scouting in 2019, will be as a general manager.
Already he’s extended right-hander Christian Javier in a $64-million, five-year deal, a contract reflective of the philosophy employed by Anthopoulos in Toronto and Atlanta of locking up willing players long-term.
The two first met with the Montreal Expos, where Brown served as scouting director and gave Anthopoulos, an intern at the time, his first job as a co-ordinator, scouting operations, mentoring the young Canadian. When Anthopoulos took over as Blue Jays GM at the end of the 2009 season, Brown was among his first hires, as was Perry Minasian, who also interned with the Expos.
All three are running their own teams now – Minasian is GM of the Los Angeles Angels – sharing similar foundations but leveraged through their individual talents.
“Some of our evaluations are similar because we spent so much time together. I like (Anthopoulos’s) philosophy of identifying players that you think you can secure and have long term. That’s a big thing. We’ve learned the value of makeup and it makes a difference when you’re acquiring players,” Brown said.
“We have our differences because we have our different strengths, where mine may be evaluations, Alex is great ideas and Perry is probably the best at knowing people. We’ve learned from each other and I think that’s showing up.”
Brown is trying to tread lightly in his early days with the Astros, finding himself in the unusual position of inheriting a defending World Series winner after the club and James Click parted ways shortly after the championship.
The 56-year-old describes the initial entry since his Jan. 26 hire as “definitely jumping in the deep end,” but it’s a just reward for a smart and dedicated baseball man who previously interviewed for GM jobs with the New York Mets in 2010 and Seattle Mariners in 2015.
“I thought maybe Detroit would call and give me an interview (this off-season). It didn’t happen,” said Brown. “I remember (commissioner) Rob Manfred telling me, hey, stay the course, you’ll probably get an opportunity. And finally, man, Houston called. I was excited about it. I went in, I connected well with Jim Crane, the owner, and about a week-and-a-half later, he called to offer the job. It all happened real fast.”
Anthopoulos was more than happy to lose the man who oversaw all of Atlanta’s amateur scouting work, saying “I owe him a ton,” as Brown was the first person to believe in his ability to scout and evaluate players. That he brought him along to his stops in Toronto and Atlanta wasn’t because of a personal relationship between them, but “because he was good.”
“I’m just so excited for him, what an awesome opportunity,” said Anthopoulos. “He never, ever discussed being a GM, that never came out of his mouth. He was just doing the job and happy and working, he would have stayed in Atlanta forever. Perry the same way. And then the opportunities present themselves, you know? He deserves it. He’s done an unbelievable job.”
The Gage transaction may turn out to be another example of Brown’s ability to find value outside the obvious. Last season in 11 big-league appearances he struck out 12 in 13 innings while allowing only two earned runs and was just as productive in 41 games at triple-A Buffalo, posting a 2.34 ERA in 42.1 innings with 46 strikeouts.
The Astros believe there’s more there and plan to give him the chance.
“When we signed (Tyler) Matzek (with Atlanta in 2019), I remember pounding the table and telling Alex we’ve got to sign this guy. We got him right out of independent league,” said Brown. “We felt a lot stronger about Gage. We were afraid he was going to become a free agent, so I talked to the agent, said, ‘Hey, maybe if we give you a signing bonus, we can get this done.’ If he gives us a quality 35 innings out of the ‘pen this year, it’ll be worth every dime.”