December 31, 2010
On the Beat
A Bird of a New Feather
John Farrell stands as a rare bird in baseball, and it goes beyond the fact that he will be in his first year of managing the Blue Jays next season. Farrell is just the second active manager who spent his playing career a pitcher; he joins the Padres' Bud Black, the 2010 National League Manager of the Year. It is only fitting because Farrell's career path to reach this point has been anything but conventional.
His playing career ended after the 1996 season and his first job after retirement was as the recruiting coordinator at Oklahoma State, his alma mater. He also spent five years as the Indians' minor-league director before serving a four-year stint as the Red Sox' pitching coach from 2007-10.
Farrell has the reputation as a very bright man who thinks things through from every angle. Yet he has a hard time coming up for an explanation as to why so few pitchers become managers.
"You know, it's a good question," he said. "There have been a few, but by comparison, it pales when you compare it to other positions played by individuals. Much like we bet on the people, the players that we acquire or look to get; I think that's probably a question maybe better suited for a GM. Where is the comfort level for the path that this person has traveled or the set of experiences that they have? It's an obvious question but it's one I don't really have an answer to."
The general theory is that pitchers are one-dimensional players who care only about pitching while position players concern themselves with the whole game, both offense and defense. The Blue Jays retained bench coach Brian Butterfield to help assist Farrell in the flow of the game and with in-game decision making. Farrell, though, is confident in his ability to handle the offensive side.
"I've always viewed this game from my position as from a defensive standpoint and look to attack hitters rather than create an offense," Farrell said. "But I also know, preparing for teams that are aggressive and push the envelopes on the base paths and that are not one dimensional and predictable, that creates havoc for people across the field to prepare against. I would hope that we do not become a one-dimensional team and become predictable."
The biggest challenge facing Farrell is managing a team in an American League East that features the game's two biggest-spending teams in the Yankees and Red Sox, along with a team that has won two of the last three divisions titles in the Rays, and the Orioles, who had life pumped into them when Buck Showalter was hired as manager last August.
The Blue Jays haven't been to the postseason since 1993 when they won the second of back-to-back World Series titles. Though they were a surprising 85-77 under Cito Gaston in 2010 in his final season as manager before retiring, that still left them 11 games behind the Rays. Yet Farrell sees an organization on the upswing under general manager Alex Anthopoulos.
"There were a number of factors why I wanted this job through the conversations and having an understanding of what Alex is about and his vision for the team," Farrell said. "The division honestly was an appeal, not a deterrent. I think when you go up and you play 72 games against the likes of Boston, New York, and Tampa, that is one heck of a challenge. Some might think daunting. I kind of think of it as an attraction."
Farrell was also impressed by the confidence of the Blue Jays' players, both what they showed on the field last season and in conversations he has had with them this winter. He was particularly impressed by a game last August 12 when the Blue Jays scored four runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat the Red Sox 6-5 at Rogers Centre.
"I would probably say this of the overall group; this is the one thing that you do not really get an idea of across the field and coming away, the general impression of all of these players has been a genuine belief in themselves they talk positively about one another and it played itself out on the field," Farrell said. "Lackey comes out of the game after pitching eight innings, they came up and mounted a comeback and ended up beating (Jonathan) Papelbon, you could see the emotion on the field go from one of, 'we like our abilities,' but it becomes kind of a genuine belief in that moment, witnessing it in person. It was echoed in a lot of those conversations that this team is ready to take the next step, and guys believed in one another. They liked one another. They talked about the chemistry in the clubhouse and the strength that allowed them to meet the challenges they spoke of; not solicited, they offered it up themselves."
Farrell also feels that spending four seasons in the dugout next to Red Sox manager Terry Francona has him prepared for the challenge. Not surprisingly, Farrell would like to emulate the man who has guided the Red Sox to two World Series titles in the last seven seasons.
"It was a great experience, and to work with Tito every night, the guys in that uniform, in that ballpark, it's nothing but a positive experience there," Farrell said of his days calling Fenway Park home. "One thing that became very clear last season is we went through a stretch where, in about a 7-10 day period we had a key guy go down about every other night and I think Tito's unflappability and his nerve and steady hand and resolve was an example to all of us and it was a moment of calm within a lot of uncertainty. And I think people really rallied around that and it was never doom and gloom. It was a matter of, who is going to step up now, because the nightly goal never changed and that was to go out and win tonight's ballgame."
Farrell wants to create the same type of atmosphere to a franchise, a city and a nation that has been waiting a generation for another taste of a World Series or even a post-season game.
"We all know that there's been a lot of success in this organization in the past, and last year was seemingly a very big step towards returning to that level," Farrell said. "And then you look at the pitching and the power that's in this uniform; so there was not one thing. There are a lot of things that make this, like the city of Toronto itself it might be considered a hockey town, but you win, they come out. That's our main objective. We have to return that fan base to where it once was."
Even with the most vivid of imaginations, it is hard to ever picture Kirk Gibson flying a remote-controlled model airplane around Tiger Stadium in the hours leading up to game time during his days as a stalwart in the Tigers' lineup.
Well, it never happened. And it is not going to happen at Chase Field now that Gibson is the Diamondbacks' full-time manager after serving on the job on an interim basis for the final four months of last season.
Most of the Diamondbacks' players who flew the planes or took part in pretend clubhouse gun fights when Gibson served as bench coach under Bob Melvin and A.J. Hinch are no longer with the club. That is not a coincidence because the days of playing games—other than baseball— are over.
"How could you even think about it?" Gibson said. "Stuff like that is a thing of the past, trust me. If you want to go play toys, you are in the wrong spot."
Preparation will now be the focus in the Diamondbacks' clubhouse in the hours leading up to game time.
"This is the basic criteria: if you can convince me that would help make us a better team, I'll let you do it, OK?," Gibson said. "But if you want to fly your toy airplane, you can stay home an extra hour. I'd rather have you come in an hour later and be prepared and ready to get to the baseball-related activities and preparation. There are some things that are going to change in there. It's non-negotiable. We need to go in there at a certain time, lock in and be ready to prepare for the game. And there is nothing else we have to do from that time on."
The Phillies likely kept the balance of power in the National League East in their favor by signing left-hander Cliff Lee to add to a starting rotation that already includes 2010 National League Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, left-hander Cole Hamels, and right-hander Roy Oswalt. The Mets, meanwhile, are bottom fishing for starters with their free-agent sights set on injury rehabilitation projects such as left-hander Jeff Francis and right-hander Chris Young.
Yet while Mets' fans can dream of general manager Sandy Alderson spending big next winter when a lot of payroll comes off the books, he isn't inclined to make signing big-ticket pitcher a high priority. Instead, he would like to follow the Giants' blueprint and stay in-house for his rotation solutions.
"I think any organization would like to develop their own starting rotation," Alderson said. "But I don't think their mix of one developed and three from the outside is all that unusual. I think if you look at most starting rotations these days, there are very few that have predominantly home grown. There are some, but in some cases they don't last long because clubs have to turn over their rotations for financial reasons and injuries and other things. I think the realistic goal is to have enough in your player-development system so you can, one, provide for your own starting rotation and have enough players in your system to be able to trade for others who come into your rotation—and, of course, having other resources as we expect to have in the future to be able to sign free agents."
With left-hander Johan Santana recovering from shoulder surgery and likely to miss the first half of the season, the Mets have just three rotation spots filled. And right-hander Mike Pelfrey, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, and left-hander Jon Niese all come with question marks. However, Alderson says he feel no added pressure to find a top-flight starter to counter the Phillies' rotation.
"Honestly, I don't think it affects our long-term thinking as much as one might expect," Alderson said. "Clubs make efforts to improve their team every year. The Phillies, other teams, will be back in the market next year. I mean, to some extent, the fact that they signed somebody to a five-year deal might change what they're able to do in years when we might be more active. From my standpoint it doesn't really change much at this point. We sit back and see how things develop the next few months as far as that's concerned."
The Mets aren't the only New York team with rotation issues. If the season started today and left-hander Andy Pettitte decided to retire, the back end of the Yankees' rotation would have right-handers Sergio Mitre and Ivan Nova pitching behind lefty CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Phil Hughes.
The Yankees made the highest bid for Lee but were turned down. That left them with free-agent and trade options that GM Brian Cashman admits are limited and rather unappealing.
"When we waited for Cliff Lee, certain opportunities came off the board," Cashman said. "Now those are gone. The opportunities that are there now, there's no guarantee that we'll want to do business with them. My game plan isn't to (not make a move), but if that's what happens, that's what's going to happen. This is my team until we improve upon it—and I can't tell you if we'll improve upon it between now and February."
The Yankees have a number of starting pitching prospects, including Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, Andrew Brackman, and David Phelps. While it seems a stretch to think any of them would be ready to move into the major-league rotation at the start of next season, Cashman won't completely rule it out.
"We'll see how it all shakes out in the spring," Cashman said. "I'm not going to declare anybody ahead of anybody else. Sometimes players take massive steps forward over the winter."