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February 28, 2013

On the Beat

Not Fishing for Last Place

by John Perrotto

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John Gibbons was strolling through the Blue Jays’ clubhouse when he spotted a reporter. He stopped, shook hands, exchanged pleasantries, and then said, “I bet this is the last place in the world you thought you would ever see me, huh?”

Rarely does someone get the chance to manage the same team twice, but Gibbons is the second recycled Blue Jays manager in the last four years. Cito Gaston came back for a three-year stint from 2008-10 after serving as the skipper from 1989-97 and winning back-to-back World Series in 1992-93. Gibbons didn’t have that kind of success in his first go-round north of the border with the Blue Jays—which is why he Gaston replaced him—posting a 303-303 record from 2004-08. However, in his first year back on the job after three seasons as the Royals’ bench coach and another as manager of the Padres’ Double-A farm club in his hometown of San Antonio, Blue Jays fans are talking playoffs.

“There are expectations on our club, and there should be,” Gibbons said. “I’m not going to downplay that. (General manager) Alex Anthopoulos did a heckua job of going out and getting a lot of talent over the winter. This team should win. It’d be a big disappointment to me and everyone else if we didn’t win.”

Anthopoulos did an extreme roster makeover after Toronto finished 73-89 last season. He took advantage of the Marlins going into cost-slashing mode and was able to acquire left-hander Mark Buerhle, right-hander Josh Johnson, shortstop Jose Reyes, and super utility player Emilio Bonifacio from them in a 12-player trade. The Blue Jays didn’t stop there, though; they also acquired last year’s National League Cy Young Award winner, R.A. Dickey, from the Mets, and signed second baseman Maicer Izturis and left fielder Melky Cabrera as free agents.

“It’s exciting,” Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista said. “We’re never the favorites to win the division or expected by anyone outside our clubhouse to go to the playoffs. It’s good that people are taking the Blue Jays seriously. It’s been a long time since this franchise has won. It’s been way too long.”

The Blue Jays have not been to the postseason since winning their second World Series in 1993. The only teams with longer current post-season droughts are the Royals (1985) and Pirates (1992).

The Blue Jays have certainly created a buzz in Toronto. Tickets for the April 2 opener against the Indians at Rogers Centre sold out in 45 minutes, and a throng of Canadian media—along with more American media than usual—can be found at the Blue Jays’ spring training camp. Furthermore, Toronto was the talk of baseball over the winter, and that chatter has carried over into the spring.

“To me, I looked at them as a real sleeper team before they made the trades,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “I felt if they had good luck with health and some of their young guys improved that they would be pretty good. Now, you look at that club, and they’re loaded for bear.”

PECOTA, though, isn’t bullish on the Blue Jays, projecting them for an 83-79 record and a fourth-place finish in the AL East, with a 33.3 percent chance of making the playoffs. One front-office type from another AL club also cautions those who think the Blue Jays are a lock to play deep into October.

“I’m a big believer in the analytics, the sabermetrics, the numbers, but I do think there are certain cases where the human element plays into things more,” the FOT said. “I think the Blue Jays are one of those cases. It can be difficult to mold a team when you start throwing a bunch of different of guys together from other organizations. The Marlins found that out last year. It was a disaster, which is why the Blue Jays were in position to make the trade. It will be interesting to see how they jell.”

The Marlins went 69-93 last season and finished last in the National League East following an offseason in which they signed Reyes, Buehrle, and closer Heath Bell for a combined $191 million. Reyes lived through the nightmare but doesn’t see it being repeated with the Blue Jays.

“It’s just a different feeling here, a different atmosphere,” Reyes said. “It never felt comfortable with the Marlins. Here, the first day I walked through the clubhouse door, I got a good feeling. Everyone likes each other, everyone is together, everyone is pulling for each other. We’re to be a really good team and we’re going to have a really good year.”

Gibbons is the man setting that tone. While he proved to be feisty in his first stint of manager—ask Ted Lilly and Shea Hillenbrand—Gibbons also has an outgoing presence and is lauded as a good communicator. That is why Anthopoulos, who was an assistant to then-GM J.P. Ricciardi when Gibbons was fired, decided to bring him back as manager.

“It took a helluva lot of guts on Alex’s part,” Gibbons said. “A lot of GMs wouldn’t have done it, would have be afraid that he wouldn’t be able to sell it to the fans and the media. Alex isn’t afraid. Look at the trades he made over the winter. He’s done a great job for this organization, and he’s put us in position to win.”

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Of the 61 players in Astros camp, two have appeared in 232 games for the franchise, the most of anyone on the spring training roster. One is left-hander Wesley Wright, which isn’t a surprise, as he has spent all or parts of the last five seasons with the Astros. The other is a surprise: corner infielder Brett Wallace.

It is ironic that Wallace would be a pillar of stability for the Astros. Despite being a former first-round draft pick and top prospect, he bounced from the Cardinals to the Athletics to the Blue Jays before making his major-league debut in 2011.

Wallace has been a major disappointment in those 232 games, hitting .250/.323/.377 with 16 home runs and -0.1 WARP. However, something seems to be clicking this spring between Wallace and new hitting coach John Mallee.

“He’s been scorching the ball,” said a scout who has watched the Astros. “He’s been much more aggressive in his approach than in the past, and he’s hitting the ball hard. It’s early in spring training and it might not last, but he’s opened my eyes.”

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Indians left fielder Michael Brantley suffered a tough break on Monday when he was spiked on the forearm while sliding into third base. He will likely miss two weeks. However, in the little bit of time he has played in the Cactus League, Dr. Smooth has impressed new Indians manager Terry Francona, who said, “His swing has been perfect, especially for this early in the spring.”

A scout who watched Brantley confirmed Francona’s opinion: “He looked great. The talent has always been there, but what you need to see is the consistency. He just hasn’t consistently done it at the major-league level yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he breaks out this year. He really seems locked in and ready to take a step forward.”

Brantley played center field last season for the Indians while Grady Sizemore spent the season on the disabled list. However, Brantley will shift to left field this season following the signing of free-agent center fielder Michael Bourn. Right fielder Drew Stubbs was the Reds’ center fielder before they traded him to Cleveland in the offseason.

“You’ve got three center fielders in one outfield, and I don’t think you can understate the importance of that, especially for a team that doesn’t have great starting pitching,” the scout said. “Those guys are going to save the pitchers some runs. Not a lot of fly balls are going to touch grass.”

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Because no one ever holds an appreciation day for umpires or retires their numbers, it should at least be noted that Derryl Cousins, Ed Rapuano and Tim Tschida are retiring from the Major League Baseball umpiring staff and Ted Barrett, Fieldin Culbreth, and Jim Joyce have been promoted to crew chiefs for the upcoming season. Everyone seems to hate the men in blue, but I’ve found them to be some of the most engaging people in the game.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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