BY THOMAS DRANCE
Baseball fans in Toronto are excited about the Blue Jays, and it’s hard not to be in the wake of the Reyes-Johnson-Buehrle trade, the Melky Cabrera signing and the re-hiring of manager John Gibbons. Following the big press rollout on Tuesday morning, we touched on five reasons to be optimistic about the Jays going into next season (that list could’ve been twice as long realistically).
But amidst the post-coital gooey-eyed satisfaction shared by Blue Jays fans across the country, there are still some major holes on the roster, and some big question marks going forward. Here are five reasons to be pessimistic, or at least cautious about the Blue Jays prospects for success, going into next season.
THE JAYS STILL PLAY IN THE AL EAST
If the Blue Jays played in the AL Central, Anthopolous and company would be laughing. But they don’t, they play in the AL East and in an AL East where even the Baltimore Orioles are a threat now…
The Yankees are old, sure, but we’ve been saying that for five years and they’ve been cranking out playoff berths that whole time. This is a Yankees club that has still got Robinson Cano, boast an enviable pitching staff, and can be counted on to make some moves to improve their team before Spring Training opens.
Tampa Bay on the other hand is one of the best managed teams in the league, boast probably the leagues best starting rotation and are insanely versatile. Baltimore is loaded with young talent and has one of the best bullpens in major league baseball. It’s unlikely that they’ll manage to sustain their success from last season but they’re not going to be a pushover either. Same goes for the Red Sox.
The AL East is the equivalent of a Group Death, and even with two wild card spots and a rebuilt roster loaded with talent – the Blue Jays will be in tough to make the postseason for the first time in twenty seasons.
With Edwin Encarnacion assuredly moving to first base this season, the Blue Jays currently have some combination of Adam Lind, Rajai Davis and David Cooper pencilled in as the club’s Designated Hitter for this upcoming season. In a loaded AL East, that’s just not going to get it done.
In terms of wins above replacement level, Adam Lind was the 20th best designated hitter in the American League last season. He can legitimately do some damage against right-handed pitchers but is woeful (and I mean, way, way below replacement level) facing left-handed hurlers. He’s a platoon candidate for sure, but ideally you’d platoon him with someone who can hit better than Rajai Davis, or someone with more power than David Cooper.
With Johnny Gomes, who destroyed left-handed pitching for Oakland last season, heading to the Red Sox – there just aren’t many good answers for the Jays’ Designated Hitter question on the open market. So how will Gibbons handle it? Go with Lind batting fifth in the lineup against right-handed pitching and maybe bat the DH 8th with one of Bonifacio or Davis against lefties?
This is the big remaining hole on the roster at the moment, and certainly it’s an issue that will demand some creativity on the part of John Gibbons. Speaking of which…
Hey look, there are some very good reasons to be excited about the Jays hiring of John Gibbons as manager (and I considered putting him on both lists frankly).
Looking at the six-hundred odd Blue Jays games he managed in the mid-aughts, it’s pretty clear that he’s a sound tactical manager (something John Farrell was clearly not). During his first tour of duty in the Jays dugout Gibbons valued OBP at the top of his lineup over speed by batting Frank Catalanatto in the lead-off spot, he successfully managed an outfielder platoon and he did well to manage the bullpen.
Gibbons’ teams are typically cautious on the basepaths, which will come as a relief to Jays fans who got tired of seeing Brett Lawrie try to steal home (with Bautista at the plate), though Gibbons is unlikely to manage a Jays roster featuring six base-stealing threats the way he managed a roster with the likes of Troy Glaus, Lyle Overbay a half decade ago. The incoming manager even assured Jays fans and media at his introductory press conference that his team wouldn’t “run into outs.”
So John Gibbons is a strategically sound, progressive manager who can be reasonably counted on to deploy the Jays’ assets so as to maximize their effectiveness. I don’t doubt any of that for a second, but there’s a nagging sentiment in the back of my head and I remain convinced that Gibbons is somewhat of a risky hire.
Much has been made of Gibbons’ history as a “hot-head” and that’s worth recounting briefly. Back in ’07 Gibbons challenged first baseman, and designated hitter Shea Hillenbrand to a fistfight following a locker room incident in which Hillenbrand had characterized the team on the white board as a “Sinking Ship.” Hillenbrand was traded three days later, and probably deserved to be dressed down in front of his teammates.
Then there was the incident with pitcher Ted Lilly, who began to “experiment” with pitches on the mound with an eight run lead, allowing five runs in the process. John Gibbons went to pull him out of the game, but Lilly wouldn’t hand over the ball and the two yelled at each other on the mound. As Lilly finally left the game, and was headed to the locker, he was tracked down by Gibbons and the two had a shoving match in the hallway before the team intervened and broke up the fracas. Lilly and Gibbons have since forgiven each other, and both have admitted they could’ve handled the confrontation with a bit more grace.
On Tuesday Gibbons characterized these incident as “black eyes” that he’s learned from, “Plus I’m to old to fight anyone anymore” he added.
Alex Anthopolous meanwhile, stood up for his new manager on Tuesday even indicating that Gibbons’ “edge” and his willingness to go after players who were being insubordinate dicks was a large part of Gibbons’ appeal for the organization. Anthopolous might have added that, “I wish I’d had a manager with the balls to punch out Omar Vizquel last season” but wisely that was just implied.
The 2012 Blue Jays season, which started out with some fairly high-hopes – though nothing like the dizzying altitude of fan expectations for the 2013 Blue Jays season – was marred by a fair number of awkward, undisciplined incidents. Richard Griffin did a wonderful job documenting these in late October, but let’s go over the Cole’s Notes. There was Bautista barking at umpires during his early season struggles, there was Brett Lawrie’s tossing of his helmet in anger and the subsequent suspension, there was Yunel Escobar writing a homophobic slur in his eyeblack, and there was Omar Vizquel calling out the coaches late in the season for their failure to communicate.
Most of the major figures from last season’s incidents have moved – Yunel Escobar is in Florida, John Farrell is in Boston and Omar Vizquel is retired – but the damage to the Blue Jays reputation will linger and the effort required to change it will be gargantuan.
Can John Gibbons get through to Jose Bautista on dealing with umpires? Can he get Brett Lawrie to stop trying to steal home, stop chasing every foul ball with no regard to his importance to the team and his health? Past experience has shown that Gibbons will stand up for himself in the clubhouse, and most of his former players seem to hold him in high-regard.
Make no mistake, this sort of “atmospheric”, “intangible” clubhouse stuff has zero analytic value. I have no idea what Gibbons is like in the room, or what types of personalities will clash on the Jays this upcoming season. But I think it’s fair to wonder whether or not a guy with Gibbons’ *cough* passionate reputation is the right fit for a roster that had its fair share of childish moments last season.
The Blue Jays biggest area of need going into this offseason was their starting rotation and they did very well to address it by adding 6’7 ace Josh Johnson and dependable work-horse Mark Buerhle. The Jays will now boast a starting five of Morrow, Romero, Johnson, Buerhle and J.A. Happ (or maybe Drew Hutchison when he’s recovered from surgery), which is an intriguing group of arms.
If everything goes their way the Jays could have one of the best starting rotations in the majors. But in baseball, as in life, it’s very rare that everything goes your way.
It would take something resembling a miracle for the Blue Jays’ rotation to stay healthy throughout next season. Josh Johnson has dealt with a multitude of injuries over the past few seasons and only made nine appearances in 2011 as a result of inflammation in his right shoulder. Brandon Morrow was hurt last season and has yet to throw 200 innings in a single season in his career. Ricky Romero has been a workhorse for the past three seasons, but he’ll be coming off of arthroscopic surgery on his throwing arm. Mark Buehrle throws 200 innings so reliably you can set your calender to it, but he’ll turn 34 in late March and at some point that streak has to end.
Beyond those four there’s J.A. Happ who is probably better suited to being the teams sixth starter (and long relief guy). Carlos Villanueva is likely headed out the door in free-agency, while Drew Hutchison and Kyle Drabek are both still recovering from surgery, and anyway, could probably use a full season in AAA.
Over the next couple of months Anthopolous and the Blue Jays are going to need to figure out some sort of contingency plan for their rotation. If they don’t, this whole thing could go sideways as quickly as… Well, as quickly as last season did.
MELKY CABRERA AND PED’s
Hey, you have to ask the question…