Gibbons: 'We think we're going to bounce back'
Gregarious manager knows there will be enhanced scrutiny on squad this year
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Patience rarely exists in a vacuum, and you'll find it less often in fifth place. The Blue Jays, coming off a difficult season, could've found themselves at a crossroads this spring, a struggling team trying to move forward with a new philosophy. Instead, they chose loyalty.
Manager John Gibbons, working through his second stint with the team, knows that things could've gone much differently. The Blue Jays had high expectations last season and fell well short of them, and Gibbons credited general manager Alex Anthopoulos for staying the course.
"First off, he went out on a limb," said Gibbons of Anthopoulos. "Generally, you don't return to the scene of the crime unless you've won a championship. But we struck up a pretty good relationship last time when he was an assistant general manager, and he's got confidence that I can run his ballclub. I'm very grateful for that, but I think he's right. Last year didn't turn out close to what we wanted and what we expected. We think we're going to bounce back in a big way, but only time will tell."
Gibbons, a former first-round draftee as a player, has found a home in Toronto. The gregarious manager joined Toronto as a bullpen catcher in 2002 and soon wound up as the team's first-base coach. Two years later, Gibbons took over as interim manager after Carlos Tosca was dismissed.
The Blue Jays played to two winning seasons in Gibbons' first stint as manager, but he was dismissed after a middling start to the 2008 campaign. Anthopoulos, who took over the Blue Jays in '09, went back to Gibbons before last season, a move that coincided with a massive overhaul of the team.
The addition of Josh Johnson, R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes and company brought outsized expectations to Toronto, but injuries and adversity resulted in an 74-88 record. Anthopoulos, who had seen Gibbons in better days, decided that changing managers would be a mistake.
"Three-fifths of our rotation was out. We were 29th in starter's ERA," said Anthopoulos of the mitigating factors in the standings. "You can have Casey Stengel managing. If you're 29th in starter's ERA, I don't know too many teams that are going to be competing for playoff spots. Three-fifths of the guys we expected to be there were either hurt or didn't perform. It changes the whole year. It's easy to blame one person, but I really think it's as simple as that. You're not going to have success doing that."
And so the Blue Jays, operating with uncommon restraint, opted to come back to the most competitive division in baseball for a second chance with the same manager and largely the same roster.
Toronto, a team with a lot to prove, doesn't really have a lot of position battles in camp. Gibbons said before Monday's 12-2 loss to Minnesota that there are multiple candidates for the fifth spot in the rotation, and he said the club is still trying to firm up its plans for second base.
Defensive whiz Ryan Goins is the favorite at the keystone, and Gibbons mentioned two youngsters -- Drew Hutchison and Marcus Stroman -- who could be a factor in the rotation at some point. Bottom line, though, is that Gibbons is excited to get another chance at winning with the same crew.
"It's basically the same team it was last year. We think it's a good team. We think it's good enough," said Gibbons of his squad. "We're hoping to give some opportunities to our young guys. And if he turns out to be the guy, that's how guys make careers. They're all looking for opportunities. Some never get one. Some may only get one, so if you get that opportunity, take advantage of it."
Anthopoulos said he had a few plans to upgrade the team's talent level this offseason, but none of them came to fruition and Toronto didn't want to make a move just for the sake of activity. Now, with a fresh season and a healthy outlook, the Blue Jays are asking for a mulligan -- and they might get one.
Gibbons, who owns a 379-393 record as a big league manager, knows that there will be enhanced scrutiny on the team's performance, and he knows that the American League East is as deep as it's ever been. But if you ask him about the pressure involved with starting off hot, Gibbons will embrace the challenge.
"I think a good start is very important to us, simply because it builds the confidence and it will quiet the naysayers a little bit," Gibbons said. "The most important thing is how we feel about each other as a team. ... Last year, overall, we buried ourselves early. We didn't pitch particularly well and we didn't help the pitchers by catching the ball. Offensively, it was a little bit sporadic early on, but I'm not worried about the offense. We're trying to put together the best 12 or 13 pitchers and go from there."
Gibbons, a native of Great Falls, Mont., was a catcher in his playing career, and he constantly comes back to the same themes as a manager. The best teams are built on pitching, Gibbons said, and he wants the Blue Jays to follow that blueprint. The bats, he said, aren't really something he worries about.
And with good cause. The Blue Jays still have Reyes, one of the league's most explosive leadoff talents, and they have capable power bats in All-Stars Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista.
Gibbons, as friendly and folksy as big league managers get, thinks the Blue Jays have more than enough talent to compete, and he knows that it's not a matter of motivation. This field boss knows that he doesn't have to go from locker to locker to remind the players of what last year felt like.
"These guys know," Gibbons said. "It was a rough year with high expectations. They came in real focused, and just the simple fact that we've been together for a year should help. It's hard when you're bringing together so many new guys and new faces. We're banking on that. Sometimes, it takes a little while to gel. But they know each other now. I know them. They know me. I think that will do wonders."