That 12-player trade with the Florida Marlins? That’s just money and player evaluations. Melky Cabrera? That’s money and hope. But in bringing back John Gibbons to manage the Toronto Blue Jays, general manager Alex Anthopoulos has gone all in with his reputation.
When Anthopoulos told the Globe and Mail on November 1 that he was going to go with his gut in hiring John Farrell’s replacement – that he was going to be less democratic then he was in hiring Farrell, when, in retrospect, he believes he may have listened to too many voices – he clearly wasn’t kidding. Anthopoulos needed a manager with whom he had a comfort zone after the song and dance that resulted in Farrell bolting for the Boston Red Sox; he wanted a manager with Major League experience and he said somewhat cryptically that he really didn’t care about the optics.
Gibbons is the most underrated manager in Blue Jays history. Like the team he will be running this season, he was handed a club by J.P. Ricciardi that was composed of high-priced free-agents and players from other organizations. He managed the club to its second best season since the 1993 World Series win, an 87-win season in 2006. He was fired in 2008 and replaced by Cito Gaston in a move that many believe was mandated by ownership and then-president Paul Godfrey.
The fact is that Gibbons had a tremendous amount of support within the Blue Jays front office beyond his former minor league roommate Ricciardi - in particular, Ricciardi’s chief lieutenants Anthopoulos and Tony LaCava.
Gibbons had two well-celebrated run-ins with players: Ted Lilly and Shea Hillenbrand. Lilly remained a friend; Hillenbrand, who already had little currency in the clubhouse, was soon dispatched. He is rough around the edges, to be sure: his uniform top often covered with dribbles of chewing tobacco after a game. But he is also direct, no-nonsense – and you can take it as gospel that on his watch, Yunel Escobar wouldn’t have taken the field with a homophobic slur on his eye-black. Gibbons was also well-liked by his coaching staff; he delegated authority and supported his coaches when they needed it and he understood the dynamics of a clubhouse.
Gibbons cut his managerial teeth in the New York Mets minor league system, and managed the San Diego Padres Double-A affiliate in San Antonio last season. He is familiar, then, with a speedy, pitching-oriented defensive style that the new additions to the Blue Jays roster would seem to demand.
Gibbons also has another strength: he is a savvy handler of relief pitching, with former reliever B.J. Ryan once claiming that in his first year under Gibbons he only got up once in the bullpen without getting into a game. That is significant, because even with the Blue Jays off-season acquisitions and spending, the bullpen will remain a work in progress and it would be stunning if Anthopoulos spends a great deal of money firming it up. Casey Janssen did yeoman work as a closer, but Sergio Santos is back, too, and his power arm could force the matter.
Gibbons’s hiring will at first glance not sit well with the Blue Jays fan base. The additions of Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Emilio Bonifacio as well as Cabrera, coupled with the presence of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, would seem to cry out for a Latino manager, and you can’t square this hiring with that reality. But that situation can be addressed through the naming of a bench coach, and regardless of whomever joins the staff, Bautista will remain the dominant clubhouse presence. Gibbons believes in players running the clubhouse, and Bautista will be a willing sheriff.
This is not a sexy signing, by any stretch of the imagination. Names such as Joe Torre and Tony La Russa were pie-in-the-sky; names such as Tim Wallach and Matt Williams and Sandy Alomar intriguing in the same way that Farrell was intriguing when the Blue Jays signed him.