John Farrell had a steep learning curve in his first year as a big-league manager after four seasons as a pitching coach with the Boston Red Sox.
It took some time for the Blue Jays manager to get used to the rigours of his new job with a different organization, coaching staff and players. Farrell used a more aggressive approach on the basepaths but the Jays' pitching was inconsistent and the team finished fourth in the American League East with a .500 record.
Expectations will be higher in 2012 for the Blue Jays, who open the season Thursday in Cleveland, and Farrell said he's ready to apply what he learned last year to help his team improve.
“When to push, when to back off, how to put guys in the best position for success,” he said in a recent interview. “You always look for those opportunities to make the most of a player's given skill set. But our team has changed. Our roster has clearly changed.
“We've got more flexibility, we've got I think a deeper roster with some different players coming off the bench.”
Farrell seems to handle the juggling act of dealing with players, coaches and the game with aplomb, his no-nonsense demeanour often cracked with a laugh and a smile.
The Blue Jays enjoy playing for him and he appears to have the right mix of toughness and friendliness for the job.
“I think most of the fans see John in the dugout and very, very serious,” said bench coach Don Wakamatsu. “It's the other side that people don't realize. His sense of humour, his relational skills with the players, how much they respect him and how well he processes information.
“Obviously there's a lot going on in spring training and to be able to handle the media, deal with the players, deal with the scheduling and come every day with a great attitude — he does a phenomenal job.”
Farrell's next mission is simple — get his team into contention in what is arguably the toughest division in baseball.
Toronto's bullpen is deeper this year and Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow should offer a solid 1-2 punch at the front end of the rotation. There are question marks after that though.
Brett Cecil is coming off a poor season — he was demoted to double-A on Tuesday — Dustin McGowan has injury issues and Henderson Alvarez and Kyle Drabek are unproven youngsters. The relievers did a nice job over the first two months of last season before the extra work caught up to them.
One of Farrell's priorities this spring was to instil a mindset among his starters on the importance of going deeper into games.
“We had too many of those games where it was the fifth inning and we're already going to the bullpen,” he said.
Farrell, a 49-year-old native of Monmouth Beach, N.J., has a pitching background. He broke in with the Indians in 1987 and made 109 starts over eight seasons with Cleveland, California and Detroit.
Farrell moved into the coaching ranks in 1997 with Oklahoma State University as an assistant coach and pitching/recruiting co-ordinator. He joined the Indians as director of player development in 2001.
He spent five years with Cleveland before joining the Red Sox as pitching coach in November 2006. Boston won a World Series the next year. Farrell was named the 12th manager in Blue Jays history in October 2010.
Wakamatsu said Farrell's background serves him well.
“I think it's very important, No. 1 to be able to be in a winning organization and understand what it feels like and tastes like to have a World Series under your belt,” Wakamatsu said. “But also the amount of time starting from college all the way up through running minor-league organizations to being in one of the top programs in professional baseball.
“And now having an opportunity to run his own, he can draw on those experiences and have a little bit more of a calmness to it.”