Now comes the most difficult part for John Gibbons and the Toronto Blue Jays: the World Baseball Classic, which means all that money and possibilities are in someone else’s hands at a time when nothing good can happen in spring training – only injuries – until opening day.
R.A. Dickey, J.P. Arencibia, Brett Lawrie, Jose Reyes and Edwin Encarnacion – one-fifth of the Blue Jays’ anticipated 25-man roster – left the club Sunday to begin marshalling for the WBC knowing that their manager, coaches, teammates and general managers all have the same wishes for them: best of luck and a speedy, first-round elimination before any of them get hurt.
These will be a nervy three weeks for an organization that has gone all in. The club has been sloppy in the field and on the basepaths through the first 10 days of Grapefruit League play, perhaps reinforcing that simply turning over the roster isn’t enough to get rid of the rot that set in when John Farrell ran the team with one foot already in the Boston Red Sox’ dugout.
Gibbons has and will continue to address this, although being without his starting third baseman, shortstop and first baseman for possibly three weeks won’t help. If there really is a chance that Emilio Bonifacio can play second base everyday – and the evidence is not there so far – it would be helpful to get used to Reyes, his double-play partner.
If nothing else, having Dickey and Arencibia playing for manager Joe Torre’s U.S. team ought to remove the fascination everybody seems to have with the identity of the knuckleballer’s catcher. Perhaps Saturday’s acknowledgment by Gibbons that Jose Bautista – who has pretty much had free rein with the team since he started hitting home runs – will be spoken to about some of his overreactions on the field, particularly to border-line pitches, will fill the controversy void.
At least this much became apparent Saturday: If Dickey has his way, Arencibia will be catching him in the U.S. opener on Friday, and that’s something the Blue Jays had not been guaranteed by Torre.
“I anticipate him [Arencibia] catching me, and I’m pretty sure that’s Joe Torre’s thinking,” said Dickey, who threw 14 pitches in the bullpen Saturday after tossing 43 through two innings against the Philadelphia Phillies.
“I don’t want to speak for him or put words in his mouth,” Dickey added about Torre. “He knows we’ve been working together and I’m sure in that first game he wants me to feel comfortable. Throwing Joe Mauer or [Jonathan] Lucroy in there, not having any experience with me, doesn’t seem the smartest decision, but that’s up to him.”
Arencibia has caught both of Dickey’s Grapefruit League games and hasn’t seemed to miss a beat, even with men on base. Yet there remains no guarantee he will be behind the plate for opening day against the Cleveland Indians.
While Gibbons makes it clear that Dickey has indicated he prefers a personal catcher, the pitcher says he is fine with any of Arencibia, Josh Thole (who caught him in 2012 when he won the National League Cy Young Award with the New York Mets) or Henry Blanco, the 15-year major-league veteran who worked with Dickey in 2010. Since Thole has options remaining, most observers have given the job to Blanco.
Blanco has become a subliminal presence in the clubhouse, moving easily between the various cultures, and has even organized a special early-morning workout group that trains to the Insanity videos, one of those annoying paid advertisements that run at all hours on television stations. A.J. Jimenez, a catching prospect who has become attached at the hip to Blanco, Thole, Maicer Izturis and Jays media-relations director Jay Stenhouse have been participants.
“It’s a hard workout, because you have to follow the crazy guy in the video,” Blanco said with a laugh, referring to former choreographer and fitness trainer Shaun Thompson. “But it’s my fourth or fifth year doing it. I like the energy and flexibility it gives me.”
Blanco, 41, still plays winter ball in Venezuela every year and thinks it’s time to play down the mystery of catching the knuckler. “You just have to stay relaxed,” he said. “I know R.A.’s knuckleball is different, but like any pitcher, if you get in a rhythm with him, you’ll be good.”