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Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Fernando Rodney celebrates after defeating the Toronto Blue Jays in AL action in Toronto on Sunday September 29, 2013. (FRANK GUNN/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Fernando Rodney celebrates after defeating the Toronto Blue Jays in AL action in Toronto on Sunday September 29, 2013. (FRANK GUNN/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

All eyes on Anthopoulos and Jays ahead of 2014 Add to ...

The season ended, the Blue Jays finished packing their bags in the clubhouse and scurried to the airport while, on the Rogers Centre field, a maintenance crew used tractors to tear up the dirt around the bases and pitching mound for the final time. Talk had already turned to 2014.

Earlier Sunday afternoon, starter Todd Redmond had illustrated general manager Alex Anthopoulos’s stated off-season priority by being charged with five runs in Tampa Bay’s six-run first inning. As the Blue Jays went home, Tampa Bay advanced to a tiebreaker against the Texas Rangers for the second AL wild-card berth by holding on for a 7-6 victory.

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Prior to the game, Anthopoulos reasserted the goal of strengthening the rotation with a front-of-the-line pitcher via trade or free agency. He followed in a television broadcast by acknowledging the club will bid for Masahiro Tanaka, a 24-year-old free agent from Japan’s Pacific League.

The Jays won 73 games last season under John Farrell and 74 this season under John Gibbons. Anthopoulos, 36, is the common ingredient.

By attracting more than 44,000 for the season finale with a tuque giveaway promotion, the Jays broke through the 2.5-million attendance mark. Even in losing, the club entertained fans, as on Sunday by climbing back from a 7-0 disadvantage to within a run, leaving the bases loaded in the seventh and eighth innings. While walk-up crowds in July and August exceeded club expectations, the challenge for Anthopoulos this off-season is to restoke the enthusiasm in order to generate preseason sales.

Is he a man with a plan?

“You don’t make excuses – you have to be accountable,” he said during a Q&A with media. “There must be things we can do better as an organization. … Obviously we didn’t perform the way we hoped – we need to get it right and get it better.”

Significant changes are expected, starting with coaching staff moves this week and an evaluation of the medical and training operations following two seasons of high-rate injuries. They need to assess whether the AstroTurf is leading to some injuries.

As on Sunday, albeit in exaggerated fashion, the rotation dug a hole for the offence far too many times. Only Minnesota had a worse ERA among AL starting rotations, and the Jays went 22-53 when their opponents scored first in a game.

As Anthopoulos scripts it, Brandon Morrow will return to health as the No. 4 behind Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey and a newcomer. The Jays have an option on popular infielder Munenori Kawasaki’s services. The first step toward attaining Tanaka is purely financial; thereafter, Kawasaki could be useful as a club ambassador in their negotiations with Tanaka.

The status of Morrow, who made only 10 starts this season, should be determined within the next three weeks, Anthopoulos said. He has an impinged nerve in his pitching arm.

“That will really dictate how we move forward,” Anthopoulos said.

Anthopolos speculated that the Jays would have contended for the playoffs if right-handers Josh Johnson and Morrow had been healthy and effective. Johnson, who had dealt with shoulder problems in Miami by eschewing surgery, went 2-8 with a 6.20 ERA in 16 starts, half the number expected from him. Morrow was 2-3 with a 5.63 ERA after recording 10 wins and a 2.96 ERA in 21 starts the season before.

Johnson, a free agent, isn’t in the 2014 plans. Right-hander Henderson Alvarez was among the six young players (plus shortstop Yunel Esobar) surrendered by Anthopoulos in the trade with Miami last November for Johnson et al. Ironically, the right-hander pitched a no-hitter for the Marlins on Sunday.

Anthopoulos acknowledged that when Morrow, Johnson and No. 5 starter J.A. Happ were either ineffective or injured, the Jays lacked able reinforcements. Next season, that situation should be reversed with Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison recovered from 2012 arm surgeries, oft-injured Dustin McGowan possibly stretched out to start, and Esmil Rogers having shown signs. Rogers, McGowan and Redmond are out of options. Ricky Romero may or may not be in the mix, may or may not pitch in winter ball. Happ, the winning pitcher on Saturday, and Redmond had strong Septembers.

That cast would go into spring training as 5-6-7… members of the five-man rotation.

Asked if an atmosphere change was needed in the clubhouse – an oblique reference to Jose Bautista’s seniority – Anthopoulos reverted to the influence of a rotation. When a team is winning, the clubhouse is happy, he said.

“The rotation will carry you,” he said. “It doesn’t mean it’ll get you in the playoffs, but it will keep you competitive.”

 

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