John Gibbons will tell you now that even a month before 2013 spring training, he had an inkling the season was going to be tumultuous for the Toronto Blue Jays.
A whirlwind winter overhauled the roster with big names, big salaries and big reputations added to a mix that already included personalities such as Brett Lawrie and Jose Bautista – a mix that had been jilted by its previous manager, John Farrell.
Las Vegas had installed the Blue Jays as prohibitive World Series favourites 12 months ago. And when the players started reporting to camp there was an obvious sense of dynamism; a freshness exacerbated by the steady parade of national baseball reporters through Dunedin, Fla., taking stock of the Cy Young Award-winning knuckleballer, the former batting champion and a disgraced left-fielder whose suspension for a failed drug test ruined an all-star season.
The Blue Jays were a story, looking for a storybook ending. And end it did: in the bottom of the American League East, after a season that started with the opening day starter (R.A. Dickey), catcher (J.P. Arencibia), third baseman (Lawrie), shortstop (Jose Reyes) and designated hitter (Edwin Encarnacion) spinning off from the team for the World Baseball Classic.
Lawrie never even played, injuring his oblique muscle in a WBC exhibition game, and when Reyes injured himself in a regular-season game in Kansas City, it would mean the Jays wouldn’t have the left side of their infield together until June.
Injuries were a concern for every team with players in the WBC.
Gibbons knew that going in, as well as understanding the process of defining roles in clubhouse life – the annual spring rite of allegiances and alliances made and broken, walls erected and broken down, the shared golf outings or rides to the ballpark that are important to teams with a few new additions as they are to a team that has airlifted in talent – was not going to be allowed to run its course.
It was baseball’s version of coitus interruptus, and coupled with Gibbons’s natural inclination to stand back and let things develop organically, it was a toxic mix. “Most of these guys know what they need to do to get ready,” Gibbons said one day around the batting cage. “Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey. Jose [Reyes] has a batting title.”
Gibbons would end up swearing at the end of the season he thought the team was ready to go out of the gate. He was wrong.
To say expectations are tempered for 2014, as pitchers and catchers report Sunday, would offend the meaning of “tempered.” The Blue Jays need 18 or 19 more wins than the 74 they managed last season, need to strike out less and get more innings out of their starters – and they need to do it with a club that so far has one significant off-season acquisition: catcher Dioner Navarro.
Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos could still make a play for either or both of the big-ticket free-agent pitchers left – Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana – or maybe pry away a starter in trade, but this winter’s slow-developing, slow-played personnel market has not been kind to a GM who prefers to do the heavy lifting early, and then stand back while his peers fall over each other.
What is very clear is this: After a 2013 season in which expectations were raised to a fever pitch, when the organization captured not only a new generation of fans but reignited the dormant passions of those who remember the back-to-back World Series titles, the Blue Jays find themselves in a position of having, first and foremost, to get off to a strong start.
That means starting pitchers being prepared to go six or seven strong out of spring training; that means hitters locked in.
It’s already time for Gibbons to go to the whip hand – whatever that looks like – and if that doesn’t happen, jobs will be lost.
It’s a short step from “we won’t get fooled again” to a crisis of consumer confidence, something of which Blue Jays ownership is acutely aware.