The Toronto Blue Jays put a dismal and turmoil-laced 2009 season to bed Sunday insisting that their simmering unrest is no longer boiling over and brighter days are ahead.
Bob Marley's "Is This Love" blared in the clubhouse, perhaps ironically, before a 5-4 loss in 11 innings to the Baltimore Orioles that left them with a 75-87 mark this year, while Cito Gaston again suggested a conspiracy from outside the organization was behind Friday's shocking revelations of player frustration with his approach.
As every corner of the franchise worked to paper over the differences Saturday, catcher Rod Barajas reaffirmed what several of his teammates admitted publicly Friday, that "there were various small issues. Just various issues that us as players felt we needed to get off our chests."
That was done Saturday in a meeting between a small group of players and interim CEO Paul Beeston, who later addressed the entire team along with Rogers Media head Tony Viner and new GM Alex Anthopoulos, who was promoted to replace the fired J.P. Ricciardi.
Asked if the issues could have been addressed earlier, Barajas replied: "Yeah, they could have, absolutely. They could have been. They weren't."
It will now be up to Anthopoulos, a 32-year-old from Montreal who had been an assistant GM with the team, to decide whether or not a disconnect exists between Gaston and players, some of whom say privately they have problems with his approach, negativity and in-game management.
"Unfortunately you had to go through something that someone else planted here, I don't think it came from my players," said Gaston, who denies the claims against him. "The person who did that, it will come back to get him some kind of way. We might never find out who did it, but it will come back to get him. "
"But right now, I feel a lot better that my players had nothing to do with it."
Anthopoulos faces a daunting task, needing to sort through that mess, settle another set of problems with the coaching staff, and help develop a bigger-picture direction for the future.
The last is the biggest question, as the Blue Jays spent 2009 developing some young pitchers but lacked a clear philosophy guiding their decision-making. The path forward is unclear, with both adding free agents for a run in 2010 and dealing ace Roy Halladay to jump-start a rebuild on the table.
"I think you have to see what we have to spend before you can do any of those things," said Gaston. "I think they're going to have to get their budget together to see which way we're going to go. ..."
"(If) you're giving up a pitcher like Doc, you might have to go back and say we're not going to go out and get players who can help us contend and try to win, so you kind of back it up and say let's regroup for a few years. It's a lot of what-ifs."
Rookie lefty Rick Romero is one highlight of a season gone bad, beginning the spring as an after-thought before emerging into the staff's No. 2 starter behind Halladay. A no-decision after seven innings of four-run ball versus the Orioles left him at 13-9 for the season, with 178 innings and 141 strikeouts.
Solo shots by Edwin Encarnacion, whose shown some promise in the final weeks of the campaign, Jose Bautista and John McDonald, plus an RBI double by rookie Travis Snider, who Gaston said must win a job next spring, took care of the Toronto offence.
Brandon League (3-6) made two throwing errors on sacrifices in the bottom of the 11th, the second on Jeff Fiorentino's bunt that allowed Michael Aubrey to score the winning run and complete a three-game Orioles sweep.
Marc Rzepczynski and Brett Cecil, two other lefty starters, also left a mark and showed they have a place in the Blue Jays' future. Aaron Hill recovered from last year's season-ending concussion to blossom into an all-star and establish a franchise record with 36 home runs for a second baseman. And Adam Lind finally developed into a premier slugger, joining Hill in becoming the team's first 100 RBI men since Vernon Wells and Troy Glaus in 2006.
Wells, who left the game in the 10th inning with an apparent injury, struggled through the worst year of his career and must be better for the Blue Jays to improve next year. With Ricciardi gone, he becomes the primary lightning rod for the team's dwindling and disgruntled fan base, which blames him for the team's slide after a 27-14 start.
In truth, that hope-inspiring run was a mirage done against few teams of substance. The most telling mark about the Blue Jays this season is their 17-37 mark against the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays, illustrating exactly how much of an irrelevancy they were against the cream of the American League East crop.
"I think we had a decent idea of this season was going to go with what transpired last off-season, not being able to bring back A.J. (Burnett), and going with a young staff behind Doc," said McDonald. "We got out of the gates really well and it changed everybody's perspective a little bit, then we came down to earth and went through the growing pains of playing in the American League East with a young pitching staff."
The wildly popular McDonald, fellow shortstop Marco Scutaro and Barajas are the team's three biggest free agents and while all have expressed an interest in returning, none have heard from the team yet.
The Blue Jays are tempted by the compensatory draft picks they would get if Scutaro and Barajas sign elsewhere, but their departures would leave them with two massive holes to fill.
Just more questions for an already heaping pile of uncertainty.
"As players, it's easy to look into that stuff because everyone wants to know is our payroll going to be here, are we going to go out and do this? I think everyone knows that to compete in this division you're going to have to," said Hill. "A lot of positive came out too, we do have a solid group of young guys who are only going to get better. The first year for a couple of these guys was pretty amazing. Hopefully they can build on it."
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