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Sports After a cringeworthy season, Ross Atkins still envisions further struggles

Ross Atkins, General Manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, during a news conference in Toronto, Oct. 2, 2018.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman can both bounce back from rough seasons to be capable, if not formidable, members of the Toronto Blue Jays starting rotation for 2019.

Aging catcher Russell Martin could very well return and see playing time behind the plate despite his worst offensive season in 13 MLB campaigns.

And Troy Tulowitzki’s dogged insistence that he be the everyday shortstop after missing the last 1 ½-years recovering from various injuries – well, let’s just say the club is not yet ready to accede to that demand.

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These were some of the takes provided by Toronto general manager Ross Atkins to members of the media at Rogers Centre on Tuesday afternoon when he gave his end-of-season postmortem on the just concluded 2018 MLB campaign.

Toronto finished the regular season at 73-89 and in fourth place in the American League East, a whopping 35 games back of the front-running Boston Red Sox. Not since 1980, when Toronto finished 36 games back of the New York Yankees, has the gap between them and the leaders been so great.

It was a cringe-worthy campaign to be sure, capped by the anticipated firing of fan-favourite manager John Gibbons, who still has one year left on his contract.

Atkins is still refusing to state exactly why Gibbons was let go, other than to reiterate it was a mutual decision that both sides agreed was best for the organization heading into a rebuild.

With Vladimir Guerrero Jr. having already been anointed the next sure thing despite not having yet played a single game above the Triple-A level, Atkins said he is confident the pain the fan base has stomached the past couple of years is close to ending.

“I hope we’ve endured a great deal of it over the last two years,” Atkins said. “I certainly have. You certainly sign up to win. What we think about all the time is jumping up and down on the mounds. And watching other teams do that, as happy as I am for the people, it is painful to watch when it is not us.

“So we want to expedite [the rebuilding process] as quickly as possible.”

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Atkins envisions maybe one more season of struggles as a younger Toronto lineup continues to gain experience at the major league level before the Blue Jays can once again start to experience daily success on the field.

“Timelines are so difficult and I don’t expect us next year to be jumping up and down on mounds,” Atkins said. He said that is a more realistic vision for 2020 and thereafter as the Blue Jays hope to retool for sustainable postseason success.

“I have never felt as confident in working in baseball as I do know about the future of an organization,” Atkins stressed.

As for the hiring of a new manager, Atkins said the process has already started, with the club gathering information on what he said is a “vast number” of candidates.

Interviews over the phone will be started within days. Eventually, the list of potential hires will be narrowed to “plus-five” who will be brought to Toronto for more formal, in-person interviews.

Atkins said there could be a new Blue Jays manager in place before the end of the month. He said one of those he has spoken with about the job is DeMarlo Hale, who was the bench coach under Gibbons.

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Atkins said he fully expects both Stroman and Sanchez, who struggled through injury-marred seasons, to return to form for next season. He said Sanchez had recent surgery to repair a damaged ulnar collateral ligament in his right index finger but should be ready for spring training in February.

As for Martin, Atkins said he still sees value in a player who will be 36 when next season rolls around and is coming off a season when he hit just .194 in 90 games, both career lows.

“He makes such a difference for pitchers, with his receiving, with his leadership, with his instincts, with his confidence, that if he’s near his best, he’s playing,” Atkins said. “How regular, we’ll see.”

Tulowitzki’s situation, it would seem, is a little more complicated.

Still owed US$34-million over the next two years with a US$4-million buyout option in 2021, Tulowitzki’s return in 2019 will be “health dependent,” according to the GM.

“If Tulo’s healthy and performing at a very high rate, then yes [he will play],” Atkins said. “If he’s healthy and his performance isn’t to the calibre that major league environments demand, then no. But it starts with health.”

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As to Tulowitzki’s assertion made earlier this year that he is not interested in playing a less physically demanding position than shortstop, Atkins response was succinct. “We can’t guarantee that."

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