NEW YORK — As segments of the fan base lose faith in the Toronto Blue Jays’ aggressive off-season buildup amid a miserable start to the 2013 season, Alex Anthopoulos preached a message of steadfastness Sunday while pointing to signs that his team’s fortunes will turn.
The general manager spoke with media for roughly 25 minutes before the finale of a four-game series against the New York Yankees, touching on everything from his inconsistent offence, spotty pitching and dodgy defence.
Sitting in manager John Gibbons’ office, speaking calmly and coolly, he insisted that “there’s going to be improvement in a lot of areas, and that’s going to lead to more wins.”
“We’ve had a few games that were blowouts but we’ve been in so many games where, one way or another, things aren’t breaking our way right now,” said Anthopoulos. “Again, this is going to happen over the course of a season. Obviously we want to get it going, winning games. There’ve been some encouraging signs. We’ve started to put some balls in the seats. …
"It comes down to getting quality starts out of our rotation. The offence is starting to click … it's going to turn at some point, but you just don't know when."
The latter part is the key point there, and an important concern for the Blue Jays is how much their poor April eats away at their margin for error later in the season.
After going 9-16 in their first 25 games the Blue Jays need to finish the season 81-56 to win 90 games, a plateau they likely must reach for a shot at the post-season. By no means is it impossible, but they're certainly leaving themselves with a lot of work to do.
"Yeah, you can't have a poor month, I guess so. I haven't really gotten ahead of myself there," said Anthopoulos. "We can go through so many examples of teams that have been well over .500, our team in 2009 was well over .500 and things change, or teams that are well under .500 and things change.
"If you're a good team you're going to have a bunch of winning streaks, you're going to start winning a lot of series. That's going to happen. …
"We're a talented team, we know that, there's a lot of ability in that room. I think these guys have had long enough careers that it's all going to come together. You feel like we haven't scored that many runs, we're still up there in home runs, we just haven't had guys on base and that will change. You see how many batting averages we have in the ones. These guys have been playing too long for that to stay. I think that will all change, I really do. When you're a good team as well, you're going to have streaks, you'll win four in a row, five in a row and that's where you're ultimately going to make up ground."
Maybe, but not until some of their trouble spots are cleaned up.
The defence up the middle has been sketchy, the extra outs have kept the starters from getting deeper into the games, the bullpen has been overworked as a result, their on-base percentage has been pitiable and the offence hasn't scored enough to overcome the other stuff.
Certainly the absence of shortstop Jose Reyes has hurt on all ends of the equation, but Anthopoulos said the plan is to make do with Munenori Kawasaki and Macier Izturis since the prices for someone who offers only an incremental improvement "don't line up for us with what our alternatives are."
Still, with the Blue Jays going 6-10 in games decided by two runs or less before Sunday, they are losing too often in the types of game teams headed to the post-season must win in September and October.
"You're still going to have times when you don't make plays," said Anthopoulos. "You look at that ball (hit by Travis Hafner in the seventh inning Saturday) in centre field. That ball was crushed. It went about 406 or 407 feet. It wasn't a routine play. Overall, if you're looking down the road with Reyes back and (Brett) Lawrie in form and Izturis getting the bulk of the at-bats at second base, I think defensively we're going to be OK.
"I don't think that's ultimately going to be the issue. It's been an issue early on but I do think we're seeing signs of playing better defensively. Now it comes down to the ERAs of our starters. Other than J.A. (Happ) pretty much everyone has an ERAs in the 5s. That's obviously going to change."
The Blue Jays certainly have a lot riding on it. Only six times have the Blue Jays lost 16 games or more in April, most recently in 2008, when they were also 11-17 under Gibbons. They recovered to win 86 games that year.
"It's going to get better and I still expect us to be a contending team," said Anthopoulos. "I don't think any of that changes at all. I don't expect Jose Bautista to hit .190 or whatever it is over the course of the season. You look at last year, he hit .188 the first month and before he got hurt he was at .246 but that just tells you how much better he was after the first month, he was a lot better than .246.
"The same thing with our rotation as well. We've seen flashes of how good these guys can be, it's a matter of putting it all together. There's no question, we'll go on a run, we'll get hot and everyone is going to get excited again. But at the same time, when that happens, I'll still be the one to say, we're not going to play like this the entire year. You want to get on a roll, start to stabilize things a little bit and from that point, we still have a lot of games left, we'll have another slump at some point down the road."
For their sake, it better not be a long one.
Here are other highlights from the discussion with Anthopoulos:
On the possibility of disabled list stints for either Josh Johnson or R.A. Dickey, factoring in Ricky Romero's progress: "I don't think so. You know, Josh felt great. I think it was one of those things of knowing his body, just to take a precaution. It seemed like, even with that 1.1 in Detroit I think he threw 62 or something like that and then obviously the next two starts I think he went up to 110. I think that's where he was a little bit sore and rather than take a chance if we can just back him off a little bit he'll end up being fine. Obviously the results of the MRI were completely clean, just a little bit of inflammation, so I don't see there being any problem there. We don't have any other complaints from any of the other starters. At some point, obviously we expect Romero to continue to progress and we'll have a decision to make, which is exactly what we want. That's a good thing; we want him back to being the guy he was, the all-star, and that's a great problem for our organization to have."
On R.A. Dickey making his neck situation worse by continuing to pitch: "We talked to him and he says it's just the way a trainer would talk to you, it's the equivalent of having a scab and obviously every time you pitch you continue to pick at it. It is actually gradually getting better, it's just taking a little more time. Obviously if he could take two weeks off or something I would assume it would be completely gone. Pretty much we've allowed him to tell us. It is getting better, slowly but surely and they do believe, our training staff, that it's going to resolve itself at some point. … With the off day he'll be able to get moved back a day, even one more day will help. And he does feel a lot better so we're not concerned."
On whether Romero will need to progress through the minors: "I don't know yet at this point. I want to speak to Dane (Johnson, minor-league pitching co-ordinator) and see what he feels. If Dane says, look, let's move him up, let's keep him here for one more start, I'm really leaning on him to make the decisions on what he feels is best. Dane's the one who decided he was ready for a start now. I'm not down there day in and day out; Dane is the one doing the work with him."
On whether the club's OBP troubles are more slump or issue in approach: "It's a combination. You look at Brett (Lawrie), his batting is where it is, but in this series his at-bats have been outstanding. He's really worked the count, grinded some at-bats, the numbers might not show it, you've seen him hit two home runs, but he's driving the ball to the right side. I think his approach has been great. So even though the numbers aren't there right now he looks really good. We knew we brought him back early because we needed his glove but it's finally starting to come for him. Again, we know we have power in the lineup, we certainly know we have speed. I think last season, I don't know if it was the first month or the first two months, we struggled to score runs and then we exploded. We were up there in runs scored and that ended up taking care of itself."
On reports from Romero's start Saturday: "His lines were good. The one thing with Ricky, he's not all of a sudden not going to walk anybody, he's not going to be a command guy that's going to paint. His ball moves so much, when you have that type of action and life, you're going to run some deep counts at times. When you see him getting ground balls, that's what allowed him to go so deep into games in the past and rack up 220 innings. If he does walk a guy, he can get two outs with that ground ball. That's probably the most encouraging sign, getting all those ground balls."
On why Maicer Izturis will get lion's share of work at second over Emilio Bonifacio: "Defensively Izturis has been stronger up the middle, I think I'm stating the obvious there. That's been the biggest thing. Offensively, they haven't necessarily swung the bat great, so ultimately, if one of them was hot it'd be a little different, if they're both not swinging the bat all that well, Gibby's elected to go with the defence which makes sense. I've seen even the little Boni has played here in the last little bit, I think he's starting to come around swinging the bat as well, making more contact, more hard contact, I think he might start turning it around as well."
On whether a June return is realistic for Jose Reyes: "He will tell you yes. You know, we told him three months and he told me, 'I'm going to be back in two.' I said, 'Look, if you can be back in two without taking any chances, great.' But we're not going to take any chances. Everyone in New York knows what a gamer he is and how much he wants to play. But I think the earliest may be the beginning of July, just to make sure that we do this correctly and we don't have any setbacks. And then also we need to get him games. He's starting spring training all over again -- throwing, batting practice, getting up to playing nine innings in the field day in and day out -- it's going to take time.