PHILADELPHIA – Spring training is finally over for the Toronto Blue Jays, their exhibition slate completed Saturday with a 10-4 thumping of the Philadelphia Phillies, a season of opportunity and expectation now awaiting them back home.
Things mostly went to plan in camp under John Gibbons, who created a relaxed environment in which to bring together GM Alex Anthopoulos’ ambitious off-season buildup, put trust in his players to do all they needed to be ready, and kept things moving in one steady direction.
Making the latter happen required a deft touch from the manager through a handful of potentially sticky situations, most notably the mini-drama that developed over fifth starter’s spot and the fate of Ricky Romero and J.A. Happ.
There was also reconciling J.P. Arencibia’s desire to catch R.A. Dickey versus giving the knuckleballer a personal backstop, and getting both Casey Janssen and Sergio Santos up to speed post-surgery while reaffirming Janssen’s status as closer.
The way he handled those and other challenges demonstrated to his players the forthright manner in which he plans to deal with them, and a willingness to make tough calls for his club’s betterment.
“One thing I’ve always tried to do, I’ve tried to be fair with them all,” Gibbons said in his office. “The thing about this job, things change and you’ve got to do what’s best for the team, especially in a year like this when you’re not just trying to develop guys or you’re scrambling to put together a team of 25 guys. We basically knew what was going to happen this year.
“You try to be upfront and honest with them the best you can, you have to do that.”
An old baseball adage has it that for every team, five guys will love the manager no matter what, five guys will hate him regardless, and the key for the man in charge is making sure the middle 10 that can be pulled one way or another swing the right way.
Gibbons seems to have improved upon that ratio this spring, with Romero one of the few Blue Jays with reason to feel aggrieved after his demotion to single-A Dunedin, although the left-hander seems to be dealing with it in a positive way.
Happ spent much of the spring disgruntled over his plight as the club’s sixth starter after being told when camp opened that he projected as either the long man in the bullpen or the No. 1 starter in triple-A Buffalo. And while he was unhappy about his tenuous status, he felt Gibbons handled it as well as he could.
“I appreciated the fact he recognized it before camp started and called me in and we talked, not at length, but pretty briefly about it,” said Happ. “He told me he understood, it’s a very tough situation and try to not let it affect my performance because he’s seen similar situations and it affected people in a negative way.
“He told me to try and push through those things as best I could, and I definitely appreciated that. It’s a lot better than the whole subject being ignored and being brought up at the very end.”
Examples of that from Gibbons’ first stint as manager of the Blue Jays include Shea Hillenbrand, who chafed about being primarily used at designated hitter in 2006 following the acquisitions of Lyle Overbay and Troy Glaus, and Frank Thomas, livid after being yanked as the primary DH early in 2008.
This time, Happ followed Gibbons’ suggestion and pitched well during camp, showing what he had to offer while Romero struggled. Eventually, when the Blue Jays became convinced that Romero wouldn’t be able sort through his issues in the big-leagues, they pushed Happ into the rotation.
All spring long, “nobody really gave me clarity, I don’t know if it was there to give,” said Happ. “Obviously as a player that’s what you’re always hoping for, and it’s not always the situation.”
Romero would certainly agree with the latter, as he said he felt blindsided by his demotion. In a sense the Blue Jays were somewhat blindsided, too, as they didn’t expect to have to make such a drastic decision, but Gibbons demonstrated an important willingness to stray from best-laid plans.
“Going in Ricky was the guy, I figured after last year, a fresh start, new year, he’d come in there and pitch well — there really wasn’t a doubt,” explained Gibbons. “Then (Happ) pitched really good with Ricky struggling, so in the end, it just fell into place. Our statements were that Ricky’s the guy, and that was the intent, but things change.”
They do, and in Arencibia’s case, Gibbons initially believed that his catcher’s lack of experience with a knuckleballer would keep him from being able to handle Dickey, and that’s why the initial plan was to pair the Cy Young Award winner with backup Henry Blanco.
Then Arencibia worked relentlessly to develop a comfort-level with Dickey, did a good job of catching him for the U.S. team at the World Baseball Classic, and earned the team’s trust to share Dickey-duty with Blanco. The inherent message to players there was if you earn an opportunity, you will get it.
“Players have the ability to dictate and change their situation,” said bench coach DeMarlo Hale. “He was upfront with them, and I think any player will respect a manager that’s upfront with them, let’s you know where you stand.
“That not only goes for the player-manager relationship, but it goes to the professional side of being a man, this is where you stand, this is where you’re at, can I answer all these questions that might come in your mind? No. But where we are today, this is what we’re going to attempt to do, and players respect that, that’s a very professional way to go. Even coaches, you know where you stand, you can do your job knowing that, instead of there being a cloud, what if, what if?”
Those types of questions might have been asked by Janssen with Santos, acquired two winters ago to be the club’s closer, returning from surgery. But coming into camp Gibbons established that Janssen would be his guy based on his work last season, provided he was ready in time, giving both peace of mind as they built up strength for the season.
“He has the ability to make guys feel comfortable and in this sport, you have to be relaxed, you have to have fun,” bullpen coach Pat Hentgen said of Gibbons. “It’s about managing people, not so much managing nine innings. Being in baseball his entire life, he not only recognizes that, he also goes out and does it.”
The Blue Jays players have now seen that first-hand, and that’s important heading into the season. While much of the focus early in camp was on building chemistry given the roster turnover – they break with 12 new players on the initial 25-man squad – a club’s cohesiveness is only really tested in times of adversity.
Gibbons has already faced some this spring, and seems to have emerged in good standing, with few hard feelings.
“When you look at the situation we’re in, we’re here to win games and put ourselves in a position to have success,” said Hale. “Sometimes that’s a hard thing for players to deal with, because you’re role may be changed, but at the end of the day, we’re all putting on the same uniform, Toronto Blue Jays, so it’s what do we want to accomplish as a team. There’s an individual, but what do we want to accomplish as a team.
“I don’t think it’s a big delicate balance. They know, we’re in this together, there are just different job titles. Just do your job, and as a team, things will be smoother, so to speak. But (Gibbons) has done it very well, so far, players know where they’re at, coaches know where we’re at, what we need to do. I really, truly feel it’s going to work. He’s the right guy for us.”