TORONTO – In pledging that John Gibbons will be back as manager in 2014, Alex Anthopoulos clearly showed that he isn’t looking for any shortcuts, or settling for easy answers to fix his wayward Toronto Blue Jays.
There should be no surprise about that, as Gibbons is far from the root cause of this year’s crushing failure, and a fourth skip in five years is among the last things this team needs. Some stability and continuity in dugout leadership is long overdue.
Really, the more intriguing elements to emerge from the message-conscious general manager’s 23-minute media session Tuesday were his repeated references to the club’s injuries over the past two seasons, and the need for a review there.
Don’t dismiss that as innocuous excuse-making – the unprompted manner in which Anthopoulos inserted the comments into the conversation suggests the issue is very much on his mind.
“Some of it has been health, we need to look at some of those things, as well. We’ve had injuries twice in a row now,” he noted at one point in discussing the troubles the Blue Jays have had in 2013.
Later he said, “I know injuries happen but we have had our fair share the past two years and that’s something we need to look at.”
Noteworthy is that such statements represent a shift in thinking, as the run of injuries that gutted last year’s club (18 disabled list stints and 1,278 man-games lost) were largely viewed as an outlier, a one-time anomaly that shouldn’t be cause for excessive concern.
Supporting that notion is that from 2002-11, the Blue Jays ranked 20th in the majors with 142 DL stints and 22nd in games lost with 6,403, according to Stats Inc. The medical and training staffs have been largely consistent from that span to the present.
But the health issues have continued at alarming rate this year – 20 different players have needed 24 DL stints (tied for second in the majors) for a total of 1,102 games lost (third in the big-leagues) – and simply dismissing that as a fluke is no longer an option.
One thing the Blue Jays are kicking around is creating a medical director type of position to oversee the way everything from strength and conditioning to daily maintenance is handled, and it’s an idea with some merit.
The Boston Red Sox restructured their medical staff last winter – they had 24 players make 34 trips to the disabled list for 1,495 games lost in 2012 – naming a medical director and a co-ordinator of sports medicine service.
This season they’ve had 17 players make 22 DL stints costing 781 games, and while proving a direct correlation between the new structure and increased health is impossible, the improvement shouldn’t be brushed aside, either.
Filling such a role is no simple task, as a doctor well versed in baseball injuries would be needed, and it’s important to note that several different physicians can look at the same test results and draw different conclusions.
One doctor’s surgery is another doctor’s rehab, and because medicine isn’t math, where two plus two is always four, that really complicates things.
Regardless, someone in a centralized role would be better positioned to examine problems like why the Blue Jays have suddenly had so many oblique injuries the past two seasons (Brandon Morrow, Brett Lawrie in 2012; Lawrie, Rajai Davis, Dustin McGowan and Colby Rasmus this year). Are the players doing too much core work? Not enough? Is it a body composition issue? And what adjustments, if any, are needed?
The Blue Jays already employ 13 consulting physicians plus a medical advisor, and lean on them for everything from evaluating the health risks of players the team may acquire, to keeping their roster on the field as best as possible.
For two years in a row now the latter hasn’t happened, and while the next person to truly figure out the pitching arm will be the first, and sometimes freak things happen, Anthopoulos is looking in every direction with this season so badly off the rails.
“Whether it’s through injuries or performance, we’ve really only had two mainstays in the rotation the whole year. That’s not an excuse, that’s just a fact,” he said. “That comes down to my chair, that comes down to the players, as well, it comes down to the staff, it comes down to the training staff, all of it. We’re all accountable to an extent.”
At this point anything and everything needs to be on the table, and it is.
Drawn into a discussion about things like a lack of a winning culture in the clubhouse and other intangible elements that may have affected the Blue Jays this season, Anthopoulos noted that he has “ideas but I can’t say with certainty it’s one thing.”
Asked if there were subjective issues that he felt needed to be addressed, he replied: “We’ve talked about that, you just don’t know how far to take it.”
“I don’t want to get into it. I’ve been here in years past where players get a label of this or that, then they go somewhere else and they do well. It’s just a dangerous, slippery slope and you have to be careful. I think a lot of it comes down to production. When a player’s production slips, now the other aspects of his game come out. It’s amazing how much our opinions of players change when the production changes. We had issues some with other parts of his game, and then the production is a little better and we kind of forget about the other issues.
“I don’t want to single out any of our players or talk about past players, that isn’t right, but it’s amazing how quickly our opinions change when the performance is a little better.”
The same goes for the manager. Gibbons was the same guy in Monday’s 5-2 victory over the New York Yankees as he was in Tuesday’s 7-1 drubbing from the Bronx Bombers, and he didn’t go from genius to chump overnight.
The difference was in the starting pitching, R.A. Dickey keeping things under control in the win, J.A. Happ allowing the game to unravel early in the loss, underlining how the improvements the Blue Jays need most are in the starting rotation, not the manager’s chair.