Firing Gibbons won’t solve Blue Jays’ problems

GM of the Toronto Blue Jays Alex Anthopoulos talks with the media about his team’s problematic pitching to start the season.

Toronto – Remember how it ended the first time through for John Gibbons? Remember how dough-headed right-fielder Alex Rios couldn’t figure out what to do with that ground-rule double in Milwaukee on June 19, 2008? Remember how the Blue Jays lost 8-7 to fall 10.5 games back in the division after losing for the 11th time in 14 games and how on the very next day Cito Gaston was hired to replace Gibbons?

We’re not there yet with Gibby 2.0.

Monday marked the first managerial firing in the majors, when the Milwaukee Brewers tied the can to Ron Roenicke, and in a few cities around the game a few more managers are squirming uncomfortably. Mike Redmond of the Miami Marlins seemed for the longest time to be the first to go, followed perhaps by Robin Ventura of the Chicago White Sox.

Here in Toronto, many of us believe there is a playoff imperative at work for an organization whose president, Paul Beeston, has announced he’s retiring at the end of the season and whose ownership was unhappy enough at the end of last season that it made overtures to baseball men with the pedigrees of Kenny Williams and Dan Duquette, suggesting in no small way that general manager Alex Anthopoulos’s position was increasingly tenuous. Teams with smaller payrolls have made the playoffs and won World Series, something that catches the eye of ownership that is publicly traded.

There has been a kind of revisionism about Anthopoulos this spring, the result of what seems to be a deep well of young arms on the cusp, plus the knowledge that the Blue Jays payroll is a year away from being remarkably cost efficient. But that has not been the case for Gibbons, who went into the season knowing a slow start could mean the loss of his job.

The Blue Jays just came off a 3-7 road trip marked by nightmarishly short starts that put a strain on the bullpen and, by extension, hampered Gibbons’ ability to play the mix-and-match game that is needed when a team has as much flux at the back end of its bullpen. Two of the four rookies who won responsible roles on the staff out of spring training – Miguel Castro and Daniel Norris – were sent out to triple-A Buffalo this weekend; the pitcher that Gibbons wants to close (in his heart of hearts) is life and death to make it out of the fifth inning as a starter, but Aaron Sanchez might also be the second best starter Gibbons has right now. Yeah … it’s been that bad.

Gibbons has made a couple of matchup decisions that have struck observers as odd — Brett Cecil was allowed to face Jonny Gomes of the Atlanta Braves and gave up a two-run home run to a hitter who was 5 for 8 with four walks against him; lefty Jeff Francis gave up a two-run double to right hand-hitting Ryan Raburn this weekend; and don’t forget Josh Thole getting a crack at breaking open a game with Justin Smoak and Russ Martin available – but Anthopoulos has taken a bigger picture view. Unlike that 2008 Blue Jays team, this club is playing hard and is usually sharp defensively. Its hitters are voracious.

“This team is playing its balls off,” was Anthopoulos’s description on Monday when he was asked whether he was still happy with his manager. “This team is grinding out wins and scoring runs.

“I don’t want to put it all on one area … but the tough part of this is that if your starting pitchers don’t go four innings, it’s pretty tough to manage the game,” the GM added.

And that really is the bottom line to all this. Much like deciding when to send a young player down to the minor leagues, it’s not all about the numbers. It’s about how a team is playing in the field, and how it is performing offensively. And, so far at least, there have been few of what former Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke used to refer to as “snipers” — anonymous sources suggesting the manager or coach has lost the dressing room or clubhouse.

Pressed a little more on Monday, Anthopoulos all but said he would try to trade for a pitcher before considering firing the manager, and since the Blue Jays GM believes teams won’t get serious in trade talks until after the June draft, you might want to put two and two together. In the meantime, some of us have seen a team playing before like it wants to get Gibbons fired or expects to see him fired. It’s not this team. Not yet. It wouldn’t only be patently unfair, it wouldn’t solve the issues facing the team, either.

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