February 25, 2012
Jays fans given reason to dream
By KEN FIDLIN, QMI Agency
Alex Anthopoulos has earned a reputation as one of the very talented poker players among his fellow big-league general managers, jumping in and claiming pot after pot when nobody even knew he was in the game.
Part of that reputation has been built on a tendency not to overplay his hand.
Saturday morning, the Blue Jays GM engaged in a half-hour, wide-ranging interview with reporters at the team’s spring training complex, touching on all aspects of the operation, but one statement jumped out.
“I just think the organization is in a great place,” he said, when asked to assess the state of his team’s talent.
“From that standpoint, I think we have a very competitive team and I told our players that today. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with expectations at all,” said Anthopoulos. “I think they all believe in themselves and I certainly do as well. This is the best the group since I’ve been the GM.”
So, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, you are officially permitted to dream. Not of three years down the road, or two. Right now.
In the past, Anthopoulos has always hedged his bets, and even now he might be a bit ahead of schedule. To face and defeat the powerhouses of the American League East, many things have to fall the right way for Toronto just to be looking at significant baseball games being played past Labour Day.
But if the GM is fired up, knowing his team, knowing his opponents, knowing the odds the way he does, well, folks, you may indulge as well.
“Here’s the thing about our team: We didn’t really have too many guys have career years,” said Anthopoulos. “Jose Bautista, you could say, had two career years back to back. I don’t know. Is that the norm? He doesn’t even need to be as good as he was. Even a (Ricky) Romero. Obviously he had a great year, but other than that, I don’t think anyone performed as well as they can.
“So there’s upside to all the players. But we don’t need everybody to have career years. We need everybody to just be solid and we’re going to have a very good team.”
A quick trip around the diamond with Anthopoulos identifies a variety of areas where improvement can be made without asking players to achieve enormous performance spikes.
ON MORE QUALITY INNINGS
“I think we have players that underperformed a lot last year, and again, we don’t need everybody to have a career year. From that standpoint, (Brandon) Morrow should get up to 200 innings.
“Brett (Cecil) is important to this staff for what he can do. You lead the team in wins the year before and then you have the (down) season he did last year. We always forget, these guys are young and sometimes it takes going through this. The year he had in ’10 was so good and it came so easy for him. I think what happened last year, for his career long term, may have been a good thing for him.
“I’m so proud and thrilled by the way he’s carried himself and handled himself. And I just think there has been a real change in his mind-set, his maturity. And I think his career has become a real priority for him.
“And then you look at a guy like Alvarez. I expect him to have a strong year just because of his ability to throw strikes. Most times you get sent down because you can’t throw strikes, and one thing we know, he has going to bring is the ability to throw strikes and the ability to get ground balls.
“What can you say about a (Dustin) McGowan? I know the numbers don’t look great (from 2011) but I thought the stuff was outstanding. I’m probably as excited about him as I am about any of our starters.
“We do need some things to break right and we do need help. The depth that we do have is all kids, but kids with talent and ceiling and upside. From that standpoint, a year from now we could be talking about a rotation where we have too many guys, which is great. It can change that fast with the guys we have that would end up on the five man and then the guys that are right behind them in New Hampshire.”
ON COLBY RASMUS
“You look at what he did in 2010, even 2009, either one of those years we’d be thrilled with. You look at the production you get out of centre field on average, I think you’re looking at a low to mid .700 OPS, that’s average across the board. He’s capable of that, no doubt about it and he’s capable of more. He’s done more.
“I know he went through a rough year getting traded, didn’t perform the way he hoped for. I think Yunel Escobar (traded to Toronto, like Rasmus, in mid-season, a year previous) is a great example. Yunel played well right out of the chute, towards the end of the first year he didn’t play as well, but I noticed the following spring, Yunel just felt like he was finally at home and this was finally his team, and I expect Colby to be the same way. We know he has a world of talent and he can only move up from an ability standpoint and a performance standpoint from what he did last year.”
ON BRETT LAWRIE AT THIRD
“I’m cautiously optimistic because I just know from experience with young players that they don’t always just hit the ground running and not stop. The league will have to adjust to him; he’ll have to adjust back. He was great when he came up and played for us — defensively, offensively, everything he brings, great teammate. And I thought the quality of his at-bats was outstanding. That being said, I don’t think it’s fair to take the stats he had last year and try to prorate them over 500 at-bats. That’s probably not going to happen. But I think the production we got out of the position, just as a whole, we can only go up from there.”
ON ALL-AROUND DEPTH
“The fact that we started last season with a lot of right-handed bats was something we wanted to balance out. Now we have a lot of left-handed bats, so we have a nice blend. Having the right-handed bats coming off the bench, John has some other options and it adds to that depth. The fact that a guy like Edwin Encarnacion can play third, can play first and we’re going to find out how he does in the outfield during the spring. That’s something I’m really curious about in the spring. It allows us to go with a five-man outfield.
“You look at the five guys we’ve talked about (in the starting rotation) that could break with us and the other guys that are sitting there in New Hampshire — from Kyle to Deck (McGuire) to (Chad) Jenkins to Drew (Hutchison). Those are all young guys with pretty high ceilings. And then you have another wave behind them.
“In the bullpen, I think the big thing is roles. (Last year) I think the revolving door in the closer position really led to an uncertainty in the pen. It was tough and that one’s on me because those are the guys I gave John to work with. I think having more defined roles is going to helps things. And I just think there’s also a ton of talent in that pen, too. So I definitely feel a lot better.”
ON LEFT FIELD
“For those guys, swings are important, quality at-bats, how hard they’re hitting the ball. I think I said this at the end of camp last year that I remember that J.P. Arencibia’s numbers didn’t look good. He hit .120 or something. But I thought he had great at-bats. I thought he hit the ball hard. And I wasn’t worried about him. Whereas some other players may have hit .400 but we had concerns about their swings and how they were getting their hits. You’re just not buying it or at least aren’t sold entirely. That’s going to mean more than anything else. And then how they play in the outfield, from a defensive standpoint. It’s definitely part of what we’re going to use to evaluate the players.
“And, what they’ve done in the past has to factor in, as well. The fact that Eric ended the year as the everyday left fielder, that’s going to count for something, as well, but nobody is going to be handed the job.”
What about a possible second wildcard playoff team?
“It sounds like there’s a good chance it’s going to happen. But either way, I’m not worried about it. I think winning the division is obviously going to be very important, so that should be the goal of all the clubs. If you’re one of the wild cards, sure, you have a chance to get in, but you could still get bounced, so winning the division should be the goal for all the teams either way.”
Relief pitcher Carlos Villanueva became the first pitcher in Blue Jays camp with an arm problem when he complained of “coldness” in his pitching hand.
“He went through the drills but at the end of the day is when he felt a lack of circulation, almost a real cold temperature in his right hand,” said manager John Farrell. “He’s going to get checked out completely by local medical staff here.”
Saturday was the first full-squad workout involving 65 players and with a stiff wind blowing out during batting practice, players like Brett Lawrie, J.P. Arencibia and Edwin Encarnacion put on a home run show for several hundred fans who stopped by the club’s minor league complex.
Sunday, the hitters will step in against their own pitchers for the first time as the team prepares for its Grapefruit League opener next Saturday at home against Pittsburgh.