Thus far into the offseason, Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos has been full of surprises.
First, he engineered a 12-player trade with the Miami Marlins that brought pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle and shortstop Jose Reyes to Toronto. With this deal, he may have changed the balance of power in the AL East.
Anthopoulos then signed outfielder Melky Cabrera to a two-year, $16 million contract. Popular opinion surmised that Cabrera would find nothing better than a one-year deal after testing positive for performance-enhancing substances and incurring a 50-game suspension.
But the Blue Jays followed that up with their biggest surprise yet. With a team seemingly ready to compete for the AL East title, the assumption was that Anthopoulos would hire an experienced manager suited to deal with a veteran team. Names like Manny Acta, Jim Tracy and Jim Riggleman were rumored as candidates.
Anthopoulos did need to bring in a manager with major league experience, but he reached into the Blue Jays' recent past for his new skipper. Surprising everyone—including team president Paul Beeston, who asked his GM, "Are you serious?"—Toronto hired John Gibbons to be their manager.
Gibbons managed the Blue Jays from 2004 to 2008, compiling a record of 305-305 with one second-place finish on his résumé. He's known more for getting into fights with Shea Hillenbrand and Ted Lilly than anything he accomplished in terms of strategy or leadership.
Yet Anthopoulos thought highly enough of Gibbons to re-hire him.
Former Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi, who hired Gibbons the first time around, told The New York Times' Tyler Kepner that he regarded Gibbons so well that he encouraged the manager to interview for the New York Mets job before the 2011 season. Gibbons passed on the opportunity.
Even Hillenbrand, who would presumably hold a grudge against the manager that once challenged him to a fight, endorsed Gibbons, telling Brendan Kennedy of The Toronto Star that "he's a great guy."
After making the splashiest moves of the offseason so far, however, hiring a retread manager was kind of a letdown.
At least Tracy had managed a first-place team with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004. Riggleman steered the 1998 Chicago Cubs to 90 wins and a wild-card berth. Hiring a first-time manager like Dodgers third-base coach Tim Wallach, Indians bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr. or Orioles third-base coach DeMarlo Hale would have been exciting as well.
Of course, a rookie manager would be unproven and Anthopoulos wanted someone who at least knew how to run a major-league dugout through the course of a 162-game season.
But is that good enough for the team Anthopoulos has now assembled? Did he blow a chance to take the Blue Jays to the playoffs by hiring a manager who managed the Padres' Double-A team in San Antonio this season and wasn't on the radar for any major-league openings?
Or did Toronto's GM see in Gibbons a manager who featured every trait he was looking for in a new skipper, an innovative thinker who lets his players do what they do best yet is unafraid to stand up to them when acting petulantly?
As Sports Illustrated's Joe Sheehan explains in his most recent newsletter (here's an excerpt), Gibbons is an aggressive manager who doesn't take the bats out of his hitters' hands by playing small ball and bunting. He lets them swing away.
Closer B.J. Ryan also had the best year of his career under Gibbons in 2006. He racked up 38 saves in 42 opportunities with 86 strikeouts in 72.1 innings. In 65 appearances, he compiled a 1.37 ERA. Gibbons didn't restrict his closer to three outs in the ninth inning. If the most important outs were in the eighth, Ryan was brought in earlier.
That philosophy could be even more important for a bullpen that doesn't have an established closer for next season. Maybe it's Sergio Santos. Perhaps it's Casey Janssen. Brad Lincoln or Esmil Rogers could be in the mix as well.
One of those relievers will likely assert himself for ninth-inning duties. Players like to know their roles, after all. But sometimes it takes a whole season for that to work out, as with the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals and 2012 San Francisco Giants. Managers often have to be adaptable with their bullpens and Gibbons demonstrated he can do that.
As Ricciardi's assistant during Gibbons' first stint with the Blue Jays, perhaps Anthopoulos thought they missed an opportunity by not giving their manager a good enough team to win. Obviously, he hopes things are different this time around.
Personally, I imagine Terry Francona standing in a field, alone with his thoughts, wondering why he so hastily took a job with the Cleveland Indians. If he had just waited six weeks, perhaps he could be managing an AL East contender rather than a rebuilding project with the Tribe. Would Francona not have been perfect for the Toronto opening?
But working with people he liked, in Indians team president Mark Shapiro and GM Chris Antonetti, was important to Francona. (There was also a sentimental aspect, in that Francona and his father, Tito, both played for the Indians.)
Apparently, that was a major consideration for Anthopoulos as well.
“They communicate. They think the same way. I think it’s going to make it very easy for them to work together,” Beeston explained to the National Post's John Lott.
“I think it’s going to work," Beeston added. "And if you can say one thing that I’ve learned, it is absolutely 100 percent essential that the manager and the general manager are on the same wavelength and they’re hand in glove.”
Apparently, that wasn't the case with Anthopoulos and manager John Farrell, who didn't see eye-to-eye, according to the Toronto Sun's Bob Elliott. That was surely a factor in letting Farrell go to the division rival Boston Red Sox.
Of course, that chumminess isn't going to matter if the Blue Jays don't win games.
This is a second chance for both Anthopoulos and Gibbons. The Blue Jays GM hired a manager he can work with under a shared philosophy. The new skipper likely has the best team he's ever managed and gets to see what he can do with it.
But if this doesn't work out, it will be yet another squandered opportunity for the Blue Jays. Anthopoulos and Gibbons might not get a third chance to make up for it.
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