Blue Jays prepared to be Centre of attention
Questions about expectations, chemistry likely to hound players throughout spring
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- It was 9 a.m. ET, and Brett Lawrie was clutching his first -- and quite possibly not last -- Red Bull of the day. And he was doing something he's going to have to do countless times in the coming weeks, talking about the excitement in the air as the revamped Toronto Blue Jays prepare for the year ahead.
"It's just a whole different situation in here," Lawrie said. "You look at the guys we brought in, and it's obviously a bigger deal and everybody's treating it like a bigger deal. There's more talent and there's more energy."
The spaces between words, it should be noted, are simply a matter of devotion to proper grammar on my part. Because Lawrie talks like he plays -- at 150 mph -- the spaces were non-existent in his actual speech.
And the energy to which Lawrie referred, it should be noted, is no morning Red Bull creation. It is a natural byproduct of a winter in which the Blue Jays went from American League East afterthought to international attention-getter.
Little wonder, then, that a media mob scene preceded the Blue Jays' first official workout of the spring Wednesday morning at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium -- an appropriately sponsored home site for a team amplified by the winter swap market. We crowded around new additions R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle. We asked all the obvious questions about chemistry and expectations and excitement, etc. And come tomorrow and the next day and the next day, the next round of cameramen and national scribes will show up and do the same thing.
This is the reality that comes with becoming one of baseball's "it" teams, and, for now, the Blue Jays wear the label well. Like most modern-day athletes, the members of this club are well-schooled on the caveats and cliches that must be offered up whenever the subject of expectations arises, as it often will.
"On paper," Buehrle said, "we look good. We've got to stay healthy, but that's the same with any team."
The Blue Jays didn't stay healthy last year. Not by a long shot. They lost three starting pitchers in one four-day span. Even by the standards of one of the more fragile positions in professional sports, it's difficult to do.
Beyond that, they lost Jose Bautista, Lawrie, J.P. Arencibia and Adam Lind from the lineup just as the offense was starting to reach its peak potential. And so a team that looked like a legit AL East sleeper candidate going into the year instead needed a franchise-record 32 pitchers and a ridiculous number of disabled list days just to get to the finish line.
It would seem reasonable to anticipate a little more luck in the health department in 2013. But even if that's not the case, general manager Alex Anthopoulos has assembled a club that should be better-positioned to sustain the inevitable injury blows.
Ricky Romero, due a bounceback from a horrendous 2012, goes from Opening Day starter one year to back-end option the next. J.A. Happ, a worthy rotation candidate, is on the outside looking in. And as far as the lineup is concerned, the Blue Jays will have a versatile, veteran bench with Maicer Izturis or Emilio Bonifacio (the two are competing for the starting second-base duties), Rajai Davis and Mark DeRosa. Davis and Bonifacio, especially, give the Blue Jays tremendous late-inning speed potential.
The expectations, then, are appropriate -- perhaps moreso than they were in 2006, on the heels of the A.J. Burnett, Lyle Overbay, Troy Glaus and B.J. Ryan acquisitions.
"We like our team better than we did in '06," said John Gibbons, manager then and now. "I think there's a little bit more depth in the pitching staff and some other areas -- more pop in the lineup and definitely more team speed."
What the paper can't predict, though, is how all these disparate pieces will mesh in the immediate. We saw what a disaster the Miami Marlins were last season, and baseball history is littered with star-studded clubs that didn't amount to much when it mattered. That's where all those chemistry questions come into play.
"I think it's an asset to have the Marlin group [Buehrle, Johnson, Reyes, Bonifacio] over here," Dickey said. "Because a year ago at this time, they're singing the same song that we're singing now, and it ended up very badly for them. So having that resource can't go overlooked.
"What's going to be really important is that people take ownership individually. It's not my team, it's not Brett Lawrie's team, it's not any individual's team. It's a collective effort. To empower others to take ownership in that is very important."
Maybe that's a message Gibbons and his staff hammer home. But sometimes, admittedly, all this chemistry stuff can be a media concoction anyway.
What is not a concoction is that inflated player payroll. Anthopoulos saw opportunity within this division and put a lot of money and prospects on the line to bring this club together. And so he took no chances in handing the reins back to Gibbons, a man he knows and trusts.
"I think Alex understands how much this edition of this ballclub has to do with his future," said Buck Martinez, the former manager and longtime broadcaster. "He hired John Farrell, maybe not with total conviction to it, but everyone told him Farrell was the right guy. And then when he found out he wasn't, the next manager was going to be his manager. It's your job, and you'd better have the guy you want. And they have that relationship."
Right now, Blue Jays camp is basically a bunch of guys pulled from other places, putting on their batting practice caps with giant red maple leafs above the bills, hitting the fields and forging relationships under the Florida sun. All spring, they'll get the questions about how it's going and where it's headed, and that element will undoubtedly get exhausting. Better keep the Red Bull handy.