DUNEDIN — On the last day of spring training in Florida, John Gibbons stands strong, confident and yet somehow alone in a position he didn’t expect to find himself in, the winner and suddenly new champion of almost all the important baseball decisions.
There is no lame duck beside his name. Gibbons may be nobody’s man on this Blue Jays team, having not been hired by general manager Ross Atkins or team president Mark Shapiro, but more than ever before it seems he is clearly his own man. And on Wednesday morning, when he announced that Roberto Osuna would again close games for the Jays, he could have said something else that wasn’t included.
He could have said — this is my team and if I’m going down (which he isn’t) I’m going down doing things my way.
His team. His time. His decisions. A manager on an island winning thus far in the Blue Jays board room.
Alex Anthopoulos, who he was beholden to, is gone. Anthopoulos was the only reason Gibbons was managing the Jays. Paul Beeston, who had to sign off on his surprising return years back, is happily in retirement. Gibbons came to this spring training truly unsure of what anyone thought of him, with a new contract and a little less security in hand, not knowing the way of his new bosses. But in a private moment Wednesday, he must have cracked open a cold one and appreciated that his word isn’t just being considered around here. It’s being respected and more than considered.
The two big roster decisions of the spring — who would be the final starting pitcher named and who would end up closing games — are done, as is the final roster, and both went Gibbons’ way.
Gibbons wanted Aaron Sanchez in the starting rotation and Sanchez pitched his way into that role. The decision to move Sanchez from the bullpen to a starting spot was something Gibbons favoured from the beginning. But not everyone did. In fact, there was some thought actually given to sending Sanchez to Buffalo and have him begin in Triple A as a starting pitcher. There were others who wanted Sanchez in the bullpen to have an uber-strong bullpen.
“We’ve already made decisions that clearly weren’t consensus decisions,” said Ross Atkins, the first-year GM. He wouldn’t specify which decisions, but the Sanchez decision was slightly contentious.
So was the determination that young Osuna would close games. Gibbons is a big believer in history and trust. He is nothing if not loyal. If you do well in a job, he doesn’t believe in tinkering with that success. He likes to be as comfortable with his players as they seem to be with him. But in the off-season, the Jays traded for veteran Drew Storen, former closer of the Washington Nationals.
There was some thinking, as late as Tuesday afternoon, that the Jays favoured Stanton as a closer and Osuna would be pushed to setup man in the bullpen. But early Wednesday morning, Gibbons made the closer announcement without, any kind of ‘I told you so,’ in a typically understated Gibbons way.
He may end up switching closers, just as he did a year ago on numerous occasions early, but that decision will be his. Unlikely as it seems, Gibbons lost his protection when Anthopoulos and Beeston let but gained some freedom in the process.
These decisions are clearly his. This team is his. If things don’t go well, he can’t complain he didn’t get to do things his way.
Of all that Atkins has had to take in during his first spring with his new team, one of the larger surprises has been how impressed he has been with Gibbons, although he doesn’t necessarily put it that way.
“I’m impressed with how consistent he is,” said Atkins. “He’s remarkably consistent in treating people fairly. He’s remarkably positive for someone who has a job as tough as his. I have a ton of respect for that role and how difficult it is. There’s a lot asked of you. It’s difficult to treat people fairly and consistently when there’s so much going on around you and he does that.”
Gibbons sees this team differently than past Blue Jays teams, and won’t necessarily say so, but must see his role enhanced as well. He has less security and more say.
“My first go-round, we were hopeful about the team, but you knew everything had to go just right (to win). As far as this team does, we did it last year. It’s basically the same. We expect to do something again,” said Gibbons.
“This is a unique group. I’ve got a lot of trust in these guys.”
And as the new season is about to begin, it appears this management group has a lot of trust in Gibbons.”