DUNEDIN, Florida – Blue Jays manager John Gibbons knows there's a lot at stake this season.
Coming off a disastrous 2013 year, relative to expectations perhaps the most disappointing in franchise history, the club could be dealing with significant upheaval if there's continued, sustained underperformance.
Gibbons sat down with TSN.ca before Thursday's Grapefruit League game against Houston to talk about his team, in which he espouses confidence.
To listen to the interview, click here.
TSN.ca: John, as we sit here, two weeks from tonight you guys will be flying to Montreal for the final two exhibition games of the spring.
GIBBONS: Can't wait.
TSN.ca: Old stomping grounds for you, right? An ex-Met, did you have some fun in Montreal in your day?
GIBBONS: Yeah, you know I wasn't up with the Mets long but I made a few road trips to Montreal. I loved it. I really did. It's a neat city. It's a little different than what we're used to or what I'm used to but we always had a good time there. Good people. I enjoyed hopping on that subway, riding it to the stadium there so I have some good memories of that place.
TSN.ca: Parlez-vous Francais?
GIBBONS: Poquito. Oh that's not French, okay. You learn a lot of Spanish around here. I'll put it that way.
TSN.ca: Yeah, there's no question about that in your clubhouse. So we're three, three and a half weeks in since all the regulars got here. The tone of camp, at least from my point of view, John, is different from last year's and there were a lot of mitigating factors with the WBC and whatnot last season. How do you feel camp has gone so far and where do you see your team at today?
GIBBONS: I agree with you. I think there's a lot more focus and that's not just coming from the coaching end of it. I think the players are a lot more focused. Last year there was a lot of distraction. A lot of new faces were brought in and the high expectations, much more media coverage so the players were getting dragged in a lot of different directions. We had some celebrities on here. We brought in Dickey coming off a Cy Young. Of course Reyes and those guys coming in and everybody was tugging at all different angles so there were some distractions that way. Good distractions but nevertheless distractions and then of course some guys went off to the WBC and things like that. It's been a much nicer, simpler camp, a lot more low key and we've been able to get some great work in.
TSN.ca: As you head into the regular season I think there are some questions about certain positions around the club. The starting rotation, especially the back end, has been a hot topic of conversation. More broadly speaking, the American League East, I think we both agree is always strong but has gotten better. Do you feel you have the quality of starting pitching that matches the quantity of the depth that you'll have at Buffalo and in the lower minor leagues.
GIBBONS: I think we do. Not a whole lot of change this year other than Navarro. You know, Alex was working all winter trying to bring in a pitcher or two, difference makers. We weren't able to do that. It wasn't for a lack of effort. The money, the years, all sorts of things, their desire to go other places hampered that a little bit. There were a couple of trade opportunities but they wanted everybody and their brother top prospects in the minor leagues. After the trades with Florida and the Mets we gave up a lot of our top prospects so, I mean, there's no way you can deplete your whole minor league system to get guys who maybe aren't difference makers. We sat tight there. The main reason behind that is we like what we have here. There's much more depth, like you just alluded to, that we didn't have last year. If somebody falters or if there's an injury we've got some guys, some fallback plans that we think are pretty good that should make a huge difference. As of right now we're still looking for that fifth starter. We've got some guys that are pitching very good. There's been some good competition down here. Right now, we're probably only looking at one spot. J.A. Happ, now, he's been a little bit banged up with his back so at this point, on this day, he's a little bit of a question mark. Hopefully he's going to throw in the next couple of days in a minor league game. If he's fine that should solve some problems there. You know, there's some guys in here that we think are going to have some good big league careers. Now it's just are they going to get that opportunity? They may get it as we break camp as we start the season this year. It may come a month in. It may come in two months. Who knows? We've got some players here who we think are capable of winning in the American League East. There's some great competitors and we'll see where it all ends up.
TSN.ca: Do you anticipate Drew Hutchison breaking camp with the team?
GIBBONS: Well, I'm not going to say he's on the team right now but I'll tell you what, he's pitched as well, if not better, than anybody in camp and another thing he has going for him, you know he's really bounced back from that injury, but he's pitched in Toronto before and was pitching very well before he had the injury. He's got a little experience under his belt. He's definitely been a standout. He's always been thought of highly in the organization. It's just basically a matter of time when he's ready again and it sure seems like, you look at it now, he should be ready to go.
TSN.ca: Do you believe in the phrase, "It's early?" Especially after last year maybe you don't but getting out of the gate strong, John, aside from having more wins than losses, just setting the right tone I think would be important for you guys this year.
GIBBONS: It was early three weeks ago. It's not so early anymore, a couple of weeks left. Yeah, no question, a quick, fast start is very important to this ballclub. Easier said than done, of course, you know we play some pretty good teams early. I think what it would do is give us confidence and it may quell some of the naysayers out there because until we go out and prove something on the field that we're better than we were last year and we actually do have the team that we think can win here, that's always going to be hanging over our heads. These guys, they've been working hard, they're very focused and now the key is to come out of the gates with everything clicking. We've got to get good pitching. Hopefully those bats are going at the right time at the beginning of the season and something that's a constant, one thing you can always control, is the way you play defense and I think that will be much, much better this year.
TSN.ca: I wanted to touch on that with you because when we think of winning, you've got to score more runs than you allow and we typically always think of offense, just hit the ball out of the park or piece together runs. We don't always think of run prevention. We'll cross our fingers for you guys that you have pretty good health here, and you have so far through camp and that that will carry through. But with Lawrie at third, Reyes and short and it looks like Ryan Goins at second base, as long as they're all out there on the field at the same time, we've seen some pretty sweet double plays and some pretty nice plays made here, John. You're going to be able to prevent more runs than you did, especially in the first half of last year.
GIBBONS: We think so and we have to. You left out Melky Cabrera, who wasn't moving well at all last year and so that created a big hole out there in leftfield. With the guys you just mentioned, we think we have one of the better defenses in baseball, in our minds. As much as our starting pitching struggled last year, we didn't bail them out, we didn't help them out one bit, especially early in the season. A lot of those games, a play that's made here or there, might have got us out of an inning, a big inning and kept us in the game and we may have come back and won some of those. You look at it, you can go through any sport, if you don't play defense you're not going to win. Boston was a good defensive team last year and they won the World Series. Football, another sport I know well, the Seahawks last year, great defense, the best defense in the NFL. There's no secret there. We think we have a good one but the key is we've got to keep the right guys on the field the majority of the season.
TSN.ca: The Red Sox, maybe they didn't have the best team on paper in the majors last year but they won the World Series and there was that grind it out aspect. When you've walked around the clubhouse, talked to your players or you've had them in here one on one, do you sense that there is an unquestioned willingness to grind it out this year? Kind of a win at all costs mentality?
GIBBONS: Yes, I do. We've got a lot of proud veterans out in that room. Some guys who've had some great careers, some guys on the upswing that are going to end up having real good major league careers but everybody was a little embarrassed, the way things went last year. One thing I'll say about this group last year, through all the different changes, all the guys coming and going, there never was a lack of effort. That's rare when some seasons go south but our guys showed up to play everyday and I tip my hat to them and that's admirable and that's the way it should be but that's not always the way it ends up. They all know they have something to prove, that we're a better team than the way we played last year and I sense that. They talk about that. To get to this level as an athlete, to get to the top at anything, you've got to have some pride. We have a lot of that in that room and I think, I don't want to say necessarily that we're going to surprise some people because we think we have a good team on the field, we think we had a good team on the field last year it just didn't pan out, but if we play up to our capabilities we think we've got a chance to win this thing.
TSN.ca: It's an everyday game so you're always at the field and you're always thinking about, okay, what do I have to do to win today? But when you get away from the ballpark, do you think give any thought to your future and the fact that if it doesn't go well again this year, John, fairly or unfairly, it'll be a hard sell to the fan base to continue with you as manager and the coaching staff? There could be changes here if it doesn't work out.
GIBBONS: Oh yeah. That's to be expected in the professional sports world. I can guarantee you one thing, I won't be here forever. That's a fact. When that day comes, sooner or later, who knows? I don't give that much thought because I approach my job everyday to do the best job I can. I have a great responsibility to the organization who's given me an opportunity here and there's a lot that goes into that. That's the reality of baseball. I have some fans out there but I also have a lot of detractors. When the dark clouds show up you start hearing more of those voices. If you get caught up in that kind of stuff it'll paralyze you, you can't do your job so I take it all in stride everyday because I know I can do this job, I know I can run a baseball team, I've got zero doubt in my mind about that. Things don't always work out but I think this year it will.
TSN.ca: We appreciate the time, John, and all the best this season.
GIBBONS: Thank you, Scott.