Entering his fifth season as Blue Jays general manager, Alex Anthopoulos will be under intense scrutiny from ownership and fans alike.
While no one is saying "now or never" publicly, the 36-year-old has compiled a losing record through four seasons, with a dozen players already committed to $110-million (U.S.) in 2014.
Jays owner Rogers Communications Inc., a publicly-traded company, depends on the baseball club's performance to drive subscriptions for vehicles ranging from cable television to Internet to mobile devices. Meanwhile, Anthopoulos had just about every significant personnel move last off-season turn out negatively, at a cost of about $45-million in added payroll expenditure and the loss of a handful of top prospect in trades.
A dispassionate architect might deem the Blue Jays (last in the American League East) to be a tear-down project due to an aging injury-plagued rotation and weak execution of the fundamentals in the field and at the plate. But Anthopoulos sold his payroll to ownership as step 1 in a three-year plan to contend, so renovation appears to be in order, with his fingers crossed players stay healthy in 2014, starting with lead-off hitter/clubhouse presence/slick-fielding shortstop Jose Reyes.
"For one, I am totally 100-per-cent supportive," Paul Beeston, the Blue Jays president and chief executive officer, said in an interview. "Having said that, [I believe] he has learned a lesson this year: You just can't assume anything. He was never one to be cocky or arrogant, but I think he really did believe in the team and the direction we were going. I don't think he would ever have believed we would be under .500, but who did think that way?"
On paper it had power, speed and strong starting pitching, but Anthopoulos's 40-man roster lacked the depth to insure against injury or unexpectedly poor performance. Moreover, teams that win are strong up the middle and – especially with Reyes out for a large chuck of the season with an ankle injury – the Jays were arguably weaker at the combination of catcher/pitcher/second base/shortstop/centre field than any AL East opponent.
"Are we disappointed? Yes. Angry? Yes. We most definitely expected better results and didn't get them," Beeston said. "But I am not deterred, I don't think the owners are deterred, I don't think Alex, our scouts or development people are deterred. So we go forward building on what we have."
Few clubs could withstand the loss of three starters to injury – in Toronto's case, Brandon Morrow, Josh Johnson, J.A. Happ (not to mention the confidence-ravaged Ricky Romero). To strengthen the rotation this off-season, Anthopoulos may be obliged to entertain offers for right fielder Jose Bautista, first baseman Edwin Encarnacion or centre fielder Colby Rasmus, along with relief pitchers.
"We've only had two mainstays in the rotation the entire year – that's not an excuse, just a fact," Anthopoulos said recently, referring to off-season acquisitions R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle. "That comes to my chair, and it comes down to the players, the staff, the training staff – we're all accountable to why things have gone the way they have."
Looking forward, the mechanically smooth Buehrle does have 13 consecutive seasons with 200-plus innings logged on his arm, and Dickey will be 39. Morrow may or may not need surgery for an impinged nerve and at this point is an uncertain commodity. Happ's proven to be unreliable when healthy.
(In one of the more quizzical moves, after the Jays kept Happ on ice throughout spring training, Anthopoulos gave him a two-year contract extension when the mishandled Romero failed to make the rotation).
"We need to make changes – that goes without saying," Anthopoulos said.
The GM has some work to do this winter, with his job possibly at stake.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Anthopoulos added three new starters to the rotation, plus a fourth in. Happ, a mid-season 2012 acquisition. The rotation ranked in the bottom three of the American League for earned-run average all season.
Free-agent Maicer Izturis and trade acquisition Emilio Bonifacio were imported to play second base, later replaced by Munenori Kawasaki and Ryan Goins. The team's offensive production at the position was weakest in the AL. (Where have you gone, Robbie Alomar?)
At catcher, Anthopoulos included veteran John Buck along with two premium prospects in the trade with the New York Mets for Dickey, saddling the club with catcher J.P. Arencibia, whose offensive production after a hot April failed to compensate for defensive shortcomings.
In left field, free agent Melky Cabrera reverted to pre-San Francisco Giants offensive productivity in the wake of his 60-day PED suspension in 2012, and ultimately had surgery for a benign tumour in his spine.