The Toronto Blue Jays are doing a lot things differently in their first spring training under new general manager Alex Anthopoulos and about halfway through camp, it's already paying off.
Plenty of things have gone right, from top prospects like Kyle Drabek, Chad Jenkins and Zach Stewart impressing, to veterans like Vernon Wells looking strong, and question marks like Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan rounding into form faster than expected.
Some of that is rooted into the clarity with which each player has been able to do his job, thanks to personalized meetings they had with Anthopoulos, assistant GM Tony LaCava, manager Cito Gaston, and either hitting coach Dwayne Murphy or pitching coach Bruce Walton.
The goal of the 4-on-1 chats simply was, according to Anthopoulos, to "connect with players more, get everyone in a better mental state of mind."
"We sat down with every single player in camp to give them a lay of the land, talk to them about what their opportunity was, what are expectations were of them," he continued during an interview from Dunedin, Fla. "We wanted them to hear it from our mouth so that when decisions were made about lineups or playing time, they weren't blindsided by it."
In a camp where there's so much competition for open jobs, that's been appreciated by players.
Jeremy Reed, one of several candidates for the two available starting spots in the outfield plus the backup gig, said it was the first time he'd had a meeting like that in his career.
"From my standpoint it's a very professional and great thing," he said Friday, before the team's game against Houston was rained out.
"The game's difficult enough as it is. And not knowing what's going on, when you go home it can really make you worry about things. It takes a lot of doubt and takes a lot of worry away."
Gaston said in his first turn as Blue Jays manager he would talk to his bubble or bench players on his own to tell them their role, but he'd never do it with the GM by his side.
"I think it's all good," he said, adding that Anthopoulos is also with him when players have been demoted. "He's right there, he's not hiding, he's right there to answer any question they might have and to tell them why we're doing it.
"It was good that he sat down with them before so there's no surprises."
For a team that ended a dismal 2009 with public revelations of turmoil in the clubhouse, that can only be of help. At the time players spoke privately of communication issues and that's something Anthopoulos has been trying to improve organization-wide.
Even veteran players with nothing to worry about like all-star second baseman Aaron Hill found the meetings useful, even though his talk ended up focusing on his health and his family and the upcoming season.
"I think it's great," he said. "I've heard a lot of good feedback from the players, whether it'd good or bad, they just liked knowing what they're going to do.
"It sounds like a really good thing. They haven't done that (before), at least not at a sit down."
While nothing should be read into Grapefruit League records - spring performances are a prime example of fool's gold - the Blue Jays 5-3 mark thus far is indication of some good vibes in the clubhouse.
There's a sense players are being put into the best position to succeed.
"Without naming names," said Anthopoulos, "we've seen a few instances where players are more relaxed knowing their roles.
"We gained insights into every player, found out what's gone on in his past. It's amazing how much you can learn just by talking to people."
The biggest thing Anthopoulos feels the team has learned on the field so far this spring is how far along McGowan is. Once an ace in waiting, his career appeared to be derailed by shoulder and subsequent knee surgery, but he's showing signs that he may yet dominate again.
But the Blue Jays are taking things slow and they intend to keep doing so.
"We're thrilled with the progress he's making," said Anthopoulos. "It's still early in the process but the fact that he's throwing off a mound means he's progressed by leaps and bounds from where he was last summer and that's probably the most optimistic news so far."
Marcum, coming off elbow surgery, has also looked sharp.
Young pitchers Drabek, Jenkins and Stewart have caught the GM's eye too, although all are now in the minor-league camp, as has Wells, who is coming off wrist surgery following a dismal 2009.
"He's swinging the bat real well," said Anthopoulos. "We think he's going to have a big year."
Of course it's still spring and right now everything still looks that way. But change is in the air for a team that really needed it.
- With files from Larry Millson in Dunedin, Fla.