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The Strike Zone

John Gibbons' surprise re-hiring as Blue Jays manager not without red flags

John Gibbons' handling of pitchers like Dustin McGowan was frequently called into question during his first stint in Toronto. (AP)

Alex Anthopoulos has been throwing curveballs all month. A couple weeks ago, the Blue Jays general manager made it clear he was in no real hurry to hire a manager to replace John Farrell, who had jumped ship to take the Red Sox job left vacant by the firing of Bobby Valentine. Despite initial reports of intriguing potential first-time managers such as Sandy Alomar Jr., Brad Ausmus, DeMarlo Hale, Tim Wallach and Matt Williams, Anthopoulos then revealed he was seeking a more experienced hand, with Jim Tracy, Jim Riggleman and Manny Acta surfacing as the top names. All were head-scratchers, given their lack of recent success; those three less-than-inspiring retreads have produced a .434 winning percentage and exactly one complete season above .500 in the past five years.

Apparently, Anthopoulos was no more sold on those names than anyone else, so after a busy fortnight in which he remade his roster by inking free agents Maicer Izturis and Melky Cabrera and pulled off a blockbuster 12-player deal with the Marlins, the GM has brought forth another surprise. The new Blue Jays manager is an old one: John Gibbons, who piloted the team from mid-2004 to mid-2008, will get a second chance. This nips the Shea Hillenbrand comeback in the bud, though it also raises questions about the 2012 team's biggest weakness: pitcher injuries.

Hillenbrand, you might recall, was a well-traveled corner infielder whom Gibbons challenged to a fight in front of the team in July 2006 after the player wrote "the ship is sinking" and "play for yourself" on the clubhouse bulletin board during a losing stretch. Though Hillenbrand was hitting .301/.342/.480 with 12 homers at the time, general manager J.P. Ricciardi designated him for assignment and then traded him to the Giants; he was out of the majors after one more season, having passed through the hands of three other teams. Later that year, the manager scuffled with Ted Lilly after removing the pitcher from a game, an incident which left Gibbons with a bloody nose, though eyewitnesses reported that he was the one who got physical first.

Perhaps it's that fighting spirit Anthopoulos is looking to restore, because the irony is that 2006 represented a high-water mark for the Blue Jays, who under Gibbons finished second in the AL East that year with an 87-75 record, taking advantage of a Red Sox team that was beset by numerous injuries and slid to third. Toronto hasn't made the playoffs since 1993, when it won its second consecutive World Series under manager Cito Gaston. The Jays haven't finished higher than third in any other season, though they did reach 88 wins in doing so under Tim Johnson in 1998. Since their back-to-back championships, they've cycled through seven different managers, and they've even recycled once already. Gibbons took over in August 2004 for the fired Carlos Tosca, and after finishes of 80-82, 87-75 and 83-79, was fired in June 2008 with a 35-39 record, replaced by Gaston, who was serving as a special assistant to the team at the time. The Jays finished above .500 that year thanks to a 51-37 stretch under Gaston, and after 75- and 85-win seasons, they turned to Farrell, whose 81-81 and 73-89 records failed to budge the team from fourth place, where they've finished in each of the past five seasons.

Since being fired by the Blue Jays, Gibbons spent three years as the bench coach for the Royals under managers Trey Hillman and Ned Yost, then spent this past year managing the Padres' Double-A San Antonio affiliate to a 60–80 record. Despite the easy jokes that come with his out-of-leftfield hiring and his track record of combativeness, he actually has a reputation for being well-liked by both players and media, with several high-profile writers praising the pick. "In three minutes, John Gibbons shows more personality than John Farrell did cummulatively in two years," wrote Shi Davidi, who covers the Blue Jays beat for Rogers SportsNet, which broadcasts the team's games.

Tactically, Gibbons has claimed that he learned the most from Davey Johnson, under whom he played the entirety of his 18-game major league career from 1984-1986. He eschews unproductive small-ball strategies, saying at his introductory press conference that he doesn't want to "run stupidly"; reacting to the hiring, SI's Joe Sheehan noted that Gibbons "bunts less than once a week," which was certainly true in 2005 and 2006, when the team was in the bottom three in the AL in position-player sacrifice hits.

If there's an alarm to sound regarding Gibbons beyond the aforementioned incidents, which the manager admitted were "a black eye" during his first stint, it's with regards to the same thing that felled the 2012 club: injuries to the pitching staff. Here's what the Baseball Prospectus 2008 annual had to say about Gibbons' final full season:

John Gibbons is a terrible handler of starting pitchers. From what appear  to be intentional attempts to break an already-fragile A.J. Burnett, to the way he contributed to Dustin McGowan's trip through the wilderness, to riding Roy Halladay well past 120 pitches in four of five starts late last summer, Gibbons shows no recogniton for the fact that starting pitchers have limits. Keep in mind that Gibbons handled his starters this way in a season in which he had a deep, effective pool of relievers and nothing on the line. If either of those things change this year, we could see a science experiment in Toronto.

Indeed, the Jays were renowned for their slew of pitcher injuries during the Gibbons era, among both starters and relievers. Burnett, who already had a history of arm troubles, spent 135 days on the disabled list with elbow and shoulder injuries in 2006-2007. McGowan wound up needing the first of several shoulder surgeries in mid-2008, and has just 21 big league innings since. Gustavo Chacin spent over 300 days on the DL from 2006-2008 with elbow and shoulder woes and was never the same, though his 203-inning 2005 rookie season took place on Tosca's watch. Closer B.J Ryan missed most of 2007 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Reliever Casey Janssen missed all of 2008 after labrum surgery. Reliever Jeremy Accardo missed most of 2008 with a forearm strain. Starters Shaun Marcum and Jesse Litsch underwent Tommy John surgery after Gibbons' departure, in late 2008 and early 2009, respectively.

It's certainly not clear that Gibbons' handling caused any or all of those problems, and even if it did, pitching coaches, medical staff and the since-departed Ricciardi share in the blame as well. But on the heels of a season where starters Kyle Drabek, Drew Hutchinson and McGowan, and relievers Litsch, Luis Perez and Sergio Santos all underwent season-ending shoulder or elbow surgeries — and Ricky Romero added a postseason elbow cleanup — the return of Gibbons raises an eyebrow if not a red flag. Particularly so, in light of the acquisition of the injury-prone Josh Johnson, a Tommy John surgery survivor who spent most of 2011 on the DL with shoulder inflammation. Toronto's training staff will have to stay on its toes.

With a remade rotation that includes Johnson and Mark Buehrle, and a lineup that has added second baseman Emilio Bonifacio, shortstop Jose Reyes and leftfielder Cabrera to a unit that already included first baseman Edwin Encarnacion, rightfielder Jose Bautista (himself returning from season-ending wrist surgery) and third baseman Brett Lawrie, the Jays have a nucleus that they hope can compete in the AL East, where the other four teams — the division-winning Yankees, wild-card winning Orioles, near-miss Rays, and rebuilding Red Sox — have plenty of offseason retooling to do. Until those teams spend their money and fill their holes, it's an overreaction to anoint the Blue Jays contenders, but in what has recently been the game's toughest division, they have set an early pace for their rivals to match.
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