In hindsight, John Gibbons seems like an obvious choice to manage the Toronto Blue Jays in 2013.
Earlier this off-season, Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos had indicated that he was looking for a manager that he knew he could work with and who wanted to be in Toronto. It also became clear that he was seeking someone with previous major-league experience.
Names like Mike Hargrove, Manny Acta, Jim Tracy and Jim Riggleman were being tossed around, but it should have dawned on us that Gibbons, who managed the Jays for parts of five seasons from 2004 to 2008, would be a prime candidate.
The 50-year-old San Antonio, Texas, native, who formed a friendship with Anthopoulos during his first tenure with the Jays, was introduced as the club's new manager at a press conference at the Rogers Centre on Tuesday morning.
Last season, Gibbons, who was also a first-base coach with the Jays in 2002 and 2003, managed the double-A San Antonio Missions in the San Diego Padres organization following three seasons as the Kansas City Royals bench coach. Gibbons becomes the second manager, joining Cito Gaston, to have two tenures with the Jays.
Judging by the reaction on social media, Jays fans energized by the club's 12-player blockbuster trade with the Miami Marlins and the Melky Cabrera signing are underwhelmed with the hire. They point to Gibbons' middling 305-305 record and to the fact that he hasn't managed in the big leagues since he guided an underperforming Jays squad to a 35-39 record to start the 2008 campaign.
Unfortunately, fans best remember Gibbons for two incidents in 2006. The first came on July 19, when disgruntled designated hitter Shea Hillenbrand wrote "This ship is sinking" and "Play for yourself" on a display board in the clubhouse to describe his feelings about the team. Gibbons reportedly confronted Hillenbrand and challenged him to a fight. Three days later, Hillenbrand was traded to the San Francisco Giants.
On August 21 of that same season, Jays starter Ted Lilly had been staked to 8-0 lead, but after he surrendered five runs in the third inning, Gibbons made his way to the mound to pull him. Lilly initially wouldn't give him the ball and, after the left-hander begrudgingly walked off the field, Gibbons followed him into the clubhouse tunnel, where they engaged in a shoving match.
In Tuesday's press conference, Gibbons said he regretted those actions and that there was no place for physical contact with his players. Interestingly, Anthopoulos defended his manager, saying he had no problem with the way Gibbons handled those incidents.
These incidents tend to cloud the fact that Gibbons guided the Jays to an 87-75 record and a second-place finish in the American League East that season, the only time the club has finished that high since winning the World Series in 1993.
Firm but fatherly
Despite those confrontations, players generally loved playing for Gibbons and his firm but fatherly presence earned him respect in the clubhouse and from management. His actions in the Hillenbrand and Lilly incidents and his decision to bench slumping future Hall of Famer Frank Thomas in April 2008 show that he's not to afraid to hold players accountable -- something John Farrell was criticized for not doing in 2012.
As Anthopoulos said repeatedly during Tuesday's press conference, Gibbons is also excellent at managing a bullpen. During his first term in Toronto, he coaxed career seasons out of relievers B.J. Ryan, Jeremy Accardo, Scott Downs and Justin Speier. He also implemented successful platoons with several of his position players. The duo of Frank Catalanotto and Reed Johnson, for example, formed one of the most productive left-field combinations in baseball. Gregg Zaun and Bengie Molina also excelled sharing duties behind the plate.
In his first tenure with the Jays, Gibbons also gained valuable experience working with both young and veteran-laden clubs, so he learned when to teach and when to get out of the way. This will come in handy with the mixture of veterans and youngsters on the club next season. And with a roster that includes stolen base threats like Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio, Brett Lawrie, Rajai Davis and Maicer Izturis, Gibbons said that he won't be afraid to run next season, but he added that his players won't run recklessly -- a problem for the Jays in 2012.
Shades of 2005
This off-season is starting to feel similar to the 2005 off-season. With Gibbons heading into his third season as dugout boss, then-Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi opened up Rogers' wallet to sign big-ticket free agents A.J. Burnett and Ryan and traded for first baseman Lyle Overbay and third baseman Troy Glaus.
Expectations were high for the Jays heading into 2006 and, saddled with that pressure, Gibbons guided the club to that respectable second-place finish. With the addition of two potential ace starters in Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, baseball's best leadoff hitter in Reyes and the National League's leading hitter in Melky Cabrera, Gibbons will once again be expected to lead the Jays into contention. He seemed to welcome these expectations at the press conference on Tuesday.
Given the field of candidates available and the criteria that Anthopoulos was looking for in a manager, we shouldn't have been surprised that Gibbons was a prime candidate. This is a gutsy hire by Anthopoulos. Gibbons may seem like an uninspired choice, but once you get past the incidents with Hillenbrand and Lilly and look at his assets and experience, he actually seems like a pretty good choice to lead the Jays back into contention.
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