TORONTO – Andrew Stein and Glenn Macaulay bought into the Blue Jays hype.
© The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette
Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos speaks to the media during baseball spring training in Dunedin, Fla., on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013. Anthopoulos was a busy man last off-season.
Best friends since kindergarten and lifelong baseball fans, the pair was swept up in the promise of 2013 and purchased season tickets.
From the top level of Rogers Centre above home plate they watched as Toronto slumped through the spring then came alive during an 11-game winning streak only to finish last in the AL East.
Excitement isn’t a word they used to describe their hopes for 2014.
“I wouldn’t say worried,” said Stein.
“Not optimistic,” said Macaulay.
“Yeah, not optimistic,” said Stein. “Maybe slightly uneasy that it’s just going to be a repeat of last year.”
Stein and Macaulay were among the Blue Jays season ticket holders at Rogers Centre on Wednesday for the team’s annual State of the Franchise event.
Team president and CEO Paul Beeston, general manager Alex Anthopoulos and manager John Gibbons were on hand to take questions as jazz played throughout the stadium and food and drinks were handed out to fans wondering just what the state of the team is.
Anthopoulos had no surprise announcements, nor was he worried about being grilled despite promises of change going unfulfilled during a quiet off-season.
“When you don’t have a good season you expect there’s criticism that comes with that, that goes without saying, that’s part of it,” he said.
“But again, these fans, I think it’s a different type of setting because these are the season-seat holders. They support the club. They love the team good and bad. Obviously we’re here to be accountable and to make ourselves available to talk and answer whatever questions they might have.”
Toronto’s only notable acquisition has been catcher Dioner Navarro, who was brought on to replace J.P. Arencibia.
Navarro, who hit .300 with 31 home runs and 34 RBIs in 240 at-bats with the Chicago Cubs last season, barely made the splash that all-stars Jose Reyes or R.A. Dickey did when Toronto traded for them prior to last season.
“(Navarro will) be serviceable. I’m not going to buy his jersey or anything,” said Stein.
The Blue Jays’ real need, the one Anthopoulos promised would be his winter focus, is starting pitching.
Dickey, coming off a Cy Young season, struggled, although not as badly as Josh Johnson. J.A. Happ missed time after being hit in the head by a frightening comebacker in May, while Brandon Morrow’s season ended in July with a forearm injury. Only Mark Buehrle, who also had a slow start to the season, performed to expectation.
Toronto’s rotation finished with a 4.81 earned-run average last season, second worst in the majors, and the starters’ 899.1 innings pitched were 28th in baseball.
But Toronto has stood pat during the off-season.
Japanese phenom Masahiro Tanaka was signed by the New York Yankees before veteran Matt Garza joined the Milwaukee Brewers. Several pitchers such as Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez still remain on the market, but Anthopoulos said progress has been slowed by free agents who cost teams draft picks.
That doesn’t apply to the Blue Jays — they’ve got two protected first-round draft picks. But Anthopoulos remained non-committal.
“We like some of the upside of the guys that are coming back. We’d still like to add,” he said. “I think we’ve been very open about that. I don’t know what’s going to happen obviously between now and the start of camp.
“Depending on how free agency goes or even the trade market, maybe it’s beyond that, but we are excited about some of the guys coming back, especially some of the young guys. There’s upside to the performance of a lot of these guys. But at the same time we’re still going to be active and try to get a starter.”
Whereas Anthopoulos could only ask fans to stick by the team, Gibbons said he’s looking ahead after making peace with 2013.
“After I was home for about two weeks I said, you know what, it’s time for a new season,” said Gibbons.
“I’ve always been an optimistic guy. It’s smart to look back and look at some areas to do things differently maybe to improve some things. But in the end you’ve got to turn the page and it’s a new start here in the next two months.”
Gibbons, who heard plenty of calls for his dismissal last season, isn’t worried about the direction of the team. He acknowledged fans’ frustrations, and that there won’t be as much good will in April as there was last year.
“It sure would be nice me coming in here feeling good going to this thing having won something, but until you do that you’re just hoping and dreaming. So hopefully we can do that.”
What, then, is the state of the Blue Jays? Ask again on Opening Day.