Approaching the 2012 season, a lot of folks predicted the Miami Marlins would be an NL East powerhouse. They’d added new talent, notably the dynamic shortstop Jose Reyes; they’d added a high profile new manager, Ozzie Guillen; they had a new stadium, and there was hope in Marlinville. There was talk of lineup protection, run production and excitement. They had a potential young ace in Josh Johnson, atop a pitching staff that showed great potential. New stadium, a Pitbull concert, big names checking them out during the offseason … what could go wrong?
Ozzie Guillen, see, is a bit of a wingnut. His managerial style only works on certain players, and combinations of players, and once it wears off, it wears off quickly. He’s not oriented around adapting his approach to his talent or team personality. The new stadium? Well, that was just a desperate attempt to draw in a fan base that just doesn’t seem to come to the games — partly because of Florida’s shifty stormy-sun-stormy-sunny weather and partly because of demographics and partly because every time the Marlins win a World Series they have a fire sale. The personalities? Well, Hanley Ramirez isn’t the most stable clubhouse influence. Nor is Jose Reyes, who’s as streaky as they come and oddly self-contained for such an infectious, hyper personality. Giancarlo Stanton, their promising whopper who hits cartoon home runs, doesn’t seem to be much of an impact guy yet … and oh yeah, the aforementioned Ramirez, already mercurial, was asked to swallow his young pride by changing positions … for another young, exciting Latin shortstop. The roster was young, they began to pile up injuries and bad luck, and Ozzie Guillen began to go off the deep end earlier than usual.
The lesson? Well, as fans of the Chris Mullin/Chris Webber Golden State Warriors can tell you, putting together a “bomb squad” roster might not necessarily net you a title. You need chemistry. You need well positioned leadership. You need the parts to complement each other. Which brings me to the team that might seem, on the surface, to be this year’s Miami Marlins: the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays.
The 2012 Marlins and the 2013 Blue Jays profile similarly in some ways. Both are in tough East Coast divisions; both brought in tons of new talent to rosters with solid All-Stars; both have shown promise in recent years, only to disappoint; heck, both brought in Jose Reyes. But there are differences …
First of all, I’ll begin with Reyes. Jose Reyes is an infectious, energetic player whose play can be both contagious and inspiring. He’s also not a “leader of men” in the conventional sense, and moreover, hasn’t shown much indication that he will be. This is not to knock Jose; by & large, he is a solid presence on the bench and in the clubhouse. But there’s a self-contained aspect to his game; whether in a slump or blazing hot, he seems somewhat in his own world, wrapped up in manic energy and joyous excitability. It’s contagious because he smiles a lot and seems to be a good kid — but as a longtime Mets fan, I can say you rarely see him walking up and down the dugout, actively working to inspire other guys or keep their heads up during tough times.
Jose inspires others by his style of play and positivity; when he’s off, he seems upset about it, and doesn’t register the same centeredness that, say, Derek Jeter does during a slump. The fact the Mets went from perennial powerhouse to perennial disappointment with the departure of Carlos Delgado is, to me, instructive. When the Mets had a solid, talk-to-the-young-guys, lead-by-example-and-stay-calm-amid-the-storm type like Delgado, who also happened to be historically good, there was less pressure on Reyes — and David Wright, who despite his more stoic demeanor seems to be another somewhat self-contained type — to lead, so much as play hard and play well and be the “face of the franchise” without having to actually be the captain of the squad.
I’m not saying leaders need to be extroverts. I’m just saying they’re rarely as self-contained as Jose Reyes. Which brings me to the closest the Mets have had to Carlos Delgado’s leadership since Delgado left: R.A. Dickey, an entirely different type of player but a remarkably similar presence. Oh yeah, the Blue Jays got him, too.
Dickey isn’t a historically dominant player like Delgado; he’s an elder statesman who reinvented himself by force of will, and became a perennial top-tier pitcher, albeit under the radar, for several years in a row. Like Delgado, though, his prowess doesn’t get to his head. He’s centered, calm, articulate and good under pressure. He leads by way of his play, in the form of a dependable anchor who always seems to give you at least a puncher’s chance to win. And he now, yet again, shares a clubhouse with Jose Reyes. This, along with not being side-saddled with Hanley Ramirez, will help Reyes greatly. So will playing in a division full of hitter’s parks, like the AL East.
Dickey will also sit atop a pitching staff that’s pretty stocked, with guys who have reflected the team’s ups and downs but all have “high upside” talent. The aforementioned Josh Johnson, whom everyone was waiting for to become an ace, has also — interestingly enough — moved directly from the Marlins to the Blue Jays! He will get to pitch in front of a fan base that actually seems to care; he’ll get to pitch without the “ace” label, as Dickey seems well suited to handle the pressure of the position; and he’ll get a fresh start, finally escaping the constant “when is this guy gonna turn into Cy Young“ pressure that mounted season after season and sooner or later can get to anyone. Maybe he’ll continue to streak on and off or maybe he’ll finally blow the doors off of his potential, and make the Blue Jays a dual-lead-guitar pitching staff that takes them to the playoffs at long last. I think he’ll do something in between, but the thing is, that might be enough, because…
The Toronto Blue Jays are gonna score runs. They now have a top-notch leadoff hitter and shortstop; they have brought in two aces, and they already had Jose Bautista and the still under-heralded Brett Lawrie; they added Mekly Cabrera, who’s a solid hitter and looking to prove that last year’s breakout season wasn’t PED-dependent; they have athletic, solid Colby Rasmus in center field; and they have Edwin Encarnacion, who will probably now get to hit fifth or sixth where he belongs and might put up crazy RBI numbers as pitchers dance around the Reyes-Lawrie-Cabrera-Bautista lineup. Adam Lind will probably be the other guy in the fifth/sixth combo for the Jays, and when Lind gets clocking, he’s as dangerous as anyone. In the AL East, which is full of ridiculous bandboxes, the Jays might lead the AL in runs scored this year.
Another important factor is the Blue Jays’ bench. Emilio Bonifacio and Mark DeRosa are versatile, athletic utility guys who can capably play several positions, which acts as a force multiplier, giving them depth ad multiple spots. Both guys are also capable of starting for stretches, in the event of injury or fatigue.
Last but not least, the Jays have a solid young closer — and, get this: Their manager isn’t Ozzie Guillen.
The Toronto Blue Jays have dynamic talent, strong veteran leaders, a strong pitching staff with two potential aces, a good bench, power and speed on offense, a good young closer and no glaring holes at any position despite a middling defense. Their manager hasn’t shown signs of psychosis and their fans actually show up. These guys aren’t the 2012 Florida Marlins; these guys look like a serious playoff contender.