The American League East was the best division in baseball this year due in large part to the fact that its fourth-place team won 85 games behind an offense loaded with power and a rotation filled with young talent. Indeed, lurking beneath the heavyweights of Major League Baseball was a squad with the potential to someday soon shift the division’s balance of power.
The catalyst for that shift may have occurred Monday afternoon when John Farrell, the former Red Sox pitching coach, was introduced as the 13th manager in Blue Jays history.
"We have a common bond here," Farrell said, alluding to his new-found relationship with Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos. "Throughout this interview process it became very clear the direction that this organization was headed, the resources that are available to supply a club that is going to compete with New York and Boston in time. Those are all clear selling points to me."
The 48-year-old Farrell was the top choice among a group of 18 original candidates, according to Anthopoulos. Throughout the 45-minute press conference the pair discussed a minutes-old partnership which already shares a vision of turning a division also-ran into a unit that will contend for years to come, regardless of what the big boys of the AL East, including Farrell’s former team, are able to spend.
"The conversation with John just flowed," Anthopoulos said of an initial phone conversation that got the ball rolling. "There was an immediate connection there. Right then and there I thought this could be the guy. I was that impressed."
Farrell, who has strayed from other managerial opportunities in the past, insisted that there is "a lot of work to be done" to allow the Blue Jays to climb the ladder, but the foundation is firmly in place.
He will inherit an offense which scored the fifth-most runs in the AL last year. The ability to slug will continue to exist under Farrell, but the new skipper expects to find new ways to score, utilizing small ball a bit more than the 2010 version of the Blue Jays did.
"We will look for ways to create runs and not just sit back and wait for the three-run homer," Farrell said. "Getting on base a little bit more frequently, giving those opportunities a chance to be capitalized on."
The beneficiary of the runs will be a stable of quality starters that could soon be labeled the best in the division. The chances of that quantum leap being taken by the likes of Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Shaun Marcum and Brett Cecil can only improve under the guidance of Farrell, who guided Boston’s rotation to great heights over the past four years and ushered along the development of stars Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz.
That foursome combined to go 52-31 for Toronto in 2010 and the oldest of the crew, Marcum, won’t turn 29 until December. Kyle Drabek, the 22-year-old right-hander acquired in the Roy Halladay deal last offseason in Anthopoulos’s first major move, waits in the wings.
With those pieces already in place and a trust in Anthopoulos to continue to build from within (Farrell, the one-time director of player development for Cleveland, called the farm system "the lifeblood of the organization"), the Jays’ new manager expects long-term success. But in order to maintain that level, he will take on some of what he learned from Terry Francona over his four years in Boston, namely the Sox' skipper's loyalty to his players.
"The things that clearly stand out are his calmness and his presence that are outwardly showing," Farrell said of his friend. "He never wavered in his belief in players. He never got off guys when they struggled. He continued to show support for them … that's why he's been able to create an atmosphere in that clubhouse that guys want to run through the wall for him."
Farrell represents the second member of Francona's staff to take a managerial job in the past year. Former Boston bench coach Brad Mills left to take over the spot in Houston before last season.
While Mills took over an NL team that is in the midst of a rebuilding process, Farrell will inherit a potential sleeping giant in direct competition with Francona’s crew.
Both Anthopoulos and Farrell mentioned that the Jays' ownership group, Rogers Communications, will be able to support a more competitive payroll going forward. While the Tampa Bay Rays have shown that success can come on the cheap, it never hurts to have some money to spend when competing with the likes of Boston and New York. Toronto’s payroll of just under $80 million in 2010 was among the lowest in the AL.
"At the right time there is going to be the opportunity to support a very strong payroll and one that will allow us to compete at the highest level," Farrell said, citing a selling point in the interview process.
The Blue Jays have had a winning record in four of the last five years. In the AL East that can be rendered an afterthought, but the fact that the top spot in the division has consistently changed hands in the past four years suggests there is room at the top.
"That hasn’t been monopolized by one team," Farrell added. "There’s been three teams over the last three, four years that have not only won the division but have gone on to the World Series."
For a team that has not made the playoffs in 17 straight years, finishing third or worse in 16 of those seasons, claiming a spot atop the best division in baseball could be classified as bold talk. But after taking stock of the foundation in place, understanding the partnership that has blossomed in Ontario and knowing what kind of leader Farrell can be, the Jays have every reason to dream big.