Let’s face it, the Blue Jays and Alex Anthopoulos have dealt or let go the majority of what people in baseball recognized as the leadership of the franchise. It started when Roy Halladay was dealt to the Phillies, continued with the departures of Scott Downs, Brian Tallet, Shaun Marcum, and was most apparent when Vernon Wells was dealt to the Angels.
Even some of the leaders who were added last season by Anthopoulos, such as John Buck and Alex Gonzalez, have come and gone. So, many people in the industry rightfully question how much leadership remains in Toronto and question whether or not there’s enough of it on board. I say that the latter question is non-sense, and that there’s plenty of leadership remaining with the club for the 2011 season.
Some of the players that can be expected to take on a bigger leadership role with the Jays in 2011 are predictable, and others are not. What bodes well for the Jays is that those who do take on that role will likely do so because they want to, and also because they can do so with the respect of the remainder of the team.
Here are my candidates to become the likely leaders of the club in 2011:
Aaron Hill – 28 years old
I realize that this leader is the most obvious of the candidates, and he already eased himself into the leader role in 2010 after Roy Halladay left. The reasons he’ll be a great leader for the Jays in 2011 is not only that he wants to take that role on and wants to make everyone around him feel at home, it’s also because he has faced adversity on and off the field due to struggles at the plate and numerous injuries. Sharing his experiences can help other players get through the issues they face, and he nows has first-hand knowledge of what they may be going through.
In terms of what he’ll mean to the Jays organization as a leader over the next few years, I would compare it to what Michael Young has meant to the Rangers organization over the majority of his playing time there. Just as Young was willing to be moved around the infield if it was better for the team, Hill has said he would do the same for the Jays with a possible move to 3B. I’m not sure whether the Jays will exercise all of their salary options on him or not (something they have to decide on very soon), but if they do, they’ll guarantee themselves a great clubhouse presence that is well respected in the clubhouse.
Here’s a quote obtained from a Ken Fidlin article in the Toronto Sun:
"“Somehow I became one of the old guys,” he said. “I don’t know how that happened. The old guys on the team are supposed to be 10-plus years. But young is not always bad. Yes, it means inexperienced and a lot of these guys have a lot to learn about making adjustments on a day-to-day basis but at the same time, not as much is expected.”"
He’s already taking the pressure off of the young guys on the team and the season hasn’t even started. Hill will lead by example, is approachable, and is now the face of leadership in the clubhouse. But, he’s not the only one!
Jose Molina – 35 years old
When you talk about having respect in the clubhouse because you’re both a great source of positive energy and a tremendous source of baseball knowledge, you’re talking about Jose Molina. He has a wealth of information to share, knows his role on the team, and is likely the person that Shaun Marcum will miss most while he pitches for the Brewers because he calls such a great game and keeps runners as honest as can be. From trying to pick guys off at first to throwing out a whopping 44% of runners (tops in the AL in 2010), Molina saves pitchers a ton of trouble, and that’s before we consider the great game caller he is.
More importantly than all of that which I just listed, however, is the fact that he REALLY wants to share his knowledge with the likes of Travis d’Arnaud and J. P. Arencibia. Here’s a recent quote, again from a Ken Fidlin article in the Toronto Sun:
"Yesterday he was working with Travis D’Arnaud and J.P. Arencibia.“Every time I help somebody, I feel good,” said Molina. “Guys can learn from me and helping is something I feel comfortable with. I want to see them develop into good catchers and play a long, long time. It’s one of the reasons I come down here early. I’m not going to be in this game forever but the best reputation you can have is to share what you know with young kids. That will open a lot of doors. That’s what I want to be known for, is the fact I’m ready to help.”"
Talk about having a great character, as well as all of the qualities of a great teacher and leader. He’s given those young players the opportunity to learn from one of the best defensive catchers of all time, something that I hope they don’t take for granted. Both Arencibia and d’Arnaud realize that there are others who can step in and take their spot away from them once they get to The Show, so I’m certain they’re like sponges right now, soaking it all in.
But, it’s not just the catchers that benefit from Molina’s presence. What he teaches them makes the catchers better game callers and better defensive catchers, which in turn makes the Jays pitching much better. That’s something that can sometimes go unnoticed altogether through the grind of a long baseball season. If Molina can teach other catchers how to react when the pitcher they’re working with doesn’t have his best stuff, it can make the difference between a 3 inning outing that taxes the pen, or a 5.5/6 inning outing that allows them to remain fresh. That’s a very important role for the catcher to play. That and I’m sure that all Jays pitchers will tell you that they love to have Molina behind the plate when they’re pitching because he get’s the most out of them.
I may be wrong here, but although he’s not the most vocal leader on the team, Molina may very well be the most important leader in the clubhouse in 2011, even if the role is shared with Hill and others.
Ricky Romero – 26 years old
Although he may not have the most information to share based on experience, due to age and a fairly healthy past, he did have his share of struggles in the minors before making it to The Show. In fact, Romero had such a hard time before he reached the Jays that many had given up on him and called his draft position a flop. Between AA and AAA in 2008, Romero had a 4.55 ERA in 164 innings of work, maintaining a 1.558 whip and striking out only 116 while walking 75. It was a far less than stellar prelude to his arrival in Toronto, but injuries to other pitchers (Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum) forced the Jays hand and gave Romero a shot in 2009. Luckily for the Jays, he worked out just fine and has blossomed into a leader on and off the field, and now will grow into the role in the clubhouse.
There are really not many other alternatives in the rotation. Romero recently signed a $30.1 million extension that ensures he’ll be a Jays pitcher through 2015, with the possibility for a club option being picked up in 2016. It indicates to us how highly the Jays think of Romero, and also that Romero has a lot at stake in wanting to help others around him get better as Toronto Blue Jays. If he doesn’t do it, who will? The remainder of the group is so young and has little pitching experience, so he became the leader by default. If he wants to help build a winning franchise in Toronto, it’s up to him to lead, and I’m sure he’ll do so effectively.
Jose Bautista – 30 years old
He was put in charge of getting Yunel Escobar to become comfortable in Toronto, and just like Aaron Hil, he’s also willing to occupy the position that works best for the Jays to compete in 2011, with a caveat I’ll get to later on. When you talk about going through adversity and perseverance, Bautista’s your man in the Jays clubhouse.
He has had to earn all of the playing time he got before he was given enough playing time in 2010 to show the entire world what he’s capable of. That tells me that any Jays player who may be down on his playing time or struggling to keep focused and to maintain his determination may be able to learn quite a bit from Bautista.
He’s very approachable, always wears a smile, and has learned that tinkering with your batting approach on a consistent basis can bear fruit. There’s little doubt in my mind that sluggers like J. P. Arencibia and Travis Snider will able to learn quite a bit from his approach at the plate.
One of the caveats to Bautista as a leader, however, is that he is still very vocal about his preferences, with the most recent quote being slightly troubling for the Jays. It’s a quote from yet another Fidlin article:
"“(Anthopoulos) feels the moves we have made make the team better with me at third base and he’s the guy running the show so I have to adhere to what my orders are,” said Bautista. “If something does change, I hope it’s early in spring training because I don’t want to play 20 games at third base, then have to go back in the outfield when the season starts not having played one game out there. If there’s going to be a change in direction, I hope it’s sooner than later.”"
Ah, the “conditional” willingness to move. Is it a sign that Bautista is getting a little bit more egocentric in his views of his game? Or, is it simply a player pressuring management to make the move he wants to have happen? Either way, the fact that he went public with such a statement is enough to give me pause. Why not just say it as Hill did and that you’ll do what’s best for the team? Control time of minor league players being as important as it is today, it almost guarantees that Brett Lawrie will be in the minors until June. Does this mean that Bautista would be very disgruntled at being shifted from 3B to RF in June? Also, what kind of example does this set to other players in the clubhouse? I can say that I’ll play another position, so long as it’s for the entire season? It could be an innocent comment that can be taken the wrong way, but I still find it slightly worrisome.
The second caveat here is the contract situation, of course. He could be traded, could sign a 1-year deal, or could sign an extension with the Jays. If the latter situation presents itself, I expect Bautista’s leadership role to become quite extensive with the Jays. If either of the other two occur, he may not be as great of a leadership asset for the Jays in 2011. In fact, he could very well become the biggest distraction the Jays have in the clubhouse. If he voices his positional preferences as much as he does now, does that mean he’ll be as vocal about his contract situation all of the way through the trade deadline? And, what if he loses his arbitration case to the Jays? That scenario would have me believing that the Jays will look to move Bautista unless they commit a ton of money to him for an extension.
So, with all of that said, I expect that Bautista will be a leader for the Jays in 2011, so long as he wins his arbitration case and plays RF. Otherwise, it’s anyone’s guess as to how important a leader he will be in 2011.
John McDonald – 36 years old
The gritty fan favorite is the perfect example of making the most of your tools and working as hard as you can to maintain them. In the “lead by example” category, he’s the leader of the whole bunch. He never whines or complains about his playing time, shows up ready to play every single day, and is as dedicated a baseball player as you’ll find out there.
He can help team others, such as Brett Lawrie and Adeiny Hechavarria, a ton about playing the infield, and is also well liked by everyone on the team. When you think of the Jays bench, you think of Jose Molina and John McDonald. Combined, they have a lot to do with the fact that the clubhouse gels as much as it does, and it’s great to know that you have such experience to draw from as a Jays player.
The majority of the bullpen – mostly in their 30s
Frank Francisco (31), Octavio Dotel (37), Jon Rauch (32), Jason Frasor (33), Shawn Camp (35), Casey Janssen (29), and David Purcey (28) are widely considered to be the favorites to be in the pen for the Jays in 2011. Talk about having a wealth of experience to draw from. As much as the rotation is inexperienced overall, the pen is the exact opposite for the Jays. If the starters for the Jays are having issues finding a leader to talk to, any of these guys can provide some level of support. All of them have closing experience and therefore know how to handle pressure and can help the starters get through some of their issues. When you also consider that Dustin McGowan and Chad Cordero could join that group depending on the need and situation, you know that if anything, the experience from the pen will continue to be strong throughout 2011.
Leadership is Still Present in Toronto
As you can see from what was presented above, the leadership situation with the Jays will be great in 2011. The Jays players have all types of leadership to draw knowledge from and to learn from on and off the field. Travis Snider and other young players are just taking everything in and have already learned quite a bit from those who left. Of those leaders remaining with the Jays, from the vocal and easy going Aaron Hill to the quiet lead by example John McDonald, all styles and leadership types are present.
There’s little doubt in my mind that Vernon Wells and Shaun Marcum will be missed in the clubhouse due to their long-time dedication to the team and community and the fact that both were so approachable and personable, but those left behind still have a lot of leadership to follow. It’s a changing of the leadership guard in Toronto that signals the beginning of a new era, one that should help ensure 2011 and future years are successful, both on and off the field.