The Blue Jays surprised us by hiring -- or, actually, rehiring -- John Gibbons for their managerial post. Come to think of it, when have they not surprised us this month? Gibbons was a balanced though not-so-pristine 305-305 in three full and two partial seasons with the Blue Jays from 2004-08. Truth is, he never had the right assemblage of talent around him to put together a real winner in the American League East, though the Blue Jays did beef up in the winter before the 2006 season -- bringing in A.J. Burnett, B.J. Ryan, Troy Glaus, Lyle Overbay and Bengie Molina -- and the resulting 87-win season under Gibbons, all off-the-field drama aside, actually stands as their best in the last 14 years.
Just don't ask Shea Hillenbrand what he thought of the way that season played out. What the Blue Jays have done thus far this winter, in bringing aboard the likes of Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and Melky Cabrera, goes well beyond that 2006 buildup. That's why Gibbons is inheriting a highly desirable (though also high-stakes) position. Alex Anthopoulos has attacked the available-player market with the kind of eagerness and aggressiveness those of us in the States will show at our Thanksgiving smorgasbords later this week. As a result of that aggression, for better or worse, the Blue Jays are baseball's "it" team. Naturally, that could change over the course of a winter that has really just begun. But the drastic degree to which Anthopoulos has reshaped his roster has been breathtaking. And even if you do wonder if the Blue Jays will eventually be faced with a bout of indigestion in the wake of this feast, you have to respect and appreciate the way they are attacking an opportunity in what has traditionally been a brutal and daunting division. With the Red Sox in what can only be described as a rebuild, with the aging Yankees looking vulnerable, with the Orioles possibly due for some regression after an abnormally strong record in close contests and with the Rays, as always, limited in the budget department, the Blue Jays see 2013 for what it is -- their chance to return to respectability, particularly with two Wild Cards on the table. Anthopoulos is making the most of that chance. Interestingly, though, his speed on the roster front was countered only by a decidedly more deliberate approach to hiring a manager, and the process was shrouded in secrecy. All along, it was anticipated that Anthopoulos would lean toward experience, and that led to the rumblings about Mike Hargrove, Jim Tracy, Jim Riggleman and even Bobby Cox, among others. Turns out, the desire for experience was more direct than those of us on the outside imagined, because the Blue Jays went with the guy who is second only to Cito Gaston in terms of games managed for Toronto in the last two decades. And that's perhaps the most interesting wrinkle of what has been a dramatic few days in the Blue Jays' universe: Of all the pieces they've brought aboard in the signing and trade departments, Gibbons is arguably the most known commodity. No wonder Anthopoulos said he has "more conviction" in the Gibbons hire than in any other transaction he's made this month. After all, Anthopoulos is close friends with Gibbons and therefore knows precisely what he's going to get. He knows that before 2006 skirmishes with Hillenbrand -- who had scrawled "play for yourself" and "the ship is sinking" on a board in the clubhouse -- and with Ted Lilly, Gibbons was known to have a player-friendly demeanor. Anthopoulos also believes in the value of second chances. After the short-lived tenure of John Farrell, who seemed to have Boston in the back of his mind all along, he knows the value of putting his faith in a familiar face who genuinely wants to be part of the organization going forward. Much will be made of the Hillenbrand and Lilly issues (the latter of which was resolved between the two, while the former led to Hillenbrand's immediate departure), because infighting is always interesting and the 162-game baseball season serves as reality TV, of a sort. But if we're going to remember those incidents, we should also remember the way Gibbons ran a game and used a bullpen, because those are more pertinent points. People will talk about this as if it's a bold or risky hire, when, in fact, it's about the safest play Anthopoulos could make. Frankly, he's taken bigger risks elsewhere. Anthopoulos doesn't know how Reyes' hamstrings will hold up on the artificial turf at Rogers Centre. He doesn't know how long Johnson's shoulder will hold out. He doesn't know when or if Buehrle's arm will start to succumb to the effects of all those innings he's piled up over the years. He doesn't know if a purportedly clean Cabrera will resemble his 2011 or 2012 form, or if he'll look more like the guy who was cut by the Braves in 2010. Above all else, Anthopoulos doesn't know how well these disparate parts will gel and bond with the core that was already in place. That's the caveat that comes with the sort of chemistry experiment Anthopoulos has concocted. As for the manager, Anthopoulos went with what is, to him, a more sure and stable entity. A more known commodity. A guy he knows and trusts and believes will have benefited from his past experience in this exact same post. And when you think about it in those terms, this is the first move by the Blue Jays that probably shouldn't have surprised us at all.