Need for speed is focus of Blue Jays' GM

Need for speed is focus of Blue Jays' GM

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Joey Gathright grabbed his glove and jogged toward the outfield on one of the practice diamonds at the Bobby Mattick Training Centre on Friday morning. As he glided into left field, even at an easy pace, it was easy to see why he intrigued the Blue Jays.

"One thing that gives him an advantage is he brings that speed element that we don't have a lot of," said Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos.

Gathright was signed to a Minor League contract over the offseason and is competing for a spot on Toronto's Opening Day roster. The veteran outfielder is unlikely to transform the Jays' abilities on the basepaths as a whole, but his presence in camp provides a glimpse of another aspect within Anthopoulos' long-term vision for the organization.

Anthopoulos wants the Blue Jays to find an identity -- a style of play that will be evident from the lower Minor League ranks all the way up to the big league stage. The rookie general manager has retooled the team's player development staff, plans on stressing fundamentals, and believes defense and speed are crucial elements that need to be addressed.

Especially speed.

"When there are opportunities to get more athletic," Anthopoulos said, "to bring more athletes into the organization through the Draft and so on -- guys that can bring the element of speed and certainly bring defense to the table -- that's something that from a personal standpoint I'd love to add to this organization.

"Again, things need to line up for that to happen and it's not something that can happen overnight. But I think it's something that, as we move forward, we're going to try to put a little bit more of an emphasis on."

As part of his reorganization of the player development department over the winter, Anthopoulos hired Rich Miller to serve as Toronto's roving Minor League outfield and baserunning instructor. Prior to joining the Jays, Miller spent 14 years coaching in the Mets' system before working in the Twins' organization over the the past six seasons.

Miller's role will be to begin working toward improving Toronto's baserunning style from the ground up.

"We're definitely starting to address it from a player development standpoint," Anthopoulos said. "We added a baserunning coordinator this year. We're excited about him -- someone to spend a little more time to focus solely on that. We never had that before, at least since I've been here."

Before being named the club's general manager in October, Anthopoulos served as an assistant to former general manager J.P. Ricciardi for the past five years. During Ricciardi's eight seasons as the Blue Jays' GM, the organization did not place much of an emphasis on speed.

"Everyone has their own style," Anthopoulos said. "Really, it's probably a little more philosophy and what someone's personal preference is. There's a lot of examples of teams that run and play very good defense and some other teams that mash and hit home runs and drive balls to the gaps."

Under Ricciardi's watch, the Blue Jays averaged just over 64 stolen bases per year over the past eight seasons -- roughly 29 stolen bases below the American League average over the same time period. During Gord Ash's time as Toronto's GM, excluding the strike-shortened 1995 season, the Jays swiped 133 bases on average from '96-2001. That topped the AL average by more than 25 stolen bases over the same span.

The difference is in how the different general managers went about constructing their rosters. In that respect, Anthopoulos has not inherited a team that will be able to suddenly emerge as a major basestealing threat in the upcoming season. As he maps out the organization's future, though, Anthopoulos plans on incorporating more speed.

Among the current crop of Blue Jays, Vernon Wells returns as the best basestealing option on the roster, considering he swiped a 17 bags in 2009. Alex Rios led the team with 19 stolen bases last year, but he was let go on waivers to the White Sox in August. Shortstop Marco Scutaro stole 14 bases for Toronto in '09, but he signed with the Red Sox over the winter.

No other Blue Jays reached double digits in thefts last year.

"I just don't think we have any pure basestealers," Anthopoulos said. "Certainly, we have a lot of guys that are capable of doing it, but the opportunity has to present itself. You don't want to run for the sake of running. You don't want to run into outs. Maybe we'll be a little more aggressive on the basepaths, but I really believe you have to have the personnel to do it.

"Right now, we're just not a team that's equipped with a lot of speed."

The Jays are hoping Gathright might be able to provide some short-term help in that regard. Beyond that, Anthopoulos believes addressing the issue in the Minor Leagues now can lead to improvements on the basepaths in the big leagues down the road.

"It's an exciting brand of baseball when you can play defense and add speed," Anthopoulos said. "One thing about that is it plays in all parks. People talk about trying to build a lineup and a team for their ballpark and so on. Well, speed and defense plays all over the place."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.