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John Gibbons: Blue Jays primed for 'big, big year'

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Here it comes, any minute now. Here it comes, maybe the most important season in two decades for the reigning champs of the AL East.

For more than 20 years, that was somebody else's description. For more than 20 years, the heat was always turned on some other team. But now it's the Toronto Blue Jays' turn. And nobody has to explain to their manager what this season means.

"Big year," John Gibbons said on a serene Friday afternoon, two days before pitchers and catchers report. "It's a big, big year for us. For all of us."

It could be the final season in Toronto for the thumpers in the middle of baseball's most terrifying lineup, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. It's the first season for new team president Mark Shapiro and new general manager Ross Atkins. It's the first season without the ever-popular previous GM, native Canadian Alex Anthopoulos, who resigned last fall after Shapiro took over.

But that's not all. The Blue Jays aren't sure who's closing. They're not sure who's hitting leadoff. They're not sure whether talented 23-year-old right-hander Aaron Sanchez will start or relieve. And the rest of the planet doesn't seem sold on a rotation that no longer includes David Price or Mark Buehrle.

So there's a lot more on Gibbons' plate this spring. But he has thought all winter about his team's fascinating offseason and where it goes next. So he sat down Friday for an extended conversation with ESPN.com. Here are the highlights:

On whether it can be difficult to manage star players like Bautista and Encarnacion, who are each in the last year of their respective contracts: "I don't know. I know them both well enough that I think they're going to be really motivated. Not necessarily because it's a free-agent year, but because both of those guys got a taste of winning last year, too. They're really two of the most productive hitters in baseball over the last few years. But I don't think they ever got their due until last year, when they got to play with the whole world watching.

"They enjoyed that. They got the exposure they deserve. So I think that's going to help them. But in their free-agent year, the better year they have, the better off they are. There's really never been a motivation problem for either one of them. They've always been great. ... But I don't know what being a free agent brings. I haven't experienced it with that caliber of player yet, let alone with two of them."

On how important a year this is for this franchise: "I think it's huge. You know, that's not my department, whether [Bautista and Encarnacion] stay or go. I know everybody in the organization hopes they hang around. We know the economics of the business, too. But the fact that we know they're both guaranteed to be here this year, with the possibility of both leaving next year, this is a big year, to take advantage of both of their presence, and what they mean to this team. So ... does the window close? We've got a chance to have a totally different team next year.

"I think they're both going to have huge years, because they like what happened here last year and there's a lot at stake. So that can only help us. But if you sit back and think about both of those guys out of the lineup ... that's two high-caliber hitters right there. It's just like what Boston's going to be facing with David Ortiz leaving. If Ortiz and another guy of that caliber are gone next year, then you realize kind of what we're looking at with our two guys."

On how Bautista, much like Ortiz, has become the face of his team: "I think, in a lot of ways, he finally got his due last year. He finally got to play in the spotlight and rise to the occasion, with that big home run to win Game 5 against Texas. And he hit big home runs in that Kansas City series. I mean, people knew who he was, but ... he stepped up at the right times. And he's got that knack."

On whether this feels as if it has to be the year, if this group is going to celebrate together: "Oh, yeah. Because there's no guarantee who's going to be around next year."

On whether it has hit him how much has changed since last October: "Yeah. It really has. Things are different. You know, it was such a crazy year for us, a big year for us. Going into last year, we all knew we were under the gun. We all knew we had to do something. We started out so-so, but then we had those big moves that really put us over the top for the first time in 20-some years. And then the big shock of Alex leaving. Nobody expected that. So it's been kind of a whirlwind in a lot of ways. But it's good to be back down here, to start back up playing baseball. That's always a cure for everything. ... The front office, the coaching staff and myself, we haven't had to function together in an actual season. So that's ahead of us. But so far it's been a smooth transition. And I think it will stay that way."

On whether Anthopoulos' departure has overshadowed how good his team still is: "Maybe a little bit, because it's a new story that probably won't go away until we start playing games. ... I think it was such a shock to everybody. I think everybody's saying, 'Well, you finally get to that point, and you'd think things would stay status quo for the most part, and see where that takes you.' And then the leader of your team leaves. So that is big news, until the season rolls around and things change."

On why he thinks Troy Tulowitzki took such a long time to adjust after getting traded to Toronto: "He'd been a Colorado Rockie his whole career. He'd been one of the top players in the game. The last couple of years there'd been talk: Could they trade him because they were rebuilding? But for your star players, guys who had been in one place for that long, it's big news when you trade a guy like that. And I'm sure the Blue Jays are probably the last place he expected to go. ... So it's got to be unsettling. But shoot, what a difference he made. ... He really didn't hit the way he'’s always hit in the past. But I think that will change ... because he's done it for too long."

On how difficult it will be to replace Price in the rotation: "He was a huge piece for us last year. ... So, I don't care how many guys you bring in, it's tough to replace a guy like that. ... But the real key is having Marcus Stroman back. If you keep him healthy and he pitches the way everybody really thinks he will, that's big for us."

On how he'll decide who closes -- the incumbent Roberto Osuna, or new acquired Drew Storen: "Over time during spring training we'll look at it and see what the other guys in the pen are doing, and kind of put it together like a puzzle. ... Storen is pretty much a one-inning guy. And I think you can stretch Osuna out a little bit, say maybe an inning-plus. So if that's the case, I don't know, maybe that gives the edge to Storen as the closer. And maybe you can use Roberto some different ways. We'll see. We know, Osuna, though. And he was really good for us. We've seen Storen, but we don't know him like we know Roberto. So we'll decide this spring. But I don't think you can base it on, 'This guy had a better spring than that guy.' "

On whether Osuna would have a difficult time accepting not being the closer anymore: "I don't know. Knowing who he is, I think if it came to that, he would probably get it, because he's got a lot of years ahead of him. ... But I don't know how it's going to shake out anyway. I've talked to Storen, and he's saying all the right things, that it doesn't matter how we use him. ... But really, what it comes down to, regardless of the reaction that you get, is you've got to do what's best for the team."

On whether he'd like to see Sanchez as a starter or a reliever:: "You know what's really tough about it? He came up that first year in September, and we made him a reliever. Then last year, he was a starter, and we made him a reliever again. And you know, if you envision somebody as a starter and you take him out of that role, now he's not learning his secondary pitches, and he doesn't develop enough, and then maybe that window kind of closes on which role he can be. So that's really the question. We've got to make the right decision. You know, you get so excited, thinking if he's down in that bullpen, now you could combine him with Osuna, Brett Cecil and Storen, and that's four really dynamite guys. Now you take him out of that, and that bullpen is maybe not quite as strong. So it's really, how do you want to do it? And that's why that's really probably the most important decision we've got to make [this spring]."

On his leadoff options, now that Ben Revere has been traded for Storen: "We're going to throw it up against that wall right there and see what sticks. But that's a big question mark. ... Now Ben is gone, and we really don't have that guy that you put up there and say, 'Now this guy is automatic.' So we've got to play with that a little bit. I know Kevin Pillar used to lead off in the minor leagues and was tremendous at it. But he's a free swinger, doesn't walk much, that kind of guy. Kind of like [Alcides] Escobar in Kansas City. They're always talking about, 'How can you hit Alcides in the leadoff spot?' But they win when he's up there. ... So who knows where we end up?"

On whether he'd even consider experimenting with his best on-base guys, Josh Donaldson and Bautista, at the top of the lineup: "You know, with Donaldson, he was the MVP in that No. 2 spot, and he loves it there. Bautista has made his name as a three-hole hitter. He moved up [in the order for us] a couple of years ago, but I know he really likes it in that 3-spot. And I've said this before. Baseball is a unique game. Guys identify with the numbers they wear and where they hit in the lineup, the positions they play. And really, those things matter. I know it seems like kind of a minor thing. But really, that's who they are. So it's really a big deal to move one of your top guys up and say, 'Now he's a leadoff hitter.' "

On whether the passion for his team down the stretch is sustainable: "Of course, you don't want anybody to forget that, because it's been so long. All the years that I've been here, you come in with so much optimism ... and it didn't happen. And then finally, it did. And there's something to that feeling. And the way it all happened, after some of the big moves, I mean, it wasn't a gradual thing. ... It was like a light switch, you know. When Tulo showed up, and then Price and a couple of the relievers, it was like, 'Bam.' And it really didn't slow down. It was definitely different than anything I'd ever experienced, really on any level."