CHICAGO - The Blue Jays are into the final week of the 2013 season, a year that's seen more downs than ups for the starting rotation.
The man tasked with running the entire pitching staff, Pete Walker, sat down with TSN.ca before Monday's game against the White Sox to reflect on his first season as pitching coach, more deeply discuss his role and offer thoughts on the make up of the 2014 rotation.
Walker's future, like many on the Blue Jays' coaching staff, is uncertain for next season and while he hasn't been told whether he'll be back, it's reasonable to expect Walker will return.
Below is a transcript of the conversation. Or you can listen to the conversation here.
TSN.ca: Pete, we're into the final week of the season now so I think we can do some reflecting and it's been a trying one for the team in general. For your pitching staff, specifically the starters, how would you characterize their season as a whole?
WALKER: It was disappointing. I think, looking back and to where we are now but I think there's been some growth in some guys who are key guys for the next couple of years here and that would be R.A. and Mark Buehrle. A tale of two halves so to speak. You know, R.A. obviously had a struggle early on, regrouped and made some adjustments. We worked hard in those bullpen sessions to make some adjustments and I really think he has, so he's grown as a pitcher. Last year he pretty much relied on that hard knuckleball consistently and had to make some adjustments this year kind of changing speeds and also some adjustments in his delivery, some things that he was tipping early on. I think he's grown as a pitcher. Obviously it's not an ideal situation to go through the year that he did but I think he's finished up strong. The same with Mark. You can't say enough about the last three or four months. It was just those first two months that really hurt us this year, put us in a hole but the two of them together did a nice job. Obviously there were some other issues with Josh and Brandon. Disappointing the way it worked out, obviously we expected a lot more; a lot more innings and a lot more quality innings from those guys but Redmond and Rogers stepped in, kind of unsung heroes so to speak, keeping this staff together, because I don't know what would have happened without those two guys.
TSN.ca: The nature of injuries is such a weird thing. I don't know if there's blame to be assigned but if a guy's arm is going to go, like Josh's triceps did for a period of time or Brandon's forearm, is it just going to go or looking back are there some preventative things you guys could have done to maybe change the result of those?
WALKER: You know what, I think we were very cautious in a lot of ways with a lot of our pitchers and I think it's kind of been the history. When you look at the innings in spring training and you look at what we did with them as far as Josh and even Mark and even R.A., basically we did our research on other teams that they played for and what they've done in the past as well because it is a new organization for them. There are times when we took some time in between starts, maybe didn't throw as many pitches on the side, so on and so forth. It's a long season, there are always injuries over the course of a long season and obviously the injuries to our staff hurt this year and for guys we were really counting on to be horses in that rotation it just didn't work out. Looking back, I think we handled those guys the best we could and sometimes injuries do happen in this game and proved to be costly in Josh's case.
TSN.ca: John Gibbons is a guy who's taken a lot of fire from the fan base. Sometimes I wonder if we overestimate the effect of Twitter but certainly his name has come up a lot on Twitter. Your name comes up because of the type of season the starting rotation had. What effect does a pitching coach or should a pitching coach have on a staff. Ultimately, I guess what I'm asking is to what degree does the responsibility fall on your shoulders?
WALKER: As a pitching coach it's something that you think about because you see the way the season's going. It's frustrating because you expect more. As far as some the injuries, there are certain things you can't control that's for sure. The results weren't good early on but you know, I come to the ballpark everyday, prepare myself and prepare my guys as best I can, I'm sure that's the same with the other coaches. It's just a situation where as long as you're doing your job at the field, you're working your tail off everyday and you communicate well with your pitchers, you just hope over the course of the season there's some growth and guys get better. I guess I look at the positives as well. There are some negatives with the starting staff but the bullpen certainly did a nice job. Some of the relievers had super years. I liked to see Rogers step into the rotation. He did a fantastic job. There's a lot of hard work that went into that as well. The same with Todd Redmond. We had a lot of mix and match guys in between, you know guys that were here for a short period of time but are not here now. There are certain guys, you're certainly proud of the way they've pitched this year and that would be Rogers and Redmond and obviously the way Buehrle and Dickey came back. It's nice to see J.A. Happ back on the mound after what he went through and hopefully he finishes up with a couple of good starts here. Certainly, as the pitching coach, there have been a lot of sleepless nights and I take it hard. I want to come here and win and my expectations are to win here in Toronto with a great staff and with the people we've put together. I still think that can happen and I think that will happen. Next year, hopefully we're back here and we make a few additions to the staff and we put ourselves in a better position to win games and looking forward to that opportunity.
TSN.ca: I have no doubt that you're hopeful, you just said it, but how confident are you that you will get another opportunity?
WALKER: Not really. This game, baseball, is the kind of game where it's year to year. As a player I've been through it. Now, as a coach, we're going through it. You come to the park everyday, you give it everything you can, you put your head on that pillow at night and you sleep well. That's the way I go about my business. Everybody that's had family issues, sickness in the family, it's adversity and you deal with it. It's adversity and obviously this is baseball, not life, it's not life and death and so it's something that I come and work my tail off when I'm here and at the end of the day I feel good about it.
TSN.ca: Pete, what is the, maybe likelihood isn't the right way to ask the question but with Ricky Romero, how close is he to re-finding whatever it was that he lost and should he be considered for a spot in next year's rotation or will next spring dictate a lot of that?
WALKER: Yeah, I think next spring will dictate a lot of that. He's worked his tail off. Obviously, he's made some adjustments this year and he's been through a tough time himself, there's no doubt about it. I tell you what, that guy is a quality guy and a quality worker and he's been through as much adversity as anybody I've seen. He's dealing with it, he comes to the field everyday ready to work with his chin up in the air and I think if anybody can get through this it's him. I think next year, coming into spring training, he's going to work his tail off this winter. There are a couple of more things we'd like to do this winter with the delivery but I think he's in a good place right now. I think he's in a better place than he was obviously in spring training and I think he's going to be looking forward to next season. He's going to work his tail off this winter and come in and compete for a spot in spring training.
TSN.ca: Dealing with him and I know Bob Stanley's had an impact on him down at Buffalo as well, where's the balance between nurturing him, keeping him confident or trying to rebuild some of that confidence, tweaking the delivery but at the same time not filling his head with too much stuff?
WALKER: There's no doubt there's a fine line and right now I think it's as simple as it could possibly be. He's trying to just keep that arm moving and attack the strike zone. The delivery's pretty good right now. I know he was talking about going back to his old delivery but to be honest with you he's made some pretty good adjustments from where he was. I think there are a lot of good things in what he's doing right now, just trying to get him with a simple approach, attacking the strike zone and trusting his stuff again. He certainly has the ability to get major league hitters out, he knows that, we'd just love to see it on a consistent basis but I think he's in a good place as far as his approach, his delivery and now it's just a matter of maybe coming into next spring training with a good frame of mind, a positive attitude and I think he'll do that.
TSN.ca: Now I know they haven't had a lot of work, some of them aren't here but the Kyle Drabek's of the world or Drew Hutchison, who was not a September call up, Marcus Stroman, I could go on, Sean Nolin, some of them are in Arizona and all that, what is the likelihood or possibility of any of those names cracking the pitching staff in some regard for 2014?
WALKER: Yeah, it's been discussed, there's no doubt. There's not a lock on five spots so there are some openings there and it's interesting to see how some of these guys perform down the stretch here. Redmond and Rogers and obviously Happ is in the equation there. You've got R.A. and Buehrle but those young guys, Drabek's arm, Hutchison coming off Tommy John as well, you've got some young guys, Stroman and Nolin, obviously we'd love to have those guys in Triple-A, starting and call them up as needed but I'm sure they're going to come into spring training ready to go with an opportunity to stake their claim on a spot in the rotation.
TSN.ca: Pete, the hype was very high before the season started and obviously the team didn't live up to it. You guys just came from Fenway Park. The Red Sox won 69 games last year. They're going to win somewhere close to 100 and win the division this year. When you watch a team like that from across the field, does that give you optimism for next season that it is possible for a wild turnaround and that maybe guys in the clubhouse, not just the staff in general but guys in the clubhouse in general, learned a few things from the losing?
WALKER: I don't know if I necessarily learned it from that this weekend over there but I really think we know what we have in that clubhouse and with a couple of tweaks here and there certainly it's possible. You look at the way we started the year at 10-21 or whatever it was in that area and pretty close to .500 baseball since with a lot of fill ins. You just get off to that good start. It's tough to dig yourself out of a hole sometimes. You can say you can do it but you get off to a slow start like that it does take a lot of time and effort to get back into the race. It didn't work out this year. Obviously we want to get off to a good start and carry it through and get that momentum going through the course of the season. I think that's what Boston did and all of a sudden you start really believing once you're at that halfway point and you're playing good baseball. I think it's a matter of that to be honest with you. Staying healthy, getting off to a nice start and certainly we have some people here that can pitch into the post-season and that's what we're banking on. I certainly think it's possible here. We saw it in Boston, obviously coming off of last season and I certainly think we can do the same thing.
TSN.ca: Thanks so much for this, Pete, and all the best going forward.
WALKER: Thank you very much.