Blue Jays hope turnover puts them over the top

April 06, 1991|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,Sun Staff Correspondent

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- At first, the erosion was gradual.

Jim Clancy and Jesse Barfield departed. Then, Ernie Whitt and Lloyd Moseby.

Now, it is complete. The so-called best team that never has won a pennant was dismantled last winter when George Bell was allowed to leave as a free agent and Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez were traded in the blockbuster deal of the off-season.

"Stand Pat" Gillick finally turned over the cards and committed to a new order led by Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar, the two guiding hands that the Toronto Blue Jays hope lead them to their first World Series.

The talk is of improved chemistry to replace the stale mix of players that had teased but never quite reached the summit.

Gone are those perceived as the grousers and whiners. Arrived, hopes the front office, are the compatible who will make life around the Blue Jays a more pleasant daily experience.

Whether they can bring that pennant to their fans remains debatable, but at least they will be different. The roster has undergone almost a 30 percent overhaul.

"I knew after the winter meetings that the team was going to have a changed attitude and style of play," manager Cito Gaston said. "It's a great deal like the team we had in 1985 with speed in the outfield, a quick infield and a youthful, aggressive attitude."

With Bell and McGriff out of the order, the Blue Jays don't figure to do quite as much long-range bombing, but, if Devon White, acquired from the California Angels, can continue the success he has had in spring training in the leadoff spot, they may be a better offensive team.

John Olerud, who describes himself as "more of a line-drive hitter who will get his share of home runs," steps out of the designated hitter role he was given at age 22 to replace McGriff.

Carter's average has fallen in recent seasons, but his run production (115 RBI for the San Diego Padres) hasn't, so he should compensate for Bell's loss, particularly since he is a far superior outfielder.

And Alomar, who probably will bat No. 1 if White falters, is a trade-off for the moody Fernandez. A switch-hitter as well, Alomar already has played three years at age 23.

With Kelly Gruber emerging last year as the league's top all-around third baseman and Pat Borders on the threshold of becoming a first-rate catcher, the Jays' offense should be fine.

The team speed is excellent, and defensively, Toronto should be vastly improved in the outfield with Carter, White and youngsters Glenallen Hill and Mark Whiten.

Manuel Lee will be happier now that he has returned to his natural position, shortstop, Gruber is solid at third and Alomar has immense skills. The Blue Jays could make fewer than the 86 errors that were the league low.

With Pat Tabler, Rance Mulliniks, who led the league with a .364 pinch-hitting average, ex-Oriole Rene Gonzales, Greg Myers, Rob Ducey and Mookie Wilson, the bench looks strong.

So if the most powerful four-man rotation and deepest bullpen produce again, the Blue Jays could take another shot at their goal.

"It would help to find a good fifth starter," Gaston said. But that is a minor problem when the first four are Dave Stieb, Jimmy Key, Todd Stottlemyre and David Wells.

Factor in a monster relief corps, headed by a still-effective Tom Henke and free agent Ken Dayley, one of the National League's top setup men for years, and there is a picture of a team that will be difficult to beat.

But Toronto is the AL East's swing team this year, meaning it will finish against the West. "We have to be ahead, instead of trying to catch up against teams we're not playing," Henke said.

"Things are looking pretty good," Carter said. "We definitely have an edge, but it's going to be interesting. A lot of teams improved themselves."

One thing the Blue Jays cannot afford again is a 3-10 record against Boston. Another is a squabbling clubhouse. Expectations are high, and either of those negatives could bring down Toronto again.

"Most teams say, 'Well, let's wait and see,' " Gonzales said. "Here they just expect to be on top immediately, right from the get go. It's a different feeling."

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