Call it early: Blue Jays are a lock Toronto gets stronger with Morris, Winfield

BASEBALL

February 23, 1992|By PETER SCHMUCK

The polls won't even be open for another six weeks, but we already have projected a winner in the race for the American League pennant.

The Toronto Blue Jays will win the AL East and prevail over the Oakland Athletics in the playoffs to become the first Canadian team to appear in the World Series. No need to bother with the regular season, unless you're in for a percentage of the gate.

Why the Blue Jays? Because they may have been the best team in the league last year, and they got a lot better with the addition of World Series Most Valuable Player Jack Morris and veteran slugger Dave Winfield.

General manager Pat Gillick could have told Blue Jays fans that the club was fine just the way it was. The Jays did, after all, win the division title by seven games last year, largely on the &L strength of the league's best team ERA (3.50). No one could have faulted him for sitting on the $10.85 million he gave Morris to spend the next two years in Toronto. But winning organizations don't sit around waiting for the competition to catch up.

The Blue Jays won the AL East, then kept the pressure on during the winter. The Boston Red Sox answered by adding pitcher Frank Viola, but they did not keep pace. The Orioles signed a handful of veteran pitchers, but no one who can be counted on to win 15 games this year. This easily could turn into a one-team race, especially if Dave Stieb comes back from injury to rejoin an already outstanding rotation.

If that isn't enough reason to concede the race right here and now, here's another: The Blue Jays didn't play up to their offensive potential in 1991. They didn't even approach it.

The imposing Toronto lineup, which included Devon White, Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter, John Olerud, Kelly Gruber and Candy Maldonado, ranked 11th in the league in runs (684) and eighth in home runs (133). Those numbers should improve significantly, particularly now that the designated hitter role has been filled by someone other than Rance Mulliniks.

Winfield will provide run production and leadership for a team that already had enough of both to be the division favorite. Morris will further stabilize a pitching staff that otherwise would have been vulnerable to one or two key injuries.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, can only hope for some return on the more than $30 million they have spent on free-agent pitching during the past 14 months. Viola figures to help. Matt Young and Danny Darwin are hard to figure.

The rest of the division can only hope that the Blue Jays and Red Sox self-destruct, because none of the remaining five teams has enough talent to compete with them -- even in a best-case scenario.

The AL West is tougher to handicap; five clubs appear to be legitimate contenders. The A's no longer inspire the kind of awe that they did during their three-year reign as league champions jTC (1988-90), but they could be poised for a comeback. The Chicago White Sox don't know if Bo Jackson will be around come Opening Day, but they are the most-improved team in their division.

The A's and White Sox are the early favorites to fight it out for a chance to take on the Blue Jays in the playoffs, but it's too early to count out the explosive Texas Rangers or the post-Morris Minnesota Twins. The Kansas City Royals aren't out of the question either, but the California Angels and Seattle Mariners look like big losers from just about every angle.

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