Deeper Blue Jays could fly away with East title Toronto pitching better than '91's

March 22, 1992|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- They are not usually so brash, but the Toronto Blue Jays have every reason to be confident. They are coming off a division championship. They have added last year's World Series Most Valuable Player to an already formidable starting rotation, and the only team that can keep them out of the playoffs this year is their own.

So, who could blame third baseman Kelly Gruber for predicting that they would run away with the American League East?

"If, and I say if, all our pitchers are back by May 15, we'll win the division by 15 games," Gruber told The Toronto Sun a few days ago. "This September won't be like any other. It will be like down here [in spring training] -- relaxed."

This cannot come as good news to the Orioles or the rest of the AL East pretenders, a few of which were under the mistaken impression that they still had a chance to compete for the division title. But the addition of Jack Morris and Dave Winfield to a team that won by seven games last year makes Gruber's claim difficult to dismiss.

There are some ifs. Dave Stieb has to come back from a back operation. Tom Henke has to shake off a sore shoulder. #i Middleman Mike Timlin has to bounce back from an elbow operation. But it is not an unlikely scenario.

"I hope he's right," a bemused manager Cito Gaston said at the time, "but there's no way we're going to run away on Boston or anyone else."

It would be a tall order. Only three teams have won the East by 15 games or more since the advent of divisional play in 1969 -- the '69 Orioles, the '70 Orioles and the '84 Detroit Tigers. No one doubts that the Blue Jays have the talent to join that exclusive group, but they still have to prove it on the field.

"I think talent-wise -- on paper -- this is one of the best teams I've had the pleasure to play on," said outfielder Candy Maldonado, who broke in with the 1981 world champion Los Angeles Dodgers and has played on five other division winners during his 11-year major-league career. "Look around. Look at the quality of the players. Not only that, but they're winners. They know what it takes.

"The main factor when you play on a great team like this is staying healthy. If this team stays healthy, I think we've got a pretty good chance to end up on top again."

And why not? The Blue Jays did more to improve than any of the teams that will try to overtake them. General manager Pat Gillick would not have been criticized for standing pat after the club came so close again last year, but he went out and signed Morris in a pre-emptive November strike that put the rest of the division on the defensive. The addition of Winfield further solidified an underachieving offensive unit that figured to improve, anyway.

The Boston Red Sox countered by signing Frank Viola. The Orioles picked up Rick Sutcliffe and Storm Davis. But it would have taken much more than that to bridge the talent gap that has developed between the Blue Jays and the rest of the division.

The projected five-man starting rotation averaged nearly 15 victories last year, five more victories than the winningest Orioles pitcher recorded in 1991. The pitching staff is so deep that when longtime ace Stieb returns from back surgery, the club probably will have to move 15-game winner David Wells to the bullpen.

If the Blue Jays have a window of vulnerability, it is in the bullpen, where Henke is suffering from a sore shoulder again and 1991 Rookie of the Year candidate Timlin is on a limited schedule after elbow surgery. Gaston may have to fill a couple of holes, but the team's injury problems make the strongest case for its likely dominance in the East.

How many clubs could lose their bullpen stopper and still trot out a pitcher (Duane Ward) who some feel is one of the most overpowering short relievers in the game? Henke has been the )) stopper since 1985, but the club hardly missed him when he was sidelined with injuries in April and again in September and October.

"They've got a lot of talent," Orioles manager John Oates said. "When you have depth, you can overcome things like that. When they lose Henke, Ward comes in and throws the hardest slider in baseball. If we lose [Gregg] Olson, it's a little different."

The Blue Jays could miss Timlin more. He was 11-6 with a 3.16 ERA in a middle-relief role that will be difficult to fill if Ward has to be the full-time stopper. Either way, there probably is enough depth to hold things together until the regulars return.

"That's our strength," Henke said. "We can sustain injuries. We lost Kelly Gruber and Dave Stieb and myself last year and still won the division."

None of this has been lost on Oates, who spent the winter wondering if his club would have enough pitching to climb back from last year's sixth-place finish. The Orioles starters have enjoyed amazing success this spring, but Oates can only dream having the kind of rotation that carried the Blue Jays into the playoffs last year.

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