Blue Jays add Stewart, get jump on AL East foes Toronto offsets losses with moves

December 09, 1992|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The Toronto Blue Jays spent the summer trying to shake the resurgent Orioles and the late-blooming Milwaukee Brewers. They would eventually succeed, but they have not had a lot of time to bask in the glory of the franchise's first world championship.

The realities of modern-day baseball -- free agency, spiraling payrolls and dwindling revenues -- have made it impossible to keep a great team together, so general manager Pat Gillick came to the wintermeetings with a new blueprint for success. In the past three days, he has succeeded in putting his club's two closest competitors very much on the defensive, re-signing Joe Carter, adding Paul Molitor and then, last night, signing former Oakland A's ace Dave Stewart.

The Orioles and Brewers were depending heavily on free agency to overtake the Blue Jays, but not in the way you might expect. They weren't expecting to buy the division title. They were waiting for other clubs to buy it for them.

They were hoping that the Blue Jays would be hurt badly by free agency, but it hasn't turned out quite that way. The Jays have suffered some serious losses, but Gillick has moved decisively the past two days to position the club for another run at the AL East title.

Yesterday, he signed four-time 20-game winner Stewart to a two-year contract worth $8.5 million, picked up right-hander Danny Cox for a song and traded third baseman Kelly Gruber to the California Angels for infielder Luis Sojo. The day before, he re-signed Carter and snatched free agent Molitor away from the Brewers.

The Carter deal assured that the offense would not be crippled by a free-agent exodus. The acquisition of Molitor solidified the offensive lineup and effectively ended contract negotiations with free-agent outfielders Dave Winfield and Candy Maldonado. It also delivered a very serious blow to a Brewers team that made a serious run at the division title.

The trade with the Angels did not improve the club, but it freed up some of the money that went to Stewart.

The Blue Jays also suffered a major setback yesterday when the Kansas City Royals signed right-hander David Cone to a three-year deal worth a reported $18 million, but Gillick recovered quickly and replaced him in the rotation with Stewart.

There was a net power loss in the flurry of activity, but Gillick and manager Cito Gaston have shifted the emphasis to team speed for the coming year. Top to bottom, they still figure to have the best offensive club in the division.

So, where does this leave the Orioles, who have been unable to do anything significant during the three days that general

manager Roland Hemond has been at baseball's winter carnival?

Man for man, they are no worse off than they were a week ago, but they continue to cling to the notion that they can grow into the playoffs.

The torrid pace set by the Blue Jays may be an indication of their desire to maintain the divisional status quo in the face of tremendous economic obstacles, but it has not persuaded the Orioles to alter their conservative stance on free agency.

"You don't want to get into a situation where you encumber yourself later," general manager Roland Hemond said. "The thing you have to be concerned with in a situation like this is overreaction."

That may be true, but the Orioles are a long way from overreacting to anything. They barely have shown a pulse during the past several days. Still, manager Johnny Oates remains optimistic that his club can close the gap on the Blue Jays.

"Hopefully, [Jack] Morris is a year older and they don't get [Tom] Henke and [Jimmy] Key back," Oates said. "We're hoping it's a team with a lot of offense and not much pitching. But they've still got Morris and [Juan] Guzman and [Todd] Stottlemyre."

Faint hope, indeed. The Blue Jays are on a budget. Gillick said they will not let their payroll rise above $45 million. For the sake of comparison, that's about 50 percent more than the Orioles will spend for players.

Gillick also left open the possibility that he would make further trades -- like the Gruber deal -- to free up more money for new personnel.

"That's all part of the game," Oates said. "You're hoping that a few of their free agents go elsewhere and balance out the division. We may not be the best team talent-wise, but if the Blue Jays don't get too strong, I think it will be a good race."

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