Gillick knows how to keep O's blue

KEN ROSENTHAL

April 02, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Let me get this straight: The Toronto Blue Jays get fed up with a mistake-prone outfield prospect and trade him for a 70-RBI man. The Orioles get fed up with a mistake-prone outfield prospect and, after failing to trade him, make him a candidate to start Opening Day.

The divergent paths taken by Derek Bell and Luis Mercedes this week stand as Exhibit A in my choice of the Blue Jays over the Orioles to win the American League East. It doesn't matter that the teams are more evenly matched than at any point in recent memory. Pat Gillick will win the pennant for Toronto.

Gillick is the general manager who keeps finding ways to put his club out front. You'd never guess the Blue Jays and Orioles ranked 1-2 in home attendance last season. Gillick works for a corporate ownership committed to winning. The Orioles' Roland Hemond labors under a private owner who is in bankruptcy court.

It all could change the moment the Orioles are sold, but for now the front office remains handcuffed. Hemond couldn't sign a major free agent last winter, and was forced to choose between Craig Lefferts and Harold Baines in spending his final $1.1 million. What happens now if a starting pitcher gets hurt?

We know what Gillick would do: Make a trade. Yes, Toronto looks weaker after losing its closer, left fielder and designated hitter, two starting pitchers and the left side of its infield. But the replacements keep coming, and if the Jays' pitching indeed proves vulnerable, Gillick will simply find himself another David Cone.

His most recent trade fits the pattern. Two years ago, Bell and Mercedes finished 1-2 in the International League batting race. This week, Gillick traded Bell and minor-league outfielder Stoney Briggs for San Diego's Darrin Jackson. The Orioles tried peddling Mercedes to the Padres, but were offered borderline players in return.

Forget that Mercedes never could have brought Jackson, and now gets to remain with a team that seemingly didn't want him. The maddening part is that the Padres are giving their high-priced players away, and the Orioles can't get them. Oh, they did pluck Lefferts for one month last season. Unfortunately, Toronto got Cone from the New York Mets.

Cone's salary was $2 million more than Lefferts', but, according to the Elias Baseball Analyst, he made the investment pay off. The Blue Jays allowed 6.03 runs per game in August, the highest single-month mark in more than 50 years by a team that reached postseason play. Cone helped stabilize the entire pitching staff. He went only 4-3 for Toronto, but two of his losses were by 2-1 and 1-0 scores.

Sure, the Blue Jays lost Cone as a free agent, but only after he won Game 2 of the American League playoffs and pitched six strong innings in the final game of the World Series. Lefferts, meanwhile, won only one of his five starts for the Orioles. As it turned out, the Orioles needed a hitter more than a pitcher, anyway.

Would a new owner change the equation? Possibly, if the sale is completed quickly, and the new owner recovers financially. The Orioles reportedly will be sold for $140 million -- a record price for a major-league franchise. What if this latest delay is resulting from Bill DeWitt's inability to meet that figure? If he gets the team, he might not have enough money left to run it effectively.

Then again, new owners in Houston, Seattle and San Francisco took bold stands in the free-agent market this winter. San Francisco, in fact, announced the signing of Barry Bonds to a $43.75 million contract four days before its new ownership was approved. Hemond presumably could act just as quickly, if he remained GM.

Here's the best-case scenario: The sale is completed later this month, the new ownership is willing to spend and the front office remains intact. The question then would become, can Hemond keep up with Gillick? It's anybody's guess, because in 20 years as a general manager, Hemond rarely has worked with abundant resources.

Gillick, meanwhile, has shed his "Stand Pat" image to become a trading demon, especially in the thick of a pennant race. He added Mike Flanagan in 1987, Mookie Wilson in '89, John Candelaria and Bud Black in '90, Tom Candiotti in '91 and Cone in '92. It's no accident the Blue Jays have won the division title three of the past four years.

Hemond countered with Keith Moreland in '89 and Lefferts in '92, and it wasn't nearly enough. Now he has built a team capable of winning the division, but only if everything goes right. Gillick operates with far greater margin for error. Until the Orioles start competing on the same playing field, he'll always have the edge.

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