Jays sprout stars, fresh from the farm

KEN ROSENTHAL

October 24, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

TORONTO -- Might as well start trying to figure out the Toronto Blue Jays' 1994 roster, if only to get an idea of which players will be torturing the Orioles next season.

Carlos Delgado? Alex Gonzalez? Rob Butler? They're familiar names only to baseball insiders, but at least one of them is sure to deliver a game-winning hit at Camden Yards.

The Jays' World Series roster features 12 players who weren't with the club in the '92 postseason. The turnover this time figures to be about half that, but significant nonetheless.

General manager Pat Gillick has said he wants to reduce the Toronto payroll from $51 million to approximately $45 million. Unlike last year, his cost-cutting plan seems obvious:

Allow left fielder Rickey Henderson and shortstop Tony Fernandez to become free agents. Buy out Jack Morris for $1 million. Then trade catcher Pat Borders.

That's three regulars and a starting pitcher, but if the Jays could recover from losing Dave Winfield, David Cone, Tom Henke and Jimmy Key, they'll surely survive this latest purge.

The perception is that Toronto simply buys pennants, but that's only half the story. The farm system not only provides quality replacements, but also young players to trade.

No one in Toronto frets when Gillick deals prospects for potential free agents -- the Jays receive high draft picks in return when the rented players sign with other teams.

That's how they had eight picks in the first three rounds of the '93 draft -- the compensation for losing Henke, Cone, Key and Manuel Lee. The bounty won't be as great next year, but the losses won't be as severe, either.

The team keeps winning, the farm system keeps getting replenished, and hardly anyone notices that Gillick has traded three everyday players under the age of 25 since August 1992.

The price for Cone was second baseman Jeff Kent and outfielder Ryan Thompson. Kent hit 21 homers for the New York Mets this season, Thompson 11 in half a season.

Outfielder Derek Bell, meanwhile, hit 21 homers for San Diego. Gillick traded him for Darrin Jackson, then traded Jackson to reacquire Fernandez, a contender for World Series MVP.

Yes, Gillick makes mistakes -- most notably, Steve Karsay for Henderson -- but his farm system isn't exactly reeling. Borders, Pat Hentgen, John Olerud, Ed Sprague, Mike Timlin -- all are home grown.

And next season?

Minor-league pitchers Paul Spoljaric, Woody Williams, Huck Flener and Aaron Small will be contenders to join Toronto's depleted staff.

Butler -- a player similar to Brett (no relation) Butler -- could replace Henderson. Gonzalez could replace Fernandez and Delgado and Randy Knorr could replace Borders.

Delgado, a left-handed-batting catcher, has won back-to-back MVP awards, first in the Florida State League (Single-A), then in the Southern League (Double-A).

Gonzalez, a Miami-born shortstop, hit 16 homers, stole 38 bases and led the Southern League in total bases last season -- despite not getting an extra-base hit in his first 23 games.

Both might need additional experience at Triple-A, but the Jays could always play Knorr until Delgado is ready and stick with veteran Dick Schofield as they wait for Gonzalez.

And, if both experiments fail, they could always make other deals.

Critics argue that the Toronto farm system isn't as strong as it once was, but how bad can it be? Remember, the first player taken by Florida in last November's expansion draft was a Toronto outfield prospect, Nigel Wilson.

The Orioles should be so lucky.

GM Roland Hemond took great pride this season when the club introduced No. 1 pick Jay Powell at Camden Yards, where he was greeted by Gregg Olson, Ben McDonald, Mike Mussina and Jeffrey Hammonds -- the No. 1 picks from 1988, '89, '90 and '92.

Under Hemond and Doug Melvin, the Orioles' farm system has indeed made dramatic improvement -- their No. 1 picks from 1976 to '86 played fewer major-league games than any other club's (23).

Still, for sheer numbers, sheer quality, the Orioles still can't compete with the Blue Jays. The Atlanta Braves are the only team that can.

So, get ready for Carlos Delgado, Alex Gonzalez and Rob Butler. They're coming soon, Baltimore, to a ninth inning near you.

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