DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The busy off-season in Baltimore did not go unnoticed in Toronto, but the defending world champion Blue Jays aren't ready to concede the American League East title just yet.
They know that the Orioles stayed in the race the past two years with far less talent than took the field in yesterday's 6-5, 10-inning loss to the Blue Jays in the Grapefruit League opener at Grant Field. They know that the winter spending spree was directed entirely at breaking their divisional dynasty. They know all this, and they still seem confident that they can win the AL East for the fifth time in six years.
"We know they have a good team," said All-Star second baseman Roberto Alomar, "but you can have a good team on paper and you still have to do it on the field. They still have to prove that they can win this division."
No disrespect intended. Alomar was the guy who came to Camden Yards for the All-Star Game last year and said that the Orioles were the team that the Blue Jays were most worried about going into the second half of the 1993 season. The Orioles ended up in a third-place tie, but they stayed close enough long enough to make the winter improvement program unsettling for the rest of the division.
"It's going to be a great division," Alomar said. "Baltimore wants to win and the only way to win is to spend some money and get great players. They showed they wanted to win. Hopefully for them, the guys they signed will do the job."
If the addition of Rafael Palmeiro, Chris Sabo and Sid Fernandez (among others) pays off, the Blue Jays could have their hands full in September. They have been conspicuous by their front-office inactivity since the World Series, but they still have the league's best offense.
"The Orioles have a good club," said veteran pitcher Dave Stewart, who will make his first exhibition appearance today against the National League champion Philadelphia Phillies. "Besides Cleveland, they may be the most improved club in the league, but somebody's still got to beat us."
Stewart isn't selling the Orioles short, but he isn't sure that all of their off-season moves will have the desired effect. Palmeiro is a proven hitter, but Stewart wonders if Fernandez can overcome a series of physical setbacks to make a major impact in the starting rotation.
"I've known Sid since we were with the Dodgers," Stewart said. "He's outstanding when he's healthy. If he stays healthy, he's going to help them, but the thing about this league is, there are no pinch hitters [for the pitcher]. If he can't stay healthy in a league where there are, he could have trouble in a league where you have to stay out there."
No one in the Blue Jays' clubhouse disputed the improved quality of the Orioles' offensive lineup or the renewed commitment to winning that the Baltimore organization has displayed under the new ownership group headed by Peter Angelos.
"It's good to see them go out and spend the money to be successful," said World Series hero Joe Carter. "For the last few years, that's something they didn't have. They are a much better team now. They bring more competition to us. . . . and that's OK, because we like the competition."
There may be plenty of it. The New York Yankees have upgraded their roster significantly; the Detroit Tigers have added a couple of front-line players to a team that was competitive last year; and the Boston Red Sox also have improved. But no one else in the AL East devoted the time and money that Angelos spent to give Baltimore its most legitimate contender since the 1983 world championship team.
"No question, what they did this winter was very impressive," designated hitter Paul Molitor said. "They've been flirting the last couple of years and they were thinking, 'We came close, let's do what we can right now. They have done a lot of things to get their house in order."