Blue Jays work to get back on winning track Remaining vets mesh with top prospects

Around the AL East

February 28, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

DUNEDIN, FLA. — With expectations running high for the Orioles, The Sun is looking at the other teams in the AL East. Today's preview is the third in a four-part series:

Tomorrow: Red Sox

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Who knows the Toronto Blue Jays better than Pat Gillick? The new Orioles general manager built that club from expansion franchise to two-time World Series champion, so he knows the organization inside and out, and he knows where the team stands as it heads into a difficult season.

"I'd say they are two years away," Gillick said. "I certainly hope they're two years away. I hope they give us at least a couple of years."

There was a certain amount of humor in his brief evaluation . . . and maybe even a little uncertainty. The Blue Jays don't look like much on paper, but they have an intangible quality that the rebuilding Detroit Tigers do not. They have a small nucleus of players who were there for the back-to-back world championships and they have a large group of young players who could take off at any time.

The odds are against them. They'll go into the season as a consensus fourth-place pick, but if Carlos Delgado, Alex Gonzalez and Shawn Green hit full stride at the same time, who knows what might happen?

"I think that is probably right," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said of Gillick's two-year estimate. "That's what we're shooting for. We're hoping for that. But if some of these kids play, it might be a year."

Gaston wouldn't go so far as to say it might be this year, because he was watching from the sidelines like everyone else while the Orioles and New York Yankees were duking it out in December and January. The Blue Jays, after all the money they had spent to win in '92 and '93, did not even try to compete on the same off-season level.

The bill for all that earlier success has come due. The Blue Jays faded in '94 and finished last in 1995. They have cut their payroll dramatically and have little choice but to wait patiently while a new generation of prospects develops.

The team that finished fifth in the AL East last year lost one of the best all-around players in baseball (Roberto Alomar) to the Orioles and failed to re-sign starting designated hitter Paul Molitor, center fielder Devon White and starting pitcher Al Leiter. New general manager Gord Ash may have lessened the impact of those losses with the acquisition of veteran center fielder Otis Nixon and 16-game winner Erik Hanson, but no one would argue seriously that the Blue Jays have improved since last year.

On paper, it doesn't look good, but everyone was saying the same thing about the Boston Red Sox a year ago. They looked a lot like a fourth-place club going into the season, but the surprising performances of Hanson and knuckleballer Tim Wakefield -- who were a combined 25-5 going into August -- changed the complexion of the race.

"If Erik can pitch the way he did last year and [Pat] Hentgen can pitch like he did in '92 and '93 and [Juan] Guzman comes back, hey, it's not impossible," Gaston said. "What we're really looking for right now is a stopper and a setup guy."

In the past, that wouldn't have been a problem. Gillick would have done what he did this winter in Baltimore. He would have gone out and signed a couple of top-name free agents or traded a couple of prospects and the club would have been right there. But the Blue Jays' organization doesn't have the same kind of financial flexibility.

"One thing about managing, you get to learn the other parts of this game -- the business part of it," Gaston said. "If you don't understand that and have to deal with it, you can't do your job. They did a great job for me all those years, getting me the players I needed. Now we have a problem and I need to work that through and try to get us back to where we can win another World Series.

"Sure, I'd like to be sitting here with the 1992 or 1993 team, but that's impossible in today's baseball market. You just can't do it."

Even the club's remaining veteran players seem to understand that. Some of their high-profile teammates escaped during and after last year's collapse, but those who remain appear to be taking a positive approach to the daunting challenge of competing in 1996. Outfielder Joe Carter considers it a fair trade-off for the tremendous success he enjoyed in the early '90s.

"Look at the pros and cons," he said. "When Gillick was here, we won two world championships. That was money well spent, but we gave away so much young talent. Now, you have to keep this talent here. These are guys who are going to be there for years.

"People can talk about rebuilding, but it's all about attitude. The attitude here is good. It's, 'Hey, anything can happen in this game.' Who knows what might happen over a 162-game season if people get behind one another?"

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