Jays add punch to go with pitching After '97 disappointment, Toronto hopes new lineup makes powerful impression

March 06, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

DUNEDIN, FLA. — Last in a four-part series on the Orioles' American League East rivals.

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Toronto Blue Jays were supposed to be the breakthrough team of 1997, but a funny thing happened on the way to the World Series.

They forgot to score runs.

The Blue Jays had spent a fortune to add 1997 Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens -- and he was worth every penny -- but the offense was too thin to sustain the heady optimism that reigned at spring training a year ago.

This year, says rookie manager Tim Johnson, will be different, and he thinks he has the reconstructed batting order to prove it.

"We've got a good offensive ballclub," Johnson said. "We added lot of strength to our offense. We added guys who know how to drive in runs and know how to win."

He had better be right.

The arrival of big-swinging Jose Canseco and a handful of other solid veteran hitters should give the team more offensive continuity. The arrival of Johnson, who replaced longtime manager Cito Gaston in November, figures to alter the chemistry of the club on the field and off.

"We're going to be aggressive," Johnson said. "We're going to make the other teams make mistakes. I'm going to have about seven or eight guys who will have the green light [to steal]."

It all has a nice ring to it. The Blue Jays used to be one of the most exciting offensive clubs in baseball, but back-to-back world titles in 1992 and '93 gave way to a financial crunch and a rebuilding program that has yet to recapture even a glimmer of the organization's past glory.

Now, the franchise is spending again, and the level of talent has risen to the point where the playoffs are no longer a pipe dream.

The Blue Jays addressed their offensive deficit by signing Canseco, catcher Darrin Fletcher, infielder Tony Fernandez and power-hitting catcher/designated hitter Mike Stanley.

They also strengthened their strong suit, luring relief closer Randy Myers away from the Orioles with a three-year, $18 million contract to complete a solid pitching staff.

Not surprisingly, much the focus this spring has been on Canseco, whose dynamic personality and tremendous run-production potential could make him the flash point for the success -- or failure -- of the reconstructed Jays.

Somebody is going to have to step up at the plate, because the Blue Jays let Joe Carter go to the rival Orioles and do not expect young slugger Carlos Delgado to return from a winter-ball injury until June.

The club is gambling that this is the year Canseco stays healthy and re-establishes himself as one of the most dangerous hitters in the game, but it is not the first team to take such a flyer. The Red Sox were banking heavily on him in 1996, but he appeared in just 96 games. The Oakland Athletics hoped to spark attendance by putting him back in their lineup last year, but he again could not stay healthy enough to get 400 at-bats.

This year, he hopes, will be different. Canseco was one of the earliest arrivals at spring training and appears to be in fantastic condition, but even he concedes that he still has to prove he is physically capable of playing regularly again.

"I think one player can help," Canseco said, "but one guy is not going to make an immense difference. I just would like to stay healthy all year and mesh with the other components."

But it takes a healthy balance of good pitching and timely hitting to win the World Series. Canseco went to the Series three straight years with an A's club that featured a monster offensive lineup, but he said that it was the strong pitching staff -- not just the Bash Brothers -- that carried that team to success.

"We're definitely going to rely on our pitching staff," Canseco said. "We can't rely on our offense. I've seen teams that could score seven, eight or nine runs and still not win. In Oakland, we won with pitching. Those are the guys who get you over the hump by winning the 2-1 games. Your offense is going to get shut down sometimes."

This is where the playoff picture could come into focus. The Blue Jays' pitching staff ranked third in the league with a 3.93 ERA, just behind the Orioles, even though they were without starters Juan Guzman and Erik Hanson for most of the season, and traded away Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric at midseason. If everyone is healthy -- and Clemens comes anywhere close to his 1997 performance -- the Toronto pitching staff could be the best in the American League.

"We look good on paper," said Myers. "I think we match up with any team in the league. It's a matter of taking that onto the field. Everybody's a World Series contender in spring training."

Of course, people were touting the Blue Jays last year, but the supposed breakthrough team of 1997 finished last in the American League East, 22 games behind the wire-to-wire Orioles.

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