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Toronto Blue Jays
Roger who? In tumultuous Toronto, championship hopes are alive and Wells
By Jeff Pearlman
An excerpt from "How I Spent My Winter," by Blue Jays general manager Gord Ash:
Let's see. I let Jose Canseco, who last year had his most productive season since 1991, leave for Tampa Bay as a free agent. I traded Roger Clemens, maybe the most dominant pitcher since Sandy Koufax, to the Yankees, our most bitter American League East rival. I watched another division foe, the Orioles, sign Albert Belle, one of the game's most dangerous sluggers. I learned that our home ballyard, some $15 million in debt, had filed for bankruptcy protection. And I fired our lying s.o.b. of a manager -- in the middle of spring training!
Poor Gord has to be wondering just what the hell happened here. Didn't Toronto emerge from the ashes last summer to finish only four games behind a far more talented Boston team in the wild-card race? During the off-season, wasn't this young, exciting team the trendy pick to be a pennant contender in 1999? Didn't the Jays appear to be on the right track -- even after the Clemens trade?
New skipper Jim Fregosi, who last managed in 1996, with the Phillies, may rub some folks the wrong way with his ornery, old-school personality, but he's a savvy baseball man who should get the most out of one of the game's best young lineups. Leftfielder Shannon Stewart, 25, had a .377 on-base percentage and stole 51 bases last season. Centerfielder Jose Cruz Jr., 24, hit 26 homers as a rookie in 1997 but struggled so much at the start of last year that he was sent down to the minors. After returning to the big league club in late July, Cruz finished strong and should again hit in the neighborhood of 30 homers. Homer Bush, 26, who was part of the blockbuster four-player trade in February that sent Clemens to the Yankees and David Wells to Toronto, has hit above .298 in five of his eight professional seasons. He fills one of the Blue Jays' glaring holes from 1998 when they were without a solid second baseman. (To the family and friends of Craig Grebeck, we can only say, "Sorry.")
The centerpieces of the lineup, however, are rightfielder Shawn Green and first baseman Carlos Delgado, both of whom flourished under Johnson. Last year the underrated Delgado established himself as one of the game's fiercest bashers, and Green, in 630 at bats (201 more than his previous career high), became the Jays' first 30-30 man. For much of his first four seasons in the majors, Green had wasted away under Johnson's predecessor, Cito Gaston, who didn't care for Green's defense or that he struck out so often. "Shawn should've been playing every day three years ago," says shortstop Alex Gonzalez, 25, yet another of Toronto's talented youngsters. "Everyone seemed to know that except the people in charge."
Whether Delgado and Green can match their '98 output depends largely on the production of the replacements for Canseco at DH. Ash signed old-timers Cecil Fielder and Geronimo Berroa, once-fearsome sluggers whose best days are far behind them. Only one of those veterans (likely Fielder) will go north with the team, but if that player can hit, say, 20 to 25 dingers, the middle of the Toronto lineup will still be very dangerous.
As potentially explosive as this lineup is, the Blue Jays' pitching is the team's real strength. Even without Clemens, Toronto's staff rivals the Yankees' as the league's best. Wells not only gives Fregosi a new ace but a lefty to insert into an otherwise all-righthanded rotation. There have been questions about Wells's desire -- he was distraught for days after his trade to Toronto -- but the 35-year-old free spirit vows to provide some clubhouse fire for a young team that could use more of it. "The last few seasons there was no one in our clubhouse like Boomer," says pitcher Pat Hentgen, recalling Wells's first stint with the Jays, from 1987 to '92. "We need the attitude."
So too are the Blue Jays. "A lot of winning is confidence," says ex-Yank Bush. "None of those guys with the Yankees were arrogant or cocky. But they believed they could win. That's the attitude we need here."
Issue date: March 29, 1999
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