Following the Blue Jays in recent seasons was like eating at your favorite greasy spoon: The meals weren't delicious, but at least you knew what you were getting when you sat down. Toronto won 88 games in 1998, 84 in '99 and 83 last year—always enough to be respectable, never enough to make the postseason. Now it appears that this consistently mediocre team has taken a turn for the worse. Through Sunday the Blue Jays were 44-48, on pace for a 78-win season, and there's speculation that the club will be torn apart as the July 31 trade deadline nears.
"We are not going to fire-sale mode," says general manager Gord Ash. "We're not going to trade major league players for Class A prospects, and there's no mandate to dump salaries. If we make moves, we want major league players in return."
Not to say Ash doesn't see a need for change. In addition to unexpectedly spotty offensive production, Ash has been frustrated by what he perceives as Toronto's lack of desire. "Clubs that win just want it more," he says. "You can't tell me that, position by position, the Red Sox [at 53-38, 9� games ahead of the Blue Jays] have more talent than we do."
The first player to go was 27-year-old third baseman Tony Batista, an All-Star in 2000 who was hitting .207 with 13 home runs when Toronto placed him on waivers June 21. (The Orioles claimed him four days later.) Ash says he had concerns about Batista's declining production and felt that "he wasn't a good worker." As for the $12 million Batista was due to collect over the remainder of the four-year deal he signed before the 2000 season? "The financial benefit was a by-product of the move, not the reason for it."
Ash says he's not shopping outfielders Shannon Stewart (.319) and Jose Cruz Jr. (.291), but he concedes that several teams have expressed interest in them. Same goes for righthanders Joey Hamilton (5-6, 5.32 ERA) and Esteban Loaiza (5-9, 5.52), veteran starters who have struggled this season. The two pitchers are the most likely trade bait. "Lots of teams want veteran pitching," says Ash. "There are opportunities to make a move."
Carew's Coaching Challenge
How Many K's in Milwaukee?
Like a great conductor leading a high school band, Rod Carew toils as batting coach of the free-swinging Brewers, a team that has been flailing this season with alarming futility. At week's end Milwaukee batters had struck out 769 times, by far the most in the majors, and were on pace for 1,384 whiffs, which would obliterate the big league record of 1,268 set by the 1996 Tigers.
Over 19 years with the Twins and the Angels, Carew was one of the best contact hitters in history and won seven American League batting titles. He struck out 1,028 times, an average of only 54 per year. As a Milwaukee coach, though, he's dealing with a team that ranked second in the majors in strikeouts last season and had already fanned 10 or more times in a game on 29 occasions this year. "You can't make someone a clone of yourself," says Carew, who spent eight years as Anaheim's hitting instructor before joining Milwaukee after the 1999 season. "I work with what these players have."
What the Brewers have is an offense that wins mostly with home run binges. The lineup includes some of the biggest swingers in the game—first baseman Richie Sexson, rightfielder Jeromy Burnitz, shortstop Jose Hernandez and leftfielder Geoff Jenkins—who had combined for 71 of the team's 121 dingers. They also accounted for 367 strikeouts. Sexson alone had been punched out 106 times, more than any other player this year, and was on track to whiff 191 times, which also would be a season record.
"At times they try to do a bit too much," says Carew, who has been trying to get his charges to cut down on their swings and to use their hands more instead of lunging at the ball. "A couple of guys on this club feel that if they don't hit their share of home runs, we're not going to win."