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
The answers to those three questions are the following: Yes,
Yes, and They still are. When Ash canned manager Tim Johnson on
March 16, he might have saved the Blue Jays' season. Even after
Johnson apologized repeatedly for his much-documented lies about
his Vietnam combat record, the public inquisition persisted.
Will anybody trust Tim Johnson again? Why did he lie? Is he in
counseling? With no end in sight to the flood of questions and
outside criticisms (Pittsburgh third baseman Ed Sprague, an
ex-Blue Jay, attacked Johnson's character and honesty two weeks
ago), Ash had to make a move before it was too late. "The
unsettledness and the distractions had become the issue," says
Ash. "It had become apparent it wasn't going to work."
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,
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."
Hentgen, who battled shoulder problems much of last season,
threw effectively and without pain during the spring. He gives
Toronto another topflight starter at the top of the rotation.
Former Padre Joey Hamilton (200-plus innings in three of the
last four seasons), Chris Carpenter (3-0, 2.55 in September) and
either Roy Halladay or Kelvim Escobar, both of whom are
lightning-armed, complete a starting five that could be
spectacular. The bullpen is similarly deep, though there's no
dominant closer. Robert Person will start the year as the
closer, but if he falters, there are other options, most likely
a committee of righthander Bill Risley, lefty Dan Plesac and
either Escobar or Halladay. Regardless of who that guy is, the
pitching staff overall is improved from last season.
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."
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON In the spring Wells showed he still had plenty of fire in his ample belly. "Start me against Clemens and the Yankees," he boomed, "and I'll kick their butts."
COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA
By the Numbers
1998 Team Statistics (AL rank)
1998 record: 88-74 (third in AL East)
BATTING AVERAGE .266 (10)
RUNS SCORED 816 (8)
HOME RUNS 221 (2)
OPP. BATTING AVG. .256 (3)
ERA 4.28 (3)
FIELDING PCT. .979 (11)
Picking Up Where They Finished Off
Toronto went 32-18 in its final 50 games last season, the best
record of any American League team over that span. In the
National League only Houston (35-15) had a better record over
its last 50 games. In the previous four years (not including the
strike-shortened 1994 season), three teams with the American
League's best record over their final 50 games of the season
went on to win their division title the following year.
FINAL 50 GAMES THE FOLLOWING SEASON
Year, Team W-L Pct. Year W-L Pct. Div. Finish
1998 Blue Jays 32-18 .640 1999 ? ? ?
1997 Yankees 30-20 .600 1998 114-48 .704 1st
1996 Red Sox 33-17 .667 1997 78-84 .481 4th
1995 Indians 36-14 .720 1996 99-62 .615 1st
1993 White Sox 32-18 .640 1994 67-46 .619 1st
When the game is late and close and everyone's on the edge of
his seat, new Toronto closer Robert Person isn't sure whether to
scream for joy or run for cover. He's new at this gig, having
been a starter for most of his career. "When I'm out there, I'm
sweating a lot, my stomach aches," says Person, who's pitched
only one full season in the bigs. Is this the guy Toronto wants
closing? Apparently. Despite Person's inconsistent showing in
'98 (six saves, a 7.04 ERA), the Blue Jays love the movement on
his 92-mph fastball. They were also heartened by his performance
in the Venezuelan Winter League (seven saves, a 0.79 ERA).
Projected Roster With 1998 Statistics
Manager: Jim Fregosi (first season with Toronto)
BATTING ORDER B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
LF Shannon Stewart R 58 .279 12 55 51
2B Homer Bush R 237 .380 1 5 6
RF Shawn Green L 34 .278 35 100 35
1B Carlos Delgado L-R 19 .292 38 115 3
CF Jose Cruz Jr. S-R 154 .253 11 42 11
DH Cecil Fielder R 219 .233 17 68 0
3B Tony Fernandez S-R 151 .321 9 72 13
C Darrin Fletcher L-R 183 .283 9 52 0
SS Alex Gonzalez R 178 .239 13 51 21
IF Willie Greene* L-R 186 .258 15 54 7
C Mike Matheny R 345 .238 6 27 1
OF Anthony Sanders (R)[#] R 366 .191 4 19 5
IF Craig Grebeck R 395 .256 2 27 2
STARTERS PVR W L IPS WHIP ERA
LH David Wells 34 18 4 7.1 1.05 3.49
RH Pat Hentgen 61 12 11 6.1 1.56 5.17
RH Joey Hamilton 117 13 13 6.4 1.50 4.27
RH Chris Carpenter 74 12 7 6.3 1.36 4.37
RH Kelvim Escobar 81 7 3 6.9 1.34 3.73
BULLPEN PVR W L S WHIP ERA
RH Robert Person 106 3 1 6 1.75 7.04
LH Dan Plesac 153 4 3 4 1.14 3.78
LH Graeme Lloyd 164 3 0 0 0.85 1.67
RH Paul Quantrill 294 3 4 7 1.38 2.59
RH Eric Ludwick 321 1 4 0 1.93 7.44
RH Roy Halladay (R)[#] 139 9 5 0 1.38 3.79
New acquisition (R) Rookie B-T: Bats-throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 154)
*Combined AL and NL stats [#]Triple A stats