ATLANTA -- Those who are counting on free agency to dismantle the Toronto Blue Jays could be in for a rude taste of reality.
If general manager Pat Gillick's game plan works, and his track record in such matters is the best in baseball, the new world champions will be well fortified to defend their title. While acknowledging that this off-season promises to be perhaps the most interesting in baseball's recent history, Gillick doesn't foresee a change in his club's policy.
"There will be more players out there [in the open market] than ever before, but I don't necessarily think it will be strictly a buyer's market," said Gillick. "With the top players, it will still be a seller's market -- but for the 'common millionaire' I think it'll be a lot different.
"There will be a lot of those kind of guys out there to pick from, and some of them could get hurt," said Gillick, a former pitcher in the Orioles' minor-league system.
With the Blue Jays on top of the baseball world after last night's 4-3 victory over the Atlanta Braves in Game 6, it was suggested that Gillick was actually caught in the middle. In one sense he was in the most enviable position. In another, with several key potential free agents on his roster, he is faced with the most difficult job -- keeping the Blue Jays intact.
"Who do you think is envious -- the fans or the other owners?" Gillick asked. "Some of the owners might think we're in the best possible position -- if all of our guys leave, our payroll would drop below $30 million. A lot of them might like to be in that situation."
While anticipating about a "20 to 25 percent" turnover next year, Gillick defused speculation that the Blue Jays could be hurt by mass defections. "If you don't have the means, or the revenue to re-sign players you have a problem.
"But we're not in that situation. That's not to say we're going to re-sign everybody, but if we want to we can sign the majority of them," said Gillick. Among the key Toronto players eligible to file for free agency are outfielder Joe Carter, shortstop Manuel Lee, starters David Cone and Jimmy Key and reliever Tom Henke.
In addition, the Blue Jays have until early Tuesday morning to offer arbitration to outfielder Dave Winfield and injured pitcher Dave Stieb. Most likely the Blue Jays will decline in both cases, though Gillick denied a published report in Toronto yesterday than the club would decline arbitration with Winfield. "We haven't made any announcement about that," said Gillick, who doesn't have the same fear of arbitration as other clubs.
"Sometimes you get caught with some big numbers," he admitted. "But the way I look at arbitration is that it's a non-guaranteed contract for one year."
Has the club formulated its plans for the off-season? "Yes," said Gillick, "we know what we want to do." He declined to elaborate. "I can't tell you what, only that we have a plan."
The Blue Jays are very good at making plans. Gillick has been drawing them up ever since he started as the club's original GM in 1977. "We make up three plans every year -- a one-year plan, a three-year plan, and a five-year plan."
Every move is calculated on the immediate, short- and long-term future of the club. "We have an idea of what we want to do and we don't deviate from that," said Gillick.
Asked specifically if he felt the Blue Jays would sign Cone, the starting pitcher last night who has been referred to as a "hired gun," Gillick didn't hesitate. "I think we will," said Gillick, who then qualified his statement.
"I'd say if we wanted to, yes, we have a chance to sign him. But, we won't break our three-year policy. He'd have to be willing to take a three-year deal," said Gillick, who follows that policy rigidly in dealing with all players -- his or free agents.
Gillick's off-season priorities are extensive, but basically simple. "The first thing will be the two players [Winfield and Stieb] we have to decide on about arbitration," he said.
"The second would be the manager [Cito Gaston, who has worked on a year-to-year basis]. Then comes the rest."
That, of course, means dealing with free agents -- his own and those from other clubs. Gillick gave the impression that the decisions, which have already been made, were not difficult to make.
And he denied that the Blue Jays suddenly will adopt an austerity program. "Our payroll is at, or near, the top," said Gillick, "and I expect that next year's will be about the same as this year [$44 million]."