DUNEDIN, FLA. — DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The American League East race has been missing something the past few years. The Toronto Blue Jays have been watching from the sidelines while the three East Coast contenders passed around the postseason berths and enjoyed a welcome break from a decade of stiff Canadian competition.
The Blue Jays are back and the rest of the division had better take notice before somebody spirits another division title north of the border. Their return to prominence -- fueled by an unexpected off-season rebuilding effort -- could make the AL East the most exciting race in baseball.
"If it shapes up the way it looks on paper," Blue Jays pitcher Roger Clemens said the other day, "the fans should win."
The fans in Toronto already have won. The decision by Blue Jays ownership to re-open the vault and spend big money over the winter allowed the club to lure Clemens away from the Boston Red Sox and into a starting rotation that already includes 1996 Cy Young Award winner Pat Hentgen and 1996 ERA champion Juan Guzman.
There still are some holes to fill on the major-league roster, but the Blue Jays have the wherewithal to make a legitimate run at the Orioles and New York Yankees.
No one figured the Jays for a big off-season player after two years of downsizing left them a shell of the team that won back-to-back World Series in 1992 and 1993. They seemed content to develop some of their good young talent and wait to grow into a contender in 1998 or 1999.
Everything changed when general manager Gord Ash pulled off a major deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates to acquire power-hitting outfielder Orlando Merced, middle infielder Carlos Garcia and reliever Dan Plesac.
Perhaps if the Pirates had not been so willing to dump all their veteran players over the winter, the Blue Jays would have stayed with their less-drastic rebuilding program, but the deal created the momentum that made it possible to sign free-agent catcher Benito Santiago and then Clemens.
"Getting those first four or five players was like Christmas," said veteran outfielder Joe Carter, one of the few big-name holdovers from the 1993 World Series championship club. "Roger was just icing on the cake. Just his presence makes a difference. He commands respect. That gives you renewed hope.
"We don't need to talk about what needs to be done anymore. Gord Ash and [club president] Paul Beeston did all the talking this winter."
So, what changed? The Blue Jays were clearly bent on budget-cutting after a disappointing 1994 season. There was talk that the club would be sold and it seemed apparent that the front office was streamlining the once-massive payroll to prepare for that eventuality. Beeston says that isn't exactly the way it happened.
"We were forced into that situation by people leaving," he said. "We regrouped at that time, but Gordy went out and got Erik Hanson and Charlie O'Brien [before last season]. The idea in 1997 was that we'd try to improve ourselves some more."
Clemens signed a three-year contract that made him the highest-paid pitcher ($8.25 million per year) in the history of baseball, but he almost certainly would not have signed with the Blue Jays if they had not already given a strong indication that they could compete in 1997.
Manager Cito Gaston couldn't believe his good fortune. He has had to suffer through the painful decline of his once-intimidating team, and figured to struggle through at least one more year of reconstruction.
"When we made that [Pittsburgh] deal, that was great," he said. "Then we got Santiago, and Roger was a big bonus. I didn't have any idea we had that kind of money to spend. I remember the day Roger signed, Joe [Carter] called me and he was really excited. When you've got a chance to win, you've got to be excited."
The Blue Jays' starting rotation appears to be in great shape, with Hanson following the big three, and several promising youngsters competing for the fifth spot. The bullpen situation is less certain -- a couple of middle relievers are coming off arm injuries -- but Mike Timlin has emerged as a front-line closer.
The offensive lineup should be more productive than last year. Merced is a solid run-producer who could drive in 100 runs if he can stay healthy.
The club traded first baseman John Olerud over the winter, but the move opened up first base to Carter or Carlos Delgado, which in turn should create more playing time in the outfield for promising Shawn Green and Jacob Brumfield.
Ash, finally in position to emerge from the giant shadow of mentor Pat Gillick, believed that the Jays had done enough to compete even before they won the bidding for Clemens.
"We felt we didn't absolutely have to sign another pitcher," Ash said. "I thought prior to that we had made enough improvement to be competitive. Roger's importance is not just statistical. We found in 1992 and '93, if you have a player that's driven, like a [Dave] Winfield or a [Paul] Molitor or a Clemens, that becomes a key factor in all of the things that need to go right off the field to have a championship club."
Clemens, at this stage of his career, might not be worth $8.25 million a year based solely on his statistics, but the combination of his on-field potential, his clubhouse presence and his public-relations value to a team trying to win back its fans made the decision easy.
"It was very important for the fans and the team itself," Beeston said. "We brought in Dave Winfield, who had no World Series ring, and then Paul Molitor, who had no World Series ring. Now Roger is in the same situation. It makes everybody kind of step up."
Even the guys who already have been part of a championship team.
"I've got three kids at home and two rings," Carter said. "I'm looking for another one."
AL East series
With expectations running high for the Orioles, The Sun continues a four-part series on the other teams in the American League East.
Today: Blue Jays
Thursday: Red Sox
Blue Jays at a glance
Manager: Cito Gaston
1996 record: 74-88
1996 finish: Fourth
Team batting avg.: .259
Team ERA: 4.57
Projected '97 finish: Third
Spring schedule vs. Orioles: None
Regular season vs. Orioles: June 20-22, Sept. 23-25 at SkyDome. June 26-29, July 14-15 at Camden Yards.
Pub Date: 2/25/97