Quiet trade could have Blue Jays making noise


OAKLAND, Calif. -- It wasn't the biggest trade that went down all week, but the deal that sent Jose Cruz Jr. to the Toronto Blue Jays for relievers Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric might -- over the long haul -- turn out to be the most significant.

No, not because it solidifies the Seattle Mariners' bullpen and puts them into better position to hold off the Anaheim Angels in the American League West. The Mariners were going to win anyway.

The deal is going to be long-remembered because it was the deal that turned around the Toronto Blue Jays.

Cruz could be one of the best outfield prospects of the decade. He came up to the major leagues this year and flashed his substantial talent and figured to be in the Mariners' outfield for the next five or six years, but the Mariners' front office panicked when the bullpen stopped closing out games and the Angels started closing in.

The Mariners pulled off back-to-back deals that left them with a pair of closers. Soon after picking up Timlin, who isn't exactly Lee Smith in his prime, they acquired Heathcliff Slocumb from the Boston Red Sox for another big prospect, catcher Jason Varitek, in a head-scratcher of a deal that may have left their bullpen too crowded and their minor-league system a little thin.

But enough about the Mariners. They'll be back in the news when Slocumb blows a two-run save opportunity in the fifth game of the Division Series. The Blue Jays suddenly look like next year's breakthrough team.

Cruz is the latest in a series of acquisitions that has accelerated the rebuilding program that the Blue Jays undertook after

winning back-to-back world titles in 1992-1993. If he is the player everyone thinks he is, he could provide the offensive boost the Jays need to become a serious threat to the Orioles and New York Yankees in the AL East.

Manager Cito Gaston was saying a few weeks ago that his club was just a couple of hitters away from being a strong contender. The Blue Jays will return next year with Roger Clemens, Pat Hentgen and -- they hope -- a healthy Juan Guzman at the heart of their starting rotation. Cruz joins a group of good, young hitters that already includes slugger Carlos Delgado and outfielder Shawn Green, and a contingent of veterans that includes Joe Carter, Orlando Merced, Otis Nixon and Ed Sprague.

General manager Gord Ash still has some work to do. He must reconstruct the bullpen and deepen both the starting rotation and the offensive lineup. But it isn't a pipe dream anymore.

If the Blue Jays were willing to spend more than $8 million a year on Clemens last winter, they probably are going to be willing to spend $4 million on Randy Myers or some other dependable veteran closer during the next off-season. Then it would just be a matter of finding someone to compete with Erik Hanson for the fourth spot in the rotation and adding some bullpen depth.

It could happen.

Black Sox II

Orioles assistant general manager Kevin Malone was right on the money when he ripped into Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf for tearing up a contending club and trading away Wilson Alvarez, Roberto Hernandez and Danny Darwin. If there were any justice in the world, Comiskey Park would be empty the rest of the season.

Reinsdorf and Florida Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga fueled the latest spike in baseball's salary spiral with a six-month spending spree that raised the level of pay for top stars more than 20 percent. Now, both of them have waved a financial flag of surrender.

Huizenga put his team up for sale because of mounting losses, and Reinsdorf put his team out to pasture while it still was within striking distance of the division-leading Cleveland Indians.

Malone, and others, raise a legitimate question. What are baseball fans supposed to think when they plunk down thousands of dollars for season tickets? They should think twice, because Reinsdorf again has proved that -- in baseball -- you don't necessarily get what you pay for.

Doing the right thing

The Orioles may have been "a little disappointed" that they could not complete a deal for pitching help by Thursday night's trading deadline, but they shouldn't be. The club is good enough to win as configured and the acquisition of anyone but a front-line starter would have created more problems than it would have solved.

General manager Pat Gillick should be applauded for setting the limits that the organization would go to acquire help, then sticking to them. The price for a veteran the caliber of left-hander John Smiley would have been too high.

If the Orioles could have gotten an ace like Curt Schilling for a couple of top prospects, that would might been different, but the club has enough starting pitching to get to the postseason and may have enough to get through it without mortgaging the future.

Bay area tug-of-war

The tug-of-war for San Francisco Bay area baseball fans has been going on for years, and it shifted decidedly in favor of the San Francisco Giants on Thursday. The big deal with the White Sox coincided nicely with the departure of 50-homer threat Mark McGwire from Oakland to put the Giants back in control of the region's baseball agenda.

Why is this important? Because the Bay area has only enough baseball fans for one team. The A's really ought to consider moving somewhere they can get a new stadium and a more focused fan following. That probably isn't going to happen in Oakland.

This is not meant as a criticism of its present fan base. It's a concession that the sports dollar only stretches far enough for two baseball teams in New York and Los Angeles. Tradition dictates that the White Sox remain in Chicago in spite of historically low attendance, but the A's can -- and should -- move to greener and yellower pastures.

McGwire's path

McGwire said weeks ago that he would veto any deal that took him out of the AL, but he changed his mind when the deal with the St. Louis Cardinals came together.

The reasons may seem obvious. He wanted to play for a team with a chance to reach the World Series. He wanted to be reunited with manager Tony La Russa and some of his teammates from the Oakland glory years.

The real reason may be more subtle. McGwire's move to the National League -- if successful -- should widen the market for his services after he becomes a free agent at the end of the season. If he had left any doubt about his ability to adapt to NL pitching, that market might have been limited to the small handful of teams in the AL that don't have a front-line first baseman and do have enough money to pay him up to $50 million for a five-year deal.

20-20 vision

Atlanta Braves pitchers Greg Maddux and Denny Neagle look like a lock to become the first 20-game winners the team has had in the same season since Tom Glavine won 22 and Maddux won 20 in 1993, but they are trying not to think about it.

"Obviously, it's crossed my mind," Neagle said. "When you get to 14 wins this early in the season, it's hard not to think about it."

Maddux insists that he tries not to think beyond the next game, an approach that has held him in good stead through big seasons and Cy Young awards.

"I was 15-3 at the break [in 1988], but by trying to win 20 I forgot how I won 15," said Maddux, who entered the weekend with 15 victories. "So I don't try and do it anymore. I learned from my mistake."

He does windows, too

Chicago Cubs rookie Kevin Orie was sitting in the dugout at Turner Field before a game recently when a group of fans began asking him whether he would go find their favorite players for autographs.

"Is there anything else I can get you? How about a steak?" Orie replied sarcastically.

"Yeah, I'll take a hot dog," replied one of them.

So, Orie went back into the clubhouse and came out with a hot dog and a drink and handed them to the shocked fan.

Long gone

The Denver Post ran a poll last week asking readers if the Colorado Rockies should adopt a new mascot for the 1998 season. The vote was 91 percent in favor of knocking the current mascot, Dinger, out of the park.

Pub Date: 8/02/97

Power tools

Here is how the Orioles and their minor-leaguers rated in the annual Baseball America "Best Tools" survey. Rankings were decided by polling league managers.

American League

Best bunter

1. Roberto Alomar

Best base runner

3. Roberto Alomar

Best pitcher

3. Mike Mussina

Best curveball

2. Mike Mussina

Best changeup

1. Jimmy Key

2. Mike Mussina

Best control

1. Mike Mussina

Best pickoff move

3. Jimmy Key

Best reliever

2. Randy Myers

Best defensive first baseman

1. Rafael Palmeiro

Best defensive second baseman

1. Roberto Alomar

Best defensive third baseman

2. Cal Ripken

Best defensive shortstop

2. Mike Bordick

Best manager

2. Davey Johnson

International League (Triple-A)

Best control

1. Rick Krivda-x (Rochester)

Eastern League (Double-A)

Best outfield arm

1. Wady Almonte-y (Bowie)

Best defensive second baseman

1. Jesse Garcia (Bowie)

South Atlantic League (Single-A)

Best power prospect

1. Ryan Minor (Delmarva)

Best defensive third baseman

1. Ryan Minor

Best infield arm

1. Ryan Minor

x-now with Orioles

y-now at Single-A Frederick


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