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BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : Blue Jays Hope New Pieces Finish Puzzle

There’s this mountain that the Toronto Blue Jays keep climbing, reaching impressive heights but never attaining the summit.

“We want to get over the hump and we think we’re better prepared to do that now,” General Manager Pat Gillick said by phone after his signings of free agents Jack Morris and Dave Winfield, a $13-million investment in the search for a World Series formula.

The Blue Jays keep getting close, winning with a consistency unmatched in the American League East, but falling short of what Gillick calls the brass ring.

Gillick, though, continues to dabble with the chemistry, switching the elements, bringing in players with no ties to Toronto’s past.

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There was last winter’s blockbuster additions of Joe Carter, Roberto Alomar and Devon White. Now come the competitive Morris--who in the Blue Jays’ view offers more than the departed Tom Candiotti--and Winfield.

“We were not only thinking about their contributions on the field, but off the field as well,” Gillick said.

This time, however, he has created a potential power keg, uniting Morris and the equally intense Dave Stieb, who is expected to be ready for the start of the season after recent back surgery.

Morris and Stieb exchanged words during the 1990 season after Morris had called Stieb a quitter for coming out of a tied duel.

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Stieb, though, said the incident had been blown out of proportion.

“We were the top right-handers for most of the ‘80s, we were in the same division (Morris was with Detroit then) and we both wanted to win,” Stieb said. “I’m sure he doesn’t really believe I’m a quitter, and if he does it doesn’t bother me. I mean, I don’t want a wimp out on the mound anymore than he does. And if Jack Morris wins more games than I do, that’s fine.”

Gillick said he liked that tone, that the competition between Morris and Stieb “for No. 1 guy” can only benefit a team he believes to have the deepest pitching in the division.

Toronto, in fact, is in position to trade, with Juan Guzman, Jimmy Key, Todd Stottlemyre and David Wells also among the starters, and Tom Henke, Duane Ward and Mike Timlin in the bullpen.

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Winfield has been promised a chance to play right field, but so has 22-year-old Derek Bell, who was Baseball America’s minor league player of the year, based on a .346 average, 93 runs batted in and 27 stolen bases at Syracuse.

Gillick acknowledged that Winfield will see most of his service as the designated hitter.

“He had a great year with the Angels, but I think he slumped in the second half because he had played too much in the field and got tired,” Gillick said.

The signings by a team that drew more than four million fans are likely to inflame the big market-small market issue, but Gillick said the Blue Jays have a two-fold responsibility: to spend judiciously on one hand but to reward the loyalty of those fans with the best possible team on the other.

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“And right now, (the price for Morris and Winfield) is what the market dictates,” he said. “It also should be pointed out that we have no contract extending beyond 1993 (except on an option basis), so that gives us a lot of flexibility, and in the industry at this time, I think you have to be able to shift players and payroll around.”

The signings, on consecutive days, also underscored the Blue Jays determination to get over that hump. In their 15 previous years, they had signed only four free agents: Luis Gomez, Dennis Lamp, Ken Dailey and Pat Tabler.

The void: There seems to be no way for the Minnesota Twins to replace the 18 victories and 246 1/3 innings delivered by Morris, though they are blessed with several top prospects, among them Willie Banks, Denny Neagle, Mike Trombley and Pat Mahomes.

“We’re positioned as well as anyone in baseball in that regard,” General Manager Andy MacPhail said.

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And on the day Morris left, the Twins signed Pittsburgh free agent reliever Bob Kipper, which should allow the highly regarded Mark Guthrie to move into the rotation.

Morris’ loss, though, will be felt in intangible areas, his impact in the clubhouse and the pressure he took off a young staff. Kevin Tapani pitched 244 innings but does he have the temperament to become the ace, a No. 1 starter?

“I’m confident he does, but I also recognize he’s unproven (in that role),” Manager Tom Kelly said. “It’s nice to have the horse, but it’s not ice cream and candy every day of every year in this job.”

Is that frustrating?

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“I’d like to have kept the pitching intact, but that’s not my realm,” Kelly said. “Mr. MacPhail gets the players and it’s my job to mold them into the best team I can. When you talk about the Los Angeles, Chicago and Minnesota markets, you’re talking night and day.

“We can’t afford to do the things the Dodgers and Cubs can. I mean, I’d love to have Tom Candiotti or Mike Morgan. I’d love to have Frank Viola, or Jack back, but I respect and understand his decision, and I respect and understand Andy’s.”

The Twins have managed to win two World Series in five years, but they will defend their ’91 title with a young and restructured rotation.

“You don’t like pitching too many kids in a week, but that’s the way it is,” Kelly said.

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“The big thing is to convince the everyday players that they have to live with it. Obviously, there are going to be rough days, but you have to convince the regulars to stay behind them, give them support.”

Add Twins: They retained free-agent catcher Brian Harper with a two year contract but lost free agent Dan Gladden, their leadoff man and left fielder, to a two-year offer from the Detroit Tigers. Gladden provided a gritty aggressiveness, but the Twins say that Pedro Munoz, who batted .316 at Portland, is ready to play regularly and that Shane Mack can adapt to the leadoff role.

Pedro’s position: Having traded for first baseman Andres Galarraga, the St. Louis Cardinals will risk playing Pedro Guerrero in left field, surprised by the free agent’s decision to accept their arbitration offer.

Guerrero accepted after encountering a limited market that stemmed, in attorney Tony Attanasio’s view, from a backlash to the $29-million signing of Bobby Bonilla and a hairline fracture of his left leg that interrupted Guerrero’s successful season for six weeks. He had 53 runs batted in at the All-Star break but his final totals were eight homers and 70 RBIs.

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By accepting arbitration, Guerrero retains his free agency rights for next winter, when the two expansion teams will be in the bidding, and gets a crack at the reduced dimensions of Busch Stadium. The fences are being brought in eight-12 feet, which should benefit Guerrero on offense and defense. But left field?

“Hey, I saw Greg Luzinski play out there,” Manager Joe Torre said. “If we see Pedro failing, we’ll go in a different direction. I mean, we don’t plan on putting him out there so he can embarrass himself. I don’t think the sky will fall.”

Bank of Boston: The Red Sox became a shining example of the folly of giving multi-year contracts to suspect pitchers when they signed Danny Darwin and Matt Young for a combined $18.2 million last year, then watched the medical bills pile up as Darwin went 3-6 in only 12 appearances and Young went 3-7 in only 19 appearances.

Now the Red Sox are about to give $13.9 million to Frank Viola, who has bone chips in his elbow and was 3-10 in the second half for the New York Mets.

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Assuming that Viola signs Monday, as expected, the Red Sox will have multi-year commitments totaling $57.171 million to just five pitchers--Darwin, Young, Viola, Roger Clemens and Joe Hesketh. And of the five, only Clemens, Viola and Hesketh are definite starters in ’92.

Kirk’s course: Boston’s apparent signing of Viola seems to reduce Kirk McCaskill’s market to the Angels and White Sox, who are looking for a 200-inning starter to join Jack McDowell, Alex Fernandez, Greg Hibbard and Charlie Hough in their rotation.

Numbers game: Do figures lie? The Angels had better hope so. Statistician Bill James, in his 1992 STATS major league handbook, has a projections section for the ’92 season that doesn’t say much for new acquisitions Hubie Brooks and Von Hayes.

James, whose projections for ’91 were generally in the ballpark, predicts that Brooks will bat .252 with eight home runs and 42 runs batted in, and that Hayes will bat .249 with nine home runs and 44 RBIs.

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That’s 17 homers and 86 RBIs between them. Winfield hit 28 homers and drove in 86 runs.


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