Pitching-strong Blue Jays shed image as green expansion club

Although sometimes it seems like it is never going to happen, expansion baseball franchises, like kids, eventually do grow up and prosper. The first permanent sign of maturity manifested itself in the Toronto Blue Jays in 1982, when Manager Bobby Cox's team won 24 more games than it had the previous season. Now the club is a legitimate contender in the American League East race.

Toronto's pitching staff has the league's lowest earned-run average, a fact made possible by a bullpen that is either performing over its head or is simply better than anyone expected.

''Pitching is definitely our strongest department and I don't think that is going to change,'' said Cox, who has three of the best young arms in baseball in starters Dave Stieb, Jim Clancy, and Luis Leal. In fact, there is every indication that the Blue Jays may have found a fourth in Jim Gott, who is just beginning to capitalize on his potential.

''What we don't know yet is how well the rest of our ball club is going to hold up,'' said Bobby, whose team set a club record with 18 wins in May. ''But with the scouting staff and the farm system that we've built, we know we've gone about things in the right way. Trades help, of course, but really the only sane way to go in this business is to grow your own players.''

Asked if that meant that Toronto was basically not interested in signing free agents, Cox replied: ''If we thought there was a free agent out there sometime who could win the pennant for us or move us up a couple of notches in the standings, we'd probably gamble and spend the money.

''But any organization that simply goes out and finds a big name so that it can show its fans a new face, is making a mistake as far as I'm concerned. Oh, he might put some extra people in your ballpark for a while, but ultimately it's where your team finishes that counts.''

Cox, who managed in the Yankees' farm system for six years before piloting the Atlanta Braves for four seasons, says he has never patterned himself after anyone, although he likes the way Boston's Ralph Houk handles pitchers.

Basically, Toronto has a young but talented infield in first baseman Willie Upshaw, second baseman Damaso Garcia, third baseman Garth Iorg (who often shares the position with Rance Mulliniks), plus shortstop Alfredo Griffin. However Griffin, whose bat has never sparkled like his glove, probably will be traded by the start of next season.

The Blue Jays are convinced that they have an even greater prospect in their system in 21-year-old Tony Fernandez, who can put handcuffs on lightning in the field, and was the International League's all-star shortstop in 1982. Beside that, Fernandez has always hit for average.

Toronto has four outfielders with the credentials to play regularly in Jesse Barfield (who Cox says is capable of 30 home runs), Barry Bonnell, Lloyd Moseby, and Dave Collins, who came over in a trade with the Yankees. In addition to Barfield, the Blue Jays are also extremely high on Moseby, who has suddenly learned to hit the ball well to all fields.

While Cox would no doubt like to improve the offensive side of his catching situation, he does have two hard-nosed types back there in Buck Martinez and Ernie Whitt. Between them last year they drove him 79 runs.

Even though Toronto's pinch-hitters tied a league record in 1982 with 71 hits , the 16 different designated hitters Cox experimented with had a combined average of just .233.

That is why the Blue Jays traded for two experienced veterans during the winter, getting Cliff Johnson from the Oakland A's and Jorge Orta from the New York Mets, who had previously sent pitcher Pat Zachry to the Dodgers for him.

Johnson, who has power plus a history of hitting well in his first season with a new team, often has streaks when he eats left-handers for breakfast. Orta , who prefers to finesse opposing pitchers, had an off year with Los Angeles in 1982. Jorge apparently misplaced his rhythm as a hitter, which he thinks may have been due to the fact that the Dodgers gave him only 115 at-bats.

With Cox handling things on the field and vice-president Pat Gillick operating like a general manager in the front office, Toronto is fast becoming an organization as well run as the Dodgers.

''What we're trying to do is use our farm system to build to a level where we're almost always going to be contenders,'' explained Gillick, who has not fallen into the trap of trying to rush his young players.

Of course at this point, Toronto is no longer in the position of having to sell its fans the sizzle while it sends out for steak.

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