Whether their position near the top of the American League East is permanent or temporary, the Toronto Blue Jays have an early Cy Young Award candidate in 25 -year-old right-hander Dave Stieb, a converted outfielder who throws strikes. ''Stieb comes right at the hitters and he has overpowering stuff,'' said Toronto manager Bobby Cox, after Dave had shut out the powerful Baltimore Orioles for his eighth win of the season. ''I doubt if there is a pitcher in the American League who throws a better slider.''
Of course Stieb has been heard from before. Dave was 10-4 after last July's All-Star break and 17-14 on the season - statistics that are doubly impressive when you remember that he pitched for a a team that finished tied for last place. He also ended up leading the league in shutouts (5), complete games (19), and innings pitched (2881/3). His strikeout ratio to bases on balls was almost double, and his 3.25 earned-run average wasn't bad either.
The amazing thing is that Stieb, who originally thought he could make the majors as an outfielder, didn't pitch at all in high school. He took to the mound at Southern Illinois University only as a favor to his coach, Richard (Itchy) Jones, who was hard pressed to find a starter one day because of injuries to his pitching staff. When the Blue Jays signed Stieb as an outfielder in 1978 and cringed when he hit only .192 in 35 minor league games, they decided to send him to the Florida State League that winter to learn how to pitch.
''To us Stieb looked like a natural, so we didn't monkey with his delivery or his mechanics,'' explained Bobby Mattick, Toronto's executive coordinator. ''But we did teach him how to throw a changeup and tried to impress upon him the importance of control. While we didn't have any doubts that he'd eventually make the big leagues, we never thought he'd be so good so soon. The day in 1979 when Stieb made his major league debut with the Blue Jays he had pitched a total of only 216 innings, including those during his college career.''
''I think maybe the main reason I've been sucessful as a pitcher, other than having a naturally strong arm, is because I threw so much batting practice my first two years in college,'' Dave told me. ''I think always trying to throw strikes probably did wonders for my control.''
With Stieb leading the way, the Toronto staff has compiled the lowest ERA in its division so far this season and recently turned in a club record three straight shutouts - one by Dave, one by Jim Clancy, and the third a combined job by Luis Leal and Randy Moffitt.
Good, green players - one a Red
Two rookies you might like to keep your eyes on are outfielder Gary Redus of the Cincinnati Reds and shortstop Julio Franco of the Cleveland Indians.
Redus, who hits with power and started fast for Cincinnati this spring and then missed three weeks with a leg injury, is back hitting home runs again. Gary seems to do his best work when Mario Soto is pitching for the Reds. In games in which Soto has started, Redus is 11-for-27 with 5 home runs, 9 runs scored, and 10 runs batted in. Four of those homers were directly responsible for Cincinnati victories.
Franco, who has been as spectacular in the field as Redus has been at the plate, has the range of a Boeing 747. ''I let our veteran second baseman, Manny Trillo, tell Franco where to play the hitters, and between them they are as good a doubleplay combination as there is in the American League,'' said Indians manager Mike Ferraro. ''Julio can hit, too. I'm batting him low in our order right now, because I don't want to put pressure on him. But eventually Franco will lead off for us.'' Tidbits from around the majors
* The San Francisco Giants reportedly offered outfielder Jack Clark to the Pittsburgh Pirates recently for outfielder Lee Lacy and catcher Tony Pena. Pittsburgh wasn't interested. The Chicago White Sox, meanwhile, rejected a New York Yankees offer of shortstop Roy Smalley for pitcher Dennis Lamp. Chicago could use some help at shortstop.
* The Kansas City Royals lead the American League in errors with 46 in 29 games.
* Problems on the mound continue to burden the Detroit Tigers. Their pitchers have walked hitters with the bases loaded six times, allowed five runs to score on wild pitches, and thrown 40 gopher balls.
* Third baseman Wayne Gross of the Oakland A's leads the latest trivia news by having pitched 21/3 scoreless innings recently in a game in which the Minnesota Twins smashed Oakland 16-5. ''I couldn't belive it when manager Steve Boros asked me to warm up,'' said Gross, who frequently throws batting practice for the A's. ''I didn't know what I was going to throw and I guess the Twins didn't either, because nobody exactly dug in against me.''
* First it was Nolan Ryan of the Houston Astros; now it is Steve Carlton of the Philadelphia Phillies who has passed Walter Johnson's career strikeout mark of 3,508.
* When fans are not talking about the fast start of the Texas Rangers this season, they are talking about their best home-run threat, outfielder Lance Parrish. Lance, a passive spring hitter who usually doesn't get going until the second half of the season, is currently among the most productive power hitters in the American League.
* Asked if he's noticed anything unusual about the American League East pennant race so far, Minnesota Twins manager Billy Gardner replied: ''Well, I was sure the Yankees would open much stronger than they have, although they can still win their division, of course. But in my opinion the Yankees don't come out on the field like they cared that much.''