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Ron Guidry, the Yankees' fireballing hurler, was almost a...

By DAVID TUCKER, UPI Sports Writer

TORONTO -- Ron Guidry, the Yankees' fireballing hurler, was almost a Blue Jay seven years ago. He would have been out of place in Toronto then, but very much at home on the Blue Jay staff this season.

He might even be closer to first place.

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The Jays once were within a simple 'Okay' from former club president Peter Bavasi of a deal that would have brought the Louisiana left-hander to Exhibition Stadium for then 33-year-old Bill Singer.

Singer opened the season for the Jays in the snow in 1977. By June of that season he was gone because of arm problems, never to pitch again, while Guidry was about to end a long apprenticeship in the Yankee farm system in remarkable style.

It has taken a long time, but the Blue Jays' are leaving the nest for their seventh American League campaign with a starting pitching rotation widely rated among the best in baseball. With Dave Stieb, Jim Clancy and Luis Leal established as one of the best Big Three in the American League, the Guidry trade is one of those expansion-year foozles that is easier to live down.

Manager Bobby Cox sees the Jays' season in simple arithmetic. They need to be 12 games better than their 1982 record of 78-84 to become a contender.

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It took the Jays six years to improve by 24 victories on their opening season total of 54, so the other AL teams seem in no great danger of a Canadian World Series between Toronto and Montreal, unless of course you listen to Cox for very long.

'We don't fool ourselves. That ground is not easy to make up but we have the talent, better hitting, and the sort of pitching staff that keeps us close. I put our pitching against anybody's.

'What we are shooting for is first place this year,' said Cox, starting his second season at the helm in Toronto. 'We are serious and we are aiming high.'

Cox gets little argument around the major leagues with his contention that Stieb (17-14, 3.25 ERA last year) is probably the best right-hander in baseball or his claim that few clubs can match the trio of Stieb, Clancy (16-14, 3.71), and Luis Leal (12-15, 3.92).

Blue Jays' vice-president Pat Gillick regretted that lost Guidry deal for a long time -- 'it's the worst deal we didn't make,' he says. But the former Yankee executive seems to have a strong sense of just what is worth hauling up from George Steinbrenner's tumultuous talent pools.

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Damaso Garcia, the Jays' .310 hitter with a flurry of team records and post-season honors, was an acquisition from the Yankees three years ago. At the winter meetings Gillick loaded up with a young occasional starter of strong promise, Mike Morgan, and speedster Dave Collins, who will start in left field when the Jays open the season Tuesday in Boston.

Pitching coach Al Widmar regards Morgan one of those big 'MAYBES'. The right-hander, explosive in pitching style and temperament, will start the season as the Jays' long reliever and fifth starter.

Jim Gott, originally slated for that role, won the right to be fourth man in the rotation on the strength of a strong showing in the Grapefruit League.

Cox may gloat over his starters but if the Jays are to be as serious about baseball in July as they are in April they must worry about their relief corps, which offers as its stopper Joey McLaughlin who was 8-6 with a 3.21 ERA and eight saves in 1982. Fans peering over their shoulder to see a solid southpaw warming up in the bullpen may develop severe neck strain.

Collins is your typical Yankee -- happiest elsewhere. In the Bronx he was shuffled through various positions, spent a lot of time on the bench and hit .253, which was .21 points under his career average. Fast and aggressive on the bases, he combines with Garcia to provide the Jays with a potentially brilliant 1-2 punch.

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Enter Cox again: 'With Collins batting behind him (Garcia), they could steal 100 bases between them and do a heckuva job setting the table for the meat of the order.'

Right fielder Jesse Barfield will attempt to build on a sound rookie season in which he hit .246 with 18 HR and 58 RBI. The rifle-armed Barfield may platoon with left-hander Hosken Powell.

One of the Jays' early promises, Lloyd Moseby, will have what is probably his last chance in center field. Blue Jay patience has given Moseby three years to become the real thing. Last year he drove in 52 runs.

Versatile Barry Bonnell is a man without a position, despite a .291 batting average last season.

Shortstop Alfredo Griffin was co-winner of the Rookie of the Year award in 1978 but struggled with terrible fielding problems and a batting average that steadily diminished. With strong competition from rookie Tony Fernandez, he seemed to blossom again this spring.

The team's catching is adequate with Buck Martinez and Ernie Whitt, who combined to hit 21 homers and drive in 79 runs last year. Third base, endowed with Garth Iorg and Rance Mulliniks (5 home runs as a duo), is another spot management would like to shore up.

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The club has added some power with a pair of oldsters in the DH slot. Cliff Johnson, who has found the left field wall in Toronto an inviting target since the Blue Jays joined the league, will face left-handed pitching. Jorge Orta will add some mus:le against right-handers.

There's an awful lot of optimism in Toronto, some of it even heady and maybe ill advised. But the Jays never looked this good on paper and they never talked this tough before either.

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