Deal Them In: The 1991 Toronto Blue Jays Trade Their Way Back On Top Of The AL East

The 1991 Toronto Blue Jays were a consistent contender. They had won the AL East in 1985 and 1989 and run a close second in 1987 and 1990. What they hadn’t done was complete the job by winning a World Series or even getting there. 1991 saw them return to the top of their division, but again come up short of the Fall Classic.

After losing a close AL East race to the Boston Red Sox in 1990, the Blue Jays did a major personnel shakeup. The dealt their most productive offensive player, first baseman Fred McGriff, to the San Diego Padres. Included in that deal was shortstop Tony Fernandez, who’d been with the franchise throughout its run of success.

They also trade a good young outfielder, Junior Felix, in a separate deal with the California Angels, and parted ways with veteran outfielder George Bell, a one-time MVP and reliable starting pitcher Bud Black.

But the players they got back were pretty good too—Roberto Alomar was a future Hall of Famer at second base. Joe Carter was a multi-talented offensive threat in the outfield and would one day author this club’s most memorable moment. Each came in the McGriff deal. Toronto also acquired centerfielder Devon White in exchange for Felix.

Carter hit 33 home runs and finished with 108 RBI in 1991. Alomar, age 23, posted respectable numbers of a .354 on-base percentage/.436 slugging percentage. White was similar at .342/.455. John Olerud was a good young hitter at first base, putting up a .353/.438 stat line in 1991.

But there wasn’t enough help. Kelly Gruber experienced a sharp decline at third base, the bench was weak and Toronto finished 11th in the American League in runs scored. What saved them was a deep and balanced pitching staff.

Jimmy Key, David Wells and Todd Stottlemyre all won at least 15 games and finished with ERAs in the 3s. Juan Guzman, a talented 24-year-old, won 10 games and his ERA was 2.99. Tom Candiotti threw his knuckleball and in 19 starts posted a 2.98 ERA. Tom Henke continued to be one of baseball’s most consistent closers. Mike Timlin and Duane Ward were effective setup relievers. The Jays might not have had an individual Cy Young contender, but they had the best pitching staff in the American League.

Toronto split six games with Boston in April and both teams again moved to the top of the division. The Blue Jays reached Memorial Day just a half-game off the pace with a record of 25-19. In June, the Red Sox started to slump and Toronto got hot. They went on a 14-3 streak going into the All-Star break and took a 5 ½ game lead.

August was the Blue Jays’ turn to slump. They lost 12 of 19 games against AL East rivals in the Red Sox, Detroit Tigers and Milwaukee Brewers, all of whom were in the same division prior to 1994. By Labor Day, the Tigers were within 2 ½ games and the Red Sox had come off the mat from ten games back to close back within five.

The Blue Jays continued to muddle along for much of September. Detroit played themselves out of it, but Boston kept surging and closed to within a half-game of the lead with two weeks still to play. All the momentum was with the Red Sox.

Toronto started to move the pendulum back the other way by taking two of three in California, while Boston lost a series in Baltimore. Breathing room was regained and the penultimate weekend then proved decisive. While the Jays took two of three at home from a Minnesota Twins team that had already clinched the AL West, the Red Sox lost three straight in Milwaukee. The lead was back up to 3 ½ games and there were only six to play.

On Wednesday of the season’s final week, Toronto trailed California 5-4 in the ninth inning .Facing American Leagues saves leader Bryan Harvey, they rallied. White beat out an infield hit and scored the tying run on an error. Carter’s RBI single won it and a third AL East title in seven years was clinched.

The ALCS battle with Minnesota was seen as evenly matched, especially when Guzman won Game 2 on the road and Toronto was able to come home with the series knotted at 1-1. But the weekend middle games were a disaster. Missed opportunities led to an extra-inning loss in Game 3. Stottlemyre was rocked in Game 4. The reliable pitching staff couldn’t hold a 5-2 lead in Game 5 and the season was suddenly over. The Twins went on and won the World Series.

For the Blue Jays it was “wait till next year” one more time. But “next year” was coming for the good people of Ontario. Toronto won the AL East again 1992 and this time they went all the way, winning the World Series. In 1993, they did it again, clinching a repeat championship on a walkoff home run by Carter.