With the six-month grind known as the major league baseball season upon them, the Angels still are missing some essential equipment.
Oh, they remembered to pack Reggie Jackson’s bats. They’ll put a glove on Gary Pettis’ left hand, dress Bob Boone in the traditional catching armor and give the ball to Mike Witt. The players have been taken care of.
But what of Manager Gene Mauch, perhaps the most valuable of all Angels?
What of the man who developed callouses by wringing run after run out of an offense that placed dead last in the American League in hitting in 1985?
What of the man who came up with 155 different lineups, milked his bullpen and coaxed his starting rotation to 90 regular-season victories--one fewer than the world champion Kansas City Royals?
Mauch will open the 1986 season tonight in the Kingdome with some favorite tools of his trade in storage--namely, a 25-man roster and a fully stocked bullpen.
The cliche about baseball requiring a 25-man effort may be the moldiest in the game, but with Mauch’s Angels, it was standard operating procedure. Craig Gerber might hit behind a runner to set up the game-winning run. Rufino Linares might drive in that run with a pinch-hit sacrifice fly. Devon White might score that run on a pinch-running sprint in from third base.
Nobody sits on Mauch’s bench for very long. “We had 25 pieces last year, and we needed each and every one of them for 90 wins,” Mauch said.
But this year, Mauch will be maneuvering with one fewer pawn. The cost-efficient 24-man roster is this season’s bandwagon in baseball and General Manager Mike Port, who never met a budget cut he didn’t like, was among the first to scramble aboard.
One fewer player means one fewer angle for Mauch to play. Ultimately, the smaller roster means one fewer infielder for Mauch this season. The Angels will open with six--first baseman Wally Joyner, second baseman Bobby Grich, third baseman Doug DeCinces, shortstop Dick Schofield and utility men Rick Burleson and Rob Wilfong.
Mauch sometimes goes through six infielders by the seventh inning. What about extra innings? Are you ready for Reggie Jackson at shortstop?
“I don’t like it,” Mauch says of the 24-man roster. “But there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Mauch will keep juggling, because, as he puts it, judicious rest is needed for the six regulars in his lineup who are 35 or older. With fewer resources, expect more creativity by Mauch. Expect Darrell Miller at catcher one day, in right field the next and in left the next. Expect Grich at all the infield positions. Expect Jerry Narron to become a daily sight as a pinch-hitter.
“I’m gonna play everybody as much as I can,” Mauch said. “We have a lot of people who can play several positions. We have the potential for amazing flexibility.”
Not so with the bullpen, though. Not yet.
Two-thirds of the advertised greatest bullpen in Angel history didn’t make it to opening day.
Gary Lucas, the lone left-handed reliever among the relief corps, is on the disabled list, sidelined indefinitely with a nerve problem in his lower back. Stewart Cliburn, who won nine games and saved six as a rookie in 1985, is in Edmonton, trying to recapture the skills that provided those numbers. Injuries to his right shoulder and triceps limited Cliburn to nine innings this spring--not nearly enough time to pitch himself into shape.
That leaves Donnie Moore, and he is hardly in peak condition. He sat out the first two weeks of exhibition games with a tender rib cage and 9 innings of work haven’t been able to restore his arm to its 95-m.p.h. strength.
Moore didn’t save 31 games and win 8 others last year by fooling and finessing hitters. Mauch talks optimistically of Moore’s progress. “Maybe the next time out--bingo!--he’ll be ready,” the manager said.
And of the bullpen, which currently includes Moore, Doug Corbett, Jim Slaton, Ken Forsch and rookie T.R. Bryden, Mauch talks bravely. “They have to do it,” he said. “It’s not a case of me wanting them to do it, they have to do it and they will.”
It isn’t going to be that easy.
For one thing, the Angels’ biggest asset in the American League West--the weakness of the division--has evaporated. The AL Worst actually won the World Series last fall. Kansas City is back with an armada of arms, Oakland could be the most improved team in baseball, and Minnesota and Seattle are both improved teams.
There will be no more treading water for five months and then waking up in the middle of September in the middle of a pennant race.
Then, too, the Angels have stood pat with an aging lineup, introducing new faces only at first base--Joyner--and right field--George Hendrick.
Joyner had a fabulous spring, leading the club with 36 hits and a .385 batting average, but his first at-bat tonight will be his first in a big league game.
And the confidence Mauch and Port have firmly placed in Hendrick seems derived mainly from Silent George’s $737,000 guaranteed annual salary. Hendrick batted .203 this spring. He had four runs batted in in 74 at-bats.
This figures to be the everyday lineup the Angels will field in 1986, with age and 1985 batting average in parentheses:
1B--Wally Joyner (23, .000).
2B--Bobby Grich (37, .242).
3B--Doug DeCinces (35, .244)
SS--Dick Schofield (23, .219).
LF--Brian Downing (35, .263).
CF--Gary Pettis (28, .257).
RF--George Hendrick (36, .215).
C--Bob Boone (38, .248)
DH--Reggie Jackson (40, .252).
Is this any way to win the West?
Mauch, again speaking bravely, said: “If we play the way we can, nobody plays it better. And we will play the way we can play.”
A closer look at the 1986 Angels:
Starting Pitching--If the Angels are to contend this summer, this will be the reason. There are five starters, all capable of 15 victories. The Angels have never before enjoyed such depth in their pitching rotation.
Baseball keeps waiting for Witt, tonight’s starter, to become a big winner, as in 20 to 22 victories a year. Witt has the necessary stuff, as evidenced by his 1984 perfect game. But so far, a 15-win season has been his best.
John Candelaria’s elbow problems this spring caused Mauch to consider investing in Maalox, but bone spurs or no, Candelaria ended camp with a 2-0 record and a 1.29 earned-run average. “I expect Candy to make 35 starts and win 17, 18 games,” Mauch said.
Don Sutton won 15 games last season and is five away from No. 300, a milestone he should pass by early June. Ron Romanick and Kirk McCaskill had 5.00-plus ERAs this spring, but won 14 and 12 games, respectively, last year. Romanick appears recovered from his 1985 foot injury.
Relief Pitching--Until Lucas and Cliburn return, Mauch will rely on Corbett and Bryden to provide support for Moore in short relief.
With his left knee holding up well this spring, Corbett has been getting his best pitch, the sinker, down with consistency. He went 1-1 with a 2.25 ERA and two saves during the spring. Among the relievers, only Bryden’s 1.56 ERA was better. Bryden has a sidearm delivery that is especially effective against left-handed hitters, which makes him valuable in a bullpen lacking a lefty.
Slaton and Forsch are the long relievers. Forsch remains a trade possibility and could go as soon as Cliburn comes back.
Catching--Boone remains among the best defensive catchers in the league, but Mauch expects him to make an impact offensively in 1986. The reasoning? Boone’s increased familiarity with the wide stance he adopted last summer.
“I have watched Bob Boone for 13, 14 years and this is the most comfortable I’ve seen him at the plate,” Mauch said. “He has a good feeling with this stance and the more he goes up there, the more he likes it.” Boone batted over .300 with 11 RBIs this spring.
In reserve are Miller and Narron. Miller has passed his crash course in catching. “He improved far beyond what I realistically had a right to expect,” Mauch said. And what was that? “I was hoping he’d be acceptable. But he’s beyond that. He’s good .”
Infield--Joyner began the spring amid comparisons to Wes Parker and Mickey Vernon. By April, the names being used were Richie Allen and George Brett. His stock in the Angels’ camp has risen daily and the overwhelming opinion is that the kid is the real thing. Tonight, we will begin to find out.
The rest of the infield is status quo--Grich, DeCinces and Schofield. Schofield fought off the challenge of Gus Polidor at shortstop by batting over .350 in the spring. If he hits 100 points less during the season, the Angels will still be happy.
Early candidate for Comeback Player of the Year is Rick Burleson. Two torn rotator cuffs and four years later, Burleson is back in action, throwing with confidence and hitting with surprising consistency. His spring average was .368. Said Mauch: “The only thing I can parallel it with is after World War II, when players were gone three or four years and came back to play very well. But a lot of those weren’t 36 years old when they came back.”
Mauch expects to use Burleson at both second base and shortstop and Grich could see time at every base. “Bobby Grich is getting paid a lot of money and he intends to earn it,” Mauch said.”
Outfield--Downing is a notoriously slow starter, but his five home runs this spring led the Angels. Downing laid off the weights during the off-season and credits a “more relaxed mental approach” for his early success at the plate.
All Mauch knows is that he likes what he sees.
“When a guy’s going good, I leave him alone,” Mauch said. “I don’t want to get inside his head. I’ve seen a lot of guys get paralysis from analysis. I just want him to wing it.”
Then there’s Hendrick and his bat. The Angels want him to swing it. Mauch said: “He and I both would have liked to see him have more hits, but his approach at the plate is good and his defense has been outstanding.”
Hendrick will be given a month, maybe two, as a grace period. But don’t be surprised if you eventually see a platoon of Ruppert Jones and Miller in right. Or maybe even Reggie.
Pettis remains in center field with his Gold Glove and his contact problems at the plate. In 28 spring games, he struck out 24 times.
Designated Hitter--Some players use spring training to get their bodies in shape. Reggie Jackson used this one to get his ego in shape.
After some initial balking, Reggie is resigned to the fact that his biggest value to the club is at designated hitter. After saying that he was unwanted and being phased out, Reggie has apparently made peace with the Autrys.
With that out of his system, Reggie is back to take on the American League. At 40, he still appears fit and capable. He batted .300 with 3 home runs this spring and his 16 RBIs led the club.
Manager--1986 marks Mauch’s 25th anniversary as a major league manager. He would like to celebrate it with his first pennant, but the fates seem against him once again.
A master tinkerer, Mauch will squeeze all he can out of these Angels. But there is less for him to squeeze in 1986. If the age factor boxes Mauch in and the bullpen fails to solidify, the Angels could find themselves in a big squeeze come September.