Even With Dan Petry, Angels' Top Priority Has to Be Keeping Witt

So Gary Pettis, owner of Gold Gloves and lead bats, is gone. So the classy Dan Petry, a combined 14-17 the last two seasons, is here.

So Don Sutton, a 300-game winner, and Doug DeCinces, a team MVP candidate as recently as 1986, are unemployed. So Joe Johnson, made very available by the Toronto Blue Jays, is not, courtesy of the Angels.

So Johnny Ray will have to be dragged screaming from second base to left field. So Charles Theodore Davis (sorry, Chili, had to do it) will trot happily to center field.

So what?

Tell me that Pettis has been traded to the Detroit Tigers for Petry, Sparky Anderson's exaggeration teacher and the Domino's Pizza Noid, and I still yawn.

Roll out all the encouraging scouting reports you want on Johnson and my eyelids grow heavy with sleep.

Say once again what a terrific outfield the Angels will have with Ray, Davis and Devon White, and I stare blankly into space.

Only one thing matters to the 1987, 1988, 1989, and so on and so forth, Angels. I'll give you some hints:

He's tall.

His middle name is Atwater.

He has a curveball that sends grown men back to the dugout pondering exciting new careers in aluminum siding.

He could beat Mr. T in a scowl-off.

His favorite truck is made by Brinks.

. . . That's right, the one, the only, Mike Witt.

With Witt, the Angels have a chance to finish in the vicinity of first place in the American League West. Without him, they have a chance to revisit their new friends, the Texas Rangers, in last place.

Mike Port, executive vice president, has said the Angels' main priority is to persuade Witt, a free agent, that his signature would look wonderful on a new Angel contract. Now it's just a matter of decimal points and commas and zeros. Lots of zeros.

Witt can afford to be choosy. The Angels want him, as does any team with a need for pitching. According to my calculations, that would include all 26 franchises and possibly the Taiwanese Little League team--that is, if it decides to go to a fifth starter.

"We've done a lot for Mike Witt and he's done a lot for us," said Manager Gene Mauch during the recent winter meetings in Dallas, "but we probably need him more than he does us. I'm sure his agent is approaching it that way."

Wouldn't you? Witt is more dependable than a Boy Scout. Barring injury, Witt is good for 16 to 20 victories a season, 185 to 210 strikeouts, 250 to 260 innings pitched, a couple of shutouts and double-digit complete games. He almost never misses his turn in the rotation, rarely complains and often pitches against the opposition's No. 1 starter.

Mind you, his postgame interviews with local writers have all the warmth of the Kitchen Debates. He tends to treat questioners with suspicion, as if they were going to steal his Atomic Balm when he wasn't looking. Then again, the Angels didn't hire Witt to be Dick Cavett, did they?

Imagine the Angels Witt-less. Petry or Kirk McCaskill becomes the Opening Day pitcher. For those keeping count, Petry has gone from 19-11 in 1983, to 18-8, to 15-13, to 5-10 and elbow surgery, to 9-7 and a 5.61 earned-run average in 1987. Meanwhile, McCaskill, who was 17-10 with a 3.36 ERA in 1986, was forced to undergo elbow surgery in April and never regained his previous form.

All this prompts three questions:

--Will a return to familiar surroundings revive the career of Petry, a former star at El Dorado High?

--Has McCaskill fully recovered from elbow surgery?

--Is there a way for Port to beg and still retain his dignity?

The rest of the Angels' pitching staff is interesting enough. There's Willie Fraser, the likely No. 4 starter, should Witt return. The final place in the rotation will be occupied by Johnson, Mike Cook, Jack Lazorko or Chuck Finley. Johnson finished his 1987 season in Syracuse. Cook is doing well in the Dominican Winter League, which is the equivalent of Double-A competition. Lazorko presumably is learning new ways to win a Gold Glove. Finley is learning to become a starter. The transition's progress is said to be fair to good.

And there you have it, the Angel starting pitching staff. Unless Witt re-signs, Angel fans also will become close and personal pals with Greg Minton, Donnie Moore, DeWayne Buice and Bryan Harvey. Those are the Angel relievers.

All indications point toward a happy ending. Port wants Witt back. Mauch wants Witt back. Witt wants Witt back. What could be more simple? All that's left is prying about $1.3 million or so from owner Gene Autry's wallet.

I know it isn't my money. If I had $1.3 million, I'd probably buy a new tape deck for my car and put the rest in savings. But I'm not trying to win the American League pennant, either.

So sign Witt and rest easy. He's money in the bank.

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