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Acquiring Minds : A Look the Men Who Have Engineered the Deals That Have Helped Shape the Dodgers and Angels : Port Favors Caution in Belief Change Is Rarely for Better

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mike Port can coexist with the concept of free agency, and he can buy the farm, but after five years on the job, the Angels’ general manager remains uncomfortable with one aspect of his trade: Trades.

“I know there are some people who are inclined, by nature or personality or whatever, to wheel and deal,” Port says. “But with all due respect, Mike Port is not the story. If we could go all year without one mention of Mike Port in the papers, and without us making one deal, and then have us come away with the world’s championship, that would be the ideal situation.”

Port also says: “Your first priority is to put the best club you can on the field. If we could do that through our developmental system only, we would stick with that.”

And: “We will not make trades for the sake of making trades.”

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And: “We don’t get 10 runs’ credit for making a deal.”

This would help to explain a lot.

For instance, why Port refused to make an in-season trade during 1988 and ’89 and attempted to patch gaping holes with organizational tape named Junior Noboa, Chico Walker, Jack Lazorko and Terry Clark.

Or why Port remained on the sidelines in the middle of a tight American League West race while the Oakland Athletics seized the moment and Rickey Henderson.

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Or why Port backed off potential deals for Tim Raines, Lenny Dykstra and Ellis Burks, and settled on Luis Polonia as the man who would bat leadoff.

Or why Port has refused to break up the Dick Schofield-Jack Howell-Devon White axis and why he held on to Gary Pettis and Mike Witt long after their market values peaked.

Let’s make a deal? Given a choice, Port would rather not. To make a trade is to engage a risk--and Port has never been big on the unknown. Back him into a corner, leave him with no other options, and Port will deal. But usually as a last resort, generally for limited stakes and always after he has consulted his manager, his assistant general manager, his advance scout, his scouting director, his minor league director, Baseball America, the Sporting News and the Solunar Tables.

“He is meticulous,” says Bill Bavasi, the Angels’ director of minor league operations. “He’s a detail guy. . . .

“I know he’s got the reputation for being cautious, but I don’t think it’s caution as much as it’s the aggressiveness to make the right trade. ‘Don’t hurt the club, do what’s right for the club.’ With Mike there’s a certain aggressiveness to always make, if not the perfect deal, then the right deal.”

This makes any analysis of Port’s trademanship difficult. Does Port make bad trades? It depends on your definition. Port’s trades almost never hurt the Angels. Because he operates in low-risk territory--little ventured, little gained--his maneuvers usually show a profit. He acquires Bert Blyleven for three minor leaguers. He picks up Johnny Ray for two minor leaguers. He gets Polonia for Claudell Washington and Rich Monteleone.

But does Port make impact trades? Or enough of them? Look at the American League West standings.

Since replacing Buzzie Bavasi as Angel general manager after the 1984 season, Port has made one trade that involved a member of his starting lineup--Gary Pettis, after the 1987 season. He has not traded away a starting pitcher, unless you count John Candelaria, who took himself out of the rotation in 1987 and then burned the bridge.

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Port deals with what he calls “developmental surplus"--utility infielders, long relievers, marginal minor leaguers, Angels on the fringe. That can bring in Lance Parrish and Dan Petry, but it won’t get you Rickey Henderson or Joe Carter.

Port’s most significant player moves and free-agent signings have included:

1985

Signed Donnie Moore as a free agent. Port had barely settled into the chair behind Buzzie Bavasi’s old desk when relief ace Don Aase and outfielder Fred Lynn announced they were both jumping to Baltimore. All Port was left with was a selection in the pre-1985 compensation draft, which he used to pluck Moore off the Atlanta Braves’ roster.

Forget Dave Henderson and the disintegration that followed. For two seasons, Moore set new standards in Angel relief pitching--saving a club-record 31 games in 1985 and 21 in ’86, including the AL West championship clincher.

If only the book had shut then. Grade: A-

Signed Ruppert Jones as a free agent. A spare part on the 1984 World Series champion Detroit Tigers, Jones was the $330,000 solution to Lynn’s departure. Jones lived life on his own private space shuttle--and in his orange jumpsuits and tinted goggles, he was dressed for the part--but during those occasional earthbound stretches, he could be a productive player. Jones hit 21 home runs in 1985 and added 17 in a platoon shift with George Hendrick in ’86. Grade: B

Traded Mike Brown, Pat Clements and Bob Kipper to Pittsburgh for John Candelaria, George Hendrick and Al Holland. Port’s first trade was also his biggest, which illustrates just how badly he wanted Candelaria in August of 1985.

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Ink on paper says this was a three-for-three deal. Reality pegs it closer to five-for-one. Not only did Port have to part with three prospects to get his man, he had to agree to absorb the bloated contracts of Holland and Hendrick, which was Pittsburgh’s main incentive for making the trade.

Candelaria paid off with a divisional title in 1986, Holland lasted barely two months, and Hendrick played out the remainder of his contract with the Angels--three long, expensive and exasperating seasons. Joggin’ George, you could’ve been someone, but hustling was just too uncool.

Of the players Pittsburgh obtained, only Kipper remains in the major leagues. Grade: B+

Traded Jerome Nelson to Oakland for Don Sutton and Robert Sharpnack. If the Angels don’t develop Hall of Famers, they do a pretty fair job of renting them. Rod Carew got his 3,000th hit as an Angel. Reggie Jackson hit his 500th home run as an Angel. And Don Sutton became a 300-game winner as an Angel, 10 months after this trade with Oakland.

For the price of a Class A outfielder, the Angels bought Sutton’s last good season--he was 15-11 in 1986--which proved instrumental in the Angels’ last division championship. It also bought new secrets into the world of baseball arts and crafts. Angel pitchers never knew sandpaper could be so versatile. Grade: A

1986

Traded Luis Sanchez to Montreal for Gary Lucas. Two sour footnotes from Angel playoff history: Sanchez served up Cecil Cooper’s pennant-winning single in Game 5 of the 1982 playoffs, and Lucas had to pick Game 5 of the 1986 playoffs to hit his first batter in more than 400 innings. That was Rich Gedman. The next batter was Dave Henderson.

Angel timing, in a nutshell.

Lucas played two seasons with the Angels, spending nearly as much time on the disabled list as on the mound. But the Angels did get five victories and five saves from him. Sanchez gave the Expos nothing. He took a left turn at Montreal, landed in Japan, played a season and was never heard from again. Grade: B

1987

Traded Bill Merrifield and Miguel Garcia to Pittsburgh for Johnny Ray. Mark McLemore casts a dissenting vote, but this ranks among Port’s finest moves. Merrifield, an infielder of limited skills, wasn’t going anywhere in the Angel organization, and Garcia was at best a long-range pitching prospect. In return, the Angels acquired their 1988 co-MVP and their first .300-hitting regular since Carew.

But the deal is docked half a grade for those times Ray is forced to wear a fielder’s glove. Grade: A-

Traded John Candelaria to the New York Mets for Shane Young and Jeff Richardson. When Port dumps a player, watch out below. Candelaria’s act pushed Port to the brink in 1987--the pitcher was arrested twice on suspicion of driving while intoxicated, spent a month in a substance-abuse clinic and was poison in the clubhouse. He had to go, but Port could have received something in return. Young is no longer in the Angel organization, Richardson remains mired in the minors and Candelaria, having bounced from the Mets to the Yankees to the Expos, has resurfaced in Minnesota, startling even the Twins with his 7-1 start. Grade: C-

1988

Traded Gary Pettis to Detroit for Dan Petry. Another dumping. Pettis’ 1987 season was a 133-game horror--17 runs batted in, 124 strikeouts and a .208 batting average in 394 at-bats. Pettis blamed a bad hand; the Angels blamed a hard-headed hitting approach. Either way, this relationship was a goner, and Port was so eager to unload Pettis, he settled for damaged goods in return. Coming off arm surgery, Petry wrenched his back in spring training, missed two months of the regular season because of a sprained ankle and finished 3-9. Banished to long relief in 1989, Petry was released at season’s end and then re-upped with Detroit, where he is starting--and winning--again. Grade: C

Signed Chili Davis as a free agent. Enough outfield jokes. Name the most productive hitter in the Angel lineup since 1988. Name the only Angel to take consecutive 90-RBI seasons into 1990. Name the only Angel to take consecutive 20-home run seasons into 1990.

He isn’t named Wally. Grade: A-

1989

Traded David Holdridge to Philadelphia for Lance Parrish. Some potential for long-term repercussions here. Holdridge was a first-round draft choice in 1987 and, according to Bavasi, “one of the top arms in the organization, certainly.” Parrish was 32 when the trade was made, coming off his poorest (.215) big league season. And there’s always the back.

“You hate to lose a kid like Holdridge, but he was drafted the same year as John Orton,” Bavasi said. “Basically, you could say we drafted both of our catchers, Lance Parrish and his backup, in the same draft. How often does that happen? And we didn’t have to wait three years to develop Parrish.” Grade: B+

Traded Mike Cook, Rob Wassenaar and Paul Sorrento to Minnesota for Bert Blyleven. Port’s finest hour?

Not all the returns are in--Sorrento is regarded as one of the Twins’ top power-hitting prospects--but for one season, Angel shoelaces weren’t the only things burned by Blyleven. Besides Sorrento, who had 27 homers and 112 RBIs with double-A Orlando, Fla., in 1989, the Twins got a fringe major league reliever in Cook and a marginal pitching prospect in Wassenaar. The Angels received the American League’s comeback player of the year--17-5, 2.73 ERA, five shutouts and some sorely needed clubhouse leadership, to boot.

Until Sorrento pans out, if and when . . . Grade: A-

Lost Bob Boone as a free agent to Kansas City. Port’s worst hour, no question.

Two years of protracted contract hassles, followed by the Parrish trade, alienated Boone to the point of no return. He waited for the first offer to better his 1988 Angel salary of $883,000, and when Kansas City came in at $883,001, Boone was gone, without so much as a phone call to Port or Autry.

This public relations disaster, which prompted the reorganization of the Angel front office and the eventual hiring of Dan O’Brien as Port’s assistant, was salvaged only when Parrish came through with a sound first season as Boone’s successor. Grade: D-

Signed Claudell Washington as a free agent. The Angels approached their 1989 season in need of a right fielder. But Washington? For three years? For $2.65 million?

At 34, Washington was easing into his role as a part-time starter. Too bad the Angels needed a full-timer. Washington appeared in only 110 games in 1989 and left the team stranded in early September when he bolted a pivotal East Coast trip to return home for “personal reasons.” (Translation: marital dispute.) The Angels went 4-11 on the trip and never recovered. Neither did Washington. After two charges of spousal battery in early 1990, Washington took his problems back to New York last month. Grade: C-

1990

Signed Mark Langston as a free agent. He struck out with Nolan Ryan. He struck out with Bruce Hurst. One winter later, Port was scrambling for a free-agent score--and Langston was it, cost be damned.

For $16 million, Port got the best pitcher on the free-agent board. Never mind Langston’s so-so start in 1990; it was the right move at the time. It was designed to give the Angels the deepest starting rotation in the division and give Port the wherewithal to swing another deal and correct the club’s more pressing needs on offense.

Well, the rotation still looks good. Grade: A-

Traded Jeff Manto and Colin Charland to Cleveland for Scott Bailes. And for Port’s next trick . . .

This wasn’t the move the Angels needed, or expected, after Langston, but it has helped sustain the bullpen during the disablement of Greg Minton and Bob McClure. Charland, 5-10 at Edmonton in 1989, never showed much in two trips to the Angels’ spring camp, and Manto, who had 23 homers and nearly as many errors at Edmonton, was a young designated hitter in a system that has cornered the market on old ones. Grade: B

Traded Claudell Washington and Rich Monteleone to the New York Yankees for Luis Polonia. Because Port wouldn’t part with Kirk McCaskill--the reported asking price for Raines, Dykstra, Burks or Von Hayes--Polonia became the temporary solution in the Angels’ never-ending search for a leadoff hitter. Polonia is about as close to Rickey Henderson as the Angels are likely to get; he was one of the three players Oakland traded to the Yankees for Henderson last June. Grade: B

Traded Mike Witt to the Yankees for Dave Winfield. Looking better each day Witt spends on the disabled list, but this may be the ultimate case of too little too late. By the time Winfield became an Angel, he was 38, recovering from back surgery and no longer an All-Star force in the lineup.

Port had to wait six extra days before Winfield agreed to the deal, resulting in Port’s recent filing of a grievance over the Yankees’ alleged mishandling of the transaction. Among George Steinbrenner’s reported sins: Trying to talk Port out of Winfield and into accepting Roberto Kelly instead.

So what’s wrong with Roberto Kelly? Grade: B

And from Port, a self-assessment:

“I don’t regret any of them,” he said. “I believe each of them was the right thing to do at the time, for the good of the California Angel organization. I think we came out with a fair return on every trade we made. . . .

“And I submit that the scorecard would read much differently if we hadn’t taken as much care and just started casting names about. I could have made 110 deals. But when you proceed at too great a speed, accidents happen.”

And when you proceed too slowly, you get passed by Oakland.

In the game of body bartering, a game Port does not enjoy, he has played it safe. He has played not to lose, and at that he has succeeded. Seldom does Port hurt the Angels when he makes a trade. Sometimes, he even helps them.

Port’s overall grade is a B.


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