Sweet Beginnings, Sour Endings in 1991 : Angels: Rodgers says his last-place club lacked the speed and depth needed to be a contender.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Minnesota Twins went from worst to first in one season, but the Angels needed only a month to plummet from first to worst.

"The way we started spring training it looked like we were going to have a lot of fun," left fielder Luis Polonia said. "We hit first place for a minute and then fell out."

When they fell, they fell hard. The team that led the AL West by a thousandth of a percentage point July 3 was last on Aug. 4. After that, the Angels would climb no higher than a tie for fifth. Unable to shake the synchronized slump that silenced their bats, the Angels finished last for the fourth time in club history, albeit with an 81-81 record, the best for a last-place team since divisional play began in 1969.

They also finished the 1991 season with a different manager and a revamped front office. General Manager Mike Port was fired April 30 and his duties given to Senior Vice President Dan O'Brien. Doug Rader was fired as manager Aug. 26 and replaced by Buck Rodgers. The executive restructuring was completed Sept. 6 when Whitey Herzog was hired as senior vice president and director of player personnel and was given broad authority.

"This team has got some good players but it's not a good team. It's not a bad team, but not what you would say is a good team," said Rodgers, who was 20-18. "It doesn't have enough speed for a good team. It hasn't got enough depth for a good team. But it's not a bad team. It's in that area in between. It's an average team that could be a good team.

"You look at Bryan Harvey (who led the AL with 46 saves) and the starting pitchers and you say, 'How the hell can we be in last place?' But when you're 13th in the league in runs scored and on-base percentage, you know you have to generate runs, and this team doesn't give themselves enough ways to win."

Managing the last six weeks of the season gave Rodgers time to evaluate young players he had never seen and assess the team's overall strengths. He said some of the young players, such as catcher John Orton and infielder Gary DiSarcina, exceeded his expectations.

"I didn't know what kind of team this was coming in, except I knew about the offense," Rodgers said. "I knew they had three good pitchers (Chuck Finley, Mark Langston and Jim Abbott) and Harvey, but now I know we've got a good entire pitching staff, not just four. We have the potential to solve most of our pitching problems from within, which is important because that gives Whitey a chance to solve the offensive problems from without. You look at how (reliever) Cliff Young has come along. Things like that seem like little pieces now but they're important pieces because they give Whitey the chance to do big pieces."

Rodgers gave his players more options than Rader, who too often waited for home runs that didn't materialize. Rodgers reintroduced the hit-and-run and the bunt to their vocabulary, but his success was limited by the team's lack of speed and fundamental skills. Only Polonia (48 stolen bases) and the oft-injured Junior Felix have above-average speed; second baseman Luis Sojo can bunt with the best but too few others can't.

"Before you can have a different approach you have to have different people. You can't make base-stealers out of guys who can't run," Rodgers said. "I'm not just talking about base-stealers--I'm talking about going from first to third, guys who can't score from second on a base hit, guys you need three singles to score . . . I don't want a track meet. I want a blend."

The addition of speed and what Herzog called "a prime-time guy," a young free agent who can fortify the middle of the lineup, will figure prominently in the Angels' off-season moves. Herzog proclaimed his priorities for next season to be re-signing Wally Joyner and Dick Schofield and would like to have them under contract by Nov. 1. However, it's likely Joyner--whose .301, 96-RBI season was his best since 1987--will delay to test the free-agent market. If the Angels buy out Dave Winfield's contract and later lose Joyner, their power potential next season would be dangerously low.

Even though his average is only .225, losing Schofield would hurt the Angels because there's no one to replace him. The infield depth is negligible, consisting of light-hitting DiSarcina, Donnie Hill and Bobby Rose.

Abbott's emergence as a polished starter brought him a career-best 18-11 season and elevated him to the level of Finley (18-9) and Langston (19-8). But the trio's achievements were counterbalanced by the struggles of the fourth and fifth starters. Seemingly a minor weakness last spring, the fifth spot became a fatal weakness when Scott Lewis, Joe Grahe, Fernando Valenzuela and Mike Fetters went 1-16 through August. It wouldn't be surprising if the Angels fill the fourth spot by re-signing Kirk McCaskill, though for less than the $2.1 million he earned this season. His past performances warrant giving him another shot after his 10-19 nightmare--and none of the aspiring young pitchers was impressive enough to supplant him.

Harvey led the AL in saves, shattering Donnie Moore's club record of 31, and Mark Eichhorn was an outstanding setup man until he stumbled in the final weeks. Middle relief looms as a weakness, but Young has shown potential and Chris Beasley was effective in stretches.

Gary Gaetti was disappointing offensively, driving in 66 runs after averaging 84 RBIs in his nine previous full seasons, but he imparted stability to the infield defense. Herzog prefers to play Sojo at second base and if Joyner departs, Lee Stevens could play first. Stevens, who hit .293 with nine RBIs in 18 games, might play right field if Winfield is bought out or made designated hitter.

Beyond that, though, the outfield is unsettled. Polonia starts because of his bat and not his glove, and he might become the left-handed DH. Much depends on Felix, who was limited to 66 games because of leg injuries. When fit, he provides an offensive spark with his speed, and he hit 15 homers for Toronto last season. Gallagher's defense and his .297 average, although built mostly on singles, make him a valuable substitute.

Catching poses a problem that probably won't be resolved until next spring. Lance Parrish, who has a year left on his contract, hit .216 with 19 homers and 51 RBIs and struck out 117 times. In 1990, he batted .268, with 24 homers and 70 RBIs.

"It's been a disappointing year for me, but for a guy who hits fifth to eighth in the lineup I don't think the expectations for run production were on me," said Parrish, who turned 35 in June and says his physical condition is as good as ever. "I tried a lot of different things. I could have done better and I believe I still can do better in the future."

Parrish is skilled at handling pitchers, but so is Ron Tingley. An ideal backup, Tingley hit .200 in 45 games and threw out 22 of 38 would-be base-stealers. Orton is considered the catcher of the future because of his defensive savvy, but he hit .212 in 28 games. Unless they trade for a younger front-line catcher, the Angels can ill afford to relinquish Parrish.

Buying out Winfield's option, however, is a distinct possibility. He faded in the second half, perking up in the last week to finish with 28 homers and 86 RBIs. His contract calls for a $3 million salary or a $450,000 buyout, and the savings could go toward signing, say, Kansas City outfielder Danny Tartabull, who will be a free agent after the season. An alternative is to make him DH, but Winfield believes he can still be productive as the right fielder.

"Overall, coming back from two years ago, I've gotten better each year," said Winfield, who missed the 1989 season after back surgery. "This was just a better year. I've hit 49 homers in two seasons with more than 150 RBIs. I probably did better than the team thought I might do. I guarantee you next year will be better than either one of these."

Herzog guaranteed a better performance in 1992 than this season. "I don't have all the answers," he said, "but I know the direction I want to go. I have some Plan A's and Plan B's."

Even if he doesn't have the answers, he has the players' confidence that he and Rodgers will effect a quick improvement.

"(Rodgers) loves to run," Polonia said. "Doug was everything to me, but this guy is great for me. It will be exciting next year to see how he handles things. He likes to hit and run, bunt them over, steal bases. It's a little feeling we have since he came. It will be nice to have him the whole season and see how things go.

"And now we got Whitey Herzog, a guy who believes in speed. He won pennants with no guys who hit 40 home runs. There are a lot of things you can do with speed. They already know what they need to do and it will be exciting to see what they're going to do and when we get to spring training."

'91 ANGELS

LAST Three pitchers were among the American League's top winners, and their closer ranked among the AL save leaders. Position by position, the 1991 Angels hardly seemed lacking. But their weak offense kept them from jelling and was responsible for their plunge from first, on July 3, to last.

The Good: Second-Half Takeoff Left-hander Jim Abbott is one of the few Angels who had a better second-half performance than first-half.

At the All-Star break

W-L Innings Hits BB K ERA 7-6 114 2/3 117 37 78 3.45

Since the break

W-L Innings Hits BB K ERA 11-5 128 1/3 105 36 80 2.38

Total

W-L Innings Hits BB K ERA 18-11 243 222 73 158 2.89

The Bad: Second-Half Tailoff Angels' first half (1st) vs. second half (2nd)

Player Avg. HRs RBIs Dave Winfield / RF-DH (1st) .280 18 57 (2nd) .229 8 25 Gary Gaetti / 3B (1st) .254 7 34 (2nd) .233 10 27 Lance Parrish / C (1st) .247 10 27 (2nd) .185 8 22 Wally Joyner / 1B (1st) .326 11 57 (2nd) .271 10 39

'92 Strengths, Weaknesses and Needs Their starting pitching, the envy of any major league club, will be the foundation next season. Giving the pitchers some runs to work with will be a challenge. Manager Buck Rodgers will have his team run more--provided he can find some speedier players during the offseason----and bunting will be an integral part of the Angels' game. Power and run production remain question marks as Rodgers tries to balance youth and experience.

Third base: Gary Gaetti is the one sure thing for the infield for next season. He stabilized it this season and made Schofield a better player, too. He had a disappointing year offensively, hitting in the .240s.

Catcher: Solid defensively and skilled at calling games, the trio of Lance Parrish, John Orton and Ron Tingley lagged offensively in 1991. Orton, 25, has long been considered the catcher of the future, but he has yet to show he can hit in the big leagues.

Pitcher: Left-handers Chuck Finley, Mark Langston and Jim Abbott had chances to win 20 games but were victimized by the team's inability to score. The fourth and fifth starters hurt the Angels and are key holes to be filled. Reliever Bryan Harvey emerged as one of the American League's best closers, and Mark Eichhorn thrived as the setup man. Middle relief is a question.

Shortstop: Dick Schofield returned to his usual .230 level after reaching the .260s in the first half. He's a capable fielder, not flashy. Losing him to free agency would leave another unproven youngster, Gary DiSarcina, or force a trade for an experienced shortstop.

First base: Wally Joyner's team-leading 96 RBIs would be difficult to replace if he left as a free agent. Lee Stevens is decent defensively but has had chronic problems with his right (glove) wrist. Stevens also must prove he can hit major league pitching.

Second base: Luis Sojo has moments of brilliance but too many careless episodes. His enthusiasm, quickness and bunting skills make him useful, especially in Rodgers' hit-and-run game.

Outfield: Left fielder Luis Polonia stayed around .300 all season and is the only true base-stealing threat. His defensive skills, while improved, still make him a threat, too. Junior Felix showed promise in center but was injured for long stretches, and his fitness can't be counted on. Dave Winfield's second-half fade hurt his chances of returning and contributed to the team's post-All-Star disappearance. If he's back, it's likely to be as the designated hitter. Dave Gallagher proved valuable and filled in capably in center and right.

Free agents

They say they have to cut their payroll, but can Whitey Herzog coax owners Gene and Jackie Autry to spend money for an impact player?

Bobby Bonilla / OF Unhappy in Pittsburgh, Bonilla might be happier filling the Angels' need for power and production. At 28, one of the winter's premier free agents, but he might want more money than the Angels are willing to spend.

Danny Tartabull / OF The Royal won't come any cheaper than Bonilla, but he'd also figure to add power as an everyday right fielder.

Alvin Davis / 1B The financially shaky Seattle Mariners might not be able to keep him, and if the Angels lose Wally Joyner, he'd be an ideal replacement at first.

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