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 .001 on July 3 was last on Aug. 4, and afterward climbed no higher than a tie for fifth. The Angels finished last for the fourth time in club history, albeit with the best record 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 on April 30 and his duties given to Dan O’Brien. Doug Rader was fired as manager on 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 given broad authority.
“This team has got some good players, but it’s not a good team,” said Rodgers, who was 20-18. “It’s not a bad team, but not what you would say is a good team. 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 American League 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.”
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, but his success was limited by the team’s lack of speed and fundamental skills. Only Polonia (48 stolen bases) and the often-injured Junior Felix have above-average speed; second baseman Luis Sojo can bunt with the best, but too few others can.
“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 going 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, are expected to figure prominently in the Angels’ off-season.
However, first baseman Wally Joyner--whose .301 average and 96 runs batted in were his best season since 1987--is expected 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.
Losing free agent shortstop Dick Schofield would hurt more than his .225 batting average alone suggests because there is no one to replace him. The infield depth is negligible, consisting of light-hitting Gary DiSarcina, Donnie Hill and Bobby Rose.
Jim Abbott’s emergence as a polished starter brought him a career-best 18-11 season and elevated him to the level of teammates Chuck Finley (18-9) and Mark Langston (19-8). But their achievements were offset 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. Despite his 10-19 record, none of the aspiring young pitchers were impressive enough to supplant him.
Harvey shattered Donnie Moore’s club record of 31 saves, and Mark Eichhorn was a solid setup man until he stumbled in the final weeks. Middle relief was as a weakness, but Cliff Young has shown potential and Chris Beasley was effective in spots.
Although Gary Gaetti drove in only 66 runs after averaging 84 RBIs in his nine previous full seasons, he gave stability to the infield. Herzog likes 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 the designated hitter.
Beyond that, however, the outfield is unsettled. Polonia starts because of his bat and not his glove and he might become the left-handed designated hitter. 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. Dave 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.
“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.
“I tried a lot of different things. I could have done better and I believe I still can do better in the future.”
Backup catcher Ron Tingley batted .200 in 45 games and threw out 22 of 38 would-be base stealers. John Orton is considered the catcher of the future, but he hit .212 in 28 games. Unless they trade for a younger front-line catcher, the Angels probably will need 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.
Herzog expects a better overall performance in 1992 than this season. “I don’t have all the answers,” he said, “but I know the direction I want to go.”
Even if he doesn’t have the answers, he and Rodgers have the players’ confidence.
“It will be exciting next year to see how (Rodgers) handles things,” Polonia said. “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 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.”
1991 average: 29,830