BASEBALL WINTER MEETINGS : Angels Obtain Gruber : Trade: They send Sojo to the Blue Jays for the third baseman. Herzog also tries to re-acquire Chili Davis.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The last time they signed a third baseman who showed signs of advanced age and decreasing production, the Angels saddled themselves with Gary Gaetti's $11.4-million contract for four years.

At least this time, they minimized the potential for folly. In acquiring Kelly Gruber from the Toronto Blue Jays Tuesday in exchange for infielder Luis Sojo, the Angels took on a $4-million salary--but only for one year, and they got the Blue Jays to throw in more than $1 million.

Convinced they still need an offensive leader, the Angels focused on signing Chili Davis to be their designated hitter and anticipated reaching an agreement today on a two-year deal, possibly with an option year.

Davis, who left the Angels for Minnesota nearly two years ago, hit 29 home runs and drove in 93 runs to help the Twins to a World Series championship in 1991. However, his numbers dropped to 12 homers and 66 RBIs in 1992.

Whitey Herzog, the Angels' senior vice president for player personnel, promised that Gruber's defense, Davis' switch-hitting power and promising youngsters such as J.T. Snow would result in a vast improvement over last season's 72-90 performance.

"If we can (sign Davis), we can become a legitimate contender," Herzog said. "I'll guarantee it: if Tim Salmon and (Damion) Easley and J.T. Snow can play as good as I think they can play on a 162-game basis, we can contend for the division. If they can't play, (owners Gene and Jackie Autry) ought to fire me, because that's why they hired me. They should fire me or I should quit. I'm sticking my neck out on trading Jim Abbott to the Yankees, too. We could have had five Jim Abbotts last year and we wouldn't have won the pennant. . . . "Let's try it my way. Maybe we're going to have a solid young team and contend, if we have the DH and a fifth starter."

Gruber, who will turn 31 in February, batted .229 last season with 11 home runs and 43 runs batted in, the lowest power totals of his career. He is an enigmatic player who last season was the center of clubhouse strife and the target of fans' boos.

Sojo, whom they traded to the Angels two years ago in the deal that sent Devon White to Toronto, batted .272 for the Angels with 43 RBIs in 106 games. His lack of speed consigned him to a utility role, which he also is expected to fill in Toronto.

The Blue Jays believed that Gruber's salary could be better spent elsewhere.

"It's a reallocation of salary," Blue Jay General Manager Pat Gillick said of the deal.

That salary dismayed the Dodgers enough to back out of a deal with the Blue Jays after the teams agreed on infielder Dave Hansen and a minor leaguer as compensation to Toronto. The Angels, however, having pared their payroll by losing Bryan Harvey and Junior Felix to the Florida Marlins and having traded Abbott for three rookies, had more fiscal flexibility. Gruber's salary will be the second-highest on the team, behind Chuck Finley's $5 million.

"What with the expansion draft and other developments, we have a little money to play with. One more hitter and we'll be in business," said Herzog. "Gruber is still a Gold Glove third baseman. I think the change of scenery will do him good. I'm willing to take the gamble."

At least two of Gruber's Toronto teammates were glad the Angels took that gamble.

"As far as Kelly goes, not because he's gone now, he was in a way a bad influence for the younger players," White told the Toronto Star. "He wasn't really a leader and you need leaders on the Blue Jays team. . . . That's what you need from a successful organization. You don't need someone to show up two minutes before he has to be there. You need someone who's happy to be there and ready to play."

Said Rance Mulliniks: "He has the physical talent to put him among the top percent in baseball, but his work habits really fell off the last couple of years, especially this year."

Hampered by neck, back and thumb injuries last season, Gruber played 111 games at third and had a .962 fielding percentage. His struggles at the plate reduced his career average to .259, but the Angels insist his skills haven't completely eroded.

Gruber, who lives in Austin, Tex., was said to be on a hunting trip and couldn't be reached for comment.

"We may have one of the best defensive infields in the league if everyone plays up to their capabilities," Manager Buck Rodgers said. "Gruber is the kind of guy who fits in with the type of club we're trying to build, young and aggressive."

Gruber will be the oldest member of the Angel infield. Rookie first baseman Snow will be 24, Easley--who will shift from third to second--is 23 and Gary DiSarcina is 25.

"We need some continuity and range in the infield. When you're last in the league in offense, you have to hold the other team down," Rodgers said. "We can pitch the ball, so we have to be sure we can catch the ball."

Gillick said a good start is a key to Gruber's success with the Angels.

"Kelly is a very sensitive person. He didn't start off well last year (and) the fans got on him and he was hurt by it," Gillick said. "We felt that if he didn't get off well again and the fans got on him again, it would be difficult for him to handle again.

"He's still the best fielding third baseman in the league. It's just a question if he'll hit."

Gruber's acquisition didn't satisfy the Angels' need for hitting. Herzog said that he wasn't done dealing yet, but his daylong discussions failed to produce another move.

"We're still looking for another hitter for the middle of the lineup," Rodgers said. "We want a left-handed hitter, and there's still a couple out there on the block. I doubt we'll go the trade route as much as pick up a free agent. We need a veteran hitter or two for the middle of our lineup. We've got Snow, Salmon, (Chad) Curtis and Easley, who are some pretty good kids, but now we need a veteran, somebody who can take the heat off of them."

Angel Notes

After being outbid by the Blue Jays for free agent Paul Molitor, the Angels had to revise their plans for acquiring a designated hitter who could be a proven threat in a lineup overloaded with prospects. In addition to Chili Davis, they are considering Dave Winfield and Harold Baines.

The Angels bought out Winfield's contract a year ago and hoped to re-sign him at a lower salary, a plan that failed when Winfield signed with the Blue Jays. Despite batting .290 and driving in 108 runs for the World Series champion Blue Jays, Winfield, 41, became expendable when Toronto signed Molitor.

The Angels had already projected Molitor to bat third, fourth or fifth, but their two-year, $7-million offer fell far short of the Blue Jays' four-year, $16-million deal.

"We thought Paul was a guy we could put in the DH spot, play first base, maybe left field. He fit in real good," Angel Manager Buck Rodgers said. "But you don't cry over spilt milk. You go on to the next thing. We've got some things in the works that might bring us a player or two."

One of those deals fell through when right-hander Danny Cox, a free agent, signed with Toronto. Angel executive Whitey Herzog's talks with the Braves about outfielder Ron Gant and left-hander Charlie Leibrandt were put on hold after the Braves decided not to make any moves until Greg Maddux accepts or rejects their $32-million offer to him. Because they didn't sign Cox, Herzog is pursuing right-hander Mike Bielecki, a free agent who was 2-4 with Atlanta in 1992.

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