Angels: Investment Will Yield Return

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Those who crunch numbers in the Walt Disney Co.'s executive offices may be satisfied with an Angel team that attracted 2.5 million fans to a renovated stadium and remained highly competitive in the American League West before finishing second to the Texas Rangers.

But that is no longer cutting it in the Angel clubhouse, where there is enough talent to compete and to keep things interesting but not enough to reach October, and nowhere near enough to reach late October.

"This act has pretty much worn thin--the song is getting a little sour," veteran pitcher Chuck Finley said. "I sense patience running out around here."

The core of this team is young, and there is reason for optimism with players such as Darin Erstad, Gary DiSarcina, Tim Salmon, Troy Percival, Jim Edmonds, Garret Anderson and Troy Glaus wearing periwinkle blue.

But the feeling among players is that if the Angels--and Disney--are really serious about winning next season, they must make a bold move this winter and do what seems oh so difficult for them: spend a good chunk of money.

They must trash their spackle-and-patch approach of signing fringe players such as Cecil Fielder and Eddie Murray and rehabilitating pitchers such as Jack McDowell and Steve Ontiveros and hoping they work out.

They need to think big.

"You're not going to win this thing with luck--that's tough to do at this level," Finley said. "And you get nowhere cheap. That's been proven. There's a reason guys like [Boston slugger] Mo Vaughn demand $10 million. You look at the end of the year and the big numbers are always there, and those numbers help you get to where you want to be."

Angel President Tony Tavares said he believes no player is worth $10 million a year, but if the Angels aren't willing to spend that kind of money this winter, Manager Terry Collins' run of five consecutive second-place finishes will continue--unless they finish third or last.

But if they are willing to loosen the purse strings. . . .

"If you get two studs here, one pitcher who is a force and one bat that will give you 30-40 home runs and 120-130 RBIs, we'll be ready to take off then," Finley said. "I guarantee you, we'd have a come-catch-me team then."

Front-office types can't discuss specific players this time of year--players don't even file for free agency until after the World Series--but it's no secret what kind of new teammates the Angels would like: Catcher Mike Piazza, who has expressed an interest in returning to Southern California, and a pitcher such as Randy Johnson or Kevin Brown.

That would be asking a lot of any team, let alone the budget-conscious Angels, but with the loss of almost $9.7 million in contracts to this year's $44-million payroll (Jim Abbott, Allen Watson, Fielder and McDowell) and raises of $4.4 million to the core group, the Angels will have $5.3 million to use toward the signing of a marquee player.

And with Salmon returning to the outfield next season and Dave Hollins available for first base, the Angels can again consider moving first baseman Erstad back to the outfield and trading Edmonds or Anderson--or even both--for a pitcher.

"Obviously it's going to take a lot of money to get one or two people who can help take us where we want to go," Finley said. "Whether that's going to be spent, I don't know.

"I would be very surprised if they pay $10 million to bring a guy like Mo Vaughn, Kevin Brown or Randy Johnson. Maybe they can trade for someone. If we had Piazza and an ace pitcher, we'd be good enough to win."

But if the Angels don't do something soon, they might be in danger of losing some of their top players. Shortstop Gary DiSarcina, who is signed through 2001, said he would have "serious reservations" about returning if he was a free agent and the Angels didn't seem committed to winning.

And even Finley, an Angel for life, is getting skeptical. "I'm in a situation where if things aren't going right next year, they can trade me for a a couple of prospects, and I can go pitch in the playoffs somewhere," he said.

Finley and Ken Hill are expected to anchor the rotation next season, and Steve Sparks, Jason Dickson, Omar Olivares, Jarrod Washburn and Pep Harris will battle for starting spots. The Angels will not offer arbitration to Watson, a major bust this season at $2.9 million.

Among other internal decisions: Whether to re-sign injury plagued Randy Velarde or go with youngster Justin Baughman at second base, and what to do about first baseman/outfielder Gregg Jefferies?

The Angels won't pick up Jefferies' $5 million option for 1999, but Jefferies has expressed an interest in renegotiating for less and returning to Anaheim in a utility role.

A change in clubhouse chemistry may also be needed. The Angels have had the same core group for four years and have not won the division, and there was grumbling last week after the Angels succumbed to the pressure of a three-game series against Texas, getting swept by the combined score of 25-3.

The next night, a more relaxed team--and one that had been virtually eliminated from playoff contention--beat Oakland, 10-6. At least two players, DiSarcina and Erstad, were upset that their teammates didn't seem to take losing as hard as them.

"I've always believed you've got to take the comfort factor away," Finley said. "You can't wait for people to turn around. You've got to turn it around or get them out of there. If you don't produce, you should be out of here. A wait-and-see approach will get you burned."

The Angels should learn that lesson after this season. They waited for McDowell and Hill to return from elbow injuries, failing to make a significant move by the July 31 trading deadline. Texas traded for Todd Stottlemyre, Royce Clayton and Todd Zeile, and that trio played a key role in the Rangers' five-game sweep of the Angels in late September.

Eight key players suffered disabling injuries, the most devastating being hamstring strains that forced Erstad to miss 29 of the team's last 51 games. The Angels, who had a three-game lead entering September, went 9-15 in the final month.

"There were too many holes in the boat, and we only had so many fingers to hold it up," Finley said. "And once you get cut and you're bleeding, the scent of blood goes out and everyone comes in for the kill."

The Angels survived a lot longer than anyone expected, though, and for that they should be commended. Most teams that lose three-fifths of their starting rotation--and two of the pitchers for more than two months--wouldn't remain in the race.

Most teams that have to rely heavily on seven players who began the season in the minor leagues, and lose their best all-around player for much of the final two months, would have no business leading their division as late as Sept. 20.

But the Angels persevered because--up until the final week and a half of the season--they played with intensity and tenacity, and a togetherness born of an us-against-the-world mentality. They disregarded every setback. They bounced back from just about every gut-wrenching loss.

And for that, they can thank a player who had virtually nothing to do with the team's on-field success but was a major factor in the Angels blossoming into contenders.

This player did not inspire this team by hitting 26 homers and driving in 88 runs despite a foot ligament that looked as if it had gone through a Cuisinart. He did not hold this team together with solid and sometimes spectacular defense up the middle and by saying just the right things at the right time to keep everyone together in the face of adversity.

He did not amaze managers and fans and teammates with his rare combination of power, speed, aggressiveness and attitude, and play the last week of the season despite a severely strained hamstring.

He did not come in from the bullpen, breathing fire and throwing 95-mph fastballs and saving 42 games, or win five games with a pitching elbow whose infrastructure consisted of bone-on-bone, or dive into an outfield gap to make a game-saving catch.

An MVP candidate he was not--unless MVP stands for most valuable pugilist. If there is one player who turned this season around as much as anyone, it was Frank Bolick, an obscure utility player whose ability to take a punch inspired the Angels to dish it out the rest of the summer.

The Angels were 25-25, a team incapable of building much momentum and devoid of personality, when they left for a Midwest trip May 28. But they erased a 5-0 deficit for a 6-5 win in Minnesota on May 31, and two nights later found themselves in the middle of a beanball-filled, brawl-marred game in Kansas City.

Just as the second melee appeared to be ending, Royal shortstop Felix Martinez sneaked up and sucker-punched Bolick in the side of the face. So infuriated were the Angels that a stream of players, including Damon Mashore, Hill and DiSarcina, chased down Martinez.

McDowell, on the disabled list at the time, came out of the clubhouse and joined the fight, pummeling Martinez with several punches. "It looked like a bunch of wild dogs going after a piece of meat," Finley said.

But the incident united the Angels. They watched replays of the fight in their clubhouse, cheering on relievers who stormed out of the bullpen to join the battle and the players who mauled Martinez.

They sensed on the flight to Seattle after the game that something had changed, that the guys around them weren't just teammates anymore, they were brothers in arms, guys they'd stick up for, guys they'd fight for, guys they'd risk a lengthy suspension for.

And it showed. The Angels went on to win their next six games, part of a nine-game win streak, and they remained at or near the top of the division standings the rest of the season.

"Why did this team come together? Because Frank Bolick got hit in the mouth and 25 guys said that's bull. . . . we're not going to take that," Collins said. "We took off after that."

The June 2 incident sparked the Angels' best month of the season, when they went 22-6 and won three of four games against the rival Rangers and three of four against the rival Dodgers.

Sparks, the knuckleballer who went 0-8 in the minor leagues, stepped into the rotation and won his first three starts in June. Washburn (5-2 from June 2 to July 25) came up from triple-A Vancouver and Olivares came out of the bullpen to plug holes in the rotation.

Salmon continued to hit despite his foot injury, Erstad had a torrid first half (.313, 18 homers, 59 RBIs in 86 games), Percival was 25 for 28 in save opportunities, and Shigetoshi Hasegawa sparkled in a variety of relief roles.

The Angels cooled considerably in July, going 9-18, but still entered August with a one-game lead because the Rangers struggled as well.

Then Texas made those moves before the July 31 trade deadline, and the Angels, as DiSarcina later said, "did absolutely nothing." The attitude in the Angel clubhouse seemed to be: We don't need the front office; we'll win this thing by ourselves.

They almost did, going 18-12 in August and playing their best baseball of the season during a four-day stretch in New York on Aug. 24-27, winning three of five games from the vaunted Yankees and coming within a few runs of a five-game sweep.

But just as a highly successful 6-4 trip through New York, Boston and Cleveland was winding down, Erstad strained his hamstring again on Sept. 2, and the Angel offense went flat.

Erstad's loss--and the loss of versatile infielder Dave Hollins--left huge voids in the offense, and rookies Troy Glaus and Chris Pritchett could not fill them. The burden became too heavy for the heart of the order--Edmonds, Salmon, Anderson--to bear.

The Rangers finally began to jell just in time for a critical September stretch, when they played the Angels five times in eight days. Texas won all five in convincing fashion, sweeping three games in Anaheim and the Angels were done.

"You don't come here every night, play your guts out and lose in the end and feel good," Collins said. "As the winter moves along and we prepare ourselves for next year, there will be a lot of positive things to look back on. But the one thing we didn't do is win, and that will always be there."

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Angel Players' Status

PITCHERS

Rich Delucia: team option for 1999

Jason Dickson: unsigned*

Mike Fetters: free agent

Chuck Finley: signed through 1999

Pep Harris: unsigned*

Shigetoshi Hasegawa: unsigned*

Ken Hill: signed through 1999

Mike Holtz: unsigned*

Mike James: signed through 1999

Jack McDowell: free agent

Omar Olivares: team option for 1999

Troy Percival: signed through 2001

Steve Sparks: eligible for arbitration

Allen Watson: eligible for arbitration

*--team retains rights

*

PLAYERS

Garret Anderson: signed through 2000

Gary DiSarcina: signed through 2001

Jim Edmonds: signed through 2000

Darin Erstad: signed through 2001

Troy Glaus: unsigned*

Todd Greene: unsigned*

Dave Hollins: signed through 1999

Gregg Jefferies: team option for 1999

Norberto Martin: free agent

Phil Nevin: unsigned*

Orlando Palmeiro: unsigned*

Tim Salmon: signed through 2001

Craig Shipley: free agent

Randy Velarde: free agent

Matt Walbeck: eligible for arbitration

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