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Angels Aim for Deals, but Will They Pull Trigger?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Think of baseball’s winter meetings, and certain visions dance in your head: the Padres trading Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter to the Blue Jays for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez in 1990; former general manager Whitey Herzog transforming the Cardinals into playoff contenders with several major trades in the early 1980s; former White Sox owner Bill Veeck, so eager to deal, sitting in a hotel lobby with an “Open For Business” sign in his lap in the 1970s.

It’s a hot-stove leaguer’s delight, a time when some trade rumors come true and blockbuster deals are consummated.

Unless you’re the Angels, who have been as active at recent winter meetings as a Maine black bear in mid-January.

The extent of the Angels’ business in Nashville last winter was to acquire middle reliever Mark Petkovsek for minor league catcher Matt Garrick. Zzzzz.

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Then-general manager Bill Bavasi emerged from the 1996 meetings to announce, on his way out of the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, that the Angels had traded Kevin Flora to the Mets for Aaron Ledesma in a swap of utility infielders. Zzzzz.

In fact, you have to go back to 1992 to find an Angel winter-meetings trade of any real consequence, when Herzog, then an Angel executive, sent pitcher Jim Abbott to the Yankees for J.T. Snow, Russ Springer and Jerry Nielson.

But that seven-year string of snoozers could end, with General Manager Bill Stoneman, who threw two big league no-hitters, breaking it up.

Outfielder Darin Erstad and a prospect to the Cubs for reliever Terry Adams and outfielder Henry Rodriguez? It could happen.

Outfielder Garret Anderson to the Devil Rays for pitcher Rolando Arrojo? Or an expanded deal to include Tampa Bay second baseman Miguel Cairo with Angel outfielder Jim Edmonds replacing Anderson in the trade? Possible.

Edmonds and a pitching prospect to the Dodgers for pitcher Ismael Valdes and second baseman Eric Young? Don’t be surprised.

How about Tim Salmon, an Angel mainstay in right field and the cleanup spot, or first baseman Mo Vaughn, considered the Angels’ franchise player, going to a team that could fetch the Angels a No. 1 pitcher? Don’t rule it out.

“I will never be closed-minded about [trading] any player,” said Stoneman, the former Montreal executive. “I don’t like the word ‘untouchable.’ Why wouldn’t you listen to someone, because he might blow you away with something that makes absolute sense.”

Angel fans still reeling from President Tony Tavares’ threat--"Someone told me you can’t trade 25 guys. Why not?"--fear not. Stoneman won’t trade Anderson, Edmonds, Erstad, Salmon and Vaughn all in one winter.

But with Tuesday’s loss of veteran pitcher Chuck Finley to free agency, the Angel rotation looking as thin as any in baseball--four words to make Angel followers cringe: staff ace Ken Hill--and the team in desperate need of pitching, it would be a monumental upset if outfielders Erstad, Edmonds, Salmon and Anderson remained together for a fifth year.

It is almost certain that Stoneman, with a mandate to make drastic changes to an underachieving team and fractured clubhouse, will move an outfielder for pitching help, if not during these meetings then soon after.

Besides Arrojo and Valdes, other starters believed to be available are Baltimore’s Mike Mussina and Houston’s Mike Hampton, San Diego’s Sterling Hitchcock and the Yankees’ Hideki Irabu.

The Angels also have gaping holes at second base, catcher and left-handed relief, and Stoneman is confident “we’re going to be able to get someone in here who will be very capable at second base.”

Stoneman would prefer a speedy second baseman who can bat leadoff and is expected to pursue San Diego’s Quilvio Veras, but Veras could be headed to Atlanta for second baseman Bret Boone.

Other second basemen believed available: Milwaukee’s Fernando Vina, Baltimore’s Delino DeShields, the Dodgers’ Jose Vizcaino and St. Louis’ Adam Kennedy.

As for catcher, the Angels will keep their eye on San Diego’s Carlos Hernandez, who is playing winter ball after sitting out 1999 because of a ruptured Achilles’ tendon.

The Angels would love to pry young catcher Ben Davis away from the Padres or backup Einar Diaz from the Indians, but the cost could be prohibitive.

“You go through every club and tell me how many have what you’d consider a front-line catcher,” Stoneman said. “They’re in short supply. It’s very difficult to trade for a No. 1 catcher. You might have better luck getting a younger guy with talent who is being blocked by a front-line catcher.”

Stoneman is looking forward to these meetings. His focus at last month’s general manager meetings was on hiring a manager, coaches and a scouting director, but he has been able to zero in on player personnel in recent weeks.

Bottom line: This off-season, beginning with these meetings, will be crucial for the Angels, who hope to be competitive without boosting their payroll past the $55-million range. Stoneman’s moves, among them his non-pursuit of Finley, will determine the next direction of this wayward franchise.

“My guess is there will be a lot of action,” Stoneman said. “Hopefully we’ll be right in there.”


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