It May Be Survival of Fittest

Times Staff Writer

Bill Stoneman strolled through the bleachers the other day, all but whistling while he worked. On the field behind him, the Angels were in the process of botching yet another game in a miserable exhibition season.

"I'm wearing a smile," Stoneman said.

On that day, the game was the least of his concerns. The Angels' general manager had just learned that third baseman Troy Glaus did not have a broken bone, a torn ligament or any other wrist injury significant enough to deprive the team of its premier slugger for weeks, or months. The doctors diagnosed tendinitis and prescribed a few days off, and for that Stoneman was thankful.

As the Angels raise the World Series championship flag today at Edison Field, the chances for another red October in Anaheim could depend less upon the performance of the players than on their ability to stay off the disabled list. While the American League West is just as impressive this season as last, the Angels' depth is not nearly as impressive.

If an injury-free season could mean first place in the division, an injury-plagued season could mean last place.

"Last year, we kept our guys on the field longer than most teams," closer Troy Percival said. "If we can keep our guys on the field, we can play with anybody. It comes down to who can keep the guys on the field the longest."

In spring training, the signs were not encouraging. Three key players learned they might fight pain all summer -- Glaus in his right wrist, Gold Glove center fielder Darin Erstad in his surgically repaired right hand and ace Jarrod Washburn in his sprained left shoulder.

Shortstop David Eckstein was dogged by back and hip soreness. Relievers Brendan Donnelly and Scot Shields were slowed by shoulder soreness.

Erstad flings his body in all directions in search of fly balls, but his spectacular play led to a concussion last season. Gold Glove catcher Bengie Molina has been on the disabled list in each of the last two seasons, right fielder and No. 3 hitter Tim Salmon in four of the last five.

"We haven't had the healthiest spring," Salmon said. "We haven't been able to get our full lineup out there.

"Any time you talk about having a successful season, the first thing you think of is, can you run guys out there healthy? That's always a legitimate concern."

There is no concern about talent. The Angels' core returns intact, with no one older than 35 and no one coming off a certifiable career year. The relentless offense is not reliant on any one or two players. The pitching could be better, with rookie heroes John Lackey and Francisco Rodriguez here for the entire season.

The bullpen, the best in the league last year, could be the best in the majors. Ben Weber, a substitute for the injured Percival last season, is a long man now. Rodriguez, Donnelly, Shields and Scott Schoeneweis represent a huge upgrade from Al Levine, Mark Lukasiewicz, Lou Pote and Donne Wall, the supporting quartet one year ago.

There is no concern about complacency, not on a team led by Percival and Erstad, not when Rodriguez wowed the world last fall and reported to camp this spring saying he hoped he could win a job on the team, and certainly not because people keep telling the Angels they're locks to repeat.

The Angels aren't even supposed to win their division. The Oakland Athletics are, with their three dominant starters and MVP shortstop Miguel Tejada.

"There's nothing being conceded in this division," Percival said. "Seattle is as tough as we are. So is Oakland. If Texas makes the improvements it looks like they are, they'll be tough.

"Our division is what the American League East was a few years ago. Every team is a contender."

The Angels won 99 games last season. They did not win the division title.

The Mariners won 93. They did not make the playoffs.

The Angels lost one starting pitcher to injury, Aaron Sele. They used eight starters in all. Since the advent of the five-man rotation, the Angels have needed fewer starters only once -- in 1989, when they used seven starters and won 91 games.

They broke camp last season with a rotation of Washburn, Sele, Schoeneweis, Kevin Appier and Ramon Ortiz. Their minor league depth included Lackey, Donnelly, Shields, Mickey Callaway and Matt Wise at triple A, with Rodriguez at double A.

"That depth was very helpful," Stoneman said. "Some of that depth makes the club this year, which is really why out of the gate we should be a better club than we were last year."

The Angels started 6-14 last year -- the worst start in franchise history -- amid the suspensions of Glaus and infielder Scott Spiezio and injuries to Percival, reliever Dennis Cook and infielders Benji Gil and Shawn Wooten.

But the pitching depth appears far thinner this year, with Callaway already filling in for the rehabilitating Sele for at least one month, Wise out for the season after elbow surgery and top prospect Chris Bootcheck hampered by tendinitis.

And although the Angels acquired veteran reserve outfielder Eric Owens after discarding Orlando Palmeiro and Alex Ochoa, Stoneman acknowledged that none of their minor league outfielders appeared ready to replace Erstad or Salmon during an extended absence.

"That would be a tough call to make at this point," Stoneman said.

The Angels endured assorted injuries last season, but they tended to be more severe among the supporting cast. Wooten, Gil, Sele and Cook all sat out more than a month because of injury, but Salmon, Percival, Erstad, Molina and Eckstein missed less than a month.

"To be a championship-caliber club, you have to absorb some short-term injuries, and we were able to absorb them last year," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "If it becomes six weeks, it does become a concern.

"You map out a lot of scenarios. Until you're faced with it, you wonder about your ability to replace some of those guys for two months at a time if you have to."

Good luck trumps good planning. If the Angels need to implement too many scenarios, the championship flag they waved last year will be followed by a white flag this year.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

ANGEL ROSTER

*--* PITCHERS No Name B/T Age Comment 27 Kevin Appier R/R 35 Old pro has pitched in six AL ballparks no longer in use 51 Mickey Callaway R/R 27 Angels stole him for no-hit, fast-aging SS Wilmy Caceres 53 Brendan Donnelly R/R 31 Trivia: He was winning pitcher in Game 6 of World Series 41 John Lackey R/R 24 Rookie starters to win Game 7: Babe Adams in 1909, Lackey in 2002 36 Ramon Ortiz R/R 29 After Aug. 9 last year: 6-0 in regular season, 2-0 in playoffs 40 Troy Percival R/R 33 Only Angel pitcher with more All-Star appearances: Nolan Ryan 57 Francisco Rodriguez R/R 21 Pitchers to win multiple playoff games at 20: "K-Rod" and Fernando 60 Scott Schoeneweis L/L 29 ERA last season: 5.38 as starter, 3.25 as reliever 62 Scot Shields R/R 27 No-hitter over last 12 relief innings of regular season 56 Jarrod Washburn L/L 28 His .639 winning percentage is best in team history 77 Ben Weber R/R 33 After playing for eight minor league teams, he's 14-5 in majors CATCHERS 1 Bengie Molina R/R 28 Broke Ivan Rodriguez's 10-year run as AL Gold Glove catcher 28 Jose Molina R/R 27 On opening day roster for first time in 11-year pro career INFIELDERS 22 David Eckstein R/R 28 Led league in sacrifice bunts, times hit by pitch -- and grand slams 20 Brad Fullmer L/R 28 Hit .373 in September, .294 in playoffs 10 Benji Gil R/R 30 Eight for 12 in playoffs, including four for five in World Series 25 Troy Glaus R/R 26 Only Angel to hit 40 homers, and he has done it twice 2 Adam Kennedy L/R 27 Hit three homers in postseason game, just like Babe and Reggie 23 Scott Spiezio B/R 30 Coolest day job of any wannabe rock star 44 Shawn Wooten R/R 30 Career .322 hitter; batted .474 (nine for 19) in playoffs OUTFIELDERS 16 Garret Anderson L/L 30 Fourth-place MVP finish highest by Angel since DeCinces (1982) 55 Jeff DaVanon B/R 29 Sent to triple A on night he drove in four runs last season 17 Darin Erstad L/L 28 From 2000-02, Derek Jeter is only AL player with more hits 8 Eric Owens R/R 32 Stole 26 bases for Marlins last year; no Angel stole that many 15 Tim Salmon R/R 34 Last Angel opening-day RF before him: Von Hayes (1992)

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-- Bill Shaikin

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