The Angels open their Silver Anniversary season Tuesday night amid timeless concerns regarding pitching, depth, age and offensive consistency.
They open their 25th season with the inherent optimism of spring and the seemingly legitimate view that a reborn intensity enhances their ability to compete in the weaker of the American League's two divisions, the West.
It seems appropriate that the Little General, Gene Mauch, has returned to direct what could be a final stand for the Old Guard.
The Angels introduced four rookies--Gary Pettis, Dick Schofield, Ron Romanick and Mike Brown--last year. They will open the new season with two more--relief pitcher Pat Clements and reserve infielder Craig Gerber.
The actions of General Manager Mike Port have made it clear that owners Gene and Jackie Autry now want to build from within, reducing the payroll and a reliance on big-name free agents.
Last year's emotionless team stayed alive in the West with a .500 record, ultimately finishing tied for second, three games behind Kansas City.
On this year's blend of old and new, Mauch reflected and said: "I just don't think anybody is better (in the West). The things we wanted most have surfaced . . . the absolute necessity of the center fielder (Pettis), shortstop (Schofield) and catcher (Bob Boone) to hit better, the finding of a left-hander in the pen (Clements) and generating some excitement in the older guys' actions.
"I've eaten a lot of March words in April and a lot of April words in June, but I meant 'em when I said 'em," Mauch said.
"If these guys play to their capability, and I'm assuming they will, they can't be beaten."
The keys seem to be:
1--GARY PETTIS (and the Schofield-Boone Connection): Mauch has already said that if the Angels are to win, Pettis must play center field regularly, and for Pettis to play regularly, he must reach base 200 to 225 times. That translates, in Mauch's view, to at least 75 stolen bases, 100 runs from the leadoff position and a Gold Glove defender between Brian Downing and Reggie Jackson, whose range is limited.
Mauch's goal is for Pettis, who batted .227 last year, Schofield (.193) and Boone (.202) to combine for a 100-point improvement. He got it during the spring as Boone hit .304, Schofield hit .277 and Pettis hit .247 despite 20 strikeouts in 81 at-bats.
Mauch should help keep them on track by playing a team brand of offense, sometimes known as Little Ball. Pettis was taught the rudiments during two winter visits to former National League batting champion Harry Walker.
"You don't learn a new technique overnight," Mauch said. "I don't expect a miracle, but I do have the feeling that Gary Pettis might just explode. He can put a run on the board in a New York minute--once he's on first base."
2--DONNIE MOORE AND PAT CLEMENTS: Moore, 31, led the Atlanta bullpen last year, blossoming after parts of eight modest seasons with the Cubs, Cardinals, Brewers and Braves to convert 16-of-19 save opportunities.
Clements, 23, became a relief pitcher in only his second pro season. He was 4-2 with nine saves at Waterbury of the double-A Eastern League, then filled Mauch's No. 1 priority with a banner spring.
Now Moore and Clements are the right- and left-handed stoppers in a bullpen expected to include Doug Corbett, Luis Sanchez and Jim Slaton. Mauch feels it is superior in depth and ability to his 1982 bullpen, which helped the Angels win the West. The view is expected to be tested by a rotation that finished only 22% of its starts last year.
"We have to keep the game under control to give our offense a chance to produce," Mauch said. "The depth should allow us to do that on nights when the starter can't."
Clements, in particular, should be a key. He will be asked to get left-handed hitters on a frequent basis. Mauch has never hesitated using young pitchers and never hesitated riding a hot arm. Mauch likes Clements' poise and the trust he has shown in his own stuff.
"There's a pretty good likelihood that Clements won't always get that left-hander out, but if his percentage is good, that's all I care about," Mauch said.
3--REGGIE Even now, soon to be 39 and coming off seasons in which he hit .194 and .223, Jackson remains what Bobby Grich calls the hub of the wheel, a charismatic personality and hitter whose contributions ignite the bench and often seem to be contagious.
Striking out at the 1983 ratio of every 2.8 at-bats, Jackson is a debilitating factor in the heart of the order. Making frequent contact, as he did this spring when he hit .333, he eases the load on Downing and Doug DeCinces, the other RBI men, and supplies the horsepower in the manner that Pettis provides the ignition.
The Angels averaged more than 5 runs and 10 hits a game as Jackson returned to right field, erased Mike Brown's candidacy as Fred Lynn's replacement and seemed to confirm Mauch's belief that (1) he's more productive the more involved he is, and (2) he's still capable of being a complete hitter and player.