Suppose Devon White turns out to be more Willie Crawford than Willie Wilson. Suppose rookie second baseman Mark McLemore can't hit his weight. Suppose Jack Howell gets lost in left and Wally Joyner can't rediscover the batting stroke that left him sometime around last year's All-Star break.
If the grand youth-and-speed experiment proves to be a premature gamble and the Angel offense has to strain to crank out one and two runs a game, what's to prevent the defending American League West champions from turning belly-up in the defense of their title?
Gene Mauch has a simple, plain, two-word answer.
"Starting pitching," he said.
To Mauch, Mike Witt, Kirk McCaskill, John Candelaria, Don Sutton and Urbano Lugo represent more than the usual five-man rotation. To Mauch, that quintet is the Angels' ultimate safety valve.
"The influx of young players we have this year could be dangerous," Mauch conceded. "We're breaking in three or four new kids.
"But we have solid starting pitching. And pitching is such a high percentage of every ballgame. That's why I feel comfortable with this team."
Some background is needed here. Mauch has managed a lot of teams over the past quarter-century, but never a lot of pitching. Take away Jim Bunning and Chris Short and name a starting pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies of the 1960s. Name a starting pitcher for the Minnesota Twins of the late 1970s. Name any pitcher for the expansion Montreal Expos.
Mauch managed--endured?--all of them, so it's easy to understand why he looks at his current Angel staff as a veritable embarrassment of riches.
In 1986, the Angels were the only team in the American League with three 15-game winners. Witt went 18-10 with a 2.84 earned-run average, McCaskill finished 17-10 and Sutton--en route to his 300th career victory--wound up 15-11.
This year, the goal is four 15-game winners. Candelaria, who went 10-2 in half a season, is expected to make the jump when he pitches a full season.
"That's not an unreasonable statement," said Marcel Lachemann, Angel pitching coach. "All of them have won at least 15 games before. Three of them did it last year, and the only reason the other didn't is because he was only in there for three months."
Having Candelaria back from 1986 arm surgery is one additional asset to the 1987 rotation. The other is Lugo, who could give the Angels the consistency in the No. 5 spot that Jim Slaton, Ron Romanick, Mike Cook, Ray Chadwick and Vern Ruhle could not provide last summer.
It could shape up as the best starting staff in the American League this season. And, considering the uncertainty sprinkled throughout the batting order, the Angels may need it to be just that.
A closer look at the Angels' starting five:
Potential finally kicked in during 1986 and Witt, at 26, took his place among the best pitchers in baseball.
He made the AL All-Star team for the first time. He finished third behind Roger Clemens and Ted Higuera in the AL Cy Young voting. He was voted the Angels' most valuable player by his teammates.
When Witt won 18 regular-season games and beat Clemens, 8-1, in Game 1 of the playoffs, his name began popping up alongside Dwight Gooden, Fernando Valenzuela and Jack Morris in barroom conversations across America.
Lachemann wonders why it took so long.
"I don't think that's something the rest of baseball didn't already know," Lachemann said. "He was already a good pitcher the previous two seasons. He won 15 games both years."
Until last season, Witt was widely regarded as the big kid who almost could--an unharnessed talent who won some, but because of his own mental lapses or the offensive lapses by his teammates, never won big. For years, the typical Mike Witt defeat was 3-2 or 2-1. And again last season, the Angels managed to score two runs or fewer in half of Witt's losses.
Tough luck . . . or an inability to tough out the close ones? Lachemann suggests another reason.
"Mike's our No. 1 guy. A lot of times, he gets matched up with the other team's No. 1 guy," Lachemann said. "The other guy is going to hold your team down, too. Mike gets involved in a lot of low-scoring games. He more than held his own."
Already this spring, Witt put together a streak of 29 outs without allowing a hit, and after his first five starts, his ERA was 1.50.
"All my pitches are there," Witt said. "I don't think they can get much better than where they're at now."
"It would be very difficult for him to improve on anything," he said. "It's hard to say. Maybe he can move his fastball in and out of the strike zone a little more.
"Basically, he just has to maintain what he has."
McCaskill, a former hockey player, has come on faster than a slap shot from the point. In May 1985, he was an 0-4 rookie. By October 1985, he was 12-12. And by October 1986, he was 17-10 with a 3.36 ERA and 202 strikeouts in 246 innings.
"Last year, Kirk became one of the premier pitchers in the league," Lachemann said.