As recently as 1983, the Angels reigned as baseball's foremost mercenaries. They assembled their lineup the way Mercedes Benz sells cars--imports only.
Remember how the '83 Angels were put together:
Catcher--Bob Boone. Purchased from Philadelphia.
First base--Rod Carew. Traded from Minnesota.
Second base--Bobby Grich. Free-agent signing.
Third base--Doug DeCinces. Traded from Baltimore.
Shortstop--Tim Foli. Traded from Pittsburgh.
Left field--Brian Downing. Traded from Chicago White Sox.
Center field--Fred Lynn. Traded from Boston.
Right field--Reggie Jackson. Free-agent signing.
It was owner Gene Autry's brand of antique collecting. An aging superstar here, a burned-out marquee name there. Oh, sure, the Angels had a farm system, but it wasn't meant to be trusted. In the Angel organization, in those days, the term \o7 prospect \f7 translated roughly into \o7 trade bait\f7 .
Flash ahead four years. Next Tuesday, the Angels will open their 1987 season. And included in their regular lineup will be:
First base--Wally Joyner, selected in the draft of '83.
Second base--Mark McLemore, draft of '82.
Shortstop--Dick Schofield, draft of '81.
Center field--Gary Pettis, draft of '79.
Right field--Devon White, draft of '81.
Left field--Jack Howell, signed out of college in 1983.
That's six out of eight position players, each of them hand-picked and home-grown. One of them was runner-up in the 1986 American League Rookie of the Year balloting. Another is a favorite for the 1987 award. Another already has a pair of Gold Glove trophies to his credit.
Once considered as barren and neglected as the Siberian tundra, the Angel farm system now is generally regarded as being among the top half-dozen in baseball. The new faces keep coming--Chuck Finley, Gus Polidor, Mike Cook, Willie Fraser. And more are on their way--Dante Bichette, Lee Stevens, Todd Eggersten, David Martinez, Mike Fetters.
"I'm proud of it," says Mike Port, who is beginning his third season as general manager of the Angels. Port calls the development of the Angel farm system "my very favorite topic," and he means it.
"I call it baseball's version of 'Research and Development'--new product, if you will," Port said. "A prosperous farm system gives you so much flexibility. You can patch a position in your lineup if you lose a player to injury. You always have your own reservoir of talent available.
"You look at the clubs that have been most stable over a period of time--Baltimore, Kansas City, Detroit, certainly the Dodgers. On balance, they have avoided signing free agents and have emphasized a well-functioning developmental system. Their objective is signing good young players and having them make it as major league players."
The Angels learned this the hard way. The get-a-pennant-quick scheme was a flat-out bust. Between 1978 and 1984, their forays into the free-agent market produced such disposables as Merv Rettenmund, Jim Barr, Fred Patek, John D'Acquisto, Bill Travers and Frank LaCorte. Not only did the Angels fail to get a return for their investment, they lost draft choices every time they signed a free agent.
Said Port: "We figured it out that between 1979 and 1982, because of re-entry signings, we averaged a loss of four selections every June draft. When you consider some of the people we were able to draft in that period--Tom Brunansky, Dick Schofield, Bob Kipper--we might have had a lot of fun if we had hung on to those selections."
The most telling example was the Angels' 1981 draft. In the first round, they selected Schofield, who has been their starting shortstop since 1984. In the sixth round, they picked White, their 1987 right fielder. In between, they selected no one. Free agency had stripped them of four rounds' worth of draft choices.
"Just imagine what those picks between Schofield and White would have been," said Bill Bavasi, the Angels' director of minor league operations.
The Angels also lost their first two picks in 1979 and 1980 for signing Barr, Patek and Bruce Kison and tampering with Bill Bordley.
In this instance, Port figured it was much better to receive than to give. Since 1983, the Angels have signed just one free agent--Ruppert Jones--but have lost several. And as they did, they began to stockpile draft choices and rebuild their depleted minor-league talent pool.
When Don Baylor signed with the New York Yankees, the Angels gained an additional third-round pick in the 1983 draft. That selection eventually turned out to be Wally Joyner.
Last year, they received two first-round picks apiece from the Yankees (for Al Holland) and Baltimore (for Juan Beniquez), giving the Angels five of the first 28 selections. Their 1986 haul--pitchers Roberto Hernandez, Mike Fetters and Darryl Green and outfielders Lee Stevens and Terry Carr--has been hailed as the finest in more than a decade.
And because they let Reggie Jackson re-enlist with the Oakland A's, the Angels stand to gain two more picks in this June's draft--giving them four in the first round.
Port enjoys this game.