The Angels, a ballclub with a distinctive sense of timing, chose Friday afternoon as the day to hand 42-year-old pitcher Don Sutton his unconditional release--the same day No. 1 starting pitcher Mike Witt officially filed for free agency.
Thus, in a matter of a hours, the Angels found themselves, at least temporarily, without the two top pitchers on their 1987 staff. Witt was 15-12 with the Angels last season, while Sutton was 11-11. Unless the Angels sign either of them, 22-year-old Willie Fraser (10-9) will open training camp in 1988 as the team's top incumbent starter.
The Angels have until early January to re-sign Witt, and General Manager Mike Port has listed that task as his foremost priority. But after two full seasons in Anaheim, Sutton, ranked 11th on the all-time list with 321 career victories, appears to have pitched his final game as an Angel.
In a brief news release, Port announced that the Angels had decided not to exercise the option on Sutton's contract and granted the pitcher his unconditional release. In 1987, Sutton earned a base salary of $550,000 plus $340,000 in incentives, based on the number of games he started.
"We appreciate what Don Sutton has done for this club and baseball in general," said Port in the statement. "He has given us some wonderful moments. Don is a good friend and a well-respected professional for what he has done throughout his career."
Port was unavailable for comment. Before the move was announced, he vacated his Anaheim Stadium office and left for West Palm Beach, Fla., where next week's annual general managers meetings will be held.
But earlier this month, Port expressed doubts about re-signing Sutton, citing the pitcher's decreasing stamina. Sutton lasted 5 innings or less in 13 of his 34 starts.
"We'd like to be more assured of getting seven, or (at) least six, innings from our starting pitchers," Port said. "Our manager was having to look to the bullpen by the third, fourth and fifth innings. That makes the hill we're trying to climb that much more difficult."
Sutton, working with a 96-pitch limit last season, went 11-11 with 12 no decisions--down from 15-11 in 1986 and 15-10 in 1985. His earned-run average was 4.70, nearly a whole run higher than his 1986 mark of 3.74, and he established the club's single-season record for most home runs allowed with 38.
Yet, Jim Riskas, Sutton's agent, claimed surprise over Port's decision.
"Realistically, we thought we'd get (the contract) renewed," Riskas said. "As I understand it, Don's won-lost record was better than the Angels' won-lost record. . . . Don put in a lot of innings this year and, for the most part, he kept the team in the hunt.
"Realistically, it looked to us that the Angels' pitching situation didn't dictate letting him go. Here's a guy who gives you 200 innings a year, he's a proven starter and there's the fact that he and the Angels have always gotten along well. For those purposes, I thought there was an excellent chance he'd be back.
"Don's not going to win you 20 games but every year, you can pencil in 10 to 15 wins and 200 innings for him. How many teams have fourth or fifth starters who can guarantee that? There are a lot of teams that would like to have a third starter with those credentials."
The possibility exists that the Angels could later renegotiate with Sutton and sign him for a lesser figure for 1988, as the club did with Ruppert Jones last winter, but an Angel source termed it "highly unlikely."
After 22 major-league seasons, Sutton ranks second on the all-time list in games started (740); fifth in strikeouts (3,530); eighth in innings pitched (5194); and 17th in games pitched (758). Sutton has expressed a desire to surpass Cy Young's record of 818 games started, which would mean Sutton pitching for at least two more years.
Sutton would also like to stay in Southern California and Riskas said he planned to contact the Dodgers and the San Diego Padres. Sutton began his career with the Dodgers, winning 231 games for them between 1966 and 1980.
"Being close to home is important to Don," Riskas said. "But we just don't know if there are plans for him in either the Dodgers' or the Padres' rotations.
"It's sad, that's all. Don wants to keep pitching, but he may have to go on the road for that one extra year or those two extra years."
Along with Mike Witt, pitcher Jerry Reuss also filed for free agency Friday. Reuss, 38, was 4-5 with a 5.25 ERA with the Angels last season. . . . Outfielder Gary Pettis underwent what the Angels termed "successful surgery" on his left hand Thursday at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles. The surgery was performed to repair a ligament between the ring and middle finger on Pettis' left hand. . . . The Angels announced their coaching staff for 1988, with bullpen coach Joe Coleman the only new addition. Coleman replaces Bob Clear, who has retired. Returning will be pitching coach Marcel Lachemann, hitting coaches Moose Stubing and Rick Down, infield coach Bobby Knoop and conditioning coach Jimmy Reese.