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ANGELS 1988 PREVIEW SECTION : Team's Expectations Rely on Some Questionable Arms : Staff's Recovery Is Key to Reverse of '87 Collapse

April 01, 1988|MIKE PENNER | Times Staff Writer

What goes around always manages to come around, but never, in even their darkest visions, did the Angels anticipate just how swiftly fortune's wheel could turn.

In the space of precisely one calendar year, the Angels have come full circle--from first place to last place in the American League West, from baseball's oldest manager to its newest, from a team built on pitching to a team desperate for it.

Seldom has change hammered one team so hard so quickly.

Spring, 1987. A good time to be an Angel. The AL West title was theirs to defend, and with a starting rotation boasting Mike Witt, Kirk McCaskill, John Candelaria and Don Sutton, confidence drenched the club's training camp.

"I was the cockiest man in the world," said Gene Mauch, the manager of that team. "I was popping off all the time about our great pitching staff. I didn't have a question in the world.

"But," he added with almost a wince, "I lost my credibility in trying to analyze a pitching staff.

Spring, 1988. The Angel mood is several degrees more somber now, tempered after having been burned in 1987. A collapse must be repaired, a 75-87 record must be reversed. And a pitching staff that once held no questions now must find answers that are not necessarily forthcoming.

All this has been dumped into the lap of a new manager, Cookie Rojas.

Mauch has retired, citing health reasons and a desire to place the club in younger hands. Gone, too, are Candelaria and Sutton, lost in the Angel pitching purge of '87.

What happened to Angel pitching last season is a tremendous argument against banking on blueprints and icing champagne in March. The harder the sell, the harder the fall--and last season, the Greatest Angel Rotation in History fell flat on its aspirations.

McCaskill went from 17 victories in '86 to four in '87, with a stop on the surgeon's table and a three-month stint on the disabled list along the way.

Candelaria, the American League's comeback player of the year in '86, set the stage for a reprise of that award-winning performance in '88. Last season, Candelaria had more arrests for suspicion of drunk driving (two) than complete games, and more days spent in a rehabilitation center (28) than starts. He won eight games with the Angels and wound up a New York Met by the first week in September.

Sutton, who made history in '86 with his 300th career victory, established a different kind of precedent in '87--serving up a whopping 38 home runs in 34 starts, a record for Angel pitchers. He was released a month after an 11-11, 4.70 season.

Urbano Lugo, supposedly the solution to the club's ongoing fifth-starter dilemma, instead provided only Urbano blight. Five starts and he was gone, taking his 9.32 ERA to Edmonton, never to be heard from again.

Even Witt, the only starter to remain standing by season's end, developed blemishes. Witt won 16 games and made the all-star team again, but he was no longer the Angels' pillar of stability. A troublesome shoulder knocked him out of starts earlier than before, his ERA rose to 4.01 and he failed to pitch a shutout for the first time since 1983.

As with the others, Witt nearly left once the season was over, closely examining free-agent enticements from Oakland and the New York Yankees before finally re-upping with the Angels for $2.8 million for two years.

That's a whale of a price for a 16-14 pitcher--remember when the Angels told Nolan Ryan sayonara after a 16-14 season?--but when all your other options are depleted, you brace yourself for some healthy inflation.

Besides Witt, this is how the Angels' new, but not necessarily improved, rotation shapes up for 1988:

--No. 2 starter: McCaskill, trying it again after arthroscopic elbow surgery, a 4-6, 5.67 season and a six-month layoff.

--No. 3 starter: Dan Petry, another post-op pitcher who went 9-7 with a 5.61 ERA in 1987, wrenched his back during the first week of spring drills and was shelled in each of his first three exhibition outings.

--No. 4 starter: Willie Fraser, 10-10 as a rookie but only 7-9 with a 4.34 ERA in the role of a starter. He, too, suffered through arm ailments last year--specifically, shoulder fatigue--and yielded 25 home runs in 23 starts.

--No. 5 starter: Chuck Finley, the latest experiment here, a former mop-up reliever with three professional starts to his credit. The Angels were 4-31 during games Finley pitched in 1987.

Combined, this quintet went 41-44 with a 4.54 ERA last season. Not exactly the kind of numbers that fan the flames of pennant fever.

At spring's outset, however, Mauch went out of his way to recite the best-case scenario, hoping that somebody might be listening.

"You'd like to feel Mike Witt will have as good a year as he's ever had," Mauch said. "And that's 18 wins.

"I feel the same way about McCaskill--17 wins--and why couldn't he? I feel the same way about Petry--18 or 19 wins. And why couldn't he do that?

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