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Baseball '90 PREVIEW : Angels: Better, But So Is Division : Preview: Langston solidifies pitching, but team needs more runs to compete with defending champion A's and stronger Royals.

April 09, 1990|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Angels admire the versatility of the Oakland A's pitching staff and are modeling theirs along the same lines.

Angel Manager Doug Rader admires A's Manager Tony LaRussa for what he calls LaRussa's "feel for the needs of other people." Rader successfully incorporated that sensitivity into his own approach last season, which helped turn the Angels into contenders for most of 1989.

But will Rader and the Angels admire Oakland from afar again this season, or can they close the eight-game gap that separated them from the eventual World Series champions?

"You have to say the A's have been the class of baseball the last two years, but I think our offense is better and we've improved ourselves pitching-wise," pitcher Kirk McCaskill said. "The key will be offense. We just didn't score enough runs to win the whole thing.

"That big lead we had in home runs (early in the season) disguised the fact that we really weren't scoring many runs. We were regarded as an offensive team, but that really wasn't the case."

Although they added prize free-agent pitcher Mark Langston, they haven't added any impact players to their offense since last season. A solid leadoff hitter is a more urgent need than the power-hitting outfielder that General Manager Mike Port has said he'd like to acquire, and they could have the perfect leadoff man in Devon White--if White can only be convinced of that.

Here are 10 questions and possible answers regarding the Angels' season:

Q: How will the Angels deal with their pitching riches?

A: Carefully.

"Having such a great staff makes it fun every night, not just the night you go out there," Langston said. "Knowing the team is going to be in the ballgame every night makes it a lot of fun."

For all the talk about giving up one of their six starters to acquire a run-producing outfielder, Port is more likely to let his assets accrue interest for a while. Aside from the uncertainty about the starters' readiness following the lockout-shortened spring, the Angels could command a much higher price later, when other teams gauge their pitching shortcomings and the Angels' strengths.

The Angels could devise a formidable left-right-left-right-left sequence with left-handers Mark Langston, Chuck Finley and Jim Abbott and right-handers McCaskill and Bert Blyleven. That would be more than enough to keep any team off balance. Mike Witt seems to be the outsider, but he's valuable insurance, especially until the starters' condition can be ascertained. And if he gets off to a good start, he could increase his value on the trade market.

Pitching coach Marcel Lachemann has setup men, finishers and long relievers galore. Bryan Harvey fought control problems (41 walks in 55 innings) but emerged as a top short reliever with 25 saves. Scott Bailes can go long or short. It may be a matter of getting each enough work to be effective.

Q: What are the Angels' strengths?

A: Not to be repetitive, but their strong suit is pitching.

Langston, lured to Anaheim by a five-year, $16-million contract, is one of the game's top left-handers. Although he was only 74-67 with Seattle, he played for some dreadful teams and will prosper with a strong defense behind him. Whether Blyleven, at age 39, can repeat last season's 17 victories is questionable, but there appears to be enough depth and talent everywhere else to compensate if he doesn't. Finley joined the ranks of the AL's elite last season and McCaskill crashed some barriers, too.

The biggest questions surround Witt. The 29-year-old right-hander's win total has decreased and his ERA has increased in each of the last three seasons, leaving him with a 9-15 record and 4.54 ERA in 1989. Can he rebound? Can he be content as a spot starter? Can he pack quickly if Port trades him?

Fielding was another strength last season for the Angels, whose team fielding percentage of .985 ranked second to league-leading Baltimore by .001. The slick infield provided the foundation for the pitching staff's success last season and will be crucial again.

White has been a Gold Glove winner in center field each of the past two seasons, and the sterling glovework of third baseman Jack Howell, whose .974 fielding percentage was tops in the major leagues, helps compensate for his light bat. Shortstop Dick Schofield has led AL shortstops in fielding three times, and three-time Gold Glove winner Lance Parrish is still among the game's top defensive catchers.

They compare well with Oakland and Kansas City in pitching and defense.

Q: So, what are their weaknesses?

Runs. Or more precisely, the lack thereof. Chili Davis was the top run-producer last season with 90 RBIs, which was among the lowest team-leading totals in the AL. The Angels ranked 11th in team hitting and 12th in RBIs despite leading the AL with 145 home runs, statistics which seem paradoxical but can only mean that they hit a lot of bases-empty homers. Their on-base percentage of .311 was 13th and they struck out a collective 1,011 times, most in the league.

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