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PREVIEW '93 : Angel Front-Office Image Hangs on Babes in the Field

April 04, 1993|BOB NIGHTENGALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Whitey Herzog is seated in the hot desert sun, slowly rocking back and forth, chewing nervously on tobacco, telling stories from his playing and managing days, sprinkling in a few jokes. But his eyes refuse to leave the batter.

The Angel hitter slaps a soft grounder to shortstop for an easy out. Herzog curses, slaps his right hand across his forehead, grimaces in disgust, spits into a cup and sits there shaking his head.

"I don't know, maybe I expect too much," said Herzog, Angel vice president/baseball personnel. "It's like I expect them to be perfect. They're just kids. It's going to take some time and we know that better than anyone.

"I don't know, maybe it's just that I'm so anxious, we're all so anxious, just to see what they can do. And I know damn well they can do better than this."

The kids.

They've been the focus of the Angels' camp this entire spring and will continue to be throughout the 1993 season, which opens Tuesday against the Milwaukee Brewers at Anaheim Stadium. They've been the focus of private front-office meetings. They've been the focus of meetings between Manager Buck Rodgers and his staff. Even the Autrys find themselves discussing the subject during dinner.

The Angels, who open the season with five players in the everyday lineup with less than two year's experience, have convinced themselves this is the right way. No more philosophy changes. No more foolish trades of prospects for aging veterans. No more extravagant free-agent spending.

"This organization suffered from inconsistency in their past," said Angel President Richard Brown, "and when you're as inconsistent as we have been, people are suspect. I think people want to see if we change our plan again if we hit rough times, and to be quite honest, I don't blame them."

This is why the Angels never dared to publicly exhibit their apprehensiveness about the youth movement this spring. It was painful for them to concede that starter Russ Springer and Jerry Nielsen, the two pitchers obtained in the Jim Abbott trade, may not be ready for the big leagues.

"I don't know what happened to those guys," Herzog said. "When we saw Springer last year, he was overpowering people, throwing in the 90s. He comes to camp, and the first time he pitches, I swear to God it looked like he never pitched before.

"The other guy, my God, he could thread a needle with his control last year. Now, he's throwing the ball right down the middle of the plate."

Springer and Nielsen weren't the only Angel only worries this spring. First baseman J.T. Snow, the key player in the Abbott trade, struggled most of the spring, and was hitting only .173 until the final week of camp.

Rookie right fielder Tim Salmon, the Minor League Player of the Year, was hovering around the Mendoza line until the final few days. Center fielder Chad Curtis was batting .207 when camp broke, and second baseman Damion Easley--who missed the first two weeks of games with shin splints--was hitting .250.

In a year that's designed to develop their youth, the Angels' biggest surprises of the spring were veterans. Starter John Farrell, who missed the last two seasons because of elbow surgeries, made the starting rotation. Third baseman Gary Gaetti, trying to prove he's not finished, broke camp with a team-leading 12 RBIs. Scott Sanderson, signed only because the Angels didn't know Farrell still could pitch, proved that he could be a capable starter.

Yet, the Angels were frustrated because Springer failed to make the rotation and Julio Valera came down with a tender elbow. The only newcomer to the Angel bullpen may be 32-year-old Gene Nelson. And the winners of the two vacant utility jobs are infielder Torey Lovullo, 27, who's playing in his third organization, and probably Jerome Walton, 27, who was released by the Chicago Cubs.

"People kept telling me the kids were uptight all spring," Herzog said, "and that's how come they didn't perform well.

"How the hell can you be tight in spring training, huh? There was no competition for some jobs, and others we tried to give away.

"I'm sure there were fans who came down here this spring, looked at the guys we've been talking about all winter, and wonder if we know what we're doing.

"I've told our people, and I had a meeting with the coaches, and said it's too early to be worried. You can't make judgments in spring training. Now, if they're still struggling like this in June, that's a different story. Then we've all got something to worry about . . . like our jobs."

Herzog broke out laughing, but in truth, there's something quite critical at stake: The reputation of an organization.

"And I've listened to enough talk shows and read enough fan mail," Brown said, "to know that it isn't too good right now."

It's rather simple. If the Angels' youth movement flourishes this season, the front office will look like geniuses. If they flop . . .

"We'll look like idiots," Brown said.

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