MESA, Ariz. — The pitching rotation is as thin as Kent Tekulve beyond the first three spots. The infielders have provided little power. There isn't much team speed.
Yet, it's with a straight face and firm conviction that Angel Manager Marcel Lachemann says this team can contend for the American League West title.
Is this the eternal optimism of spring or a realistic possibility?
Definitely one. Maybe the other.
Baseball's worst division has not improved much this season, but Lachemann believes he has the one weapon that could push the Angels into contention: bullpen stopper Lee Smith.
The AL West was so bad in 1994 that the Angels finished with a league-worst 47-68 record and still were only 5 1/2 games behind division-leading Texas when the strike began.
But that was when Lachemann employed a musical-closer rotation of Joe Grahe, Mark Leiter and Russ Springer, and had the worst bullpen in the league.
Now he has Smith, the 37-year-old, free-agent acquisition from Baltimore who has averaged 42 saves the past four seasons. The hard-throwing right-hander converted 33 of 39 save opportunities last season for 85%, while the Angel bullpen converted 21 of 32 for 66%.
Project Smith's conversion ratio to the Angels' 1994 bullpen, and they wind up with six more victories. And a half-game ahead of the Rangers.
"I think a guy like Lee is worth more than five wins just by himself," Lachemann said. "When you have a guy like that in the ninth inning, you don't worry about whether he's facing lefties or righties. You just give him the ball. I like our bullpen much more now than I did last year."
The Angels must improve in other areas if Smith is going to have many save opportunities, though. Left-handers Mark Langston, Chuck Finley and Brian Anderson provide a solid pitching foundation, but Lachemann needs a good right-handed starter to emerge during spring training.
The infield is good defensively, but first baseman J.T. Snow, second baseman Damion Easley, shortstop Gary DiSarcina and third basemen Eduardo Perez and Spike Owen combined for only 25 home runs and 146 runs batted in last season.
Chicago White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas (38) and Boston Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn (26) each had more homers in '94.
Right fielder Tim Salmon and designated hitter Chili Davis provide a good power base, but the Angels need another big bat. And with center fielder Chad Curtis the only legitimate base-stealing threat, they must find ways to generate more offense.
A closer look at the Angels, by position:
Langston underwent surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow last April and had a sub-par season, going 7-8 with an un-Langston-like 4.68 earned-run average. But his injury paved the way for Anderson's quick rise to the majors, where the young left-hander went 7-5 as a rookie.
Now the Angels, whose 5.42 team ERA in '94 was the worst in club history, have a sound Langston and a wiser Anderson. Throw in the veteran Finley, who is entering his 10th season with the Angels, and Lachemann has a solid trio of returning starters.
But the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation make him squirm. Left-hander Joe Magrane, trying to rebound from elbow surgery and a 2-6 season, and Andrew Lorraine, a 22-year-old lefty who was impressive in triple-A last season but may not be ready for the big leagues, are candidates.
So are right-hander Julio Valera, who has not pitched in the majors since elbow surgery in 1993, and 27-year-old righty Shawn Boskie, a non-roster invitee to spring training who pitched for three teams--the Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies and Seattle Mariners--last season.
"Somebody from that group has got to have a year that wasn't expected of them," Lachemann said.
There has been a major upgrade since last season. Smith gives the Angels their first legitimate closer since Bryan Harvey, and it is expected that lefty Mitch Williams will be more comfortable in a setup role, meaning he will probably be asked only to get a tough left-handed hitter out.
Troy Percival, whose fastball has been consistently clocked at more than 90 m.p.h., is being groomed as the team's next closer, but he'll likely play a bigger mid-inning to late-inning role early in the season because starters won't be strong enough to go past the fifth or sixth.
Right-handed power pitchers Springer and Mike Butcher add depth, and the two starting candidates who don't win jobs in the rotation could move to the bullpen.
Injuries limited Greg Myers to 45 games in '94, but Lachemann believes the left-handed hitter can bat in the .260 range with some power and do an adequate job behind the plate. Andy Allanson, a non-roster invitee with extensive major league experience, and youngsters Chris Turner (.242 in '94) and Jorge Fabregas (.283) will battle for the backup job.