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SPORTS EXTRA / BASEBALL '99

Looking Beyond the West

Angels: A division title would be great, but Finley & Co. want more.

April 04, 1999|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An American League West championship would be a significant step forward for an Angel franchise that hasn't won a division title in 13 years and has stumbled every time it neared the threshold of the playoffs, finishing a disappointing second in three of the last four seasons.

But Angel players are thinking more along the lines of a Carl Lewis-like leap in 1999, setting their sights beyond the division title and the first round of the playoffs.

"These guys know we're ready to win, and to win big," said pitcher Chuck Finley, the staff ace who is starting his 14th season with the Angels. "You better look way past the division title. It's a big deal, but it's not that big a deal.

"Look at Texas. They won the division last year, and three [playoff] games later they were home. I'm looking to go all the way, and I feel this team has a legitimate chance."

Wishful thinking on the part of a veteran who has never pitched in the World Series and is nearing the end of his career? Or a realistic projection about a team on the verge of a breakthrough season?

Time--and pitching, clutch hitting, defense, injuries, the ability to bolster the team before the trading deadline and, knowing the Angels, just plain luck--will tell.

But at least the Angels, the trendy pick to win the West by many national publications, can see some tangible signs of improvement over a team that led the West by two games Sept. 14 before fading in the final two weeks and finishing three games behind the Texas Rangers.

First (base) and foremost, there is slugger Mo Vaughn, the $80-million man who is expected to add considerable pop to an offense that, save for center fielder Jim Edmonds, fizzled last September.

There is pitcher Tim Belcher, the veteran right-hander who should provide durability and experience to a rotation that lacked both for large chunks of 1998.

There is a sound Ken Hill, who was sidelined for 2 1/2 months after surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow in June.

There is no Gary DiSarcina for the first half of the season--the loss of the shortstop because of a broken forearm dealt a severe blow to the team--but there is still a core of outstanding young players--Edmonds, Tim Salmon, Darin Erstad, Garret Anderson, Todd Greene and Troy Percival--that is a year older and wiser, both hardened and motivated by another frustrating finish.

"It's neat to see you're not a team that's rebuilding anymore, that you're a team in the hunt and things are expected of you," said Salmon, who is returning to right field after a foot injury limited him to designated hitter for most of 1998. "This is the first year where we're not filling gaps in the lineup with veterans on their way out. You look around and see a lot of talent."

Scoring runs should not be a problem for the Angels, and with left-handers Erstad, Edmonds and Vaughn at the top of the order, there will be nights when the Angels pulverize ineffective right-handed pitchers.

Some believe the Angel lineup--especially on the nights Greene catches--may even be explosive enough to hang with the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians, the league's elite teams.

But, as always, the question is: Do the Angels have enough pitching to win the division title and the pennant?

"I don't know if you can ever have enough pitching," Salmon said. "It's no secret, the teams that win have good pitching staffs who are healthy all year. I hate to put the onus on their shoulders, but that's how it is. Look at Seattle. They have all the offense in the world, and they haven't gotten it done.

"We have some good pitchers, but do we have the depth of the Yankees, the Braves, the Indians? What concerns me more is pitching in September, because that's when guys are wearing down."

If Finley, Hill and Belcher remain injury-free and knuckleballer Steve Sparks is as effective as he was in 1998, the Angels should relieve the burden on their bullpen, which was overworked to the point of exhaustion last season.

All four starters are capable of throwing 200 innings or more, especially Belcher, who is one of four major leaguers to have thrown at least 200 innings a season since 1991, excluding the strike-shortened 1994 and '95 seasons.

"Adding Belcher is huge," Finley said. "He's gonna make those guys in the bullpen feel like they're 18 again."

If only he could have the same effect on the rotation. Finley, the left-handed workhorse, is 36 and hasn't won more than 13 games since 1996. Belcher, as reliable as he is, is 37, and Hill's elbow has more wear and tear than his 33 years would suggest.

Though Sparks (9-4, 4.34 earned-run average) and fifth starter Omar Olivares (9-9, 4.03 ERA) held an injury-plagued rotation together, Sparks can give up runs in bunches on the nights his knuckler isn't dancing. And one wonders how long Olivares can continue being one of the league's best escape artists, working out of jams he causes with his walks.

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