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SPRING TRAINING PREVIEW

Angels Facing Uphill Battle

Baseball: With aging veterans and unpredictable pitching, they have little room for error.

February 15, 2001|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TEMPE, Ariz. — The nerve of all these preseason publications picking the Angels to finish last in the American League West.

A closer look at their roster reveals a rookie-of-the-year slugger with 40-homer potential, a first baseman who had 34 homers and 100 runs batted in and was second to the slugger in rookie-of-the-year balloting, a starting pitcher who won rookie-of-the-year honors and an all-star catcher.

There's no reason these Angels shouldn't be picked to win the division . . . in, oh, 1988.

If only Jose Canseco were a budding Bash Brother instead of a 36-year-old who has been on the disabled list seven times in six seasons, and Wally Joyner was a Wally World sensation instead of a 38-year-old coming off three injury-marred years, and Tim Belcher was a rising star instead of a 39-year-old rebounding from elbow surgery and Mike Scioscia was catching instead of managing.

Then, the Angels might contend.

As currently configured, the Angels are a young team that is old in some spots, a team that should be productive despite the loss of first baseman Mo Vaughn but will need significant contributions from some past-their-prime-time players to have any chance of competing in the West.

"We've already had one huge injury with Mo, so we're not real deep as far as big bats," Scioscia said as he prepared for the team's first spring training workout for pitchers and catchers today. "Canseco and Joyner could be very important to the lineup."

The veterans were signed in January, when the Angels discovered Vaughn would sit out the season because of a ruptured biceps tendon. With Darin Erstad coming off a superb season, in which he hit .355 with 25 homers and 100 RBIs, AL home run king Troy Glaus, and power-hitting outfielders Garret Anderson and Tim Salmon, Scioscia believes the offense will score in bunches.

But to replace Vaughn's 36 homers and 117 RBIs, Canseco, the team's designated hitter, and Joyner, a slight favorite to win the first-base job over rookie Larry Barnes and utility man Scott Spiezio, must provide pop.

How Canseco and Joyner hit could determine how Scioscia shuffles his lineup to replace Vaughn. The most logical move would be to shift Erstad from the leadoff to third spot, but that leaves a huge void at the top of the order.

Scioscia prefers Erstad leading off and the combination of Glaus-Salmon-Anderson in the 2-3-4 or 3-4-5 spots. Scioscia would feel comfortable with that alignment if Canseco and Joyner successfully fill the 5-6 or 6-7 holes. Joyner could also bat second.

"I'm not going to rule anything out, because the loss of Mo complicates some things," Scioscia said. "Either way we go, I think we'll be more productive offensively."

A bigger concern for Scioscia is the rotation, which won't draw comparisons to the New York Yankee quartet of Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte and Orlando Hernandez.

For the second consecutive season, there is no ace. The top four starters appear to be much-maligned former Dodger Ismael Valdes, youngsters Ramon Ortiz and Jarrod Washburn, and journeyman Pat Rapp.

Remember former Angel Lee Smith, the laid-back Louisiana native known as "The Big Easy"? Valdes could be the "The Big Uneasy," because managers never seem very comfortable when he's on the mound.

He'll have a shutout in the sixth inning, then give up a pair of two-run homers. Or he'll develop a blister on his finger and come out of the game.

Valdes is five years removed from a 1996 season (15-7) that established him as one of the Dodgers' most promising pitchers, but he is 11-21 in the last two seasons, giving up 32 homers in 1999 and 22 in 2000.

Ortiz, after being demoted to triple A twice in 2000, finally gained some consistency in September, with four quality starts in his last five games, and Washburn was the team's best pitcher from May to July.

But Ortiz pitched the entire season with a slight tear in his shoulder, and Washburn succumbed to arm and shoulder injuries that limited the left-hander to one start after July 21. Both must remain healthy to be effective.

The Angels will rely on Rapp to chew up innings, but there's a good reason the right-hander has played for five teams in five years--he has a 65-79 career record and hasn't had a winning season since going 14-7 for Florida in 1995.

Battling for the fifth spot are Belcher, who will try to coax one more season out of an arm that betrayed him in 2000; Scott Schoeneweis, who went 3-10 after a 4-0 start, and Matt Wise, who showed promise during a brief big league stint before a season-ending arm injury in September.

"We don't need these guys to be super-human," Scioscia said. "We just need them to pitch a little deeper into games and be productive."

That would take some burden off a bullpen that held up well in 2000 despite being severely taxed. Though the Angels lost valuable setup man Mark Petkovsek to Texas, relief should still be a strength, with closer Troy Percival regaining his health after a spotty 2000, versatile setup man Shigetoshi Hasegawa and middle men Al Levine, Mike Fyhrie and Ben Weber.

The Angels appear solid at catcher (Bengie Molina) and second base (Adam Kennedy), but they'll open the season without shortstop Gary DiSarcina, who will need until at least May to rehabilitate from rotator-cuff surgery.

And, of course, Vaughn's power and presence will be missed.

"Even though we're missing Mo, I believe the whole is greater than the parts," Scioscia said. "Whether we bring more contact, defense or speed [to the position], we should be every bit as productive. So it still comes down to the question of how the starting pitchers will do."

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