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BASEBALL 2003

You Can Be Too Thin

Injuries, lack of depth are chief worries for Series champion Angels

March 30, 2003|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer

Bill Stoneman strolled through the bleachers the other day, all but whistling while he worked. On the field behind him, the Angels were in the process of botching yet another game in a miserable exhibition season.

"I'm wearing a smile," Stoneman said.

On that day, the game was the least of his concerns. The Angels' general manager had just learned that third baseman Troy Glaus did not have a broken bone, a torn ligament or any other wrist injury significant enough to deprive the team of its premier slugger for weeks, or months. The doctors diagnosed tendinitis and prescribed a few days off, and for that Stoneman was thankful.

As the Angels raise the World Series championship flag today at Edison Field, the chances for another red October in Anaheim could depend less upon the players' performance than on their ability to stay off the disabled list. While the American League West is just as impressive this season as last, the Angels' depth is not nearly as impressive.

If an injury-free season could mean first place in the division, an injury-plagued season could mean last place.

"Last year, we kept our guys on the field longer than most teams," closer Troy Percival said. "If we can keep our guys on the field, we can play with anybody. It comes down to who can keep the guys on the field the longest."

In spring training, the signs were not encouraging. Three key players learned they might fight pain all summer -- Glaus in his right wrist, Gold Glove center fielder Darin Erstad in his surgically repaired right hand and ace Jarrod Washburn in his sprained left shoulder.

Shortstop David Eckstein was dogged by back and hip soreness. Relievers Brendan Donnelly and Scot Shields were slowed by shoulder soreness.

Erstad flings his body in all directions in pursuit of fly balls, but his spectacular play led to a concussion last season. Gold Glove catcher Bengie Molina has been on the disabled list in each of the last two seasons, right fielder and No. 3 hitter Tim Salmon in four of the last five.

"We haven't had the healthiest spring," Salmon said. "We haven't been able to get our full lineup out there.

"Any time you talk about having a successful season, the first thing you think of is, can you run guys out there healthy? That's always a legitimate concern."

There is no concern about talent. The Angels' championship core returns intact, with no one over 35 and no one coming off a certifiable career year. The relentless offense is not reliant on any one or two players. The pitching might be better, with rookie heroes John Lackey and Francisco Rodriguez here for the entire season.

The bullpen, the best in the league last year, could be the best in the majors. Ben Weber, a substitute for the injured Percival last season, is a long man now. Rodriguez, Donnelly, Shields and Scott Schoeneweis represent a huge upgrade from Al Levine, Mark Lukasiewicz, Lou Pote and Donne Wall, the supporting quartet one year ago.

There is no concern about complacency, not on a team led by Percival and Erstad, not when Rodriguez wowed the world last fall and reported to camp this spring saying he hoped he could win a job on the team, and certainly not because people keep telling the Angels they're locks to repeat.

The Angels aren't even supposed to win their division. The Oakland Athletics are, with their three dominant starters and MVP shortstop Miguel Tejada.

"There's nothing being conceded in this division," Percival said. "Seattle is as tough as we are. So is Oakland. If Texas makes the improvements it looks like they are, they'll be tough.

"Our division is what the American League East was a few years ago. Every team is a contender."

The Angels won 99 games last season. They did not win the division title.

The Mariners won 93. They did not make the playoffs.

The Angels lost one starting pitcher to injury, Aaron Sele. They used eight starters in all. Since the advent of the five-man rotation, the Angels have needed fewer starters only once -- in 1989, when they used seven starters and won 91 games.

They broke camp last season with a rotation of Washburn, Sele, Schoeneweis, Kevin Appier and Ramon Ortiz. Their minor league depth included Lackey, Donnelly, Shields, Mickey Callaway and Matt Wise at triple A, with Rodriguez at double A.

"That depth was very helpful," Stoneman said. "Some of that depth makes the club this year, which is really why out of the gate we should be a better club than we were last year."

The Angels started 6-14 last year -- the worst start in franchise history -- amid the suspensions of Glaus and infielder Scott Spiezio and injuries to Percival, reliever Dennis Cook and infielders Benji Gil and Shawn Wooten.

But the pitching depth appears far thinner this year, with Callaway already filling in for the rehabilitating Sele for at least one month, Wise out for the season after elbow surgery and top prospect Chris Bootcheck hampered by tendinitis.

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