Friday, December 16, 2005

Expansion Pt. 3

Los Angeles Angels
The Angels were created on October 26, 1960. The expansion draft took place on December 14. So hastily was the franchise cobbled together that the team's first general manager, Fred Haney, was chosen on their way to the press conference announcing the deal. Haney ended up with a much better haul in the expansion draft than his Washington counterparts. Familiar faces included Yankees All-Star outfielder Bob Cerv, former Browns ace Ned Garver, former Cincinnati slugger Ted Kluszewski, and the "Walking Man" Eddie Yost. These veterans served to give the franchise a bit of star power, but it was the acquisition of two young prospects that would lay the groundwork for the Angels' franchise in the 1960s: righthander Dean Chance, drafted from the Orioles, and shortstop Jim Fregosi, taken from Boston.
The 1961 Angels called LA's Wrigley Field their home. It would be a challenge to call Wrigley Field a major league park; the power alleys were a cozy 345' feet from home plate. Only the Yankees (240, with Mantle and Maris leading the charge) out-homered the Angels (189). There were 248 home runs hit at Wrigley Field in 1961, an amazing total for a pitcher's era. The park made otherwise marginal hitters look like stars; a good example would be outfielder Ken Hunt, who hit 25 HR in 1961 but never hit more than 6 in any other season.
With their slugging offense being supported by solid pitching from Ken McBride and reliever Tom Morgan, the Angels were surprisingly competitive: they finished in 8th place at 70-91; still the best record ever by a modern expansion team's inaugural season. Not only that, but the 1962 squad went 86-76 coming in 3rd place, 10 games behind the Yankees. This led Autry and the front office to believe the team was better than it really was. Consequently the team tended to look for the short-term fix rather than investing in the farm system. This would be the basic problem with the franchise for the next 40 years.
1962 saw the team further subordinated to Walter O'Malley when it took up residency in Dodger Stadium. They went from one of the best hitting parks in baseball history into one of the worst; and after their surprising 1962 performance, the club sank back into 9th the following season.
The best news on the team was the development of shortstop Fregosi. Fregosi wasn't a great defender, but he was possibly the best-hitting shortstop of the 1960's. His breakout season in 1964 saw him hit .277 with 18 HR, 9 triples and 72 walks despite playing in cavernous Dodger Stadium. But the real superstar in 1964 was pitcher Dean Chance. Chance dominated the league with a 1.65 ERA, going 20-9 with 207 K in 278.1 IP. Despite playing in the same era (and same city) as Sandy Koufax, Chance walked away with the 1964 Cy Young Award. There was only one award for both leagues at the time, and Chance received 17 votes against just 1 for Koufax (2 votes went to the Cubs' Larry Jackson). Unfortunately, Chance never performed that well again, with his only other good seasons coming after being traded to Minnesota. Fregosi, too, fell short of promise. Coming off a monster season in 1970, Fregosi suffered an injury that basically ended his effectiveness as a player. It all but ended what should have been a Hall-of-Fame career, and the Angels were forced to recover.
The 1960s went on with the team barely able to compete. Despite the move into their own stadium (known as the Big "A" in Anaheim), the Angels only once finished above .500 in the decade; that being a, 84-77 5th-place finish in 1967.
The theme continued with the team unable to produce its own stars, and forced to import second-rate players from other organizations just to stay competitive. The only really good deal the team made in the early 70's was a trade with the Mets that sent Fregosi (then all but finished) to the Mets in exchange for Leroy Stanton, Frank Estrada, Don Rose . . . and Nolan Ryan. Ryan's first year in California (1972) was also his break-out year; he made 39 starts and pitched 284 innings, posting a 2.28 ERA and leading the league in both strikeouts (329) and walks (157). The best years of Ryan's Hall-of-Fame career came aas an Angel, with the highlight being the 1973 season where he set a new major league record with 383 strikeouts.
It looked like the Angels might have another fireballer on their hands when Frank Tanana came along. Tanana was the team's 1st-round pick in the 1971 draft, and proved to be one of the best pitchers to come out of the team's farm system. Tanana struck out over 200 batters in three straight years, posting ERAs around 2.50 each season. It looked like the Angels had a dynamic duo on their hands, but an arm injury sidelined Tanana's career. With the Angels dubious about his future, they traded him to Boston as part of a deal for Fred Lynn. Tanana later resurrected his career with Detroit. The Angels developed another promising pitcher around the same time in Andy Messersmith, but decided to trade him to the Dodgers for a 37-year-old Frank Robinson.
It looked like the arrival of superstar Lynn might help bolster a lackluster lineup. But although he had a couple of good years left in him, Lynn was never able to recapture his MVP glory days with the Red Sox. He would be the first of many high-profile trades and free agent signings that left the team with little more than payroll trouble.
The farm system never really lived up to that of the Dodgers, who in the 70's were churning out superstars by the truckload. Asked in 1971 what the problem was with his young team, manager Lefty Phillips replied: "Our phenoms ain't phenominating."
Managers came and went by the truckload, most of them despairing to work with a sub-par team and a front office obsessed with nothing more than out-drawing the Dodgers. But in the late 70's, the nucleus of a good team started to form. Boosted by some worthwhile free agents (Bobby Grich, Don Baylor), some smart trades netting them players such as Ryan and Brian Downing and some sure-enough homegrown talents such as Carney Lansford, Dave LaRoche, the 1978 Angels went 87-75 to finish 3rd in the AL West, a mere 5 games behind Kansas City.
With former star Jim Fregosi at the helm, the 1979 team became the first in franchise history to make the postseason; their won-lost record was a lackluster 88-74, but it was good enough for a 3-game cushion over 2nd-place Kansas City. The heart of the 1978 team returned, bolstered by the front office's nabbing of Rod Carew, obtained from the Twins in the midst of a salary dispute. Carew hit .318 and drew 73 walks as the team's first baseman. Even he wasn't enough in the ALCS, however, as the team went down to Baltimore in 4 games.
The biggest name absent from the 1979 team was outfielder Bostock. After emerging as a star in Minnesota, the Angels signed Bostock before the 1978 season. He had a fine year, hitting .296 with 59 walks and only 36 strikeouts. But on September 23 of that season, Bostock was shot to death as an innocent bystander. It was only one in a long series of tragedies that seemed to doom the franchise's up-and-comers. Ken Hunt, outfielder with the 1961 team, snapped his collarbone while stretching in the on-deck circle and never played a full season again. Pitcher Ken McBride, one of the few reliable hurlers on the team, suffered a car accident in 1964 that basically ended his career. In 1965, rookie pitcher Dick Wantz looked like a sure thing in spring training, but was dead of a brain tumor four months later. At least 3 other Angels died in car accidents during the period. The tragedies lent an air of doom and desperation to an already sick franchise.
The front office also showed a great disregard for its players. Superstar Fregosi was refused permission to undergo surgery for a foot tumor in 1971. After trying to tough it out, the shortstop finally checked himself into the hospital. The delay helped end a promising career and likely cost him a shot at Cooperstown. One pitcher was sent a letter to his house saying his raise was denied because he had contracted a venereal disease. The pitcher's wife opened the letter and sued him for divorce. Outfielder Tony Conigliaro pestered the team so much about his eye problems that they thought he was just a crybaby. They were as surprised as anyone when Conigliaro announced his retirement due to the troubles. The Angels refused to pay the rest of his salary, and were only forced to do so when the Players Association sued.
After a disappointing drop to 6th in 1980, the Angels battled back under new skipper Gene Mauch, winning the AL West in 1982 with a team-record (at the time) 93-69 campaign. It was partly the work of big-name hitters like Reggie Jackson (free agent) and Doug DeCinces (trade with Baltimore) that helped the team edge the Royals by 3 games, but moreso a mound staff of no-names like Mike Witt and Geoff Zahn along with the veteran Ken Forsch that drove the team with a 3.82 team ERA that ranked 2nd in the AL. The ALCS against Milwaukee got off to a hot start when the Halos took the first two games, but then dropped the next three. It gave the team, their manager Mauch, and the franchise as a whole a reputation as "chokers" that would last 20 years.
It was the same story in 1986. The team won the AL West with a 92-70 and took a decisive lead in the ALCS. But with reliever Donnie Moore one out away from clinching the pennant, he gave up a home run to Boston's Dave Henderson that ignited an extra-inning victory for Boston. The Red Sox took the next two games, and the Angels went home again. Moore would never recover. He committed suicide in 1989, attempting to murder his wife in the process.
The 1990s saw the team reacquainting itself with also-ran status. Despite the development of solid young pitchers such as Jim Abbott and Chuck Finley, the team was still chasing after free agent bats, such as Chili Davis and Lance Parrish. Although the team would later develop 3 fine outfielders in Garret Anderson, Tim Salmon, and Jim Edmonds. Salmon and Anderson would become cornerstones of the franchise. But Edmonds was lost in a trade to the Cardinals that netted the Angels reliever Kent Bottenfield and second baseman Adam Kennedy, not exactly fair returns.
With the death of Autry, the singer's second wife Jackie intensified the "Win one for the Singin' Cowboy" rally cries. It didn't look like the Angels would need any help in 1995. Riding the bats of Edmonds, Salmon, and Anderson, as well as hurlers Finley and Mark Langston, the Angels took an 11-game lead into early August. Then they proceeded to blow it. In what was one of the greatest collapses in history, the Angels eventually fell behind the Seattle Mariners, with free agent closer Lee Smith's struggles exemplifying the team's futility. The Angels did manage to rebound and catch the Mariners in a tie on the last day of the season. The ensuing 1-game playoff saw the team dominated by Mariner ace Randy Johnson, with the team unable to come up with the big win once again.
The Angels 2002 quest for the World Title began quietly. Added to incumbent stars Anderson and Salmon were fruits from the most productive farm system in the franchise's history. It provided center fielder Darin Erstad, whose 240 hits in 2000 electrified baseball (and set a new standard for a career year). It also provided third base slugger Troy Glaus and rock-solid backstop Bengie Molina.
But the most productive, and most surprising, aspect of the 2002 team was their pitching staff. Their 3.69 tean ERA was just a hair worse than Oakland (3.68) in the entire league. Added to incumbent closer Troy Percival were solid young starters Jarrod Washburn and John Lackey, and top-notch relief arms such as Brendan Donnelly and Scot Shields.
The entire season was a story of just being a hair worse than Oakland. The Angels set a franchise record with 99 wins -- but finished 2nd behind Oakland. The A's won 103 games, including a 20-game winning streak in mid-summer that made the baseball world forget the Angels altogether. But the Angels' strong record got them into the postseason, as they finished with a 6-game cushion over Boston and Seattle as the AL Wild Card.
The postseason would be a tale of outslugging the other guys. While baseball commentators waxed nostalgic about Anaheim's superior pitching and defense, the Angels proceeded to win in the postseason as ugly as humanly possible. They defeated the Yankees in the ALDS despite a 6.17 team ERA; they simply scored 8 runs per game and made up for it. They waltzed over Minnesota in a tame, 5-game ALCS that saw the team sport a 2.45 ERA. For the first time in franchise history, the Angels were going to the World Series.
It was downright ugly. It seemed like longer than 7 games, what with the 85 runs scored, the 21 home runs and the 10 errors. The Angels posted a 5.75 team ERA and were outscored by the Giants (44-41), but managed to emerge victorious, thanks to the well-publicized heroics of rookie Francisco (K-Rod) Rodriguez and That Damn Rally Monkey.
With the collapse of the Yankee dynasty, the Angels have become one of the best all-around franchises in the American League. It has yet to win them another World Series, but they have returned to the postseason twice: in 2004 (swept out of the ALDS by Boston) and 2005 (again defeating New York in the ALDS, but losing to Chicago in a 5-game ALCS).
With new owner Arte Moreno pulling the strings, the Angels appear to be a stable, winning franchise. They've shown a remarkable ability to not only spend money, but (for the most part) spending it wisely, bringing in 2004 AL MVP Vladimir Guerrero and 2005 AL Cy Young Bartolo Colon as free agents. Their farm system continues to bear outstanding fruit, with young shortstop Brandon Wood (20 years old) making his name as one of baseball's top prospects. They still have to compete with the A's, but they're actually a very respectable franchise for the first time in a long, long while.
They're Back in the Saddle Again.

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