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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

RISE, FALL, AND RISE AGAIN: THE 1995 ANGELS -- PART 1 OF 3: PROLOGUE
Ten years ago today, the Angels began the 1995 season, and a renaissance of Halo success dawned. Over the next ten years, the Angels won one division title and their first World Championship, and also placed second three times in addition to the 2002 Wild Card year. All told, in the 10 seasons, the Angels finished with a winning record in six of them, and had a record of 812-790 for a winning percentage of .507.

This was the most successful ten-year period in club history, edging out the period 1978-1987, which saw the Angels go 792-774 (.506) and win their first three divisional titles and finish second twice. Of course, there were more divisions in the later era; it was harder to finish second in the 80s than the 90s, so it's not really fair to compare them on that basis. (Between the Angels, Oakland, Texas, and Seattle, the Angels had the best record of the four six times during the 1978-1987 period. Of course, the schedule was balanced at this time, and direct comparisons are not appropriate in many ways).

The story of the 1995 team actually begins in the early 1990s, when the organization's attempted reload after the successful 1986 season had run its futile course. The core of what was supposed to be the next successful Angel team included the following:
1B  Wally Joyner
2B Mark McLemore
3B Jack Howell
SS Dick Schofield
CF Devon White
This core gradually melted away. Mark McLemore lost his starting job in 1988 (to the veteran Johnny Ray) and was traded to Cleveland in 1990. Devon White, a splendifirous defensive outfielder, hadn't followed up on a promising 1987 campaign with his bat was traded during the 1990/1991 offseason to bring in Luis Sojo (to replace the aging Ray) and Junior Felix (to replace White). (Of course, White had his best hitting year ever and won another Gold Glove while the Jays went to the ALCS; the Angels spent 1991 going 81-81, possibly being the best last-place team of all time.)

Jack Howell got traded that same year. More a victim of artificially heightened expectations than of incompetence, Howell's offense had undergone a few years of decline, and his OPS+ in 1990 dropped down to 97.

Wally Joyner was allowed to leave the team after the 1991 season. By far the best all-around player out of this group, and a fan favorite (and my favorite, to this day), Joyner's departure put the nail in the coffin on that core. Dick Schofield, another exemplary defensive player, stuck around until halfway through the 1992 season, when he was 29 years old and coming off of two injury-curtailed campaigns.

At this point, Whitey Herzog had taken over as GM -- or director of personnel, or whatever they called him at first. Aside from letting Joyner go, either by choice or by Jackie Autry's tight pursestrings, he also let Dave Winfield leave. These guys had combined for an OPS+ in the mid-120s in 1991, and drove in 182 runs between them; these were pretty much the two guys on the team that could hit.

Whitey decided they could be replaced by Lee Stevens (24 years old), Von Hayes (33), and Hubie Brooks (35).

Disaster ensued. These three guys had an OPS+ in the low 70s and drove in only 102 runs between them. It was clearly time to re-set the team.

The Angels had very good starting pitching at the time, with Chuck Finley, Mark Langston, and Jim Abbott anchoring an effective rotation. So Whitey traded Abbott to the Yankees for a package that included prospect J.T. Snow. Chad Curtis made his way to the majors with Gary DiSarcina was on his heels, as was Damion Easley. Tim Salmon had been the Minor League Player of the Year in 1992, and was ready for The Show.

The youthful core now comprised:
1B  J.T. Snow
2B Damion Easley
SS Gary DiSarcina
CF Chad Curtis
RF Tim Salmon
Eduardo Perez was knocking on the 3B door, and 1991 first-round pick Jorge Fabregas was also on the way behind the plate. Another outfielder off in the distance was the relatively underhyped Jim Edmonds -- though Mike Gimbel, one of the statiest statheads that ever statted, was singing Edmonds' praises before the 1993 season.

The Angels finished 71-91 in 1993 and Tim Salmon deservedly won Rookie of the Year. The 25-year-old Snow put up an OPS+ of 94 to go along with his acclaimed defense; DiSarcina was just awful at the bat (an OPS+ of 55), but he had a nice glove. Curtis was close to a league-average hitter and stole a ton of bases, though he was caught quite a bit, too. Easley was oft injured, but managed a 313/392/413 line in his limited action.

1994 was a step backward, as the Angels went 47-68. Snow hit rock-bottom and earned a demotion to AAA, Easley played only half a season and lost 100 points from his batting average, and Chad Curtis regressed as a hitter. Eduardo Perez hit poorly in his cup of coffee, and Fabregas hit an empty 283/321/307 in 43 games. Jim Edmonds made his debut and played left field, though he didn't hit that well.

While the offense was young and had quite a bit to prove, the rotation was consumed by old guys like Finley and Langston. However, Brian Anderson, a former first-round pick, was on his way, and pitched 100 innings of close-to-league-average ball in 1994.

Basically, coming into 1995, there was little in the way of hope for the immediate future. Any success the franchise was to have looked a few years off.

Then, on April 13, the Angels traded Chad Curtis to Detroit for Tony Phillips.

At the time, this looked like a typical idiotic Angel trade of a young player. The Angels were notorious for this, for trading away young prospects for aging veterans. Starting kind of randomly ... the Angels had a young catcher named Brian Harper, who hit .350 with power in AAA at the age of 21; the Angels traded him for a burnt-out old shortstop named Tim Foli, and signed Bob Boone, 34-years-old and coming off a season where he hit .211, to play catcher.

Why did they need Foli? Because Rick Burleson got hurt, and they had traded Dickie Thon, a promising 22-year-old shortstop, to Houston for the 34-year-old Ken Forsch.

The only reason they had an old guy like Burleson was because they had traded 23-year-old Carney Lansford in a package to acquire Burleson (who had one good year before the injury) and Butch Hobson (who always sucked); Lansford won the batting title in his first season in Boston.

Who else was there? Tom Brunansky got traded for Doug Corbett and Rob Wilfong, Gene Mauch's laundryman. Willie Aikens had a superb age 24 season, DH'ing for the Halos in 1979. But the Angels had Rod Carew at first, and wanted to keep Don Baylor around to DH, so they packaged Aikens with a young shorstop named Rance Mulliniks and got Al Cowens, who lasted 34 games in an Angel uniform before being traded for Jason Thompson, who was a damn fine player at the time, but who the Angels wouldn't have needed had they just kept Aikens around.

Of course, Thompson was only 25, and had hit only 317/439/526 in his half-season with the club, so he was too young and good for the Angels. They traded him to Pittsburgh for catcher Ed Ott, who hit .217 in half a season; Thompson's lowest OPS+ over the next three seasons was 140. Since Ott was such a failure, the Angels went out to sign Boone, which meant they didn't need Brian Harper, and our little carousel ride is over.

Need I mention Dante Bichette-for-Dave Parker?

Now, on the whole some of these moves worked out for the Angels. I mean, Reggie Jackson's OPS+ in 1982 was only one point lower than Thompson's that same year, and Thompson's was only 27 points ahead of Carew's, and only 42 points ahead of Baylor's. But the Angels signed high-priced veterans as part of a Win Now mode, and they very nearly won now. But in so doing, they had made a lof of mistakes, and traded a lot of very good, or at least decent, players for a bunch of guys like Ed Ott and Tim Foli who couldn't play at all.

And given that the 1995 team showed no promise whatsoever, and appeared to not be anywhere near the Win Now phase, I think you can understand the deep level of skepticism I had when I heard, on April 13, 1995, that the Angels had traded Chad Curtis for Tony Phillips. I mean, Phillips had been terrific for a number of years, but now he was 36 years old, and could he really keep that up?

On April 18, for good measure, the 37-year-old Scott Sanderson was signed to be a starting pitcher.

Then, on April 26, the 144-game 1995 season began.

***
Part 2 will be posted tomorrow. This series would have been impossible if not for the deliriously wonderful Retrosheet. This Seattle Times article was also a considerable aid. Well, these sites won't actually prove aides until Parts 2 and 3, but there you go.

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