Anaheim, Calif. — It isn't likely that baseball will ever really know all the reasons that prompted Gene Mauch to resign as manager of the California Angels, although his recent health problems figured in the decision. Mauch, 26 years a big league manager, is a complex man who has always hidden his true feelings in situations like this. But there is a strong possibility that Gene may have quit because he knew he had little chance of winning even a division title with this team.
And the team hasn't done anything yet to dispel this notion, with a 2-4 start that leaves it tied for last place in the American League West after the first week.
The fact is that questionable pitching, particularly the starting rotation, will probably keep the Angels from mounting a serious challenge this year to Minnesota, Kansas City, and Oakland.
After right-hander Mike Witt, maybe the best pitcher in baseball never to have won 20 games, it will probably be all trial and error for awhile for new manager Cookie Rojas.
The Cuban-born Rojas is in a tough spot for someone who has suddenly had a great opportunity thrust upon him. In terms of the public, he is not a big name. At least two of Mauch's four top coaches are upset because they were passed over in favor of Cookie. And Rojas also knows that he probably has to produce something close to a miracle in the standings to be invited back next year.
After Witt, Cookie has two other starters (Kirk McCaskill and Dan Petry) who have both won big in the American League. However, both are huge question marks because of injuries and did not pitch particularly well in spring training.
McCaskill, who went 17-10 with the Angels in 1986, and then skidded to a 4-6 record with a 5.67 earned-run average last year after arm surgery, once had the ability to blow hitters away. He is equipped with the same kind of mental determination that makes certain fighters get up after they've been knocked down.
Petry, who was 18-8 with the 1984 world champion Detroit Tigers before arm problems, came back to 9-7 last year after winning only five games the previous season, but still had a high ERA. Dan has to be considered a gamble, but he looked strong in his first start, pitching six shutout innings to set up a victory.
Then there is right-hander Willie Fraser, who went 10-10 last season in his rookie year, and who can probably be counted on for considerable improvement. Fraser, who completed five of his 23 starts and struck out almost twice as many hitters as he walked last year, started off right this season with a victory over Oakland Sunday.
What won't rescue Rojas's starting staff completely, but which might cut down on some of the problems, is a bullpen that could easily be better than expected.
The Angels are hoping that Donnie Moore, who worked only 14 games last year and is coming off arm surgery, can regain the form that enabled him to record a total of 52 saves in 1985 and '86. At this point the jury is still out on Donnie, who pitched well and picked up a win over Chicago in his first outing, but was bombed for four runs in the ninth inning and lost to Oakland his next time out.
Other key relievers are second-year man DeWayne Buice and Greg Minton, who combined for 27 saves last year, and rookie strikeout artist Bryan Harvey, who was named MVP in the Puerto Rican Winter League this season.
The everyday lineup is pretty well set. Wally Joyner, who has now had back-to-back years in which he has driven in 100 or more runs, is at first base. Speedy Mark McLemore plays second, Jack Howell third, and Dick Schofield (the most underrated player on the team) shortstop.
The outfield has free agent Chili Davis, who was with the Giants last year, in right, Devon White in center, and Johnny Ray in left, with former home run king Tony Armas also getting in there at times.
Ray, who is moving to the outfield after several years as an all-star second baseman, is not particularly happy with the switch, but would never give less than his best. Davis, who didn't like being platooned by the Giants, is capable of 25 homers and maybe 90 RBIs. White, whose talents offensively and defensively are potentially among the best in baseball, appears to have a tremendous future.
Catcher Bob Boone, who was with George Washington in the Revolutionary Winter League at Valley Forge, is back for his 21st season in organized baseball and his seventh campaign with the Angels. Butch Wynegar, another veteran, is a solid backup.
Brian Downing, who no longer wants to play in the field, is the designated hitter, backed up by former National League batting champion Bill Buckner.
One way the Angels hope to improve their starting staff is to trade Buckner for a veteran pitcher. But Buckner's oversized contract and limited mobility at first base do not make him that attractive to other teams.
It may be that to get the veteran arm he wants, general manager Mike Port will have to loosen his grip on reserve infielder Gus Polidor, who could probably start at shortstop or second base for several major league teams.
It is a move Port understandably is reluctant to make.