After falling all the way from the American League West title in 1982 to 29 games out of first place last year, the California Angels have been reduced to a team of ''what ifs'' for the 1984 season. In fact, anyone who would risk picking the Angels higher than third at this point probably would also buy oil stocks by mail.
Last year John McNamara tried to manage without a bullpen - while having to deal with 63 separate injuries, and without much help from slugger Reggie Jackson, who hit only .194 and whose home runs dropped from 39 the previous season to 14. California also made the mistake of losing 10 of 13 games to the division-winning Chicago White Sox.
By the end of last season general manager Buzzie Bavasi was telling reporters: ''The future of our organization lies in its minor league farm system.''
Barring a sudden change in plans, two of California's top rookie prospects will start for the Angels this season - switch-hitting Gary Pettis in center field and 21-year-old Dick Schofield at shortstop.
Fred Lynn, a nine-time American League all-star, has agreed to move to right field to make room for Pettis, who may lack experience but whose ability to outrun any baseball should erase any misjudgments he makes in the field. Gary will also lead off, and if he doesn't steal 40 to 50 bases, management may ask for its money back. Brian Downing will play left field and probably hit fifth.
Schofield, also a defensive standout, is in the reverse position of that in which present Houston shortstop Dickie Thon found himself when he came up with the Angels in 1979, when everybody liked Thon's hitting but wasn't sure he was good enough to do the job in the field.
Several incidents beyond his control have opened up the opportunity for Schofield, whose father played with four different major league teams between 1958 and 1968.
For example, Rick Burleson, one of the best shortstops in the AL before injuring his shoulder, has played only 44 games there in the past two years. In fact, even Burleson admits that his future is probably at second base, where the throw is shorter and where you don't need a cannon for an arm.
Then when the Angels traded veteran shortstop Tim Foli to the New York Yankees for rookie pitcher Curt Kaufman, it removed the only other immediate obstacle Schofield might have had to deal with. Although California has since signed free-agent shortstop Rob Picciolo, it was done strictly as insurance against injuries.
The remainder of McNamara's infield will have 38-year-old Rod Carew at first base; Bobby Grich at second; and Doug De Cinces at third. De Cinces, whose injured back limited his playing time to under 100 games in 1983, is being counted on for 90 or more runs-batted-in.
Jackson, who finished last season in a figurative paper bag (because he couldn't hit his way out of it!), isn't apt to get much work in the field. However, Reggie will be the team's designated hitter.
Although Jackson was quoted in one northern California paper as saying that he'll retire if he doesn't hit well the first two months of the season, at least one Angel official suggests that Reggie's statement be taken with a large grain of salt.
The catching is set, with three-time all-star Bob Boone backed up by Jerry Narron. Boone, for whom long hours have never been a problem, is expected to duplicate his 142 starts of last year.
McNamara, who prefers a five-man pitching rotation because of the age of his staff, will go with Tommy John (40); Ken Forsch and Geoff Zahn (both 37); and 23 -year-old Mike Witt in four of those spots. Last year they had a combined won-lost record of 38-50.
The Angels say they will get their fifth starter by trading reserve first baseman Daryl Sconiers (probably to a National League team) in exchange for a veteran capable of winning 15 games.
Witt, who had a concentration problem with himself and a communications problem with former pitching coach Tom Morgan, is expected to benefit from the more relaxed approach of Marcel Lachemann, who was the club's minor league pitching instructor for the past two seasons.
McNamara's bullpen, which totaled only 23 saves last year (fewest in the American League), will have three new faces in Frank La Corte (acquired in the re-entry draft), Jim Slaton, and Kaufman. All three are being counted on to work in short relief, leaving the middle innings for Luis Sanchez, John Curtis, or possibly Andy Hassler.
Bruce Kison and Don Aase, two veteran injured pitchers whom California had hoped to have in uniform by the start of the season, probably won't be ready until at least the July 10 All-Star break, and possibly not even then.
For the Angels to even think of catching Chicago, the most obvious ''what ifs'' that have to come true include pitching, 100 or so RBIs from Jackson, and near Rookie-of-the-Year seasons from Pettis and Schofield.