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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

JUGGLING
When reviewing a season and what a team needs for the upcoming year, one easy shorthand tool to use is the team page at Baseball Reference. At a glance, you can see what positions had above- and below-average offensive production, and we all have enough knowledge of their defense and contract status to go from there. To abbreviate this entry:
Pos   Player    Ag    AB    AVG   OBP   SLG   SB   CS   OPS+
C BMolina 30 410 .295 .336 .446 0 2 110
1B Erstad 31 609 .273 .325 .371 10 3 89
2B Kennedy 29 416 .300 .354 .370 19 4 97
3B Figgins 27 642 .290 .352 .397 62 17 103
SS Cabrera 30 540 .257 .309 .365 21 2 82
LF Anderson 33 575 .283 .308 .435 1 1 99
CF Finley 40 406 .222 .271 .374 8 4 73
RF Guerrero 29 520 .317 .394 .565 13 1 156
DH Rivera 27 350 .271 .316 .454 1 9 106

McPherson 24 205 .244 .295 .449 3 3 98
Davanon 31 225 .231 .347 .311 11 6 81
Izturis 24 191 .246 .306 .346 9 3 77
JMolina 30 184 .228 .286 .348 2 0 71
Quinlan 28 134 .231 .273 .403 0 1 80
Kotchman 22 126 .278 .352 .484 1 1 124
There are few surprises here. We see that first base was subpar, center field a catastrophe, and DH rather mediocre. Aside from making a decision on Bengie, those are the major problems faced by the Angels this offseason. Thankfully, the 1B/CF/DH problems are somewhat intertwined.

If you ask me, any decision for 2006 should start with the following premise: Casey Kotchman is a starter.

It's not going to do any good to sit him on the bench for a year, and I don't think it's going to do any good to send him back to AAA for a third year. He already showed signs of stagnating there in 2005, as observers say he tried to alter his approach to demonstrate more power. This backfired, and he returned to good hitting after an early-season slump.

You can even see this looking at his major-league splits: after an ugly 0-10 in a cup of coffee early in the year, Kotchman was called up after the All Star Break and managed to hit 302/369/526 in 116 at-bats. Small sample size caveats apply, but he did draw 13 walks against 18 strikeouts, demonstrating a good control of the strike zone. Here are his post-All Star Break numbers prorated to 500 at-bats:
         AB   R   H   2B   3B   HR   BB   SO   AVG   OBP   SLG
Actual 116 16 35 5 0 7 13 18 302 369 526
500 69 151 22 0 30 56 78 302 369 526
Now, I'm certainly not saying that he would hit 30 home runs over a full season at this point in his career. But you could build a lot of regression into that, and he'd still be pretty okay.

He's most likely not going to hit .320 to start with. But he has to start somewhere, and he was the team's second-best hitter on a per-at-bat basis in 2005. When your top hitting prospect puts up a performance like that in part-time, I think you gotta give him a shot. The question becomes, what do you do with him? The options are:

1. Put Kotchman at first and Erstad in center.
2. Put Kotchman at DH, keep Erstad at first, and find another CF.

I know we all would love (1). But whether Erstad's body could take the outfield at this point -- and whether or not he would even still be a superlative outfielder -- are open questions.

As for center field, we have both internal options and external options:

Internally, beyond Erstad, the Angels have Steve Finley. If the Angels choose this option, they're out of their ever-loving minds.

The other internal option is Legs Figgins. The biggest risk here is that this would remove Figgins from his valuable utility role. But is he needed at that role?

This year, he played a lot of third base. But next year, hopefully McPherson will be healthy, and both Quinlan and Izturis should be around to back up third.

Figgins can play second base. Well, so can Izturis, if we need a back-up there. And there's a decent chance Callaspo or maybe even Howie Kendrick might be ready to cover an injury for a few weeks next year.

Of course, in 2005 we saw a situation where McPherson, Quinlan, and Izturis were all hurt. So maybe Figgins couldn't stay the season in center; you still have Finley to back him up (blecch), not to mention the likes of Jeff DaVanon.

I'm not necessarily endorsing making The Legs the permanent center fielder; I'm just saying that the Angels could make it work, and if they're not willing to move Erstad out there, Figgins is the most viable internal option.

How about external options?

There are two center fielders out there rumored to be available via trade. Thankfully, they both hit right-handed, and the Angels have an apparent desire to acquire a right-handed power hitter. (This has led to talk of the Angels pursuing Paul Konerko, which strikes me as ill-considered. Sure, he's a good hitter, but signing him to DH without moving Erstad to the outfield violates my starting premise about finding playing time for Kotchman. Furthermore, it further clogs the easy end of the defensive spectrum, costly at a time when Kotchman and Kendry Morales are making strides for the majors, not to mention that Garret Anderson will likely require more and more time at DH as he continues to break down. And that doesn't even account for possible NRI Tim Salmon, though I doubt his body has much left to offer him.)

Anyway, the two center fielders reportedly on the block are Torii Hunter and Mike Cameron. Let's check out their career numbers, prorated to 162-game seasons:
Player    AB   R   H   2B  3B  HR  BB   SO  AVG  OBP  SLG  SB  CS  OPS+
Hunter 583 86 156 34 4 23 41 116 267 321 458 17 8 100
Cameron 553 88 138 30 5 22 71 153 249 340 442 29 8 106
Hunter will be 30 next season, Cameron 33. Both players are coming off of injuries in 2005 that cost them a lot of games. Cameron hasn't played in more than 150 games since 2002, and Hunter has not since 2003. Hunter will make $10.75M in 2006, Cameron $8M. Both have superb defensive reputations.

Let's say, for a moment, that the Angels wanted to acquire one of these guys. Could they do it? With the Angels farm system, they could acquire nearly anyone. Would the Twins or Mets likely require a major-league-ready player? As a matter of fact, both of those teams had huge holes at the same position in 2005: second base.

If we acquired a full-time center fielder, would we have a second baseman to spare? We would indeed; Figgins could play second, and Adam Kennedy could be traded.

I should emphasize that I'm not making an endorsement on any of this, beyond starting Kotchman. Making Figgins the regular second baseman would, as discussed above, remove him from his utility role. Figgins is also a lesser defender than Kennedy, and we should also mention that Kennedy was one of the few Angel regulars with an OBP better than league-average (Vlad, Bengie, Figgins, and Kennedy were it).

It's also worth asking whether "upgrading" center from Figgins to Hunter or Cameron is worthwhile financially. Though both have better defensive histories than Figgins, they are both on the wrong side of 30, and I'm not sure that what defensive improvement they might provide would be worth the $5M-$7M more they earn than Adam Kennedy. And there's also a chance that if he devoted all of his time to playing the position, Figgins could become a very good defensive center fielder indeed. He has the speed to do it, and we've seen him become very adept at third base after some initial shakiness.

And note that the only theoretical advantage to having a Hunter or Cameron in center instead of Figgins is defense: Figgins is as good an offensive player as they at this point, more durable, cheaper, and younger. So, say, trading Kennedy for Hunter and installing Figgins at second full-time would mean the Angels would be spending an extra $7M to have better defense in center and maybe slightly improve the offense (Hunter and Kennedy do not differ as much with the bat as you may think). Is that worth $7M? I don't know.

Now, if we move Erstad back to the oufield, what does that do to the DH position? Well, we'll still have Juan Rivera, who was solid but unspectacular in 2005. Rivera can ably play both outfield corner positions, allowing Garret and Vlad to get half-days off at DH. Rivera also has a pretty negligible platoon split, allowing him to start nearly every day, if we think he can do it.

One thing the Angels haven't really seemed to realize is the one thing their best offensive teams of the past few years have had in common: a consistent and skilled DH. 2002 is the best example: the Angels ranked 4th in the league in runs scored, and benefitted from having Brad Fullmer. Yes, he was a platoon player, but Tim Salmon and Shawn Wooten were around to help out against lefties. In 2004, Troy Glaus returning to DH down the stretch was a big help to the team.

In other years, the Angels have used the DH spot as a revolving door for the injury of the week. There is some value to that, but the fact remains that DH is a position where strong offensive production is requisite. I like Rivera, but I don't know that he's quite good enough; he turns 28 in June and his career-high OPS+ is 118.

Konerko might help for a year, but as mentioned above, Morales and Anderson will both be around in 2007, and what are you going to do with those guys and Kotchman and Konerko? I don't think that's a viable signing for 2007 and beyond.

So, despite all this talk of getting right-handed bat, I'm not sure I see it happening. Kennedy-for-Hunter? Maybe, but it doesn't seem too likely, given that it's Bill Stoneman we're talking about. Here's how I see our lineups looking for the next two years:
2006
C (we'll get to this another day)
1B Erstad
2B Kennedy
3B McPherson
SS Cabrera
LF Anderson
CF Figgins
RF Vlad
DH Kotchman
Finley and DaVanon will be available to play CF in case of Figgins
having to play 3B or 2B; Rivera will be available to DH if Kotchman
has to play 1B

2007
C (stay tuned)
1B Kotchman
2B Kendrick
3B McPherson
SS Cabrera
LF Morales
CF Figgins
RF Vlad
DH Anderson
Finley, Erstad, and Kennedy will be gone; Morales and Anderson can
split LF/DH duties, and Rivera will still be under contract; Callaspo
will be the backup infielder; shortstop might be an issue with Aybar
and Wood both ready (if McPherson flames out, Wood might be moved to
third, and if not [or Aybar plays well] Cabrera might be traded for a
center fielder)
Basically, I think Angel fans are going to have to suck it up and prepare for one last year of Darin Erstad sucking runs out of the offense. If they weren't going to put him in the outfield in 2005 after Finley struggled, they're just not going to do it.

There are of course a host of other scenarios: Stoneman might finally pull the trigger on a trade, we might get silly and sign Konerko, one of the middle infield prospects gets moved to center, etc. So I doubt that everything will proceed as I have outlined above.

And if Steve Finley is playing center field for the Angels on Opening Day 2006, someone's gonna get hurt.

Comments:
But whether Erstad's body could take the outfield at this point

I say who cares? Seriously. So what happens if he gets hurt? Figgins takes over in center field. That's OK by me. I may sound heartless, but it's the last year of his contract, and I think you need to say "what's the downside of Erstad getting hurt?" If you can find one, let me know, because I sure can't.
 
I like Hunter, but Stoneman needs to go after Vernon Wells furiously. He is the target. I would include Saunders and/or Bootcheck in a deal for him. I like Kennedy but if Figgins plays CF, then where do we get the new power from? Kotch has to play 1B and Rivera/Morales should DH. I'd like to have at least one outside inception to the lineup.
 
Man, if you're right (and you better not be) about that 2006 lineup, heads will roll, starting with Stoned Man for basically keeping the same lineup! When he says, "We need a bat.", we figure he's talking about someone outside the Angels organization, not Kotch or DMac. Stoneman's GMing has been on the fence for many. We love what he's done to the minor system, but dislike his passivity in dealmaking. This year will swing the pendulum one way.
 
Vernon Wells, Vernon Wells, Vernon Wells. Also, Vernon Wells.

No need to complicate things by trading Kennedy; his contract runs out right when Kendrick's ready, so let's leave that be. HOWEVER -- We don't need or project much from *any* of the following players:

Callaspo, Aybar, Bootcheck, Donnelly, DaVanon, Finley, Yan, and even Rivera. (The corner OF/DH slot is already swollen to the bursting point.)

The Jays have Alexis Rios ready & able to take over CF, could use more infield prospects, and are thin in the rotation. We need to trade as many of the above as necessary to lock in a 27-year-old right-hand CF who can hit, catch & throw until 2010.
 
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