Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Arte Moreno has promised "major changes" for the Angels this off-season. Of course, before any changes can be pursued, we have to identify what the problems are, and how they might be fixed.

Let's start with position players. Today I'll be looking at the infield.

What was supposed to happen: Jeff Mathis was going to step in, step up, and combine with Jose Molina to maintain quality defense, though we were likely to suffer an offensive decline.

What happened: Jeff Mathis couldn't hit at all for a few weeks, so he was sent down and the slow-starting Mike Napoli was recalled from AAA. Napoli went on a binge, and was hitting 310/444/629 after a two-dinger day on July 1. But, just like last year in AA, Napoli suffered a massive and debilitating mid-summer slump, hitting 151/287/302 since. Luckily, Molina has come on to hit 301/323/505 over that same period, so the wound has been salved.

Where we go from here: As Napoli is a rookie, it's hard to tell what his true talent level is. Based on his huge slump last season, my gut is to say that he's just a streaky guy, and will alternate from surge to slump. As long as he can hit .220, he can help a team. Heck, as a catcher, he can probably help you hitting .210 or .215. I think he can meet those modest minimums. He shouldn't go anywhere.

People are talking about Jeff Mathis as though he's a bust, but there are two important things to remember: for one, he hasn't really ever had any season that made it look like he could be a star (his 2003 season at Rancho comes the closest), and he's still pretty young (he'll turn 24 in spring training). He still projects as a guy who can be a decent regular, which is all he ever projected to. He's not a bust yet.

I think 2007 should see the job split between Napoli and Mathis. Jose Molina is a great defender, but his offense this season is pretty much as good as he'll get. Mathis has a ways to go, but he might as well start learning in the majors. There are still a lot of questions about this position -- if Napoli turns out to really be a .150 hitter and Mathis can't improve, we're in trouble -- but we have the pieces in place.

First Base
What was supposed to happen: Casey Kotchman was going to have the best season by an Angel first baseman in roughly fifteen years.

What happened: Casey Kotchman caught what appears to be the most virulent strain of mononucleosis imaginable, which wasn't diagnosed until a few weeks into the season, despite the fact that the guy had to go on an IV after his spring training games.

So Kendry Morales came up, got off to a hot start, commenced his regular two months of difficulty at a new level, showed some signs of life, got demoted, and bashed up AAA upon his return. Howie Kendrick was called up in his stead, and despite a bit of a late-season slide as had an impressive debut. Robb Quinlan has filled in very well against left-handed pitchers when Kendrick plays second.

Where we go from here: Obviously, Kendrick will be moving to second. That leaves us with Kotchman and Morales as in-house solutions.

The only question with Kotchman is health. We now he can hit in the minors and we've seen him hit in the majors. He'll be only 24 years old next season. He's already a high-caliber defensive player.

But that health is a real question. But I can't help but think of Nick Johnson, who, despite his prodigious hitting talents, suffered freak injury after freak injury in the minors, derailing his progress and earning a ticket out of the Bronx.

But have you noticed what's up with Nick the Stick now? Now he's 28 years old, playing every day (he should play over 150 games this season), and hitting 293/430/525.

Kotchman's ailments have been of the freak variety. If he can kick this viral infection and get back to full strength, I have no doubt in my mind that he's a major league hitter. I'd really hate to see the Angels give up on him, as it seems they might, just because they run out of patience with the healing process.

I don't think Morales has the ceiling of Kotchman, but at least he can keep himself on the field. Kendry doesn't draw walks, which is a problem, but otherwise looks like he can be a hitter. After being sent back down to AAA on July 23, he hit 326/356/600 over his next 100ish at-bats, which has a Major League Equivalence of 265/296/467. For a 23-year-old, that's something to build on.

I'd like to see us bite the bullet and give one (or, if necessary, both) of these guys the job next season. There will be rough patches, almost certainly. But the fact is that we have no idea if either one of these guys is really going to be part of our future. We have to give them the opportunity to demonstrate that they can be.

Now, there's going to be a positional logjam if both Kotchman can stay healthy and Morales can produce. We'll worry about that later.

Second Base
What was supposed to happen: Adam Kennedy was going to give us slightly-better-than league-average offense and a Gold Glove.

What happened: Adam Kennedy had his worst season in five years, and was relegated to a platoon role with Robb Quinlan.

Where we go from here: This is an easy one; we say farewell to Adam, a franchise hero, and welcome Howie Kendrick, who just might be the next MVP to wear the Angel red.

People seem worried about Howie's recent slump; I'm not. Even with this slide, he's hitting 296/326/448 since his second recall, where he entered the starting lineup for good. And, remember, he's only 22 years old -- he's younger than Kotchman and Morales and Mathis and Napoli and all these guys we've been talking about.

And here's something else -- his career high in at-bats before this season was 469, last season, with his career high in games being 109. This year, he's already up to 519 at-bats and 131 games played. He's never played this deep into a season. And those fifty new at-bats, when have they all been? In September, where his line has dropped from 313/351/460 (which includes his not-good cup of coffee early in the year) to 275/311/410.

He's going to be fine.

Third Base
What was supposed to happen: Lord only knows; with Dallas McPherson hurt again, Legs Figgins was supposed to play third until Darin Erstad got hurt in center, at which time maybe Dallas would be healthy, but who knows.

What happened: Turns out that Maicer Izturis was up to the challenge, hitting 291/363/412 and seizing the leadoff spot from Figgins. He has also demonstrated defense that is, shall we say, spotty.

Where we go from here: I don't think anyone sees Ztu as a long-term solution at third base. I still think McPherson can hit if healthy (again, a 248/296/456 line is something to build on, and he always seems to heat up right before re-injuring himself), but whereas Casey Kotchman is constantly beset by freak injuries, Dallas' result from a chronically injured back. This is not something that's going to get better. I don't think the Angels can rely on him for that very reason, and I don't think they plan to.

(Incidentally, a lot of people are calling the Mathis-Kotchman-McPherson troika a triple-bust. I've discussed Mathis above; I don't think you can call Kotchman a bust because he has a viral disease. McPherson ... well, I guess you can call him health bust, maybe, but people are saying he's a bust because of the strikeouts. That's flatly untrue; it may well have become true were he healthy enough to play and strike out all the time, but that's not what has happened.)

The third base situation, due to The Legs, seems somewhat intertwined with the center field situation. It seems, however, that the Angels are starting to lose faith in Figgins as an every-day player, just as they came to lose faith in David Eckstein as a regular shortstop.

Figgins has been taking some hits in the Halosphere, but I think he'll bounce back. He's drawing more walks this year and he's maintained his power; the one difference in his offensive performance is that the singles aren't dropping in, and as a result he's hitting .260 instead of .290.

Of course, even a bounced-back Figgins is a just-above league average offensive player, and at a position like third base on a team without any power, that's not good enough. The Angels appear to have identified this position for an upgrade, and this is a good decision. There is talk of Aramis Ramirez, and also of Miguel Tejada, presuming he could be convinced to change positions.

Pending the costs, either one of these guys would be a good addition. But what if we can't get someone like that?

I don't know; I guess we live another year with Figgins or Izturis. Or maybe we take McPherson to a faith healer and he comes out okay. Or, thinking way outside the box, maybe we look at Kendry Morales, who has a strong arm and looked pretty good defensively at first, and say, "Hey, if we can make Robb Quinlan a third baseman, maybe we can do the same with Kendry." I don't know.

Given everything, I assume that Aramis Ramirez is target number one this winter.

What was supposed to happen: Orlando Cabrera would do things.

What happened: Orlando Cabrera did things, just a little bit better than he ever did before.

Where we go from here: Brandon Wood is still a year away, and Erick Aybar didn't blow away anyone this year, so The OC looks pretty safe. Still, he's coming off a terrific offensive year that may put his trade value at the highest it will ever be. I'm not saying we should trade him come hell or high-water, but if he can be part of a deal for an Aramis Ramirez or Vernon Wells, the trigger should be pulled and Erick Aybar gets a season in the nine-spot.

It's also not impossible that he could be moved as part of a Miguel Tejada trade.

I won't weep if Lando is still our Opening Day shorstop next season. However, if he is, that means that we should have moved Aybar somewhere so that Wood can settle in at AAA (and Sean Rodriguez at AA).

I'll get to the outfield and DH spots later this week.

Topline thoughts on what I'd do this off-season were I GM of the Angels:

- Sign Gary Sheffield to play 1B.

- Trade Figgins to Houston in a package for Morgan Ensberg to play 3B (hope he rebounds by coming home); groom Ward as the heir apparent there.

- Trade Kendrick in a package for A. Jones or V. Wells to play CF. We have other middle infield options ...

- Hold spring competition between Izturis and Aybar to play 2B.
Ward = Wood ... my bad.
I'd include Wood in a package before I would Kendrick. Wood's ghastly minor league strikeout totals make him seem like less of sure-thing than Kendrick.
I think it's too early to give up on Wood as a SS; he's still receiving praise for his glove there, and his offense will be a lot more valuable if he's a good defensive shortstop, even if the strikeouts make him a low average slugger.

I'm loathe to give up on Howie, too. There's every indication that this guy will be able to help us for a decade.
Perhaps I am missing something, but in everything I've read regarding upgrading center field, Gary Matthews Jr. is never discussed. Is'nt he a free agent after this season? I would think he would be someone the Angels would love to have. Am I wrong?
Gary Matthews, at 33 and having a career year, could be that proverbial one-year wonder.

Also, if I'm not mistaken, some of the dudes who complile zone rating stats for defense claim he is vastly overrated as a defender, notwithstanding some of his highlight-reel catches.
- Signing Gary Sheffield at first seems like an advice an A's fan would give. Not to his own, but to the Angels GM, of course. Sheffield is old, a primadonna and first base is the position where we actually have a luxury problem with two options.
- Counting on Ensberg to repeat his fluke season is like waiting for Erstad to do the same
- Isn't Vernon Wells a free agent anyway?
Personally, I'd rather see the Angels sign someone like Wells or Ramirez to either fill CF or 3B and give Figgy the other position than make a costly trade for Andrew Jones, Manny Ramirez, Miguel Tejada or even A-Rod if it costs us Howie, Wood or Santana.
Kotchman was diagnosed with mono in November, 2005. He had essentially a relapse of symptoms in April, 2006. Epstein-Barr infections can go on for a long damn time.
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