Sunday, December 18, 2005

Eerie Quiet From Angels

One can jump to a lot of conclusions with regard to the Angels lack of action on the free-agent and trade fronts. After failing to sign first baseman Paul Konerko the Angels made a minor trade for a left-handed reliever with a questionable work ethic and released Jeff Devanon and Josh Paul while letting Jarrod Washburn and Bengie Molina leave quietly. They also failed to re-sign Paul Byrd by making the right offer too late. That is a lot of subtraction with very little addition. Clearly the Angels are not sitting idly back, believing their team is ready to compete with the White Sox, Red Sox, Yankees and A's with this severely weakened squad?

Of course not. The Angels appear to be working on two fronts with varying levels of complexity. Here are the two most likely areas the Angels are exploring.

1. Secure a back-up catcher to mentor Jeff Mathis. No disrespect to Jose Molina but he is not the answer. The most logical guy for the job is currently Mike Piazza. The venerable veteran catcher would likely welcome a return to the west coast, always a nice place to retire. He can play first and catch occasionally while helping acclimate a guy that could have very Piazza-like numbers in the next few years.

Obstacles: Money

2. Big Bopper to Protect Vlad. The guy they covet is Manny Ramirez but the Red Sox have been unreasonable in their trade demands. While contractually the Red Sox do not have to move Manny, it would be in their best interest to do so. The quirky left-fielder has let them know in no uncertain terms that he wants to be moved and his first choice is the Angels. If they do not trade Ramirez, the Red Sox could have a thermo-nuclear bomb waiting to go off in their clubhouse. It will likely cost the Angels a couple of high-end prospects and a starting hitter to replace Ramirez in the Red Sox line-up. That means a third-team will likely be needed to get the deal done. The Diamondbacks have shown a willingness to unload Troy Glaus but with the Boston acquisition of Mike Lowell, Glaus would have to play first and/or DH for the Sox. Of course, there is also the chance the Angels could simply reacquire their former third baseman and platoon him with the injury-plagued Dallas McPherson between third and DH or trade Erstad to the D-Backs and convert Glaus to a first baseman.

Another option is KC first baseman Mike Sweeney but he too is an injury risk and an expensive one.

When exploring the Angels' current needs you have to take a look at each position.

Starting Rotation: Colon, Escobar, Santana, Lackey, Carrasco. The #5 position is the wild-card and the Angels are apparently counting on competition for Carrasco coming from the minors. Chris Bootcheck, Joe Saunders and Jake Woods could provide some in spring training. Late in the year their is a slim chance that Jared Weaver could become available. One other possibility is starter Jeff Weaver though his representation by Scott Boras makes that a long-shot.

Bullpen: JC Romero was the left-handed assassin they needed and the Angels have to feel pretty good about keeping the pen intact. K-Rod will close with Shield and Donnelly setting up. Esteban Yan, Kevin Gregg and one or two of the losers in the starting job battle will fill-out the rest of the relievers.

Catcher: Bill Stoneman cleaned house, letting Bengie Molina walk away without offering him arbitration and designating Josh Paul for assignment. That leaves just Jose Molina and Jeff Mathis to catch with the idea being Mathis will be the opening day starter for the Halos. Defensively Mathis is ready, having been compared to Jason Varitek for his style of play and ability to handle pitchers. How Mathis handles things offensively is another question. Should he win the starting job in spring training Mathis would be an early Rookie of the Year candidate.

First Base: Erstad is the finest fielding first baseman in the league and Casey Kotchman is ready to take over should Erstad become injured or traded.

Second Base: After returning from a horrible knee injury last season, Adam Kennedy remained one of the finest #9 hitters in the league while providing solid defense. Howie Kendrick is tearing through the minors and should see a lot of time in Triple A this season and will be Major League ready either late in '06 or by 2007 for sure if he stays on pace.

Shortstop: Orlando Cabrera was steady at short and continues to develop as a hitter. Heavy hitting Brandon Wood is making a lot of noise in the minors and Arizona Fall League so should Cabrera get injured or become unproductive, the kid might get a shot. Wood should be the starter by 2007 barring injury or set backs in his development. Maicer Izturis was a nice surprise but the light-hitting shortstop would be a liability at the plate. Chone Figgins also can play short (and just about every other position save pitcher and catcher).

Third Base: The future was bright for Dallas McPherson. So much so the Angels let Troy Glaus walk. That did not work out so well as McPherson was dogged by injuries and missed most of 2005. Word is he has recovered and is ready for Spring Training. Maybe 2006 will be the real debut for the longball hitting kid at the hot corner? If not, Robb Quinlan is there to back-up D-Mac.

Left Field- Garrett Anderson was not the same hitter in '05, hitting under .300 for the first time since 2001 and slugging just 17 HR's while providing limited protection for Vlad Guerrero. Anderson did play in 142 games and will be looking to recapture his 2003 form when he hit .315 with 29 HR and 116 RBI. If Anderson struggles the Angels have Juan Rivera who hit .271 with 15 HR in 106 games last season. But for the Angels to succeed, they will need Garrett to play like the GA of 2002 - 2003.

Center Field - The Steve Finley experiment failed miserably last season. The 40 year old saw his average drop 41 points from 2004, a season in which it fell 12 points from '03. His HR production dropped from 23 in 2003 to 13 in 2004 to 12 last season. That is starting to look like the slipper slope of old age ending the career of a fine ball player. But Finley will have a chance to reverse that course in spring training and given their lack of options, the Angels may just have to suck it up in '06. With literally no prospects close to ready, the Angels only alternatives are Chone Figgins and Darin Erstad. Erstad's own age and brittle nature seems to preclude him from the job while Figgins is needed to back-up several other positions. If Erick Aybar or Brandon Wood prove themselves capable of backing up Cabrera, that would free Figgins for the center field gig. In any case, look for Finley to start the year in the outfield with a hook coming in May or June should he not be able to keep is average over .200.

Right Field - Vlad Guerrero. 'Nuff said.

DH - Juan Rivera has the inside track but Kendry Morales could give him some competition in spring training. If Morales requires some Triple A seasoning then he could still be a mid-season call-up for the Angels.

All-in-all the Angels do not have a lot of holes. But if they go forward with this team, they will be asking for Dallas McPherson, Steve Finley and Garrett Anderson to show a lot more than they did last season. In addition Jeff Mathis will need to develop very quickly to help people forget about losing Bengie Molina.

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