February 2009

Abbott, Langston visit camp

The Angels welcomed two of their best and most popular pitchers in franchise history — Jim Abbott and Mark Langston — to camp on Monday, to interact with the younger athletes and enrich them with the club’s rich tradition.

“These guys were terrific pitchers,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “Even more, they’re terrific people. We’re excited to have them interact with our pitchers, especially the young pitchers. Sometimes a pitcher thinks he’s on an island; that’s not the case. It’s great to have those guys here.”

Scioscia said another great Angels lefty, Chuck Finley, will make an appearance along with Tim Salmon and Bobby Grich. Don Baylor, who spent time with the team last spring, is busy in his new role as a coach for the Rockies.

Scioscia, who spent his Dodgers youth getting to know legends such as Roy Campanella, John Roseboro and Sandy Koufax at Dodgertown, has been trying to connect his players with those who preceded them in the Angels’ colorful tradition. 

Joe Saunders, who emerged as an All-Star last season after battling Ervin Santana for a spot in the rotation in the spring, is the latest in a long line of superb — and occasionally eccentric — Angels southpaw starters. It all began with the inimitable Bo Belinski of no-hit and extracurricular fame, followed by the superb Clyde Wright and remarkably gifted Frank Tanana.

Few teams in history have had a better trio of lefties in the same rotation than Abbott, Finley and Langston from 1990-92. They were a combined 55-28 in ’91 — Langston winning 19, Finley and Abbott 18 apiece —  for a club that finished 81-81.   

Anderson, Braves good fit

He has spent his entire professional life with the Angels, but Garret Anderson is ready for a change — and Atlanta looks like a very nice fit for the left fielder with the smooth style and textbook stroke.

Anderson provides quiet leadership and a soothing presence, and Casey Kotchman especially will reap benefits if the deal with the Braves goes down, as expected. Kotch and GA are extremely close. Any difficulties Casey might have had last season making the transition to a new league after the trade for Mark Teixeira in late July will be eased by Anderson’s calm manner and words of wisdom.

The Braves are essentially a young club now, with the exception of Chipper Jones. The Braves have another Anderson, center fielder Josh, who also figures to benefit from Garret’s experience. Just as the Angels did with Bobby Abreu, the Braves will be getting a bargain. Anderson will hit anywhere, in any conditions, and he’s still a quality outfielder.          

Great news from Escobar

It’s a little early to be getting excited, of course, but it’s hard not to feel ecstatic if you’re a Kelvim Escobar fan — as is the case of every player who shares the Angels clubhouse with him.

The big man from Venezuela threw off a mound without pain, 25 fastballs, on Friday, and just as uplifting was his report on Saturday that he had no pain upon waking. He was thrilled with his range of motion and was able to do his long-toss program without discomfort.

Escobar admits he was worried at this time last year that his career might be over, that the early reports about labrum surgery made him “crazy,” as he put it. But he had the surgery in June, went through the recovery process, the rehab, came to camp encouraged — and now is throwing pain-free fastballs from 55 feet.

If his progress continues and he returns to form, this will be the equivalent of acquiring a top-shelf free-agent starter in the class of a healthy Ben Sheets or Derek Lowe. Before the shoulder flared up in September 2007, Escobar was in the Cy Young Award conversation along with John Lackey.

The club will be careful with him, making sure he doesn’t feel too good too soon and overdo it. But if this Escobar is anything close to the Kelvim of 2007, the Angels could have the best rotation in baseball.     

Izzy has a new number: 13

Few, if any, Angels players are as popular with teammates as Maicer Izturis, who might just be the nicest guy on our planet. He’s always in a good mood, always smiling, always optimistic. Even a few days after the surgery to repair a thumb fracture that ended his season prematurely last August, Izzy was upbeat, quietly talking about the possibility of returning for the postseason — and he almost made it.

Izzy was in the middle of an early-morning conversation on Saturday with Chone Figgins, Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar. It was the familiar, good-natured kind of dialogue that passes the time before the players hit the field.

“Look,” Kendrick said, pointing to the nameplate above Izturis’ locker with the No. 13. “Maicer has a new number this year.”

Izturis, ever so softly, mentioned that it holds no superstition for him, that he’s worn No. 13 in the past. He was No. 6 last year. That number has gone to Hainley Statia, who is among a half-dozen quality shortstops in camp. Bobby Abreu will adorn No. 53, with Brian Fuentes taking No. 40, Troy Percival’s old number.

When a visitor mentioned to Izturis that No. 13 has worked out all right for Alex Rodriguez, Figgins shook his head. “No A-Rod talk here,” he said, grinning.

Kendrick mentioned that Izturis packs some wallop for a little guy standing 5-foot-8, recalling  how Izzy had homered in consecutive games as the club’s leadoff man last season.

“That won’t happen this year,” Figgins said, having established as his early goal a full 162-game season.

Izturis is sound physically and looking forward to competing with good buddy Aybar for the shortstop job again after they shared it in 2008, with Brandon Wood getting some time there  with both players out in September.

Garret Anderson remains a popular topic of clubhouse conversation, players speculating where their former teammate will land. The consensus is that he’ll be a steal for somebody, that he has a lot of life left in his bat.   



PECOTA trashes Angels

If manager Mike Scioscia needed any ammo to fire up his troops, it was grooved like a Doc Gooden fastball at the belt by stat maven Nate Silver in his PECOTA ratings for Baseball Prospectus.

Silver, it turns out, doesn’t think much of the Halos — specifically, what he sees as an aging offense creating more headaches for Angels pitchers than rival managers. PECOTA has the Angels finishing 16 games off their MLB-best 2008 pace with a mere 84 wins, barely managing to prevail in what it envisions as a weak AL West.

I can understand some anticipated slippage with Mark Teixeira and Garret Anderson departing; those are two high-quality offensive players. But Bobby Abreu has been a fairly consistent 100/100 man (runs. RBIs), and he should fit nicely between Chone Figgins and Vladimir Guerrero in Scioscia’s projected top third. Of course, a big spring by Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar or Maicer Izturis could convince Scioscia to plant Abreu in the No. 3 hole, with Guerrero fourth and Torii Hunter fifth.

The rest of the lineup is deep and potentially much more explosive than PECOTA imagines. Mike Napoli has the tools to go 30/100 with enough at-bats, joining Guerrero on a surgically-repaired knee, and Hunter, Kendry Morales, Juan Rivera all are capable of exceeding 20 homers with 80 to 100 RBIs. If Hunter bats fourth, behind Vlad, he could surpass his career high of 107 RBIs from 2007.

Call me an incurable optimist, but this shapes up as a pretty fair attack — and it has a nice blend of youth and experience, top to bottom.

It was last year at this time that a lot of snipers were relegating the Angels to second place in the AL West behind Seattle, with its new ace,  Erik Bedard. Scioscia, I’m sure, got some clubhouse mileage out of that. I’m sure PECOTA and its views might surface in one of his pre-game chats with the players before too long.     

Abreu, Angels close to a deal

There is still no official confirmation, but it appears that the Angels and Bobby Abreu are hammering out a one-year deal worth $5 million plus incentives, according to multiple reports. Abreu would provide left-handed balance in a heavily right-handed offense and would join a four-man rotation for the three outfield spots and designated hitter role with Vladimir Guerrero, Torii Hunter and Juan Rivera.

This will give the Angels another crowded outfield,with Gary Matthews Jr. (recovering from knee surgery) and Reggie Willits pushed down the depth chart. Both are versatile outfielders with talents that could play in other cities if the Angels decide to shop them. Matthews will have to prove he’s fully recovered from the knee operation, and Willits also needs a good spring to reestablish himself as a quality Major Leaguer after an injury-riddled 2008.

The upshot of the Abreu move is that it pretty much slams the door on any chance of Garret Anderson returning after 14 years as the club’s most productive career hitter. With Adam Dunn going to Washington, Anderson is the most attractive hitter left in free agency not named Manny Ramirez.        

Tempe-bound at last

The end, thankfully, is near to a long, sometimes difficult winter. As troubling as it is to so many fans, figuring out how this team can be as good as it’s been, or better, without Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Casey Kotchman, Jon Garland, Darren O’Day, Chris Bootcheck and, it appears, the great Garret Anderson. I’ve experienced enough springs with enough teams to realize that there are always new stories and new favorites on the horizon.

I somehow befriended Mark Fidrych when “The Bird” took baseball by storm in the Motor City, a story you find only in baseball. I was covering the Dodgers when Fernando Valenzuela came out of nowhere to energize a city and region, right on through an improbable World Series title in 1981. I was a columnist when Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant arrived in L.A. as confident teens, ready to claim their turf and write some history.

Personally, that’s always been the essence and joy of baseball, and sports in general — watching new athletes emerge, form their identities, take teams to unimagined heights. I’ve been incredibly lucky to cover a wide range of champions, from the John Wooden Bruins through Muhammad Ali through those Dodgers teams of the ’70s and early ’80s, the Lakers of the ’80s and early 2000s, and the 1986 Mets, the wildest bunch of them all. One thing they’ve all shared in common is a commitment to make every day count, to prove it all night.

In the words of my muse, Bruce Springsteen, everybody’s got a hungry heart. I am looking forward to seeing what’s in store when the Angels get together in Tempe on Friday and go through the early paces. I’ll be as curious as anybody to see how Kendry Morales responds to his opportunity, how Brian Fuentes fits in, how Dustin Moseley meets the challenge, if Brandon Wood, Sean Rodriguez and Nick Adenhart can begin to full their tremendous potential.

I know a lot of fans are upset that the club didn’t do more this off-season, but this roster is loaded with talent. I remember how it was last year at this time, critics routinely picking the Mariners to roll to the AL West title behind their new ace, Eric Bedard. I seem to recall the Angels doing OK with what they had, adding the superlative Torii Hunter to the mix. I would have welcomed Jake Peavy or Manny Ramirez or Adam Dunn this winter, and I would love to see Anderson in his familiar role as Mr. Consistency. But times inevitably change, and so do rosters.

I really mean it when I try to reassure fans that this team should be good enough to claim a fifth AL West title in six years, that perhaps 25 Major League owners, possibly more, would swap 40-man rosters with Arte Moreno in a heartbeat. I know I’m accused of being a homer when I write that — I do read the thrashings I get from fans — but I’m being honest here.

I realize I’m repeating myself now, a function of age, of course. But I like this team a lot, and I think you will too, if you give it a fair shot.

I look forward to hearing from all of you in this new forum. MLB.Com has moved away from the popular mailbag format to the blogosphere, for better or verse. Let’s have at it, and have some fun. That is, after all, the whole point of these fun and games. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, but finding out is always a new experience.