July 2009

No deal not necessarily a bad deal

The Angels overrate their prospects. If that’s what you’re hearing or reading in the wake of their inability to swing a non-waiver Trade Deadline deal for a four-star pitcher, you don’t necessarily have to buy it.

I mean, seriously, how do you overrate prospects who have helped you win more games over the past 4 seasons than any other team in Major League Baseball? That doesn’t make much sense.

You’d think lesser clubs would want to latch onto some of those kids who have helped drive manager Mike Scioscia’s troupe to 438 wins, heading into this six-game road trip, against 309 losses since the start of the 2005 season. Next best: Yankees, at 436-313, then the Red Sox, at 429-318.

Not bad, as company goes.

You’d think clubs languishing on the fringes of contention would welcome the opportunity to import some of this talent from an organization that plays aggressive, exciting, winning baseball from rookie ball on up.

Without full knowledge of what was offered and what was rejected, my sense is the Angels put together some very fair proposals – particularly for Roy Halladay and Heath Bell – and, for whatever reason, were simply rejected.

Maybe Toronto didn’t really want to part with Halladay. Maybe San Diego couldn’t live without Bell, when it was all said and done. I don’t know. But I have been around Angels players now long enough, organization-wide, to appreciate their skill, intelligence and will.

If Erick Aybar was a deal-breaker with Toronto, I’m good with that. He’s on his way to greatness, and Angels fans will be dazzled by his many gifts for years to come.

This whole business of desperately needing No. 1 starters to win in the postseason is an urban myth. If you’re looking for something that’s overrated, here it is. I don’t recall the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati needing a hand full of aces.

The Angels didn’t have a No. 1 in the classic mold in 2002. The Athletics had three legit No. 1s – Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson – that season and couldn’t win a postseason series. The Braves had three certified No. 1s – Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz — for a full decade. They claimed one Fall Classic.

Dominant starting pitching is great, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not a be-all, cure-all, end-all. It guarantees nothing.

Here’s what matters in October: momentum. Positive, upbeat, driving momentum generated by quality play, good pitching and a dash of good fortune here and there.

It looks wide open this season, from this laptop. The Angels have a shot at going all the way if things fall into place. They’re due for a break or two in October.

Halladay absolutely would have been a terrific addition. But not at the cost of the heart of your club.

As for Bell, he’s a shiny Cadillac parked in a dark garage. Would he have helped the Angels? Sure. But they might end up getting more production out of the players the Padres didn’t seem to want.

Who knows? Crazy stuff happens all the time. It’s baseball. Nobody is nearly as smart as he or she claims to be.

 

 

Angels stand pat

General manager Tony Reagins said the Angels came up empty in their efforts to make a non-waiver Trade Deadline deal when they were unable to match up with other clubs.

Reagins was not specific about which clubs he was talking with, but reports indicated that the Angels made concerted efforts to acquire Roy Halladay from the Blue Jays and Heath Bell from the Padres.

“It really came down to not being the best fit for either party,” Reagins said. “We had a comfort level that we could go in certain situations and were willing to be aggressive. [Owner] Arte Moreno gave us no restraints. We went in with the idea of improving the club. A lot of effort was put into the process. From that standpoint, you move forward. We have business to take care of. Our focus is on Minnesota tonight. Our 25 guys have a comfort level they are going to be here for the rest of the year.”

There was one report that the Angels were close to a last-minute deal for Halladay, but Reagins would not confirm that. The Jays reportedly wanted shortstop Erick Aybar, infielder Brandon Wood, starter Joe Saunders and a prime prospect.

“Utimately, you have to find a match,” Reagins said. “You may offer talented players, but if the deal doesn’t fit for both parties . . . that’s the situation we were in. From a personnel standpoint, we made proposals that were very competitive and made sense. But the other side has to feel they made sense as well.”

 

    

Aybar close to untouchable

For the record, the Angels say nobody on their roster is untouchable. But Erick Aybar is about as close as it gets.

Staying healthy and in the lineup after missing chunks of the past two seasons with hand and hamstring injuries, the 25-year-old shortstop from Bani, Dominican Republic is emerging as one of the game’s most exciting young talents.

Aybar grew up wanting to be like Rafael Furcal, and he is getting there in a hurry by combining superb and consistent defense with a sizzling bat and blazing speed on the basepaths.

With extraordinary range and only five errors in 79 games, Aybar’s .986 fielding percentage is surpassed by only three regular Major League shortstops. He’s batting .316 overall and in the clutch, with a .355 on-base percentage that represents huge improvement over his .298 figure coming into the season.

As Angels general manager Tony Reagins engages in dialogue with other clubs as the non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches on Friday, Aybar is a popular topic.

You can ask for him, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get him.

Toronto apparently found that out when it demanded Aybar as part of a multi-player package in exchange for Roy Halladay. The Angels are believed to be maneuvering for the Indians’ Cliff Lee, but Aybar again could be a deal-breaker.

“It doesn’t affect me,” Aybar said on Tuesday night through Jose Mota’s translation. “I have a job to do. I can’t worry about my name being out there. It’s flattering teams want me, but it also makes me sad.”

He loves the team he’s with and the style it plays, which is perfectly suited to his skills. Manager Mike Scioscia realizes that there are few athletes in the game on Aybar’s level, having repeatedly expressed the view that Erick has star potential once he settles in and shows consistency with the bat and in the field.

Coming into Tuesday night’s game against the Indians, Aybar was leading Angels regulars with his .316 average, ahead of Bobby Abreu (.314), Juan Rivera (.311), Chone Figgins (.309), Torii Hunter (.305) and Maicer Izturis (.300).

It’s a deep and formidable lineup, and when Aybar is linked with Figgins on the bases, it can be a show. You’d be hard-pressed to find two quicker, swifter baserunners in the same lineup. It calls to mind the St. Louis days when Vince Coleman, Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee ran circles around teams. 

“I feel confident,” Aybar said. “One thing I don’t feel is complacent. It feels good to be playing at this level. It’s a lot of fun.”

With an embarrassment of middle-infield riches – Aybar, Izturis, Howard Kendrick, Brandon Wood, Sean Rodriguez – along with other assets, the Angels could swing a deal by the deadline for a big-time starter or veteran setup man in front of Brian Fuentes.

Just don’t expect Aybar to be part of it.
 

What a season this is becoming

I’m sitting here in the Dodger Stadium pressbox, where I’ve spent hundreds of days and nights, watching Manny Ramirez circle the bases after unloading a first-pitch grand slam — on Manny Bobblehead Night, of all nights.

Mannywood erupts in front of me. He’s second all-time to Lou Gehrig in grand slams with 21, and I doubt the Iron Horse ever made an entrance like the one Manny did when he was summoned by Joe Torre to bat for pitcher Chad Billingsley.

Manny came out to a thunderous roar and swung the lead bat seemingly for five minutes before Reds manager Dusty Baker emerged from the dugout to replace Bronson Arroyo with Nick Masset.

Moments later, Manny was at the plate, swinging a hunk of wood, the crowd going wild. And the ball was sailing into the box seats in the left field corner, Manny circling the bases like the 12-year-old kid he is at moments such as this.

And here I sit thinking that this is shaping up as one of those summers we might not forget in Southern California.

The Angels just roared from behind in Kansas City, behind mighty mites Chone Figgins, Maicer Izturis and Reggie Willits, for another exciting victory, and they’re coming home on a roll. They’re doing all this winning without Torii Hunter, their best player, and without Vladimir Guerrero, their most feared hitter, and lately without Juan Rivera, who is having a tremendous season.

Mike Scioscia pushes buttons, athletes run out on the field, and the Angels win games.

I had an email from a reader the other day berating me for calling Figgins an MVP candidate. Why he was so livid about this, I have no idea. He claimed to be an Angels fan and couldn’t believe I would have the audacity to write such a thing. I was actually quoting Scioscia, but that seemed not to matter.

Well, I don’t see why Figgins can’t be an MVP candidate, just as I see no reason why Hunter, in the midst of his best season, also can’t be in the running.

I can’t see why the Angels can’t keep winning, and the Dodgers can’t keep winning, and we can have a magical summer all the way into October.

What would be better than that, an I-5 World Series, if you’re a  baseball fan in Southern California?

Funny, I was just talking about that subject tonight with Dodgers infielder Mark Loretta, who played for the Padres when they were a pretty decent team. As we were talking, Ramirez — out of the lineup after getting drilled in the hand on Tuesday night — walked by,pointed to Loretta and Ausmus, turned his hand inward toward his chest, and said, “Too much money on the bench tonight.”

Not long after that, I was sitting in the visitors’ dugout talking with Eric Davis. He was wearing a Reds uniform and looking good in it, and he was talking about how Manny had “transformed” the Dodgers the day he arrived with his personality.

“He takes everything on, and frees up everybody else to just play,” Davis said. “They watch Manny and realize that he’s just a big kid having a good time. That kind of thing has a big influence on a young team. You can see what it did for the Dodgers. It transformed them.”

Eric, one of the most talented athletes I’ve ever seen, was right. He was up in the pressbox, not far from me, when Mannywood exploded yet again. Davis was hardly surprised.

“He loves the game, everything about being a baseball player,” Davis had said as we sat in the dugout. “He is a joy to be around for teammates. Look at him out there, just a big kid having fun.”

At that moment, playing shortstop during batting practice, Ramirez hurled a baseball into the visitors’ dugout several feet away from Davis and beamed.  

Ah, yes. There’s magic in the air these days and nights. Dodger Stadium and Angel Stadium are wonderful places to spend a summer night. 

Loux eager to pitch in

OAKLAND — Angels manager Mike Scioscia hasn’t committed to a starter for Monday night’s series opener in Kansas City, identifying as candidates Matt Palmer, Sean O’Sullivan and Shane Loux.

 

Loux, having rejoined the pitching staff after recovering from a bout with shoulder inflammation, is just happy to be back in the conversation, a viable option again.

 

“I feel good, ready to do whatever comes my way,” Loux said. “I will gladly take any assignment.”

 

Loux gave the Angels some solid work as a starter to open the season, going 2-2 with a 4.64 ERA in six starts before getting moved to the bullpen. That was where he created stress in the shoulder in outings on successive days in Texas in mid-May, going to the DL retroactive to May 17.

 

Loux put together a pair of excellent starts in Baltimore and Oakland, yielding just two earned runs in a total of 13 innings, before giving up three earned runs in 3 2/3 innings at home against the Royals in his final start on May 10.

Eight days ago, pitching at home for Triple-A Salt Lake, Loux showed he had his stamina back with 87 pitches in seven innings against Colorado Springs.

 

“I got 15 groundouts,” Loux said. “I was making good pitches, down in the zone, and throwing my breaking ball for strikes. I thought it was a good sign that my last pitch was the same speed as my second pitch. That’s what we were worried about. I’m fully stretched out and ready for whatever I need to do.”

 

Palmer is 7-1 with a 4.80 ERA, with 11 starts in 17 appearances. O’Sullivan, now back at Salt Lake, is 2-0 with a 3.80 ERA in four starts for the Angels.


 

Wood debuts at first base

Brandon Wood, with all of five professional games of experience at the position, found himself on the lineup card at first base and batting seven against the Yankees’ CC Sabathia on Sunday at Angel Stadium.

“It’s a challenge I’m looking forward to,” Wood said. “I’ve played enough there now at [Triple-A] Salt Lake to get a feel for it. It’s definitely a different look and feel, but I’m getting more comfortable every time I play there. By the third or fourth game, I was checking things off: I can do that, I can do that.

“One thing I didn’t realize is how much is involved at first in terms of physical activity – all the squatting, moving around. I find that my legs are more tired after playing first than at short or third.”

A shortstop all his life, taken in the first round of the 2003 First-Year Player Draft out of Horizon High School in Scottsdale, Ariz., Wood has been the gem of the farm system since ’04. He has been brought along slowly – the Angels are loaded with quality players at shortstop and third base – but has shown clear signs in limited opportunities this season of putting it all together.

His first three starts this season have been at third base, where he has excelled spelling Chone Figgins. Wood made a superb back-handed stab on Saturday, robbing Johnny Damon of a hit in the fifth inning, and responded in the bottom half of the winning with a homer to right center against Andy Pettitte. It jump-started the Angels’ offense, and they went on to prevail, 14-8.

Wood had two hits against Sabathia in New York on May 2, including an opposite-field single that ignited a decisive rally.

“A play like the one Woody made can give you a boost of confidence,” teammate Reggie Willits said. “I’ve seen that carry over to your next at-bat – and you saw what happened. Woody has big-time talent, no question about it.”

Wood agreed that his defensive contribution might have sharpened his focus in his at-bat against Pettitte. He was ahead 3-1 in the count when he went after a pitch down and on the outer half of the plate and sent it rocketing into the seats in right center.

“He has ridiculous power,” Willits said. “I’ve seen him hit some shots you wouldn’t believe in the Minors.”

Wood, who swung at only two of Pettitte’s first 10 pitches on Saturday, walking in his first at-bat, is making an impression on the man in charge.

“Brandon is making significant strides, offensively and defensively,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “He’s looked good at first in Salt Lake. He’s athletic, with good hands, and he is taking to it well, just as he did at third.”
 

 

Wood gets crack at Pettitte

Brandon Wood was in the Angels’ lineup on Saturday against Andy Pettitte, getting a start at third base with Chone Figgins awarded a day off his busy feet to serve as designated hitter.

Wood welcomes any chance to face anybody, even if it’s one of the game’s premier southpaws. He made one of his two starts for the Angels this season at New York against CC Sabathia, collecting a pair of singles in three at-bats. He went the other way with a single to contribute to a decisive rally against the Yankees’ ace.

The slugging gem of the Angels’ system for four years, Wood also had a single in two at-bats against Pettitte during one of his appearances at home last September when he got his first taste of consistent Major League playing time at shortstop.

“I’ll go check with Torii [Hunter] and some of the guys about how to approach him,” Wood said of Pettitte, who is known to bring his cut fastball in on right-hander’s fists. “Two at-bats help, but Torii has seen him a lot longer than I have.”

Wood, hitting .333 for the Angels with nine at-bats, was batting .313 with 17 homers and 52 RBIs at Triple-A Salt Lake when he was recalled on Friday with Hunter (strained adductor muscle) and Vladimir Guerrero (strained muscle behind his left knee) going on the 15-day disabled list.

“Woody can help us,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “You don’t want him sitting around getting one start every 10 days. There’s a role for him to get at-bats and contribute.”

A natural shortstop coming out of Horizon High School in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 2003, Wood has made excellent strides at third base and lately at first in an effort to expand his horizons and make him more attractive to Scioscia.

He has sure hands, an accurate arm and an easy, gliding manner in the field calling to mind a young Cal Ripken Jr.

With a grin, Wood said, “All I can ask for is a chance to play and contribute. It’s exciting every time I get on the field.”
 

Hunter, Guerrero to DL — Wood, Wilson arrive

The Angels will face the Yankees this weekend without the heart of their lineup.

Torii Hunter and Vladimir Guerrero, the third and fourth hitters in the Angels’ lineup, were placed on the 15-day disabled list on Friday. The move will take Hunter, selected for the American League roster in the players’ poll, out of what would have been his third All-Star Game appearance.

Recalled from Triple-A Salt Lake to help fill the void were infielder Brandon Wood and catcher Bobby Wilson. Wilson’s presence as a backup to Jeff Mathis will free up Mike Napoli for designated hitter duty.

Guerrero, 34, has a strained muscle behind his left knee and a lower hamstring strain. He landed awkwardly pivoting to make a play in right field against the Rangers on Tuesday night.

Hunter, 33, has an adductor strain in his right side, an area he has been favoring for almost two months. He initially injured his right rib cage banging against the wall at Dodger Stadium making a catch on May 22 and re-injured the area crashing into a wall in San Francisco on June 15.

He missed only one game, after the June 15 mishap, but was forced out of the lineup on Wednesday night when he couldn’t run full tilt the night before against the Rangers.

“I didn’t want to go on the DL – that’s not me – but maybe it’s for the best,” Hunter said. “The way I have it figured, I should be ready to go on July 22. The All-Star break helps, since those days count.”

Guerrero, who had right knee surgery last September, was playing in his second game in right field after tearing a pectoral muscle in an exhibition game on April 2. Serving primarily as a DH, he is batting .290 with four homers and 21 RBIs in 46 games. Guerrero has missed 38 games this season while on the DL.

Hunter, who already had declined an offer to participate in the State Farm Home Run Derby in St. Louis at the All-Star Game, is batting .290 with team highs in home runs (17) and RBIs (65) in 77 games. This is his first trip to the DL with the Angels and his first since 2006.

An eight-time Rawlings Gold Glover, Hunter has been as good as ever defensively while enjoying potentially a career year with the bat.

Wood, 24, is batting .313 with 17 home runs and 52 RBIs in 70 games for Salt Lake, ranking third in the Pacific Coast League with a .592 slugging percentage.

Wood, a natural shortstop who can play third and first base effectively, excelled in two starts – including one big hit against CC Sabathia of the Yankees in a victory at Yankee Stadium – before he was sent to Salt Lake.

Wilson, 26, is batting .261 with seven homers and 27 RBIs in 65 games at Salt Lake. With Wilson in support of Mathis, Napoli can return to the DH role, where he flourished during Guerrero’s absence.

Halladay, Angels could be a dream fit

The word is out that the Blue Jays are listening to proposals for Roy Halladay, who has few peers among starting pitchers. No team values starters more highly than the Angels. They have made inquiries, knowing how much Halladay’s talent and endurance would mean in a rotation that has been patched together all season as a result of injuries and tragedy in the form of the death of Nick Adenhart.

The obvious question is this: How high can, or would, they go to import a dominant starter at the top of his game, signed through next season? He’s making $14.25 million this season, $15.75 next year.

The Blue Jays reportedly would want a quality shortstop — the Angels are loaded there — and young pitching talent in exchange for a man who gives you seven to nine innings of high-level work every fifth day.

Probably the only commodity the Angels value as highly as starting pitching is young talent, and therein lines the rub.

Staying healthy for the first time, Erick Aybar has established himself this season as one of the premier young shortstops in the game. He could be featured in an attractive package. If the Blue Jays prefer power, Brandon Wood is one of the elite young mashers in the game, just waiting for his opportunity in Triple-A Salt Lake to show he’s the real deal.

The Angels are rich in young talent. They have youthful pitching (Sean O’Sullivan, Jordan Walden, Trevor Reckling, among others) that would have to appeal to Toronto. It’s conceivable but unlikely they would consider moving one of their established starters — Ervin Santana or Joe Saunders, most likely — in a Halladay deal.

The Jays are in a position of strength and don’t have to do anything. But they’re in a top-heavy division, chasing the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays in the AL East, and as great as Halladay is, it’s highly doubtful Toronto can put together a surge to catch them.

The Phillies are seen as the leading candidates to land Halladay, if he is moved. They have the youthful talent to get it done and clearly are in need of a front-line starter. The level of the Angels’ need is not as high as Philadelphia’s, but as they showed last July with Mark Teixeira, they’re not averse to making the big, bold move.

The Angels have a lot of decisions to make this winter, with Vladimir Guerrero, John Lackey, Chone Figgins, Bobby Abreu, Kelvim Escobar, Robb Quinlan and Darren Oliver all eligible for free agency. Taking on Halladay’s contract would be no issue with so much payroll potentially coming off the books.

When the Padres’ Jake Peavy was available over the winter, the Angels gave it serious consideration but never made a big pitch. There were concerns about how his shoulder and elbow would hold up over the long haul. With Halladay, who has been as durable as they come with superior mechanics, that is not an issue.

This is about as tempting as it gets. For Halladay, who has made it clear he wants to pitch for a winner if he leaves Toronto, the interest would have to be mutual. The Angels offer pretty much everything a player can want. Just ask Torii Hunter. He’ll talk all day about that.  

      

Mentor Abreu a daily influence

Bobby Abreu is not just a source of walks, base-hits, runs scored and RBIs. He’s an endlessly rewarding source of information, insights and perspective for younger teammates of all shapes, positions and nationalities.

Chone Figgins watches teammates pick Abreu’s brain every day. As mentors go, he’s invaluable. Among those who have benefitted from the veteran’s wisdom are Juan Rivera, Kendry Morales, Maicer Izturis and Torii Hunter, as well as Figgins.

With Vladimir Guerrero’s production way down after his pectoral muscle tear, Rivera and Morales have arrived as forces in the middle of the lineup to pick up the slack, along with Hunter and Mike Napoli.

Rivera, Morales and Abreu all flourished in June. Rivera (24) and Abreu (23) were first and second in the AL in RBIs, Rivera batting .290 and slugging .590 while Abreu hit .303 with a .483 slugging percentage.

Morales batted .282 with a .588 slugging percentage. The first baseman unloaded five homers, three fewer than Rivera.

Morales and Rivera are in constant contact with Abreu.

“He’s teaching them to have a plan,” Figgins said. “Bobby always talks to them about their approach, not their swing. He never discusses swings — always your approach.

“For Juan and Kendry, and also for Izzy, hearing that every day from Bobby has obviously been a big plus. A lot of times he’s reinforcing what they’re doing. He stresses making sure you go after your pitch. If you put yourself in good hitting situations and get something good to hit, put a good swing on it.

“Bobby has shown over the years how effective his approach is, and all these guys are taking advantage of it.”

In the midst of what is shaping up as his finest offensive season across the board, Hunter has made the point that he’s a more disciplined hitter than at any point in his career.

“I thank Bobby for that,” Hunter said. “He’s shown me a lot of things. The man knows his stuff.”  

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