August 2009

Kazmir has excelled against AL West

If past performance is a fair gauge, southpaw Scott Kazmir should have no trouble adapting to a steady diet of Major League Baseball, American League West style. He’ll make his Angels debut, if all goes as planned, on Wednesday in Seattle.

The Houston native has flourished against the Angels’ three division rivals. This is an important residual benefit of the deal that brings Kazmir – 25 and signed through 2011 with a club option for 2012 — to Anaheim at the cost of lefty Alex Torres, infielder Matt Sweeney and a player to be named later.

In 28 career starts against the Athletics, Rangers and Mariners, Kazmir is 15-5 with 173 strikeouts against 63 walks in 166 innings pitched.

The two-time All-Star is 7-3 in 13 starts against Oakland with a 3.16 ERA. He’s 5-1 against Texas with a 2.28 ERA in nine outings and 3-1 with a 3.21 ERA in six career starts against Seattle.

Kazmir is 3-1 with a 3.14 ERA in five starts at Safeco Field. He’s 4-2, 2.96 in eight trips to the post at the Oakland Coliseum and 2-1, 2.52 in four starts at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. That makes him 9-4 in 17 outings on foreign AL West soil.

In a season that has brought an uncommon number of struggles within the division, the Angels certainly can use Kazmir’s touch.

If the five-man rotation stays intact for the balance of the season, Kazmir should have seven starts for the Angels. He’s 8-7 with a 5.92 ERA in 20 starts, but his past three have been among his best of the year, with his velocity moving back into more familiar territory after a dip earlier.

Kazmir’s home debut — he lost his only start at Angel Stadium, three earned runs in 6 2/3 innings — figures to be on Sept. 8 against the Mariners. That would be followed by a Sept. 13 home start against the White Sox, a Sept. 18 challenge in Texas, a Sept. 23 home assignment against the Yankees, Sept. 29 at home against the Rangers and, finally, the Athletics in the season finale on Oct. 4 in Oakland.

That, mind you, is just one blogger trying to map it all out, subject to change along the way. But it would make five of his seven projected starts against AL West foes.

A quality athlete who has been timed at 6.7 in the 60, Kazmir was a quarterback at Cypress Falls High School in Houston his freshman and sophomore years before hanging up the pads to focus on his main sport.

Kazmir was taken in the first round, 15th overall, by the Mets in 2002 after being named Baseball America’s High School Player of the Year.

The Mets brought him along carefully for 2 seasons before shipping him to Tampa Bay on July 30, 2004 – beating the non-waiver Trade Deadline – in a four-player swap. Veteran right-hander Victor Zambrano was the object of the Mets’ affections.

Zambrano was 10-14 with a 4.42 ERA in 39 games for the Mets across three seasons. Right-hander Bartolome Fortunato, also acquired in the deal by New York, was 2-0 with a 7.06 ERA in 17 appearances for the Mets.

Kazmir, meanwhile, has pitched in two All-Star Games (a scoreless inning each) and five postseason games representing Tampa Bay, where he was 55-44 with a 3.92 ERA in 145 games at the time of the deal.

Here, from the New York end, was a classic deadline quick fix gone awry.

Penny could have value to Angels

 

Brad Penny clearly would have value to the Angels if he clears waivers on Saturday when the 72-hour window for released players closes. The veteran right-hander was handed his release by the Red Sox on Thursday to open roster space for reliever Billy Wagner, acquired from the Mets in a waiver deal.

Penny, 31, signed a $5 million free-agent deal with the Red Sox, but he will not reach any of the bonus incentives for innings pitched. He was 7-8 in 24 starts and 131 2/3 innings for Boston with a 5.61 ERA. His bonuses in $500,000 increments were to kick in with 160 innings pitched.

Penny’s performance this season was a far cry from the back-to-back 16-win seasons he delivered for the Dodgers in 2006 and 2007. He started the ’06 All-Star Game for the National League in Pittsburgh – yielding a mammoth homer to Vladimir Guerrero – and was third in the ’07 NL Cy Young Award balloting after going 16-4 with a 3.03 ERA.

Eleven American League clubs would have a shot at claiming Penny before the Angels, whose record is surpassed only by the Yankees. With less than a quarter of the season remaining, he’d amount to a bargain-basement pickup at less than $100,000 with the Major League minimum at $400,000.

With the Angels going with young Trevor Bell in the fifth spot in the rotation, Penny would be a natural fit for the estimated six starts remaining. He’d have to sign by Monday to be eligible for a postseason roster spot, unless an injury opens space.

Penny certainly showed in 2003 with the Marlins that he didn’t mind postseason pressure, twice beating the Yankees in the World Series with a 2.13 ERA in his two outings.

Penny requested his release on Wednesday night.
 
“Because we ended up letting him go, our feelings don’t change about him personally,” Boston manager Terry Francona said. “We really appreciated the way Brad went about his business. He was a good teammate, and he worked hard. We’re always pretty honest about the fact that we do what’s in the best interest of the organization and the team, and we try to tell the players that.”

Napoli, Mathis laugh off critics

It’s a good thing Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis have a highly evolved relationship – and matching senses of humor, also fully developed.

They share and share alike, the way best friends are supposed to act.

The Angels co-catchers are fully aware of the friction generated by the fact that only one of them can play at a time, given that the designated-hitter role belongs to Vladimir Guerrero.

Most of the anger and resentment from fans come when Napoli and his booming bat are on the bench alongside manager Mike Scioscia, who values Mathis’ athleticism and game-calling ability more highly than fans fixated on raw numbers.

For the record, the Angels are 38-26 when Napoli catches, 36-21 when Mathis calls the shots. The club is 11-5 when Napoli is the DH.

Before Sunday’s series finale at Rogers Centre, Napoli getting the call against southpaw Ricky Romero, the two catchers were having some laughs when the subject of the perceived competition between the two was dropped in their laps by your faithful correspondent.

“I know a lot of people want Mike in there,” Mathis said. “I understand why.”

Fans – not just chicks – dig the long ball. Napoli, after a three-run ninth-inning bomb on Friday night, has produced 17 homers and 48 RBIs in 306 at-bats, about a half-season worth. Mathis has five homers and 26 RBIs in 179 at-bats.

No catcher in history has produced homers per at-bat at a greater rate than Napoli.

Napoli is hitting .297, Mathis .212 – despite an August surge during which he has hit .294. All five of his homers have come in his past 29 games.

“If you want fans to like you more,” Napoli said in that familiar banter that goes on between the two best buddies, “hit better than .212.”

“I’m trying, I’m trying,” Mathis replied, grinning.

The most important aspect of their relationship is the mutual respect. They’re constantly sharing information, offering advice and encouragement, a team within a team.

Napoli admires Mathis’ remarkable athleticism and defensive skills and is keenly aware that the staff ERA shrinks by almost a run when his buddy dons the catching gear.

Mathis is in awe of Napoli’s hitting skills and plate discipline, which are on a level with most of the game’s premier sluggers.

They’ve been roommates for years now. Fans readily take sides, most of them drawn to Napoli’s loud bat, but nothing will drive these two guys apart.

The Angels are lucky to have two premium receivers — even if fans don’t realize it. A third, Bobby Wilson, has Major League skills at Triple-A Salt Lake, and Hank Conger and others are making progress throughout the organization.

Scioscia always says you can’t have enough good pitching, but he obviously feels the same way about guys who ply the trade he handled so well for so long.

 

 

Mathis coming alive with bat

There are very few catchers Mike Sciosica puts in Jeff Mathis’ class defensively. Offensively, Mathis has “underachieved” in his manager’s evaluation.

“He’s got more offense in him, for sure,” Scioscia said. “There are probably a lot of things contributing to it. He hasn’t come to the park knowing he’s going to get four at-bats. That’s obviously important to a young player. He has more than he has brought to the offensive end.”

After enduring nightmarish months of June (.158) and July (.147), Mathis has come alive in August. He was hitting .300 in 30 at-bats this month coming into his start on Saturday against Scott Richmond, with a .467 slugging percentage. Those numbers would be even higher if not for several recent shots and long drives that found gloves.

Overall, Mathis has brought his average to .211 with five homers and 26 RBIs in 175 at-bats. He’s batting .267 with runners in scoring position, continuing a career trend of doing his best work when it matters most.

Last season, for example, he batted only .194 – five points below his current career average – but he produced nine homers and 42 RBIs in 283 at-bats, a half-season.

“The power production we get from our two catchers [Mathis and Mike Napoli] is about as good as there is in the game,” Scioscia said.

Mathis came to Spring Training in a hitting groove, having spent the winter hitting in a home-made cage in the barn he calls home in Florida, and went through an intensive session with hitting coach Mickey Hatcher upon his arrival in Tempe, Ariz.

This translated into a brilliant spring, inspiring confidence that Mathis – a superlative athlete recruited to play football at Florida State – was on his way to a breakout season.

“I’ve gotten away from things I was doing in Spring Training,” Mathis said. “I feel like I’ve gotten back in a better place to hit. I’m shorter to the ball, letting the ball get deeper. The big thing is laying off pitchers’ pitches.”

Like all the Angels’ hitters, Mathis has been a study of Bobby Abreu, a textbook example of how to approach at-bats with his remarkable discipline.

“Watching him helps,” Mathis said. “He recognizes the pitch so quick, and you don’t see him getting fooled and taking bad swings very often. He gets in good counts, and even when he has two strikes, he’s confident he can find something to hit. He never panics.

“To appreciate what he does, you have to see him every day. Playing against him, you don’t realize everything he does. You know he’s a good player – just not this good. He doesn’t just do it in one game, one series. He does it every day. It’s 162 games with Bobby.”

Hunter sits as Scioscia lobbies for Figgins, Aybar

 

Torii Hunter, gradually regaining strength in the area of his right adductor muscle, was not in the Angels’ lineup for Thursday night’s series finale against the Indians at Progressive Field, with Gary Matthews Jr. in center field.

Hunter also will take a day off in Toronto, where the Angels engage the Blue Jays in a three-game weekend series on the artificial surface at the Rogers Centre. Look for Hunter to be back in the No. 3 spot in the order in Toronto, between Bobby Abreu and Vladimir Guerrero.

“I’m good,” Hunter said, on his way to take batting practice in the inside cages. “They’re being careful with me, and even though I never want to come out, I understand.”

While the eight-time Rawlings Gold Glove winner rested, manager Mike Scioscia was joining the campaign for Chone Figgins and Erick Aybar, promoting the Gold Glove candidacies of his left-side infielders. Figgins at third and Aybar at shortstop have been brilliant and steady all season.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt,” Scioscia said of Figgins’ worthiness of Gold Glove consideration. “There’s not a third baseman in our league playing at a higher level.”
Asked if the same view applied to Aybar, Scioscia nodded.

“Erick makes very tough plays look manageable, routine, with his arm strength,” Scioscia said. “There’s no shortstop who makes the 4-6 double play turn better than Erick, nobody.”

Scioscia had to reach deep in his memory bank to find names when he was asked if anybody else could have made the play Aybar delivered in Baltimore, robbing fleet Brian Roberts of a hit from deep in the hole with a leaping bullet to first.

Ozzie Smith, Garry Templeton and Shawon Dunston were shortstops of the past who crossed Scioscia’s mind as having the arm strength and athleticism to make a play like that . . . but “nobody” in today’s game.

Figgins, drafted as a shortstop by Colorado, has started at six positions in the Majors, finally settling in at third base in 2007 on a full-time basis.

“It feels good to get some recognition for what I’m doing defensively,” Figgins said. “It took a while before I really thought of myself as a third baseman, but that’s what I am now. I’d be flattered to be considered for that [Gold Glove]. Growing up, my man was Ozzie [Smith], and I’d love to get one.”
The Wizard of Oz won 13 consecutive Gold Gloves for the Cardinals. The two-time reigning Gold Glove third baseman in the American League, Seattle’s Adrian Beltre, has missed 39 games this season.

Aybar’s model at shortstop as a kid was the Dodgers’ Rafael Furcal, the player he most resembles. Michael Young, last year’s Gold Glove shortstop in the AL, was moved to third base this year by Texas to accommodate the arrival of Elvis Andrus.

Young succeeded Orlando Cabrera, who claimed the 2007 Gold Glove in an Angels uniform, with Aybar as his understudy.

Izturis forced out of game

The Angels’ Maicer Izturis, giving Erick Aybar a night off at shortstop, was hit in the right arm by a pitch from the Rays’ David Price in the fourth inning and was forced to leave the game with what was described as a “contusion of the right elbow.”

Aybar replaced Izturis at shortstop to start the fifth inning of a scoreless game. There was no immediate report on the extent of the injury as Izturis was being examined and evaluated by Dr. Lewis Yocum, team orthopedist. 

Izturis, who struck out in the first inning batting second in the order, is hitting .301. Over his past 35 games, the versatile infielder is batting .328 with 27 RBIs. He has scored 35 runs in his past 38 starts.

Izturis has been hampered by hamstring and hand injuries the past two seasons.

 

Hunter on comeback trail

Rancho Cucamonga’s good fortune is Arkansas’ bad luck.

Fans of the Angels’ high Class A California League team get the treat the next few nights of watching one of baseball’s premier players – Torii Hunter – work out the kinks after a month-long stay on the disabled list with an adductor strain on his right side.

Hunter thought he was ready to go play in his native Arkansas for the Angels’ Double-A affiliate in Little Rock over the weekend, but that fell through when he didn’t pass a strength test administered by the training staff in Chicago.

“That was really disappointing,” Hunter said. “I wanted to play at home. But at least I’m getting close. I’m hoping to be back out there [in center field for the Angels] this weekend in Baltimore. I hate sitting around watching.”

The Angels have held their ground in Hunter’s absence with Gary Matthews Jr. doing a solid job in center field. Matthews got his first day off on Tuesday night, with Reggie Willits in center, since moving in on a regular basis on July 8.

Hunter is batting .305 with 17 homers and 65 RBIs. His slugging (.558) and on-base percentages (.380) would be career highs.

Hunter’s injuries were the result of collisions with the walls at Dodger Stadium on May 23 and at AT&T Park in San Francisco on June 15.

A case can be made that Hunter was the MVP in the American League over the first half of the season, carrying his club offensively while playing the brand of defense that has made him a Rawlings Gold Glover winner eight years running. Angels color commentator and former Major League pitching star Mark Gubicza, one of the brightest talents in his new field, has made that observation.

  

 

 

Angels release Speier

Justin Speier, the Angels’ veteran right-handed reliever, has been handed his unconditional release to make room on the 25-man roster for Trevor Bell, the 22-year-old right-hander who makes his Major League debut on Wednesday against the Rays.

Speier, signed to a free agent contract with the Angels after the 2006 season, was 4-2 with a 5.18 ERA this season in 41 appearances. He pitched 40 innings, yielding 44 hits and 15 walks while striking out 39 batters. Opponents had a .277 batting average against him.

“It probably caught him off guard,” Angels general manager Tony Reagins said. “It’s emotional. There was nothing but professionalism in the way he took it on short notice. He has sincere passion for this organization, and the feelings are mutual.

“You always hope a player continues his career and gets an opportunity. We know he wants to continue to pitch. He’s going to take a breather.”

Speier, 35, is the son of long-time Major League shortstop Chris Speier, now a coach on manager Dusty Baker’s staff in Cincinnati.

Speier began his Major League career in 1998 after he was taken in the 55th round of the 1995 First-Year Player Draft by the Cubs. He pitched for the Marlins, Braves, Indians, Rockies and Blue Jays before joining the Angels.

He’s 35-33 in his career in 613 Major League appearances. 

“We felt from a baseball standpoint this decision at this time was the right decision to make,” Reagins said. “It’s something we’ve talked about for several days. It’s always a difficult decision when you have to go this route.

“From a baseball standpoint, it was something we felt that had to be done to allow us to do some other things.”

Bell gives the Angels two rookie starting pitchers, joining Sean O’Sullivan, with Joe Saunders on the disabled list. Middle relievers Matt Palmer and Shane Loux also are candidates to join the rotation, having had some success in that role. 

Trevor Bell on call

The Angels never rush into decisions, or announcing them, but it appears that right-hander Trevor Bell is the choice to fill Joe Saunders’ hole in the rotation first time around on Wednesday against the Rays at Angel Stadium.

It would be Bell’s Major League debut. He was lifted after two innings in his start on Saturday for Triple-A Salt Lake against Memphis, having allowed two hits but no runs. He’s 3-4 with a 3.15 ERA in 11 starts after going 4-3 with a 2.23 ERA to start the season at Double-A Arkansas.

“We shortened him yesterday in his start just to make him a candidate,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “We’ll see how he’s doing in the next couple of days, but he’s certainly a guy we’re looking at. He threw two innings yesterday. We’ll see where we are.”

Matt Palmer and Shane Loux are in-house candidates to take the start. Both right-handers have been pitching in middle relief.

Palmer is 9-1 with a 4.52 ERA and has made 12 starts in 25 appearances. Loux is 2-3 with a 4.82 ERA, with six starts and 15 appearances.

Bell, 22, was a 2005 first-round compensation pick in the First-Year Player Draft, No. 37 overall, out of Crescenta Valley High School in Southern California. He had not pitched above Class A until this season.

“I think he has jumped on our depth chart from where he was a couple of years ago, where he was searching to find where his best stuff was,” Scioscia said. “Not unlike a lot of young pitchers in pro ball.

“Experience will teach you what works and what doesn’t work and what you need to do. He’s starting to figure it out. We feel he has the makeup to come up here and compete right now.

 That’s why he’s a candidate and he’s on our depth chart. He’s shown terrific fastball command with good life and he really spins the ball well. We’ll see how it moves forward.”

Figgins sits one out

Chone Figgins was in an unfamiliar position at his locker on Sunday morning.

For only the second time this season — not since April 26 — he wasn’t getting emotionally prepared to start a game.

“I’ll be ready for whatever they need,” he said. “But I don’t like sitting. Mike [Scioscia] knows that.”

Scioscia also knows everybody can use a breather now and then, so Maicer Izturis was in Figgins’ familiar role, playing third base and leading off, giving the manager a chance to play all three of his talented middle infielders – Izturis, Erick Aybar and Howard Kendrick.

“He’s played a lot,” Scioscia said. “I don’t know how many games in a row [he's played], but a day off can refresh him a little bit. He’s a gamer. It’s a good time to get him to re-charge a little.

“There’s nobody in that room who’s not resistant to a day off, but you need to mentally re-charge.”

Figgins’ streak of consecutive starts ended at 92. He’d last sat one out on April 26 against the Mariners, with Aybar taking the leadoff spot.

Before the season, Figgins said his goal was to “play all 162,” referencing iron man Cal Ripken Jr. Maybe he’ll settle for 160.

Izturis and Figgins are locker neighbors in the home clubhouse, with Bobby Abreu on the other side of Figgins. Izturis is the least talkative of the threesome, but he’s always smiling.

“Izzy is my boy,” Figgins said. “If anybody’s going to take my place, I’m glad it’s him. He keeps me together.”

Izturis looked over and, naturally, smiled.

 

    

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