As he was packing his bag at Yankee Stadium late Sunday night, a long season over, Gary Matthews Jr. looked up and said, “It’s time.”
It was not the first time he’d said this, and his meaning was clear. It’s time, in Matthews’ mind, to move on. Time to find a place where he can play center field every day and take full advantage of his multiple skills at age 35.
Tired of being a fifth wheel in the Angels’ outfield, Matthews desperately wants to wear a new uniform with two years remaining on a five-year deal that brought him $50 million after his 2006 All-Star season in Texas.
He thinks there are teams that can see what he has to offer, and he hopes something can be done to make it happen. The $23 million owed him complicates the situation, but there are possible fits with clubs that have high-priced contracts they could move in exchange for a versatile switch-hitter who can play high-caliber center field.
Matthews had one superb half in ’07, leading off and batting cleanup and making all the plays in center, before a knee injury set him back and forced him to end his season in civvies while the Angels were getting swept by Boston in the ALDS.
They went out and acquired Torii Hunter that winter, a move not even Matthews could criticize. A smart baseball guy, having grown up in the game with a slugging father, Gary Sr., he understands Hunter’s tremendous value on and off the field. It just happened that Torii is one of the elite players in the game at Matthews’ natural position.
Life as a backup role player has been unfulfilling for the son of Sarge.
Matthews had a nice little run this season when Hunter was sidelined for a month with a groin injury sustained banging into outfield walls. During that time, Matthews was renewed, emotionally and physically, and it showed in his performance.
Carrying the momentum of a strong June finish, the Angels were 17-9 in July with Hunter missing all but seven games. During one memorable stretch with Hunter and Vladimir Guerrero both sidelined, the Angels were 17-3.
The Angels were 32-13 with Matthews starting in center field, and he batted a robust .358 with runners in scoring position, when his competitive juices were flowing.
Those numbers might be a more accurate reflection of what he can do than his pedestrian .250 batting average, .361 slugging and .336 on-base numbers for the full season, with an irregular work load.
It took him a while to find his stroke after Hunter went on the shelf, but once he did, Matthews carried it to the finish with strong performances in August (.290 average, .452 slugging, .389 on-base percentage) and September/October (.286/.457/.444, respectively).
His play in center field is far superior to what he does in left and right, where he struggles at times with the hooks, slices and angles. In center, Matthews ranks among the top third in the game in the studied view of Hunter, the master.
Teams with needs in center should seriously explore taking on a player who has plenty of game left and a hunger to show what he can do.
This certainly isn’t anywhere near the top of the Angels’ winter agenda, with seven free agent cases to weigh along with eight arbitration-eligible players to satisfy. But at some point, dealing with Matthews – and dealing him in a mutually satisfying manner – would seem to be the right thing to do.