ARLINGTON – Tony Reagins might not look like a riverboat gambler, but that’s what the guy is. How does Trading Tony sound?
The Angels’ general manager once again has pulled the trigger on a potentially explosive midseason deal. That’s three in three seasons, Mark Teixeira and Scott Kazmir having preceded new Angels starter Dan Haren to Anaheim.
Teixeira is no longer around, but the Angels acquired some prime Draft picks for half a season of Tex at the cost of Casey Kotchman and Steve Marek. Kazmir also delivered a good half season but has been nursing a sore shoulder this season. If he comes back to something resembling prime form, the Angels could have the best rotation in the game.
Jered Weaver and Haren are legitimate aces. Ervin Santana, Joel Pineiro and Kazmir — when he’s sound — are quality No. 2 or No. 3 starters. It doesn’t get much better, or deeper, than that.
Haren doesn’t come without a pricey tag. Joe Saunders has been a solid craftsman, and he’ll give Arizona quality work. If two of the other three arms in the deal deliver, it’s a smart move by the Diamondbacks. They can use the money they’ll save on Haren’s hefty contract to gather some of the parts they need to be competitive again.
It doesn’t look good for the Angels in the AL West at the moment, but there’s a lot of baseball left to be played, as Mike Scioscia likes to say. If this rotation starts spinning the way it can, and the offense picks up the pace, the Angels could make Texas aware of their presence.
Reagins said he might not be done shopping, and he has no financial constraints. If the right bat surfaces at the right cost, he’ll make a stealth move, as he always does. The guy moves in the shadows, BlackBerry attached to his ear, and when he emerges he tends to make things happen. The GM must like the organizational depth on the mound, having detached six arms to acquire Haren and Alberto Callaspo.
The Angels are going for it, responding to Texas’ acquisition of Cliff Lee and Bengie Molina. This is uncharted territory for most of the Rangers. I loved the response of Michael Young, their splendid leader, when someone asked if the series with the Angels this week had a playoff feel to it.
“I wouldn’t know,” said Young, who never has appeared in a postseason series.
The Rangers haven’t played meaningful October baseball since 1999. That was the year before Scioscia came to Anaheim and starting collecting titles. It wouldn’t be wise to dismiss the professor’s class just yet – especially now with this new guy showing up who knows how to win, and how to win big. — Lyle Spencer
NEW YORK – Two games in Yankee Stadium, then four in Arlington, in that lovely Texas summer heat. The Angels, sitting five games behind the Rangers in the AL West, are in jeopardy of fading out of the picture if they don’t hold their own.
Adding Cliff Lee and Bengie Molina represented a show of strength by Texas, one the Angels aren’t likely to match. The players other clubs would seek for a performer who can lift their chances likely are prime-time prospects the club does not want to move – notably Mike Trout and Hank Conger.
There’s no way the Angels move Trout. This kid has star qualities, and he’ll get to The Show quickly. He can fly – we saw that in the Futures Game at Angel Stadium – and he has superior instincts in center field and at the plate. He’s the confident face of the future, along with a handful of other talented young Angels in the low Minors who figure to follow Trout to Anaheim.
Conger is a rare commodity – a catcher who can hit with power from both sides. Moving him would be a high-risk decision. He’s local, from Huntington Beach right down the road from Angel Stadium, and he’s loaded with personality. Just can’t see it happening.
The Angels need to look within to get back in this race. They need proven talent – Bobby Abreu, Hideki Matsui, Juan Rivera – to start banging away in a big way. They also need Scott Kazmir to rebound from his shoulder pain and deliver strikes and innings.
There’s a report on ESPNLosAngeles.com that the Angels are targeting the Royals’ Alberto Callaspo, a solid infielder. But he’s no better than Maicer Izturis, who was back on Tuesday night after missing five weeks, driving in a run against All-Star Phil Hughes in his first at-bat. Callaspo wouldn’t make a significant difference in closing any talent gaps.
The Angels should have a better grasp of where they are with their chances this season late Sunday, after wrapping up the four-game series against the Rangers.
If they’ve closed any ground on Texas, they might get serious about making a move before the July 31 non-waiver Deadline. But giving up prime young talent for an athlete who might help doesn’t make sense. If they fall deeper in the muck, it might be wise to write this off as the year Kendry Morales went down in a bizarre spill – and took the Angels with him. – Lyle Spencer
TEMPE – One of my new friends in the Japanese media, Taro Abe of Tokyo Chunichi Sports, had his game face on early Sunday morning.
“Big day today,” Taro told me. “Ichiro is coming with the Mariners. Ichiro and Matsui.”
Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui are the two biggest names in the biggest sport in their homeland. It is not an exaggeration to refer to them as the Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson of Japan — or LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, to be more current.
They are as different off the field as on, Matsui down-to-earth and easy-going, Ichiro edging toward flamboyant — and less accessible. Seven or eight Japanese media members accompany Ichiro, while the Matsui following runs from 15 to 40 or so, depending on the day and the storyline.
“We’ll have a lot of Japanese media here today,” Taro said, grinning.
This is the first meeting between the new American League West rivals, Ichiro in right field and leading off, Matsui batting fourth as the Angels’ designated hitter.
The matchup lost some of its appeal when projected Seattle starter Cliff Lee was forced to withdraw with a lower abdomen strain, taking some heat off a potential confrontation in the desert sun with Jered Weaver. Another lefty, Luke French, replaces Lee.
This game doesn’t count in any significant way, shape or form, but it will be covered with passion and feeling in Japan, where every movement by Ichiro and Hideki is a photo opportunity.
Asked on a fairly daily basis when Matsui will take a glove to left field, manager Mike Scioscia offered a creative new response Sunday.
“We’re down to hours,” he said, pausing with the timing of Jack Benny for effect. “Of course, it might be 316 hours, something like that.”
Matsui batted five times in a camp game Saturday against the Giants and was 0-for-2 with three walks. He is still searching for his power stroke, hitting a lot of ground balls while going 2-for-18 in Cactus League play. The lift will come when his balance and timing are at optimum levels.
Ichiro is doing what Ichiro does, hitting .250 in nine games with four steals. The new man behind him in the Seattle lineup, former Angels leadoff catalyst Chone Figgins, is off to a sluggish start, hitting .130. Behind Figgins, No. 3 in the order Sunday, is another former Angel, first baseman Casey Kotchman.
When the opening bell rings and the games matter, Ichiro and Figgins will form one of the game’s most dynamic 1-2 tandems, bringing new flavor to a newly shaped rivalry along with the Matsui-Ichiro duel.
The Angels haven’t lost a season series to Seattle since 2003 and have won four in a row. They’ll face the Mariners 19 times this season, and each one will have a great deal of meaning in a distant land.
One thing is certain: Japan’s media won’t miss a thing. The first of those 19 meetings, on May 7 in Seattle, is circled on a lot of calendars. They won’t get together in Anaheim until May 28 for a fthree-game series. The pot should be boiling by then. – Lyle Spencer
If you can’t beat ’em, sign ’em. Or deal for ’em.
That seems to be the shared philosophies of the Mariners and Rangers, who have been busy importing former Angels as they try to overtake the three-time American League West champions.
Chone Figgins and Casey Kotchman have moved to Seattle, giving the Mariners superior defense, quality offense and a whole lot of desire.
Texas, meanwhile, has upgraded its bullpen with Darren Oliver joining Darren O’Day and given the offense another lethal weapon with Vladimir Guerrero bringing his bat to an Arlington playground he has made look very small in his six AL seasons.
All that’s left is for the Mariners, Rangers or A’s to sign free agent Garret Anderson, who’d look especially good in Seattle with best buddies Figgy and Kotchman.
The Mariners and Rangers certainly have improved with these moves. Seattle also added a second ace to its rotation, with Cliff Lee joining Felix Hernandez for what could be the best 1-2 punch in the division. Texas also brought in a potential ace in Rich Harden, but it surrendered one when it sent Kevin Millwood to Baltimore. It remains to be seen how beneficial that will be, hinging almost entirely on Harden’s ability to get through a season intact.
The Angels are looking primarily within to replace the departed, having thus far limited their acquisitions to DH/left fielder Hideki Matsui and reliever Fernando Rodney. It says a great deal about the depth of organizational talent that they can do this and remain confident that they’re still the team to beat in the division.
Their deal for Scott Kazmir at the Aug. 28 deadline enabled the Angels to let John Lackey go to Boston for a king’s ransom. They wanted the big Texan back, but not for five years and $82.5 million.
A fifth starter to complement Kazmir, Jered Weaver, Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana remains a priority, and it’s likely the Angels will get their man – if not now, sometime this spring. There are at least al dozen legitimate candidates out there, a market glut that could bring prices down to a reasonable level.
Of the AL West clubs, Seattle has made the most dramatic moves, obviously. If they’re going to claim the division, they’ll do it in a style reminiscent of the ’60s Dodgers: dominant starting pitching, defense and speed. They don’t have anything close to the power of the Angels or Rangers, but their defense should be the best in the game.
It is remarkable, in a sense, that the Angels’ biggest advantage over the vastly underrated division is their offense.
For years, fans have fired off emails by the hundreds expressing disenchantment with a lack of clout. But this is an offense that should roll up big numbers again with Matsui driving the ball in the middle of the order and Brandon Wood, if he fulfills his potential, bringing another loud bat to the mix at third base.
Their overall balance and depth make the Angels the team to beat again. You’ll hear differently from insiders who want to be able to boast in October that they told you it would be Seattle’s year, or Texas’ year. They conveniently forget those predictions when the Angels prevail.
Recent history shows rather conclusively you’ll save face — and money – if you resist betting against Mike Scioscia and Co.
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.