Even in the absence of Vladimir Guerrero, no reasonable Angels fan can complain about the production the Angels have been getting out of the middle of their order.
Torii Hunter, Kendry Morales and Mike Napoli have been about as good as any middle threesome in the game.
Hunter (nine homers, 27 RBIs coming into Saturday’s game), Morales (six homers, 23 RBIs) and Napoli (six homers, 17 RBIs) have accounted for 21 of the club’s 27 homers and 67 of its 163 RBIs.
Hunter is slugging at a .613 clip, eight in the American league, and this is being done in a pitcher-friendly home park. Napoli (.585) and Morales (.537) also are slugging at impressive rates, in the general neighborhood of Guerrero’s career slugging mark of .575.
When Vlad returns, perhaps in the next week to 10 days, it would seem to make sense to slide into the No. 3 spot in the order, with Bobby Abreu moving up, as originally planned, in the No. 2 hole between Chone Figgins and Guerrero. That would keep Hunter, Morales and Napoli aligned in the middle of the order, Napoli with his ability to get on base (team-high .423 on-base percentage) setting up the bottom third.
When asked Saturday about the possibility of Abreu hitting second when Guerrero returns, manager Mike Scioscia said it has come under discussion in staff meetings. When your faithful correspondent volunteered to join those meetings and offer input, Scioscia had no response — perhaps his way of saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Just trying to help, big guy. .
The arrival of Bobby Wilson from Triple-A Salt Lake means the Angels can now have Mike Napoli’s lethal bat in the lineup every day if they choose to do so.
It seems like a slam dunk, given how Napoli has produced in the designated hitter role: 10 for 17, bullets and bombs flying everywhere.
“I like the whole DH thing,” Napoli said before Tuesday night’s game against the Red Sox at Angel Stadium. “I also like catching, too.”
When Napoli catches, however, it means their best receiver — Jeff Mathis — is not in the lineup. Napoli is a big Mathis fan, being his roomie and best buddy, and vice versa. In their perfect world, they’re both in the lineup on a regular basis. And the only way that can happen is for Napoli to DH or play first base, something that could happen down the road.
Steady Robb Quinlan is Kendry Morales’ backup at first now. Quinlan is eligible for free agency after the season, and he’s expected to pursue greener pastures — and more at-bats — elsewhere. That means there could be at-bats available for Napoli at first, where he has played and played well according to teammates, in the Minor Leagues.
The whole point is to keep Napoli healthy and in the lineup. He has missed chunks of the past two seasons with injuries, playing a total of 153 games in 2007 and 2008. That’s about as many as he should play in one season, something he can do as a DH/first baseman.
It’s remarkable, given his frequent absences with shoulder, hamstring and ankle injuries, that Napoli has the highest home-run ratio for a catcher in MLB history — 51 bombs in 790 at-bats.
Imagine what he could do without the wear and tear of catching, with his legs, serving as his foundation, fresh in the late innings rather than worn down.
Napoli is a good athlete, but Mathis, a high school sensation as a quarterback in Marianna, Fla., is an extraordinary athlete. He makes plays few catchers can even consider, notably on dribblers and bunts near home plate. His hands and feet are amazingly quick, and pitchers rave about his pitch selection.
“It’s incredible, the things Jeff can do back there,” Napoli said.
Angels pitchers, overall, have fared better with Mathis. His catching ERA is about a half-run lower per game than Napoli.
Wilson, with a strong arm and a presence behind the plate, also is a quality receiver — and he can hit, using the whole field.
Wilson provides protection in the late innings, and Angels manager Mike Scioscia said he wouldn’t hesitate to use the new guy.
All of this is temporary, it needs to be pointed out. When Vladimir Guerrero returns from his torn right pectoral muscle, presumably sometime next month, he’ll usurp the DH role until he can return to right field. But Napoli can savor the opportunity now.
“It’s a lot less stressful, DHing, than catching,” Napoli said. “You can think about hitting all the time. I watch the game — I’m still into the game — but I can go down in the video room and check out the pitcher between at-bats and do my routine I’ve developed to stay loose.”
He certainly sounds like a guy who thoroughly enjoys this role.
Brandon Wood realistically couldn’t have done any more to keep his spot on the 25-man roster, but he’s back in Salt Lake, getting the at-bats that were not available in Anaheim.
What the Angels have in mind for Wood, now and long term, I don’t know. I suspect he’s their fallback at third base if Chone Figgins departs via free agency, but I also think he could slide in on a daily basis there next year if Figgins is retained as an outfielder or an all-purpose player.
Trouble is, if Figgins thinks that he’s going back to being something other than any everyday third baseman, it’s doubtful he’d want to come back. He loves having a position and a role, and who can blame him? He has shown himself to be a quality third baseman and one of the game’s best leadoff hitters.
Manager Mike Scioscia acknowledged before Wednesday night’s game against the Blue Jays and the great Roy Halladay that the decision-makers had considered bringing up Bobby Wilson to back up Jeff Mathis, with Mike Napoli sliding into the DH role on a regular basis.
Apparently, they decided it wasn’t time for that bold move and recalled instead Reggie Willits, a versatile and highly underrated role player who can do many positive things for a club.
Personally, I’d find a place for Wilson and Willits, but Scioscia feels he needs 12 pitchers and will continue to carry 12 until the pitching staff comes together. That could happen in June, July, perhaps not at all.
Again, this is just my opinion, but Napoli should be in the lineup every day, and the only way that’s going to happen is as a DH who occasionally catches and/or plays first base. What he does with a bat is too valuable to risk with the kinds of injuries that have sent Napoli to the DL the past two seasons.
In his two starts as a DH, Napoli celebrated with six hits in seven at-bats, with two walks and three RBIs. The one out he made sent an outfielder to the wall at Yankee Stadium.
The guy is a lethal hitter. I think he could approach Miguel Cabrera’s numbers in Detroit as an everyday DH. Mathis and Wilson are quality defensive players, both capable of hitting in the .250 range. Mathis has shown that even though he doesn’t hit for a high average, he is clutch. We’ve seen him deliver big hits under pressure frequently, and there’s a reason for that — he’s an athlete who happens to catch. You’ll never see a more athletic catcher.
Wilson has paid his dues and is ready for a role in the big time, along with a half-dozen teammates in Salt Lake. Wood, back with the Bees, is an everyday Major League talent right now with no place to play in Anaheim with the Angels’ abundance of quality infielders.
Like Napoli, Wood, playing every day, has the ability to hit 30 homers and drive in 100 runs. He won’t hurt you at third or at shortstop, either. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
As they used to say in Brooklyn, wait’ll next year.
Here’s how the Angels will line up against Andy Pettitte — rain is falling on a tarp in the late afternoon — at Yankee Stadium:
1. Chone Figgins, 3B
2. Gary Matthews Jr., RF
3. Bobby Abreu, LF
4. Torii Hunter, CF
5. Mike Napoli, DH
6. Howard Kendrick, 2B
7. Robb Quinlan, 1B
8. Jeff Mathis, C
9. Erick Aybar, SS
Jered Weaver, P
This is a big night for Napoli and his fans.Manager Mike Scioscia putting the big bopper in the DH spot could be a one-night stand, or it could be the start of something big — and productive.
Napoli has a big, long swing — and the highest home run ration in history among catchers. Critics would scoff that it’s a small sample, representing just 50 home runs, in relation to past receivers of renown such as Yogi Berra and Johnny Bench and Roy Campanella.
But Napoli is a born hitter. Jeff Mathis is a terrific catcher, young and getting better all the time. It makes great sense to have both of these guys in the lineup, as often as they can handle it. That’s why it seems like the right thing to do — Napoli as DH, catching occasionally, with Bobby Wilson summoned from Triple-A Salt Lake to back up Mathis.
Quinlan, a .417 career hitter against Pettitte with a double, two RBIs in 12 at-bats, also gets a start at first base in the wake of a rough night for Morales in the series opener. Kendry was hitless in four at-bats, striking out three times, after a recent surge of hits.
Old school to the bone, I do not like the idea of carrying 12 pitchers. I didn’t care for going to 11, frankly. I recognize that the bullpen has been beaten up a little bit in the season’s first month, but four position players off the bench reduces a manager’s options late in games. I’d rather have that extra bench player than a reliever who is there primarily to soak up innings in lost causes, after a starter has been knocked out early.
We’ll see if it lasts, Napoli as a DH, or if it’s a one-time thing. But I like it. I like it a lot. I think Napoli, with 550 to 600 at-bats and free of the physical burden of catching frequently, can hit 40 homers and drive in more than 100 runs.
“Nap’s got big-time power, man,” Hunter said the other day. “The guy can mash.”
Tonight, Napoli will be protecting Hunter, the cleanup man, in the No. 5 hole.
Surely, a factor in Scioscia’s decision is Napoli’s history against Pettitte. He’s 3-for-5 with a double. But when he’s locked in, seeing the ball well and driving it, no yard can hold him. Napoli in the batter’s box is a weapon.
Vladimir Guerrero is gone for a long spell with his torn pectoral muscle. It might be mid-June before we see him swing a bat again with meaning. Something needs to be done to generate more power, more force, in the Angels’ lineup. But it doesn’t necessarily require a deal.
The Angels need to at least try to make better use of two potentially lethal weapons already at their disposal: Mike Napoli and Brandon Wood.
With Guerrero out, this would be an ideal time to see what Napoli can do as a designated hitter. My feeling is that he’s a natural-born slugger who would emerge as a consistent power source once he’s liberated from the taxing physical demands of catching. That job beats a guy up, drains him. There have been few players like Johnny Bench, who played in an era when games were much shorter and strike zones were larger, meaning fewer pitches to call and absorb.
Jeff Mathis is a superior receiver, as athletic as any catcher I’ve seen. Playing regularly, he’ll hit in the .250 range with some power. Napoli as DH is an idea whose time has come. With his long swing — we’ve seen what he can do when he’s locked in — he could be 35-homer, 110-RBI guy.
Which brings us to Wood. We’ll never know what Brandon can do until he gets a shot at some consistent playing time. His power is as real as Napoli’s. Brandon made big strides this spring in selectivity and discipline. He looks ready to become a solid player, perhaps a big-time run producer. And there is nothing at all wrong with Wood’s defense, at shortstop or at third base. There must be a way to work Wood into the rotation on the left side of the infield.
As this is written, we’re 15 games and six innings into the season. The Angels have 12 home runs — six by Torii Hunter, three by Napoli, three by everybody else.
Wood had four home runs and eight RBIs in seven games at Triple-A Salt Lake, batting .346. Bobby Wilson, who would be summoned as the backup catcher, is hitting .300 and slugging .733 with three homers and six RBIs in eight games.
The Angels are carrying 12 pitchers. Eleven should be enough. If you’re using your 12th guy, it’s pretty much a lost cause anyway.
Torii Hunter made it four homers in three games today with another blast over the wall in center field. He knows he’s locked in when he’s smoking balls to the middle of the field, and that’s where he is right now. Before the homer, he launched one that was caught at the wall in right center that would have been gone in Texas.
Mike Scioscia has to like what he sees at the top of the order, with Chone Figgins smacking line drives all over the place and Howard Kendrick looking very comfortable in the No. 2 hole. Kendrick will learn that he’ll see a high percentage of fastballs hitting between Figgins and Bobby Abreu, who has tested pitchers’ endurance for years with his remarkable discipline.
As for Vladimir Guerrero, who crushed a double to cash in Abreu before Hunter’s bomb, everything appears to be in fine order for a 35 HR/125-RBI campaign. With Kendry Morales, Juan Rivera or Gary Matthews and Mike Napoli or Jeff Mathis coming up behind the top five, the Angels are going to score runs in numbers. And Erick Aybar/Maicer Izturis will serve as, in effect, a leadoff man in front of the leadoff man, Figgy.
I don’t think what we’re seeing this spring, this offensive explosion, is an aberration, a case of cleaning up on bad pitching. This is a good offense — and it could be a great offense if the big guns (and the top two) stay healthy. And even if they don’t stay healthy, they won’t lose a thing if Robb Quinlan, Brandon Wood, Matt Brown, Sean Rodriguez or Reggie Willits stand in for a spell.
The Angels have enough position players to field another quality Major League team. It almost isn’t fair when you see what they have in relation to what some other clubs are putting on the field.
In a camp game at Scottsdale against the Giants’ Triple-A players, Angels starter Dustin Moseley went seven innings and made 88 pitches, four of them leaving the park. Moseley yielded six earned runs, walking one man while giving up 10 hits and striking out three.
In that same game, facing reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, Mike Napoli went 3-for-5 with two doubles and two walks. In the informal setting of such games, players can bat multiple times, prompting Lincecum to remark, “Man, that was a lot of Napolis.”
Young first baseman Mark Trumbo homered for the Angels.
Brandon Wood’s eyes seem to brighten when he looks at the lineup card and sees he’s at shortstop. He put on another show at his natural position on Saturday in Tucson. Unfortunately, it went largely unnoticed, obscured by the events surrounding John Lackey’s forearm and Mike Napoli’s return behind the plate.
Facing Dan Haren, one of the game’s premier right-handers, in the second inning after Haren had set down the first five men he faced, Wood went with a slider on an 0-1 count and launched it over the wall in right field.
“I hit it on the sweet spot,” Wood said, his fourth Cactus League homer tying him with Jeff Mathis for the club lead. “Any time you can go deep on a guy like that, it feels good.”
But the best was about to come. Arizona catcher Miguel Montero hit a ground ball seemingly headed for left field. Wood got there running full-tilt, leaped and whirled in a motion that Derek Jeter has come to popularize, and gunned down the runner with a strong, accurate throw.
“I like defense,” Wood said when asked which of the two acts — the opposite-field homer or sensational play in the field — was more gratifying. “To get out there at shortstop and make a play, I really enjoy that. Normally, you want to try to plant and set for the throw, but in that case, moving as fast as I was, it probably would have taken four or five steps to get set. So I went in the air and let it fly.”
It was clearly a big-league play by a big-league shortstop. With Erick Aybar, Maicer Izturis and Sean Rodriguez — great athlete, gun of an arm — also at the position, the Angels have an embarrassment of riches.
Wood wasn’t quite done. Later in the game, he appeared to break his bat launching a 340-foot foul drive into the left-field corner. It turns out he’d actually broken the bat on an earlier pitch in the at-bat.
“I hit a line drive on a 2-0 pitch, and that’s when I broke it,” Wood said. “When I hit the ball down the line, it didn’t travel as far as I thought it would. I looked at the bat, and the handle was cracked.”
Solid glove, strong arm, awesome power. Nice tool kit Brandon is carrying around.
Vladimir Guerrero, whose bat has come to life with a double and homer in his past two games, is not in the lineup today. He has an eye infection and is on antibiotics.
With Jeff Mathis and Bobby Wilson catching Dustin Moseley and Kelvim Escobar, respectively, in camp games in Scottsdale, Hank Conger is getting his first starting assignment in the Cactus League behind the plate.
Conger, in the eyes of manager Mike Scioscia, has the ability to hit major league pitching right now. The former No. 1 pick from Huntington Beach is projected to play at Double-A Arkansas this season. He’s still viewed as a catcher, but his development defensively has been slowed by shoulder issues. The Angels are eager to see how he fares in game conditions.
Mike Napoli, who made his first appearance behind the plate in Tucson on Friday, going five innings and throwing out a runner trying to steal, said his shoulder felt good when he got up today — a very positive sign. He said he had no problems throwing long toss in the outfield — another good sign.
The wind is blowing out for the Royals, too. With blasts by Alberto Callaspo and Mike Jacobs in the fifth inning, K.C. caught the Angels, four bombs apiece, and John Lackey departed with a 10-7 lead after facing six men in the fifth without getting an out. David Herndon quieted the Royals.
Lackey’s line — seven earned runs on 10 hits in four innings — will bloat his ERA, but that’s why numbers in the spring sometimes don’t mean much. He had good life on his fastball and got his work in, as they say. Big day for Lackey’s batterymate, Jeff Mathis: homer, two singles, a walk, three runs scored. His buddy, Mike Napoli, also will have something to talk about. His smash to right center would have left the yard with the wind blowing in. He crushed it.