GLENDALE, Ariz. — In a Cactus League game at Camelback Ranch against the Dodgers, the Angels’ Hideki Matsui gets his first start in the outfield today since June 15, 2008 when he plays left and bats fourth.
Hindered by knee problems, Matsui did not play at all in the outfield for the Yankees last season, limiting him to designated-hitter duties only. He took full advantage of his three DH appearances in the World Series to claim the Series MVP award for his bashing of the Phillies for the Bronx Bombers.
“He could play in Fenway Park or anywhere,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said when asked why he chose to play Matsui in the outfield in an unfamiliar park. “He needs to get his prep steps, how he feels during games and – even more important – the next day.
“If you’re going to play a full game, you’re talking about 150 prep steps if the pitchers throw 150 pitches. Not that he’s going to play a full game – I imagine it’ll be somewhere around four innings.”
Matsui has been making gradual progress in outfield drills, strengthening his knees while reacquainting himself with the terrain.
“There’s a team element in defense that needs to get pushed forward,” Scioscia said, alluding to the coordination Matsui and center fielder Torii Hunter need to develop. “With Matsui, it’s understanding range with Torii, where he needs to go. It’ll just take a little time for Hideki to get their range down.”
Signed to a one-year, $6 million free agent deal, Matsui expressed a desire to be given a chance to return to the outfield at least on a part-time basis.
The Angels’ plan is to give him a few starts in left a week, if possible, to provide DH opportunities for the other outfielders: Hunter, Juan Rivera and Bobby Abreu, along with Kendry Morales and Mike Napoli on occasion.
After missing a week and a half with a strain in his right elbow, shortstop Erick Aybar returned to the lineup on Monday against the Dodgers, leading off.
Scioscia said he did not play Brandon Wood on Sunday against the Mariners at home because he wanted his third baseman to sharpen his coordination with Aybar in a camp game.
“Left side defense is as important as anything you’re going to do,” Scioscia said. “The third baseman has to cover the hole. With Wood and Aybar, we worked on it yesterday. We also had Morales and [Howard] Kendrick on the right side stay back one day to work on it.”
This is the closest Scioscia has come to having his projected lineup together. Jeff Mathis was a last-minute insertion as DH when the Dodgers – using a split squad with a second game against the Brewers — notified the Angels they were freeing up the DH role.
With Matsui in left and Mathis occupying the DH spot, Juan Rivera was the only name missing from the lineup that is expected to be on the field when the Angels open the season on April 5 at home against Minnesota.
Freeing up the DH allowed Scioscia to switch back to Joe Saunders as his starter after deciding he’d go with Matt Palmer under National League rules.
Following Aybar in the lineup are right fielder Abreu, center fielder Hunter, Matsui, Morales, Kendrick, Napoli at catcher, Wood and Mathis.
They’ll be facing right-hander Carlos Monasterios, a Rule 5 pickup bidding to nail down the fifth spot in the Dodgers’ rotation. Lefty Clayton Kershaw is pitching in Phoenix against the Brewers. – Lyle Spencer
ANAHEIM – Bobby Abreu sat at his locker before Sunday’s game at Angel Stadium against the Athletics, engrossed in a showdown between the Yankees, his old team, and the Red Sox on a flat screen TV.
Abreu reached another personal milestone in a season loaded with them on Saturday night: 100 RBIs for the seventh year in a row. Only Albert Pujols has done that, but Abreu was reasonably certain a former teammate – Alex Rodriguez – would be joining them shortly.
“Alex has 94,” Abreu said, nodding toward the wide-screen TV. “He should get there without much trouble.”
Abreu clearly was pleased – and relieved – to have reached 100 with a two-run homer, his 14th, in the fourth inning of what was to be a 15-10 loss to the sizzling Athletics on Saturday night.
“That’s a good one,” Abreu said, “Albert and me . . . and Alex coming.”
Abreu has been made aware of another milestone in his reach. He’s one steal away from 30, which would bring him in the company of Barry Bonds as the only players to combine at least 30 steals and at least 100 RBIs in five seasons.
Abreu last did it in 2006, the season he split with the Phillies and Yankees. In the Bronx, A-Rod coming up behind him, Abreu wasn’t encouraged to steal. With the born-to-run Angels, he has the green light to go when he sees the opportunity, and he has succeeded on 29 of 37 sprints.
“Bobby’s a very smart baserunner,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “He knows what he’s doing out there.”
In terms of career numbers, what impresses Chone Figgins — who lockers next door and is usually immersed in baseball conversation with Abreu – is the fact that the right fielder has scored more career runs (1,265) than he has driven home (1,184).
“You can only score them one at a time,” Figgins said. “You can drive them in two, three, four at a time. That shows you how much Bobby’s been on base – and how well he has run the bases.”
Abreu was back in the No. 2 spot in the order on Sunday against Edgar Gonzalez, with Erick Aybar batting ninth in front of Figgins, giving him, in effect, two leadoff men to set the table.
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.
When Gary “Sarge” Matthews was teaching his son the finer points of the game during Gary Jr.’s youth, there were insights and expressions culled from a life spent in baseball that resonate all these years later with the Angels’ outfielder.
“My dad used to tell me that he could teach me how to hit breaking balls and changeups – but either you can hit a fastball or you can’t,” Gary Jr. was saying on Father’s Day, his dad in Philadelphia where he works as a commentator on Phillies telecasts.
“My dad is as old school as it gets. That still rings true, but I have formed my own opinions over the years. I think one change in the game is that pitchers have evolved and now throw more breaking balls for strikes. Controlling the breaking ball, and not relying on fastballs as much early in counts, has changed things.”
In Detroit on the recent road trip, Matthews launched a 100-mph heater by Joel Zumaya – the hardest thrower in the game – deep into the right-field seats, foul. He’d turned on triple digits and was a split-second out in front of it, a display of remarkably quick hands.
On Saturday night at Angel Stadium, Matthews came off the bench in the ninth inning and launched a fastball from Dodgers reliever Jonathan Broxton into the seats in right center, turning a 6-2 deficit into what would be a 6-4 loss. It was the first Angels pinch-hit homer of the year and the fourth of Matthews’ career.
“I’ve never been accused of not being able to hit a fastball,” Matthews said, grinning.
Walking past Matthews’ locker, hitting coach Mickey Hatcher said, “You can’t put one past him.”
Matthews is a man without a position, a man who wants to play every day but has no steady job with the Angels. Juan Rivera has been on fire in left, joining Torii Hunter and Bobby Abreu in the outfield with Vladimir Guerrero absorbing designated-hitter at-bats.
Matthews has made it clear all season that he doesn’t think of himself as a backup and will not be happy in that role. He thinks he’s one of the game’s most gifted center fielders, and Hunter – the best – agrees. But that is not much consolation. When you’re an athlete and you’re sitting, you don’t feel right.
All Matthews can do now is accept his role and make the best of a difficult situation. He is an expensive insurance policy, a card that will remain in manager Mike Scioscia’s deck most of the time until someone in front of him is injured or falls into a major slump.
“Not much I can do about it,” Matthews said. “I’ll just keep working and be ready when I’m called on.”
His old-school dad is on the cellphone with his son all the time, offering perspective, support, all the things a young man needs when he’s frustrated.
It is possible something could happen around the July 31 Non-Waiver Trade Deadline, Matthews acquiring sudden appeal to a club in need of a quality center fielder. His salary – he’s in the third year of a five-year, $50 million contract – makes it unlikely. And not because Matthews has the contractual right to refuse a trade, as Jake Peavy did when the White Sox and Padres had worked out a deal.
Matthews yearns to be an everyday center fielder, but he’s on a club that employs the game’s best. It’s like being the guy who thought he’d have a crack at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo showed up with his brushes and paints.