Five Questions: Los Angeles Angels

Who’s on short?

Orlando Cabrera, the shortstop for the last three seasons, has been traded to the Chicago White Sox. Cabrera was a very productive player in his three years as an Angel, and averaged 150 games per year, so there wasn’t much need for a backup.

Erick Aybar, Brandon Wood, and Maicer Izturis are competing for the job as I write this. Izturis is the safest bet to be a solid player. Now 27 years old, he has done an admirable job as the backup infielder the last three years. His projection of .282/.345/.395 is actually a slight upgrade on Cabrera. Izturis though may not be durable enough to be an everyday player. He has missed significant time on the disabled last each of the last three years, with injuries to his knee and to both hamstrings. While a solid, unspectacular defender at second and third, he has not had much of an opportunity to prove he can handle shortstop, since Cabrera hardly ever needed a day off.

Aybar appears to have the most range of the three, but makes too many errors. In the minor leagues he made 119 errors in 475 games, or 41 per 162. In the Dominican Winter League, he made 19 errors in only 35 games and in the majors he committed seven errors in 154 innings, a rate of 66 per 162 nine-inning games. Because major league fields are kept in better condition, his additional experience, and having Alfredo Griffin as his infield coach, I don’t think his error rate would be that bad, but my guess is he makes 30 or more if he’s the starter.

While judging a defensive player by his fielding percentage is supposed to be a sabermetric taboo, I bring this up because advanced defensive metrics for minor leaguers are in short supply, and there are very few players who can be defensive assets despite high error rates. As a hitter, Aybar may be able to hit for a high average (though he’s only hit .239 so far) but possesses neither the on-base ability of Izturis nor the power of Wood. While extremely fast, throughout his career he has stolen bases at a percentage that makes you wish he wouldn’t try.

Brandon Wood has the most upside of this group, with power that is rare at the shortstop position. His THT projection shows a .254 average and 24 homers, with a .478 slugging percentage. I think that may be a bit optimistic, and .230 with 20 homers is more realistic, but on this one I hope I’m wrong and the THT projections are right. He has not progressed much as a hitter in the last two years, and strikes out way too much.

Wood possesses only average speed, but has been a high percentage base stealer at every level of the minors, with an 82 percent success rate. His minor league error rate was 34 per 162, so giving him the benefit of the doubt like Aybar (parks, experience, instruction) he should be in the mid-20s in the majors, an acceptable number. His range, according to Dan Fox’s Simple Fielding Runs, was +2.8 runs compared to an average PCL shortstop last year. I have no idea how that translates to the majors as it’s a brand new statistic, and also no idea how it compares to Aybar’s minor league ratings.

So which one will it be? I’m hoping Wood wins the job, but it’s not up to me.

Are the pitchers healthy?

Kelvim Escobar came to spring training with pain in his shoulder. John Lackey’s spring debut has been delayed due to elbow trouble. Last year these twin aces combined for 37 wins and were each among the top 10 pitchers in baseball. It would be foolish to expect that kind of production again.

Once again, the old cliché “You can never have enough pitching” is proven true. The Angels left the winter meetings with six starters, but the question of who will go back to Salt Lake or the bullpen, Saunders or Santana has been answered: Neither.

I have no way of knowing how this will play out. My guess is that Lackey will be fine, but Escobar, who will not pitch until May, will have trouble all year. If he’s in pain at the beginning of spring training, how is he going to feel after a couple 100 pitch outings in the middle of the summer? The Angels would be advised to take it as easy as possible on the aces, give them days off whenever needed or quick hooks to the bullpen, in the hopes that they will be 100 percent in October.

How do you find time for everyone in the outfield and DH?

The Angels have seven players for these four positions/lineup spots, so on any given day three of them will have to sit on the bench. Vladimir Guerrero, Torii Hunter, and Garret Anderson will play every day they are able to. Juan Rivera had a breakout season in 2006 and a broken leg in 2007. He’s a quality player and deserves time somewhere. Gary Matthews Jr. was hitting well until injuries ruined his September last year. While Torii Hunter has taken his job in center, Matthews has far more defensive ability than the typical corner outfielder. He played all three positions in Texas so there should be no familiarity issues.

Reggie Willits surprised most of us in 2007 by pulling a season straight out of Brett Butler’s prime, hitting .293 with a .391 OBP and 27 steals. His playing time will take a dive this year just because of the competition. On the occasions they play Willits, Hunter, and Matthews together, the Angels outfield will catch everything. Kendry Morales would be more in the mix for DH opportunities, but did play a bit in the outfield last year too.

Right now it looks like a logjam, but as with the pitching staff, injuries have a way of deciding things. Once the season starts, the Angels will probably have enough playing time to distribute for whichever members of this group are able to take the field, and still might need to see who can help from Triple-A (Terry Evans? Nathan Haynes?)

Who’s the next big thing on the farm?

The Angels have ranked well on top prospect lists for the last several years, but almost all the players from those lists have graduated to the majors. Some are important parts of the team (Kotchman, Kendrick, Napoli, Jered Weaver), some hope to become the same (Wood, Aybar) and some have moved on and hope to resurrect their careers elsewhere (Dallas McPherson). Right now, the top levels of the Angels farm system have few exciting prospects. Nick Adenhart may move to Triple-A Salt Lake this year, and faces a tough challenge, a hitter’s park in a hitter’s league. His results were not great (3.65 ERA, 116-65 strikeout-to-walk ratio) but he was young for Double-A (20), throws hard, and keeps the ball on the ground (only seven homers in 153 innings).

In the lower minors, the exciting players are Jordan Walden and Hank Conger. Walden threw his fastball in the upper 90s in the pioneer league, and his control is not a problem (17 walks in 64 innings). Conger slugged .472 as a 19-year-old in a pitcher-friendly Midwest league. The switch hitter may explode offensively in the California league this summer, but his defense needs a lot of work if he’s going to stay at catcher.

How wise was signing Torii Hunter for five seasons?

Aside from $90 million being too much money for a 32-year-old who’s not a likely future Hall of Famer, a concern about the Hunter signing is that it locks the Angels in, making it hard to improve the team if a better center fielder comes along in future years.

In the Hunter case, I’m not worried about this. The Angels got the best center fielder on the market this year, and most likely the best that will be available for most of Hunter’s contract, at least on the free agent market.

The 2007-2008 off-season was rich with center fielders, featuring Hunter, Andruw Jones, Mike Cameron, and Aaron Rowand. Ichiro Suzuki would have been part of the market as well but he re-signed before the season ended. You aren’t going to find the same quality of center fielders in the next few years. Among those who can handle the defensive demands of the position and are also above average hitters, almost all are signed or otherwise under club control for a few more years.

After 2008, the only one available will be Cameron. He’ll be 36 in 2009, but if he plays well in 2008 the Brewers have a one-year option. In other words, Cameron won’t be a free agent unless he suddenly gets old. Speaking of getting old, Jim Edmonds will be out there too. I’ve him compared to Freddie Lynn ever since he became the starting center fielder in 1995. Fred Lynn went to San Diego at age 38, had a bad year, and retired. This year Edmonds will be 38 with the Padres, in accordance with prophesy.

After 2009, Jones will hit the market again. If the Angels preferred Hunter in 2008, odds are they’ll prefer Hunter in 2010.

After 2010, there are no top center field free agents. After 2011 you finally have a group: Carlos Beltran, Rocco Baldelli, Shane Victorino, and David DeJesus. Beltran will be 34 and may still be a top player. Baldelli will be 30; he may be a superstar at that point or just another what might have been except for injury. Victorino and DeJesus are not quite the same caliber players as Hunter. If anyone is worth signing that year, the Matthews contract will be up, and Hunter could slide to a corner.

After Hunter’s contract expires in 2012, you’ll also have Grady Sizemore, Nick Swisher, Chris Young of Arizona, Ichiro (assuming he’s still any good past age 38), and Melky Cabrera (assuming he develops).

Some point after that the next wave of superstar center fielders, draft class of 2005, should all hit the market around the same time. It’s hard to believe Jay Bruce, Colby Rasmus, Cameron Maybin, Andrew McCutchen, and Jacoby Ellsbury were all in the same draft.

Last year I was a little apprehensive about the Matthews Jr. signing because it might have blocked the Angels from getting a better player. Turns out the Angels didn’t let sunk costs deter them, to their credit. I have no such apprehension about the signing of Hunter, there just isn’t going to be anyone at his position who is better for several years. I’m glad to have him on the team, though he’s hitting a little too well in spring training so far—save some for when the games count, Torii.

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