By Jonathan "Angelsjunky" Northrop - Angelswin Columnist
Part 2 in my series, surveying the Angels position-by-position, past, present and future.
First a note: I am going to expand this into more parts, as each position is ending up being longer than planned. With the blessing of Chuck, this will now be a 12-part series as follows:
- Introduction and Catcher
- First Base
- Second Base
- Third Base
- Left Field
- Center Field
- Right Field
- DH and the Bench
- Starting Rotation
I hope to post about two new parts a week.
While researching this series, I ran across a wonderful tool on Baseball-Reference.com--a page where the starting players for each position of a team are listed year by year, so you can see who started where and for how long. For your enjoyment and reference, here is the Angels franchise, position-by-position.
Over to first base...
First base, like catcher, has been a position of relative weakness for the Angels over the course of their history. For the first couple decades the position was filled by mediocrities, until the Angels signed aging superstar Rod Carew in 1979 in what would be the first of three AL West pennants in eight years. Yet the signing of Carew also heralded the beginning of a disturbing, and ultimately unfruitful, trend: signing free agents at the tail end of their peak and hoping that they have enough left to win one for the Cowboy.
Rod Carew can be paired with Mo Vaughn as the biggest names to play the position for the Angels. Both are similar in that they came to the Angels in their decline phases and in their 30s: Carew started his career as an Angel at age 33, Vaughn at age 31 (and a warning to those who pray for A-Rod…but more on that in a future installment).
- As an Angel (1979-85): .314/.393/.392 (119 OPS+) in 834 games
- As a Twin (1967-78): .334/.393/.448 (137 OPS+) in 1635 games
- As an Angel (1999-2000): .276/.362/.503 (117 OPS+), in 300 games
- As a Red Sock (1991-98): .304/.394/.542 (140 OPS+) in 1046 games
It may be that the most successful career for an Angels first baseman belongs to Wally Joyner, who hit .286/.350/.450 in 899 games as an Angels, good for an OPS+ of 121. When Anaheim was transformed into Wally World in 1986, Joyner was accompanied by a promising crop of young position players, among them Devon White, Jack Howell, and Mark McLemore. It looked to be a transition from the old-school free agent approach that led to three pennants (’79, ’82, and ’86) but no World Series appearances. Joyner exemplified this fresh crop of players, but also what sent the Angels into perhaps their historically darkest hour in the early 90s: he started strong but faded, or at least never surpassed early performance and promise. Yet for his six years as an Angel, Joyner was solid, posting OPS+ of 119, 137, 120, 114, 111, and 134. The trajectory of those numbers is telling: after two years of improvement, in 1988 his numbers started to decline, only returning to comparable numbers to 1987’s career year in his last year. The rest of the young crop of players followed similar trajectories: none became stars, and both White and McLemore had their best seasons elsewhere.
I still remember April of 1993, when former Yankees prospect and 25-year old rookie J.T. Snow hit 10 HR for the month, quickly burying regrets about the loss of Joyner. He hit six the rest of the season. While Snow had one good year as an Angel in 1995, he was another disappointment and ended up in San Francisco (where he, too, had a revitalized, if unspectacular, career). After wasting the center field Gold Glove of Darin Erstad at first for a couple years and a touch of Cecil Fielder’s last season in the late 90s, the Angels had decided to make a big splash and signed Mo Vaughn to an, at the time, enormous contract. One that, after two decent but disappointing seasons, was swapped with a slightly less burdensome Kevin Appier contract.
Since Vaughn left after 2000, the Angels starting first basemen--Scott Spiezio, Darin Erstad, Kendry Morales, and Casey Kotchman—have not produced an OPS+ of greater than 115 (Spiezio in 2002) until Kotchman’s 119 in 2007, which equaled Vaughn’s OPS+ in 1999. To put it another way, at the position which most teams rely upon for a big hitter, the Angels have been anemic…yet that may soon change.
For the last five years Casey Kotchman, a first-round draft pick in 2001, has been as highly anticipated of an Angels prospect as I can remember, at least among fans. He showed success at every level in the minors, compiling a minor league line of .327/.407/.493 over six seasons. In 2004, after firmly establishing himself as a premier hitting prospect by hitting .371/.429/.553 in 77 games in AA and AAA, the 21-year old Kotchman was called up to the Angels, but disappointed (that word again), hitting .224/.289/.276 in 38 games. The Angels were so un-impressed that they gave the first base job in 2005 to Darin Erstad, who hit a rather weak .273/.325/.371 while Kotchman languished in AAA, hitting a sub-par (for him) .289/.372/.441 in 94 games. Yet when Kotchman was called up again it looked like he had arrived: he hit a solid .278/.352/.484 in 47 games.
Expectations were high in the spring of 2006. Erstad was not re-signed and Kotchman had (finally) been given the starting job; if it was a year too late, at least the time was finally here. Would Kotchman be the second big bat behind Vladimir Guerrero that the Angels had lacked since the injury and age driven declines of Garret Anderson and Tim Salmon? No, at least not yet: after hitting .152/.221/.215 in 29 games, it was determined that he had a case of mononucleosis and was shelved for the rest of the season.
From hitting .371/.429/.553 in about half a season of AA and AAA at age 21 in 2004, to missing almost all of the 2006 season with mono, Casey’s stock fell drastically. Disappointed, again. Coming into 2007 expectations were rather subdued if, we might admit, quietly hopeful; yet most fans simply wished that Casey stayed healthy and held his own. How did he fare?
- Casey Kotchman (24) – 137 games, .296/.372/.467, 11 HR, 37 doubles (119 OPS+)
The Promised One Hath Arrived. Sort of. Overall Casey had a good season—one that we should all be, if not ecstatic about, pleased with. He showed strong plate discipline (53 walks to 43 strikeouts), and solid line-drive power (37 doubles out of 131 hits—which would yield 51 doubles given 180 hits). While many were disappointed with his lack of HR, it should be noted that Casey’s overall performance as viewed through OPS (.840) was very similar to good first basemen such as Kevin Youkilis (.843), Paul Konerko (.841), Adrian Gonzalez (.849), Ryan Garko (..842), and even 2006 AL MVP Justin Morneau (.834). This after many fans wanted to give up on him and sign or trade for an Adam LaRoche (.803) or an Aubrey Huff (.778). To put it another way, and let me emphasize this strongly: even if Kotchman doesn’t improve he’s already a good player and in the middle of the pack of major league first baseman.
It is time to stop hoping Casey Kotchman is something he is not (a power hitter, first and foremost) and start appreciating what he is: a player who hits for a good average, strong plate discipline and developing gap power.
There is no reason to think that Kotchman should not continue to improve. His biggest problem over his short professional career has been remaining healthy (Baseball Prospectus called him the AL version of Nick Johnson), a problem that seemed at least partially solved in 2007. His fragility has been the major causative factor in a streaky 2007 performance and a delayed major league arrival. In 2007 he varied from looking like Todd Helton to, well, Darin Erstad in one of his less memorable "tinkering" moments (see Part 7: Center Field for more). Next year expect greater consistency, improving batting average, and for some of those doubles to turn into HR. The best is yet to come.
- Kotchman - 145 games, .300/.380/.490, 40 doubles, 20 HR, 70 walks, and Gold Glove-calibre defense.
Part of what I am asking with whether or not a position can or should be upgraded, is weighing the current value and potential value of what the Angels have, with what they could get through free agency--with salary firmly in mind. If Kotchman doesn't evolve as a hitter, which is highly unlikely given his talent, he is still a cheap option of solid performance over the next few years and beyond. But the key point is that he has good, even star, potential--just how much better we simply cannot know, but the point is that at his age and potential there is no need to upgrade, barring Albert Pujols demanding a trade to the Angels. In Kotchman the Angels should have the long-term solution at first base that has been so elusive. Barring injury, in five or six years Kotchman may be considered the best Angels first baseman ever.