By Johnny Bardo - Angelswin.com Columnist
Part Four in my series:
- Introduction and Catcher
- First Base
- Second Base
- Third Base
- Left Field
- Center Field
- Right Field
- DH and the Bench
- Starting Rotation
Of the infield positions, the Angels have seen the most consistency at shortstop, at least over the last two decades or so. After a couple of years of Joe Koppe (who?) in 1961 and '62, Jim Fregosi took over the position for a nine-year stretch that remains the benchmark for Angels shortstops. During his Angel career, Fregosi hit .268/.340/.403 with an OPS+ of 116 in 1429 games, during a decade--the 1960s--with some of the lowest batting numbers in baseball history (remember, Carl Yasztremski won the 1968 AL batting title with a .301 average!). Fregosi was a six-time All-Star and ranked between 7th and 28th in MVP voting during eight of his Angel seasons. He also won a Gold Glove in 1967.
Fregosi left the Angels at the age of 30 in 1971. Why let go of a perennial All-Star shortstop? Well, he was traded to the Mets for an erratic but talented 24-year old pitcher by the name of Nolan Ryan. Fregosi was never the same player—his highest post-Angels game total was 101 for the Mets in 1972; he was sold to the Rangers the year after and dwindled away to retirement in 1978. As for Ryan, well...you know the story (and see my later installment).
While the Angels got a steal in Nolan Ryan, the shortstop position suffered after Fregosi’s departure with seven different players starting the most games at shorstop from 1972 to 1980, a mixture of once-good players at the tail-end of their careers (Leo Cardenas, Freddie Patek and Bert Campaneris); a couple of players that never amounted to much of anything (Rudy Meoli and Mike Miley); two-time All-Star Dave Chalk declined quickly in his late 20s; and Rance Mulliniks was traded with Willie Aikens for a brief stint of Al Cowens and Todd Cruz. Cowens was traded to Detroit for strong-hitting first baseman Jason Thompson, who for some reason was traded to the Pirates for two virtual nobodies, Mickey Mahler and Ed Ott.
Confused? I am too, but the point being that the position suffered in the 1970s, leading the Angels to trade for 29-year old three-time Boston All-Star Rick Burleson. After an All-Star season in 1981, the position seemed locked up—but it wasn’t to be. Burleson got injuried and never recovered, playing in 11, 33, 7, and 93 games over the next four years as an Angel. When he was healthy he was good, but he was let go of after the 1986 season, despite hitting well in those 93 games, picked up by the Orioles then released in mid-season of 1987, never to play again. For the Angels, Tim Foli filled in until slick-fielding Dick Schofield took over in 1984.
From 1984 to 1999, shortstop was dominated by two players: Dick Schofield and Gary DiSarcina, near replicas of each other. Both were good defenders, if not quite Gold Gloves (neither ever won), and both were mediocre hitters. Compare their career numbers:
- Schofield: 1368 games (1086 as an Angel), .230/.308/.316 (73 OPS+); 4.45 Range Factor compared to 4.01 league.
- DiSarcina: 1086 games (all as an Angel), .258/.292/.341 (66 OPS+); 4.48 Range Factor compared to 4.16 league.
The similarities are eerie, especially the exact same games played as an Angel.
After a transition year in 2000--with Benji Gil as the primary shortstop--David Eckstein took over for a four-year span, with solid offense and defense. He was considered the "spark-plug" of the well-balanced 2002 offense that won the World Series, but fans complained about his weak arm. Eckstein was not offered a contract after 2004, the Angels instead opting for the higher-profile slick-fielding of Orlando Cabrera, coming off a stellar stretch run and postseason performance for the Red Sox that drove his stock up, perhaps leading to his over-valuation, garnering a four-year $32 million contract. Cabrera disappointed in his first year, at least with the bat (although statistical analysis shows significant defensive decline from his hey-day with the Expos) but improved in 2006 and 2007, leading the Angels on the diamond and in the clubhouse.
Just a week ago Orlando Cabrera was traded to the White Sox for Jon Garland. We all knew his time as an Angel was limited with Brandon Wood waiting in the wings—not to mention Erick Aybar, Sean Rodriguez, and Hainley Statia. But this trade took everyone by surprise, and as of this writing the shortstop position is a big question mark.
- Orlando Cabrera (32) – 155 games, .301/.345/.397, 20 sb.
Cabrera suffered a late season slump that diminished the impact of a season in which for most of it he hit over .320. He may not be the vacuum-like defender he was in Montreal, but he was very good, better than Eckstein, and at least equal to DiSarcina and even Schofield. With his overall performance the last three years and the value that he brings in through the trade to the White Sox, his contract must be viewed as a success.
Who knows? The Angels have a plethora of options, but none seem obvious choices to immediately succeed Cabrera. Brandon Wood has the highest upside, but probably needs another year, or at least half-year, at AAA. Even then it may take him awhile to learn to hit major league pitching. Erick Aybar has not evolved at all as a hitter; his excellent glove will garner him a roster spot, but who knows if he’ll ever hit enough to hold a job, at least with the championship-calibre Angels. Sean Rodriguez had a disappointing 2007 and looks fated to be a utility player and Statia looks like yet another decent-bat, good-glove shortstop that, after the A-Rod-Jeter-Nomar triumvirate changed our expectations for the position, no longer excites. Chone Figgins can field the position in a pinch, but is more of a natural second baseman; Maicer Izturis might be the most likely in-house option, at least until Brandon Wood is ready.
Which brings us to out-of-house options, namely 2002 AL MVP Miguel Tejada, who will turn 32 early next season. With Vlad Guerrero (32 next year), Garret Anderson (36), Gary Matthews (33), and Torii Hunter (32), do the Angels need another 32-year old? Tejada’s numbers have declined over the last few years, from a career-high 131 OPS+ in 2004, to 128, 126, and 109 last year. But a repeat of his 2007 numbers (.296/.357/.442) would still be an improvement at the position, and he did battle injuries last year--so if he can return to his 2004-2006 level of play, he would be an enormous asset--and at less trade expense than Miguel Cabrera.
It should also be noted that Tejada's defense has declined, with a career low Range Factor of 4.09 last year (compared to the AL league average of 3.97), much lower than his career average of 4.57. Yet his fielding percentage has stayed remarkably consistent, equaling his career average of .971.
We will probably have to wait until the December winter meetings to see what happens, and if the Angels pass on the high cost of Miguel Cabrera and the risk of an aging Miguel Tejada, we could possibly see a spring training battle for the position. If the Angels don't trade for a big fish, expect Figgins and Izturis to get the most at-bats at third base and shortstop in 2008—who will be where is anyone’s guess.
- Maicer Izturis (27) – 130 games, .300/.360/.420
- Erick Aybar (24) – 70 games, .250/.290/.330, 20 sb
- Brandon Wood (23) – 60 games, .230/.290/.440, 12 hr
Maicer Izturis could surprise those that didn’t see his late season performance, when he was one of the most potent bats in the lineup, hitting .304/.365/.430 after the break. He should get his at-bats, whether at 3B, SS, 2B, or anywhere the Angels need him. But the future of the position is Brandon Wood. Upgrade? It all depends upon what unfolds—but the Angels certainly don’t absolutely need to.