By Jonathan Northrop
Continuing my series:
- Introduction and Catcher
- First Base
- Second Base
- Third Base
- Left Field
- Center Field
- Right Field
- Starting Rotation
Part Seven: CENTER FIELD
Center field, once again, exemplifies the Angels franchise for the first twenty years of its existence: no stars and no players to hold down the position for more than a few years. Ken Hunt looked promising in 1961, but got injuried and hit below .200 for the rest of his short career. Albie Pearson was pretty good for a few years, but was released for the promising Leo Cardenal. Cardenal was disappointing and did not fulfill his promise until later in his career in the National League. A string of unmemorable names followed: Roger Repoz, Jay Johnstone (who, like Cardenal, was better after he was an Angel), and Ken Berry. Mickey Rivers was pretty good but was traded to the Yankees for an ancient Bobby Bonds. Mediocre at best Rusty Torres and Gil Flores were followed by the solid but unspectacular Rick Miller, who was sent (back) to Boston in the trade that brough in Butch Hobson and Rick Burleson.
Finally, in 1981, the Angels brought in a bonafide star in another trade with the Red Sox: Fred Lynn. In 1975, Lynn became the only player ever to win the MVP and Rookie of the Year awards in the same year. His numbers slid for a few years, then he had an even better year in 1979, hitting .333/.423/.637 for the Red Sox. His numbers dropped down again in 1980 and the Red Sox seemed to lose patience with a player that one year looked like Joe DiMaggio, the next like any number of above average outfielders.
It is easy to be unimpressed with Lynn’s numbers with the Angels. In 473 games he hit .271/.358/.464, but in an era that netted him a 127 Adjusted OPS (similar to Brian Downing's or Tim Salmon's career OPS+). After the 1984 season the Angels opted to let him go, giving the job to the speedy Gary Pettis, who had impressed in 22 games in 1983, hitting .294/.348/.494. But Pettis never developed, hitting .242/.332/.319 in 584 games as an Angel.
Devon White was one of the talented young crop of players that came up through the Angels farm system in the mid-to-late 80s, a group that was poised to replace the contending, and aging, teams of the early and mid 80s. I remember seeing White play in spring training of 1989 and being very impressed with his natural gifts: he was tall and lean, a Gold Glove outfielder who moved through center with speed and grace. Yet he was a “toolsy” player who never really harnessed his offensive tools, at least not as an Angel. As with so many Angels players before him, White fulfilled at least some of his promise elsewhere, after he left the Angels for Toronto in 1991. White was never a great player, but he had a few good years for the Blue Jays, and was one of the best defensive centerfielders of his time.
Junior Felix and Chad Curtis manned center field in the first half of the 90s. If you don’t remember Curtis, imagine David Eckstein as a center fielder and you kind of get the picture. Felix was another talented player with more tools than skills, who finally seemed to breakthrough with the Tigers in 1994, but then mysteriously never played again.
In 1994, a 24-year old rookie by the name of Jim Edmonds hit .273/.343/.377 in 94 games, mainly as a left fielder. Edmonds wasn't perceived of as a top prospect by analysts--his minor league line reads as .297/.375/.441 in 442 games; good, but not superstar material. But for a franchise with a history of lacking great prospects, Edmonds was highly regarded by the Angels. In 1995, after moving to CF, Edmonds began a very impressive four year stretch in which he hit between .290 and .307, averaging 28 HR and winning two Gold Gloves with his daredevil play. Yet his reckless defense took a toll on his body, and Edmonds was often injuried. During an injury-plagued 1999, in which he played only 55 games and hit .250/.339/.426, Edmonds was disgruntled. New GM Bill Stoneman’s first major move was to send him to St. Louis for one-time 18-game winner Kent Bottenfield and 2B prospect Adam Kennedy. While Bottenfield was (expectably) sub-par and was traded to the Phillies for Ron Gant after a 5.71 ERA in 21 starts, Kennedy had a solid seven-year career with the Angels, including a 2002 ALCS MVP.
And Jim Edmonds? How did he fare in St. Louis? Must I? Yes, I must. Jim Edmonds began one of the best five-year stretches by a major league center fielder…ever. He had Adjusted OPS+ of 146, 149, 158, 160, and 170—a stretch unsurpassed by any Angel, with Vladimir Guerrero’s four-year run of 157, 154, 138, 147 being close, but without the Gold Glove center field defense. If Jim Edmonds had remained an Angel and put up those numbers, he would probably be considered the best Angel ever. Edmonds will turn 38 next year and may be close to done: he hit .252/.325/.403 in 117 games last year. But let us appreciate his excellent career,which is probably not quite Hall of Fame, but close: in 1814 games he has hit .287/.379/.531 with an Adjusted OPS+ of 133 and won eight Gold Gloves. Very impressive, indeed.
After Edmonds left Garret Anderson took over for a couple years, followed by Darin Erstad. Erstad showed promise in his first two full seasons, hitting .299/.360/.466 and .296/.353/.486 in 1997 and 1998. In the first half of 1998 he appeared to have reached star status; if I remember correctly, by the All-Star break he was on pace to hit something like .330 with 30 HR. But he entered a long slump, one that continued through the entire 1999 season in which he hit .253/.308/.374. However, in 2000 Erstad seemed to break through, having one of the greatest seasons by an Angel ever, hitting .355/.409/.541 with 240 hits. Yet somehow, in 2001, Erstad slipped all the way back to his 1999 performance levels, and never went far above them.
Darin Erstad’s decline shall perhaps forever remain a mystery. He certainly had the talent to be a very good player, yet he always seemed lost at the plate—a first pitch ground-out being his hallmark. It may also be that his noted reckless play--similar to Jim Edmonds--hurt his body to the point of hindering his hitting. Yet I have a theory about why Erstad never solidified as a good hitter, the perennial .300+, 20 HR hitter that his talent warranted. A few years ago I read an article in which he was asked what his approach at the plate was; he said something about "tinkering," that he didn’t have one approach, but just got up to the plate and…"tinkered." This is fine while you are playing prep baseball, even in the minor leagues. But as a major league hitter you simply have to develop a disciplined routine. Most of the very best hitters have a zone in which they will swing at--anything outside that zone is passed on. There are some players that are successful without a zone approach, such as Vladimir Guerrero or Alfonso Soriano, but even they have a discipline of sorts. They don’t…tinker.
Regardless, Darin Erstad will go down as one of the most disappointing Angels in history, but also one of the most memorable--at least of the last couple decades. We will remember him not only for what now looks to be one of the greatest fluke seasons of all time, but for his hustle and spirit, his Gold Glove defense at two positions, and some post-season heroics in 2002.
After Erstad set up at first base semi-permanently, Garret Anderson returned to the position for a year, then was followed by Chone Figgins and Steve Finley.
After the 2006 season, the Angels signed Gary Matthews Jr. to a five-year $50 million contract, creating an out-cry among fans, of whom only the most blindly faithful approved of the signing. Matthews had spent most of his career as a platoon player—a league average hitter (at best) with very good defense, although some think he is over-rated because of the occasional highlight reel. In 2006, at the age of 31, he had a breakthrough season, hitting .313/.371/.495 with 69 extra-base hits. Bill Stoneman seemed convinced that this was not a fluke but a legitimate new plateau of performance. When Matthews’s name became linked to steroids before the 2007 season, we all groaned—especially Arte Moreno.
Jumping forward (more on Matthews in a moment), just a couple weeks ago new GM Tony Reagins—perhaps wanting to make a quick splash, as well as seemingly to rectify the Gary Matthews contract blunder—made a surprise signing of Torii Hunter, to the tune of $90 million over five years, making him one of the highest paid players in baseball. Was this a good signing? Read on.
Gary Matthews Jr (32) – 140 games, .252/.323/.419, 18 HR, 18 sb
It can be argued that Gary Matthews, with his good-to-very good defense and decent bat helped the Angels in 2007, and that he even earned his $6 million salary. It would be nearly impossible to argue, however, that he is worth the five-year investment of $50 million, a contract that we all know Arte Moreno is regretting. In 2007, after a career year that now seems cemented as a perhaps steroid-fueled fluke and not the breakout that Stoneman (believed) hoped it to be, Matthews returned to career averages, even a hair below. We must remember that up until a year ago, Matthews looked like a career platoon outfielder, the type of player that is very useful to have on your roster, perhaps garnering 2-300 plate appearances: good defense, solid speed and power, but not a starter on a championship team. The type of player that earns $3-4 million a year, not $10 million. Still, he wasn’t terrible last year, and his numbers only really dipped towards the end of the season during a prolonged slump.
Are the Angels stuck with Matthews? That remains to be seen—but with the signing of Torii Hunter, a superior player than Matthews in all facets of the game except taking walks, he is certainly moving to LF or RF, or even to part-time duty if the Mitchell hearings don't go his way and the Angels cannot dump his contract.
Which brings us to the Angels’ biggest free agent signing since Vladimir Guerrero and/or Bartolo Colon, and the most expensive in Angels history: Torii Hunter. For the second year in a row, the Angels threw and exorbitant amount of cash at a 30-something center fielder, giving Hunter superstar money. Only a handful of players made more money last year than Hunter will average over the next five, and all of them Yankees: Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, and Derek Jeter. So while Reagins might have been trying to make up for Stoneman’s mistake with Matthews, he merely compounded it, in this writer's view.
What is Hunter really worth? It is difficult to say. His best two seasons have been his last two, with OPS+ of 112 and 122; but he is 32-years old, and his numbers are not those of a superstar, but a borderline star (see here for my definitions). In today’s market, players of his calibre and experience generally earn between $10-15 million. A more reasonable—if still outrageous—contract would have been $70 million for those five years. But as many like to say, it isn’t our money, it is Arte’s. Who cares if ticket prices go up a few cents? There are numerous things wrong with that logic, but this is a topic better dealt with elsewhere…
Regardless, Hunter will be the Angels center fielder for the foreseeable future. He is a very good player, but not a legitimate star. Let’s hope he can continue at his current level for at least the next few years and not embarrass the Angels front office even further.
- Hunter (32) - .280/.330/.490, 27 HR, 20 SB
Not for the next five years. Hunter should be above average for at least the next two years, maybe three or four if we are lucky, but by 2010 or 2011 the Angels could have a very big, expensive problem on their hands—not least because their promising crop of young outfielders currently in the lower minor leagues will start to come of age.