Thursday, February 12, 2009

By Eric Denton - Senior Writer

Will it be Erick Aybar? Could it be Maicer Izturis? Or is it time the Angels gave their No. 1 prospect Brandon Wood his chance at starting everyday? Wait, there’s also Sean Rodriguez. Only Mike Scioscia and Tony Reagins know for sure who the Angels prefer at shortstop as spring camp opens this weekend.

With the signing of outfielder Bobby Abreu, the Angels have virtually assured themselves that Chone Figgins will not be moved to left field to make room for Brandon Wood at third. Therefore, baring a trade this spring of Figgins or Howie Kendrick, it appears there will be a three- or possibly four-way battle for the starting shortstop job.

Aybar (pictured above) likely has the inside track at making it two consecutive years as the opening day starter, but his spot is hardly secure. Injuries limited Aybar in 2008, which hurt his overall productivity. He was playing high quality shortstop for the club when he went down. Aybar has tremendous speed and can make dazzling plays on defense.

Unfortunately, Aybar also turns the easy plays into errors; he made 18 errors in only 96 games last season. If the Angels were to trade Figgins to allow Wood to play third base, it’s likely Aybar would be slotted into the leadoff position. However, his on base percentage in 2008 was a dreadful .314, with his career number an even lower .298. Aybar also has a very high strikeout-to-walk ratio for someone who should be considered a contact hitter — 85 career strikeouts to 24 walks.

In 2005, at the age of 20 years old, Wood put himself on the map, belting 43 homeruns and driving in 116 runs while batting .321 with an impressive 1.048 OPS for the Class-A Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. As he climbed the ladder, his average did fall from the gaudy .321 down to the .270s at AA Arkansas in 2006 and AAA Salt Lake City in 2007. The power was still there, but not 40-home run power. He hit a consistent 25, then 23 over the next two seasons and in 2007 the Angels rewarded him with his first cup of coffee in the big leagues, where he got into 13 games and smacked his first major league homer.

In 2008, Wood played another year at AAA while getting into 55 games with the Angels. While he hit a disappointing .200 for the Angels, Wood had a very good year for the Bees, producing 31 homers (and an additional five with the Angels for a total of 36), raising his batting average to .291, on-base percentage up to .375 and putting up an above average OPS of .970. With an opening day age of 24, it’s pretty obvious that Wood has nothing left to prove in the minors and it’s time for the Angels to see what he can do.

Wood’s defense has been solid if unspectacular. He wont hurt the Angels on defense, but he doesn’t have the skills that Aybar possesses. The other thing that has been holding Wood back is his very high strikeout totals — he has fanned more than 100 times in every minor league season. His major league strikeout-to-walk ratio is a dreadful 55:4. That said, Wood has the most potential of all the candidates for the Angels this year. While his early minor league performances had Angel fans thinking Alex Rodriguez, it’s likely more accurate to think Wood could be similar to players ranging from Jhonny Peralta to J.J. Hardy and Troy Tulowitzki.

If neither Aybar nor Wood impress this spring, the fall back starter could very well be the steady Izturis. “Mighty Maicer” has shown Scioscia that he is capable at producing offensively and defensively coming off the bench or starting for long stretches at a time. The 28-year-old Izturis was so clutch for the Halos in 2007 that Scioscia inserted him into the fifth spot in the batting order. 2008 was pretty much a lost season for Izturis, though, as he only got into 79 games, down from more than 100 in each of 2006 and 2007, due to injuries. Izturis doesn’t seem to have the high ceiling that his competition mates do, but he’s a veteran who can produce and who doesn’t make mental mistakes.

The surprise candidate this spring could be young Rodriguez. Projected as a second baseman, Rodriguez is athletic enough to play short, if not take over Chone Figgins super-utility role off the bench this season. Rodriguez’s 2008 season was remarkably similar to Wood’s for the Angels: 55 games played, a batting average in the low .200s and a handful of homers. Also like Wood, he’s shown surprising power at the minor league level, hitting as many as 29 bombs in a season. Rodriguez has the potential to put all of the other candidates out of Scioscia’s mind with a huge effort this March in Tempe.

With four players who could all be major league shortstops, second basemen or third basemen, we’re likely to see some stiff competition. It’s also very possible that come opening day the logjam could be settled by Reagins making a trade for another starting pitcher. Every middle infielder is a trade candidate this spring, perhaps so are incumbents Chone Figgins and Howie Kendrick. Regardless of what happens, the Angels are blessed to have a lot of options.
Love to hear what you think!

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