Thursday, February 5, 2009

By Chuck Richter - Executive Editor

There has been much talk this offseason about the Angels' lack of offensive production heading into the 2009 season — specifically home run production — after losing Mark Teixeira to the New York Yankees in free agency. While I don't believe the 2009 Angels will come close to the 1927 Yankees club tabbed as "Murderers' Row," I do believe many have overlooked the amount of power this offense is capable of generating in 2009, something that has been missing throughout the lineup since the 2004 club. Fans have been itching for another season like '04 or a power packed lineup like the 2000 Halos, when third baseman Troy Glaus led the American League with 47 home runs, Mo Vaughn clubbed 36, Garret Anderson walloped 35 and Tim Salmon rounded the bases 34 times. And if that wasn't enough power for you, Darin Erstad added 25 homers from the leadoff spot, just for good measure.

The 2009 Angels won't bat .307, slug .489, score 975 runs or outscore their opponents by a record 376 runs like the 1927 Yankees. But what they can do is provide some over the fence power and it's entirely possible that the seven players I'll feature here could hit at least 20 home runs or more in the coming season. At the very least, they each have that kind of potential.

Could the Angels be the first team since the 1996 Orioles, who totaled 257 homers, to include seven players with more than 20? The O's players that accomplished that feat were: Brady Anderson (50), Rafael Palmeiro (39), Bobby Bonilla (28), Cal Ripken, Jr. (26), Chris Hoiles (25), Roberto Alomar (22) and B.J. Surhoff (21). Home run totals are down compared to those days, as the juiced ball and athlete seems to be a thing of the past. Featherweight types like Brady Anderson aren't likely to tattoo 50 balls over the fence anymore, either. But while the Angels won't come close to surpassing the Orioles' 257 in 1996, they can certainly match their other feat by boasting seven players with twenty home runs or more in the lineup. It is not out of the realm of possibility and it's what I'm going to focus on here in this column.

First off, let's look at what could be the Angels opening day lineup when they take the field against the Oakland A's on April 6.

I see: Chone Figgins in left field and leading off; Erick Aybar at shortstop hitting second; Vladimir Guerrero, getting a good share of time at DH when he's not in right field, batting third; Kendry Morales at first base and cleaning up; Howie Kendrick at second base, hitting fifth; Michael Napoli behind the dish and in the sixth spot in the lineup; Torii Hunter in center field, hitting seventh; Juan Rivera in right field and hitting eighth; while former top prospect, the power hitting Brandon Wood mans the hot corner and bats ninth. The Angels have indicated they're going to give Wood every chance in spring training to make the ball club and if it happens, most likely at third base, we'll see Figgins move to left field.

Now that we have a lineup in order, or at least the players that will start out of the gate, I'm going to break down the Seven Sluggers of Anaheim and show that this feat is attainable — and prove that I'm not on drugs or writing while intoxicated. We'll exclude light-hitting speedsters Figgins and Aybar, who I believe will hit at the top of the lineup in '09, as they won't provide double digit numbers in home runs.

Vladimir Guerrero: With 11 straight seasons of 25 or more home runs, Vlad is a shoe in for at least 25, if not a lot more coming off knee surgery. Vlad has said he feels great and is ready for the 2009 season. We think he's going to have a big one with the Angels in the last year of the contract he signed in 2004.

Kendry Morales: Personally, I like Morales in the cleanup spot, but Mike Scioscia is the guy who makes up the lineup card before each game. Morales thrives in clutch situations, He hit .438 with RISP in 2008 (in the minors), clubbing 12 doubles and hitting seven home runs in 96 at-bats in which runners were in scoring position. He hit .316 with two walk-offs when it was "close and late" in the game. No matter where Morales hits, he's sure to provide some power this year for the Halos. Morales has power from both sides of the plate. He hit 16 home runs in the minors in 2008, in just 338 at-bats. Morales showcased that power this winter in the Dominican League when he hit eight home runs (in the Dominican regular season) in just 26 games. There is no doubt in my mind that Morales will be one of seven that clubs at least 20 home runs for the Halos in 2009 given a full season of at bats.

Howie Kendrick: While Kendrick has just 12 home runs in 945 Major League at-bats, scouts believe his bat is quick enough to generate power in the 15-20 range with a full season of play. Kendrick's problem thus far in the big leagues is that he's yet to put together a full campaign of more than 340 at-bats, failing to avoid the injury bug. Kendrick isn't a slap hitter, either. Those doubles he hits to the wall and off it will eventually turn into more home runs. In 469 at-bats between High-A and Double-A ball in 2005, Kendrick hit 17 home runs. In 290 at-bats in Triple-A (2006), Kendrick smashed 13 home runs, adding 4 more after getting a promotion with the big league club that same year, to total 17 home runs in 500-plus at-bats.

If Kendrick is healthy this season and he shows more selectiveness at the plate, hitting 20 home runs would not be out of the realm of possibility.

Michael Napoli: Napoli has always had light tower power, hitting 29 home runs in 2004 and 31 home runs in 2005 while in the minors. Last season, in just 227 at-bats, Napoli reached the 20 plateau for home runs, sharing starts with Jeff Mathis and seeing some time on the DL. Napoli showed the Red Sox and all who watched the '08 ALDS what kind of power he has, launching two monstrous home runs over the green monster against Red Sox starter Josh Beckett. Napoli also ended the season batting .453 with an eye-popping 1.414 OPS over the final month of the season. Rather than riding the pine when he needs to rest his knees this season, I believe Scioscia will get Napoli's bat in the lineup at DH to provide more power in the lineup, possibly giving him a shot at 30 home runs if he gets at least 400-plus plate appearances.

Torii Hunter: With the exception of his 2005 injury-riddled season that cost him 200 or so at-bats, Hunter has hit at least 20 or more home runs since 2001, smashing 21 last season. The most home runs Hunter has hit was 31 in 2006. I believe Hunter will flourish by moving down in the lineup, hitting behind players that can hit for average in Guerrero, Morales and Kendrick while Napoli will take a walk if he's not given something he can drive at the plate. This should give Hunter some RBI chances down in the order and less pressure to perform in the middle of the lineup. Hunter should have another 20-plus home run season regardless.

Juan Rivera: All Juan Rivera needs is a full season of at-bats to show that he can be a productive slugger at the Major League level. While injuries and platoons have mostly kept Rivera from putting up big numbers, in 2006 he showed why he was the Yankees' No.1 prospect nearly a decade ago, when he hit over .300 with 23 home runs in just 448 at-bats. There is no doubt in my mind why Garret Anderson isn't coming back for the 2009 season — two words: Juan Rivera! Rivera will not be platooned and should see time in left field, right field and at DH. If he stays healthy for the entire 2009 campaign, Rivera should provide some power near the bottom of the lineup.

Brandon Wood: The Angels' first-round pick in the 2003 draft was none other than high school senior Brandon Wood from Horizon High School in Phoenix, Ariz. Wood will celebrate his 24th birthday on March 2, not too far from where he grew up in Scottsdale. Wood will be engaged in an all-out effort to convince the Angels' powers-that-be that he is ready for his first full season in the majors as a slugging third baseman or perhaps even as a shortstop.

While Wood hit just .200 with the big league club in 150 at-bats and often struggled to make contact (147 strikeouts in 2008), he hit more over the fence than anyone in the organization, launching 31 dingers in Triple-A and another five with the Angels. The .970 OPS he put up in the minors is reason enough to be excited after Wood was shuffled between Salt Lake and Anaheim all season, never getting consistent at-bats to get in any kind of a groove while with the big league club.

Wood got an opportunity for more sustained at-bats last September with injuries to shortstops Aybar and Maicer Izturis and he made the most of it, batting .256 with four homers and 11 RBI in 86 trips to the plate. Wood should be given the opportunity to play the entire season in the big leagues and if he impresses in spring training, it'll happen. Look for Wood to hit in the .240-.260 range, strike out 120-150 times, but provide at least 20 home runs for the Halos if given a full season of at-bats for the Angels.

As a side note: Youngsters like Sean Rodriguez, Matt Brown and Freddie Sandoval, should all of them make the club out of spring training, can similarly provide some pop off the bench, giving the Angels an even more power-packed roster going into the 2009 season.

Conclusion: Angels fans want an Adam Dunn or Bobby Abreu, and it certainly wouldn't hurt to sign one of those players, both of whom can provide some power and get on base. But when you consider the Angels need to keep Figgins to lead off and get Brandon Wood in the lineup, combined with leaving the DH spot open for Guerrero and Napoli and to rest other regulars throughout the season, I doubt such a free agent signing is going to happen.

The 2009 Angels will likely never be mentioned in the same breath as the 1927 Yankees or a lineup that reflects a "Murderers Row" of sluggers. The 2009 Angels probably won't mirror the 1996 Orioles, either, when they totaled 257 home runs. But the Angels will boast a solid pitching staff and knock some balls out of the park on their way to claiming yet another AL West Championship and hopefully, like the '27 Yankees, sweep the National League representative in the 2009 World Series.
Love to hear what you think!

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