Monday, May 11, 2009

By Coral Marshall - Columnist

Angels fans recently received good news; not just that the club had finally reached the .500 mark, but that starters John Lackey and Ervin Santana are making great progress in their rehabilitation starts and that Vladimir Guerrero has been cleared to take swings. With all this good news, it seems odd that fans should have any apprehension, but the question on the minds of many is what will happen when these guys come back, and more pointedly, what will happen behind the plate when they come back?

As fans know, Mike Scioscia has committed himself to the ways of Casey Stengel in the platoon system between Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis he has implemented at the catching position.

While it has long been said that Mathis is the better defensive catcher, Napoli has been showing off his strength with the bat, clubbing five home runs in 70 at-bats through Friday's victory over the Kansas City Royals.

With Vladdy gone, Scioscia has been able to keep Mathis in the game defensively while having Napoli DH, but what happens when Guerrero comes back?

Clearly, Napoli's bat is too valuable to disregard, but the Angels' outfield has begun to step up, and with Bobby Abreu, Gary Mathews Jr. and Torii Hunter all hitting, and all realizing that playing time could be on the line once Guerrero comes back, there is a strong question of what to do. With only three outfield positions, a catching position and a designated hitter's spot in the lineup, the basic math doesn't add up when there are more than six deserving guys in question (this doesn't even include Juan Rivera).

On certain days it seems likely that Napoli will catch despite Mathis' defensive prowess. Lackey, for example, seems much calmer when Napoli is behind the plate, which is absolutely key when it comes to such an emotional pitcher.

But what about the days when Lackey doesn't pitch? Napoli's bat is too hot to have him sit on the bench, but Vlad is paid way too much (and far too reliable) to not be in the lineup.

Another issue, which Rex Hudler brought up after Friday night's game, regarding batting both catchers in the lineup at once is the risk of injury. If Napoli and Mathis were to sustain an injury at the same time, the Angels' backup catcher is Robb Quinlan, who Angels' fans are more familiar seeing at first base than behind the plate. While the DH position does not seem to produce many injuries, there is a reason teams carry more than one catcher at a time — it is an exhausting and injury-prone position that not everyone can play, and more importantly very few can play well.

It seems likely that despite all of this Napoli will stay in the lineup, more than likely at the DH spot, as before Friday's game he was batting .727 as the designated hitter. Overall, Napoli's statistics are impressive; he is finally coming into his own, sporting a 1.027 slugging pct. which is among the AL's best and the team-leading on-base percentage at .435 which is good for 4th in the AL. In the game of baseball, the numbers simply don't lie and Napoli's bat is a necessity if the Angels want to make it to the top of their division.

At the end of the day, Napoli is proving himself in an over crowded organization with not enough spots in the lineup for the number of quality players on the roster, leaving fans to ask the necessary question of which outfielder will be ousted when Guerrero comes back? With Matthews Jr. having plated 12 RBI (tied with Abreu and beating out Rivera by four) that decision looks even more difficult than it did before the season.
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