Sunday, March 14, 2010

By David Saltzer - Senior Columnist

After two weeks of Spring Training (with most of the games finally being on TV—a first for Angels’ baseball), it’s been long enough for the fans to see how the team may perform over the 2010 season. After two weeks of play, there appears to be many questions about how the Angels will fare in 2010. Here below are the 5 Key Questions that need to be answered over the remainder of the Spring Season.

Question #1: How is Brandon Wood’s bat?
After years of being our top prospect, it’s now or never for Brandon Wood. He’s out of options and 3B is finally open. There are only two things that could prevent him from being a regular major leaguer: How he hits and how often Mike Scioscia puts him in the lineup. With Scioscia’s statements that he wants to get Izturis into the lineup as a leadoff candidate, fans are left to wonder how much playing time Brandon Wood will get at the Major League level.

Defensively, Brandon Wood looks very sound. He has good range for the position and a strong arm. He’s making the plays and looks like he should develop into an above average defender. While his range isn’t as great as Izturis’, his arm is stronger. Overall, Brandon Wood appears to be the better defender at 3B.

Offensively, there’s no doubt that Wood still needs to make an adjustment to the Major Leagues. While he’s walking more and appears a bit more relaxed and patient at the plate, he has struck 6 times in 25 ABs. The only way he’s going to make that adjustment is if he gets regular at-bats and is consistently in the lineup.

The challenge for getting Wood into the lineup regularly, though, may be the schedule in 2010. While Scioscia preaches a philosophy of one game at a time (OGAAT), the first month of the season may prove to be quite a nemesis for Scioscia’s philosophy. In the first month of the season, the Angels will play the Yankees twice, an away series in Toronto (a notoriously difficult place for the Angels to win games), Minnesota, Detroit and Cleveland. With all of those teams capable of piling up early wins against the Angels, how long will Scioscia let Wood struggle (if he does struggle) without reverting to the more polished hitter in Izturis?

So far, Scioscia has given every indication that he wants Wood in the lineup. Brandon leads the club in ABs for the Spring (with 25) and has not looked overmatched at the plate. He’s continuing to make adjustments and making a much better pitch selection. The more he plays now during the Spring, the better he’ll be over the course of the season. Let’s hope that this process continues and that Brandon Wood is the regular starting 3B for the year.

Question #2: Will Hideki Matsui play in the outfield?

When Hideki Matsui signed with the Angels, one of the reasons he gave for signing with the team was the opportunity to play in the outfield. Although he played exclusively as a DH last year, Mike Scioscia said that he would be willing to entertain the idea of playing Matsui in the outfield so that he can rest some of his other players.

When I saw Matsui during the Fanfest weekend, he was noticeably limping on his left knee. While it didn’t affect him in the batter’s box or when running at full speed on the bases, it did appear that it would affect him in terms of getting jumps on balls in the outfield. If his knee locks up or acts up in the field during cold weather, he could be lost for a month or more. So, at this point, Matsui does not look capable of playing in the outfield.

More importantly, though, we need Matsui as a left-handed middle of the order bat. We signed him to replace Vlad’s offense, and we need him to produce at that high caliber level. It would be better to not play him for 20 games over the course of this season so that Scioscia can rest some other players than to put him in the outfield and risk having him get injured and lose him 30+ games. We had that happen last year with Vlad when he took the field to assuage his pride. Although we were lucky that our offense held up without Vlad last year, we shouldn’t risk another situation like that.

While Scioscia will need to balance Matsui’s desire to play in the OF, the goal for the Angels should be to get Matsui to play in 140 games. If he does, he should post 25+ HRs and 90+ RBIs. With numbers like that, he’d be well worth the investment and do a lot towards helping us win another AL West banner. If achieving those numbers means not seeing Matsui in the field, or having to play some games without him while other guys rest, I’m all for it. Let’s hope that we don’t see Matsui in the OF, and instead, we see more of him circling the bases.

Question #3: Mathis or Napoli?
What’s an set of questions without the eternal debate: Mathis or Napoli? Last year in the post season, Mathis was a hero. Out of nowhere, he hit an amazing 533 with 5 doubles and played a pivotal role in our post season run.

At the same time, in last year’s post season, it became clear as day why Mike Scioscia said that Mathis was defensively better than Napoli. While wearing a microphone during a game, the home plate umpire said that he couldn’t see the pitches when Napoli was catching. The umpire asked Napoli to crouch lower to give him a better view.

Last year was last year, and this year is this year. Coming into camp, Napoli was noticeably thinner. While he says he weighs the same amount as last year, that may be because he has put on muscle mass and redistributed his weight (for the record, I still think he weighs less than he did at the end of last season). The increased strength has shown so far this Spring. As of the writing of this article, Napoli has hit 4 HRs (leading the Cactus League) and 2 doubles in 17 ABs. That’s tremendous power! At the same time, Mathis has struggled offensively, hitting a paltry 143 so far.

With the signing of Matsui, the Angels won’t have the luxury of keeping Napoli in the lineup as the DH like they did last year (especially when Vlad injured himself in the outfield). So, that means that if the Angels want an improved offense, they will need to play Napoli more as the starting catcher. Hopefully, with a slimmed down figure, Napoli will be better able to crouch without blocking the umpire’s view of the pitches. And, with a slimmed down figure, he should be better able to get out of the crouch to throw would-be base stealers out.

If that’s the case, Scioscia should recognize the better offensive potential from Napoli and give him about 65% of the starts behind the plate while keeping Mathis in more of a backup role.

Question #4: What’s with the win-loss record so far?
As of the time of this writing, the Angels have a Cactus League record of 2-7-2. That’s ugly. The team hasn’t played solid defense (18 errors in 11 games), and the pitching has given up 21 more runs than it has scored. Is it time to panic?

The long and the short answer is that no, it’s not time to panic. First off, Spring Training doesn’t count, so there’s no need to get worried about the record to date. The players are getting used to working with each other and some players are working on new pitches or skills. There has been some noticeable rust, but, it appears that it is starting to get kicked loose as the Spring wears on.

More importantly, though, looking at when and how the games are being lost reveals that many of the errors and many of the runs being given up are being done so by players who won’t open the season with the parent club. Since the Angels don’t have many position battles this Spring, they are allowing many more of their minor leaguers to play. In many cases, seeing who Scioscia is playing and how long he is letting them play is a good idea of whom he is watching for the future of the organization. That could be more important than watching how they fare against players who have many more years of experience and against higher levels of competition.

There’s no doubt that this Spring Training record has not gotten off to the Angels’ liking. Over the past 6 years, the Angels have posted a combined 124-67-8 record (.623 win percentage), and led the Cactus League 3 times (and in a 2008 they had the highest win percentage although they did not lead the league in the W-L record). So, for newer fans, this year’s win-loss record is a bit of an aberration. But, this year is a bit of a transitional year, and the Angels organization is trying to determine what talent is has in the minor leagues and how that talent will develop over the next few years.

What fans need to focus upon is how the Angels play in the last 2 weeks of Spring Training. At that point, Scioscia will be playing most of the regulars for the majority of the game (if not the entirety of it). That will be much more indicative of how the team will perform over the season. At that point, I doubt that they will be losing as many games or playing as poorly as they have so far.

Question #5: What are the prospects showing?

With Scioscia giving a lot of time to the prospects, how have they been faring? Here’s a rundown on some of the more familiar names for those who read the Top Prospect lists.

Peter Bourjos
Peter’s speed is there. He has stolen 5 bases so far and gotten a bunt hit. His defensive range is very impressive. Often he catches balls standing up that other players would not reach or would have to dive to catch. Offensively, Peter hasn’t shown much power, although he is capable of gap doubles/triples and up to 10 HRs at the Major League level. And, at the plate, he has been a bit inconsistent in his pitch recognition. While he has walked twice so far, he has also been fooled by outside breaking pitches, especially late in the count. There’s no doubt that Bourjos can be a future leadoff hitter for the Angels. He just needs to spend 2010 continuing to refine his skills at the plate and on the base-paths.

Hank Conger
With Mike Napoli, Jeff Mathis and Bobby Wilson ahead of him, Hank Conger knew coming into camp that he wasn’t going to win a spot on the parent club’s roster. That’s okay. He needs to spend another year refining his defensive skills. Offensively, though, Conger has looked good. He’s had 2 hits in 5 ABs with a double. He hasn’t looked overmatched and looks like he could become a good Major League catcher in 2011. Conger will get his chance, but 2010 is more about earning the respect of Scioscia and learning what he has to teach about being a good catcher. With that goal in mind, Conger appears to be succeeding.

Terry Evans

At 27, Terry Evans needs to turn things on in order to win a spot on the Major League roster. There is an open backup OF spot, and Evans is a dark horse candidate to win it. He can play all 3 OF spots and can steal a base or hit for some power. He does not excel in any one area, but is solid in several. He is battling journeyman Michael Ryan for a final backup spot, and right now the race appears to be fairly close with Ryan in the lead.

Trevor Reckling
Trevor has shown some mixed results. At times he’s shown some great potential, with 4 Ks in 5 IPs. At other times, though, he’s shown some wildness with 3 BBs in the same 5 innings. Basically, he’s shown that he’s 20 years old and facing Major Leaguers and still needs some seasoning. But, that shouldn’t be taken as a criticism. He is still far ahead of the curve and still projects to be something special.

Mark Trumbo
Mark has been doing a lot of work at 1B and has even gotten into 7 games playing 1B. Although Abe Flores told us last year that the OF experiment will continue with Trumbo in 2010, so far, we haven’t seen it in camp. That makes sense. Trumbo will most likely be the top 1B in the Angels’ minor league system this year. He needs to be ready in the event that anything happens on the parent club. Right now, he needs to be ready to provide depth. In that regard, Trumbo has hit the ball with some power and has only struck out 1 time in 12 ABs. What I liked most about him when I saw him during pre-game drills was his enthusiasm and desire to refine his skills. When he muffed a play, he immediately was back at the bag ready to redo the play and to get it right. Look for the OF experiment to continue as he plays at Triple-A Salt Lake.
Love to hear what you think!


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