Saturday, May 14, 2011

By Jonathan Northrop - Columnist

By now we have all heard the news: Kendrys Morales will miss yet another season due to a second surgery on his ankle. This latest set-back got me thinking: What is up with the first base position for the Angels? In this article we’ll take a look at the position, going back from the present to the distant, ancient past, and then looking forward to the future.

Starting with Kendrys, he broke out in 2009 in a big way, having perhaps the best season by an Angels first baseman ever, hitting .306/.355/.569 with 34 HR and 108 RBI. The next year he broke his ankle in a fluke accident and is missing the better part of two years. Filling in him for him have been Mike Napoli and Mark Trumbo -- both adequate, both unspectacular.

Before Kendrys, the Angels had Rent-a-Tex for a third of a season. Mark Teixeira absolutely raked but then “surprised” everyone (except his wife) by signing with the Yankees. Who can blame him, though? As the saying goes, if momma ain’t happy, no one’s happy. 

Going back further we came to Casey Kotchman, once a top prospect who warranted comparisons to Rafael Palmeiro, Todd Helton, and Will Clark, and then was blocked by Darin Erstad and, when he finally got a chance in 2006, lost the year to mono. He showed promise in 2007 and it looked like he was going to be the long-term solution, but he regressed in 2008 and was sent packing for Teixeira.

Before Casey, you have Darin Erstad, who was one of the best defensive center fielders in major league history but for whatever reason Scioscia insisted on putting him at 1B for a significant portion of his career. Erstad was an excellent defensive first baseman but his bat was well below average for the position.

And then you go back to Scott Spiezio who, despite some post-season heroics in 2002, was the definition of mediocrity for a first baseman.

Which brings us to the turn of the 20th century and the infamous Mo Vaughn, who was coming off a .337 BA and 40 HR in Boston and signed a six-year, $80 million contract with the Angels, the highest in baseball at the time (this was just before the jump to $20 million a year contracts). He started his Angels career by tripping down the steps of the visitor’s dugout on his first play of the first game, and missed the first few weeks of 1999. He then went on to hit decently for a couple years, although well below his Boston numbers, producing a .276/.362/.503 line with 69 HR in 300 games as an Angel, albeit during the height of the offensive era (thus producing only a 117 OPS+). Vaughn then missed the entire 2001 season to injury and was traded in the offseason for Kevin Appier.

Before Vaughn more Erstad, and then before that you have JT Snow, who was yet another disappointing former-top prospect, acquired from the Yankees via trade for Jim Abbott. For those of us old enough to remember, he started his rookie year (1993) with a splash, hitting 343/.389/.687 with 6 HR through April, and then his number dropped precipitiously from there, finishing the year at .241/.328/.408 and 16 HR. He was solid in the ill-fated 1995 season, but had a poor 1996 and signed with San Francisco, where he was a better player and had a pretty decent career.

Before Snow you have Lee Stevens, the guy who was supposed to make us forget Wally World. Stevens never caught on as an Angel and then played in Japan for a few years, returning to have a decent career with the Rangers and Expos in the late 90s and early 00s.

1986 to 1991 were the reign of Wally Joyner, who started strong but never got better than he was in his first couple years. Joyner has played more games at first base than any other Angel – 879 games – but in hindsight he was never really a great player, no more or less than a good one with one or two very good seasons.

Before Wally World, you have the twilight of Rod Carew's career. Some good years—he hit .314/.393/.392 in 834 games as an Angel, but not the Gwynn-esque Carew of the Twins (.334/.393/.448 in 1635 games). 

Before Carew you go back before my memory, but looking at Baseball Reference's positional chart you have thirteen different players accruing the most games at first base over the course of the Angels' first eighteen years.

So the Curse of First. The Angels have never had a superstar play the position, at least not while that player was still a superstar. The Angels haven’t even really had consistent star-caliber performance at first for more than a year or two on end. The four best players to play first for the Angels--Carew, Joyner, Vaughn, and Morales--all either had the best parts of their careers elsewhere (Carew, Vaughn), weren't as good as we had hoped they would be (Joyner, Vaughn), or had their careers derailed by injury (Morales, Vaughn).

And you know what? There's no end in sight. Even if Morales comes back, he'll have missed perhaps the two prime years of his career (age 27 and 28) and may never be close to the player he was in 2009. Mark Trumbo could be decent but looks like his maximum potential is more in the .270/.330/.500 range, which isn't much beyond average for the position. The Angels have no strong first base prospects coming up; perhaps they'll convert Randal Grichuk.

Now obviously the Joey Votto's and Albert Pujols' and Miguel Cabrera's of the world don't grow on trees. But the Angels only seem to draft toolsy outfielders and middle infielders, and never big bat college hitters. With the major league team and farm system already loaded with toolsy outfielders and athletic middle infielders, it might be time for them to look beyond speed and athleticism to the bat, power, and plate discipline of a draftee. 

It is too soon to give up on Morales or Trumbo, so the Angels have a few years to find a true MOTO first baseman, but I would hope that looking for that true big bat college hitter would be a top priority for them over the next year or two. I’ve always preferred the approach of drafting the best player available rather than for a specific need, especially in the first round, but it might be time for the Angels to focus in a little bit and start drafting the best hitter available and to resist the temptation to pick up yet another arm, or quick-footed outfielder or infielder. 

If you look at the Top 50 Prospects for 2011, of the 50 only six are corner outfielders or first basemen – the positions traditionally manned by big bats. Of the three first basemen, one is Mark Trumbo and already in the major leagues, and the other two are Gabe Jacobo (27) and Brandon Decker (47), neither of whom rate as higher than a fringe prospect. The corner outfielders are Randal Grichuk (12), Ryan Bolden (30), and Andrew Heid (35), although with Bourjos in center, Mike Trout (1) might eventually end up in left field. But Bolden is a classic toolsy outfielder – the type of player who will either be a star in the majors or flame out before he gets to the high minors. Remember Quan Cosby and Norm Hutchins? Didn’t think so. Heid could be a sleeper but has started slow this year, and Grichuk has a great bat but no plate discipline and seems to be earning the dreaded “injury prone” tag.

The point being, the Angels don’t have much in the way of MOTO bats in the farm system, other than Trout and maybe Grichuk. They have plenty of toolsy outfielders and infielders, a whole bucketload of pitchers, but their weakness lies in the big bats. Let’s hope that Draft Day reflects this need.
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