Monday, October 24, 2011

By Jonathan Northrop - Columnist Extraordinaire

This is the second of a seven part series; part one, the introduction and rundown for Catcher can be found here. Look to see new parts published two or three times a week over the next few weeks.

Preamble: A Tradition of Mediocrity
If you take a look at Angels position players throughout the team's 51-year history, there is a noted lack of superstars. Certainly there have been some big names that have played on the Angels--from Reggie Jackson to Rod Carew to Dave Winfield to Eddie Murray--but most have been in the winding down phases of their careers (to long-term fans of the team this was, of course, a defining feature of the team from the late 70s to the early 90s). If we loosely define "superstar" as being a player who is among the ten or twenty best in the game, we can find superstar-caliber performances by Angels players, from Darin Erstad and Troy Glaus in 2000 to Tim Salmon in 1995 to Doug DeCinces in 1982, but the Angels really haven't had any players that have maintained superstar status for multiple years in a row, with the possible exception of Vladimir Guerrero.

First base has been no exception. Superstars aside, the Angels have struggled to find a legitimate "MOTO" (middle of the order) bat at a position traditionally known for big hitters. From 1979 to 1991, the Angels fielded only two regular first basemen, the decline-phase of Rod Carew and their homegrown fan-favorite Wally Joyner; both were good hitters for the Angels, but nothing special for first base. Since Joyner left, the Angels have gone through a panoply of names such as Lee Stevens, JT Snow, Darin Erstad, Mo Vaughn, and Scott Spiezio. Vaughn's tenure with the Angels is particularly infamous as he was signed to what was at the time the most lucrative contract in baseball and only lasted two years before injury and trade.

Recent Past: From Hope to Disappointment to Ouch
As I discussed in the first part of this series, by the early Aughties the Angels had a promising group of potential stars coming up through the minor leagues, including the polished first baseman Casey Kotchman who garnered comparisons from Sean Casey to Todd Helton. Kotchman's arrival in the big leagues was delayed by Mike Scioscia's insistence on playing the veteran Darin Erstad, an even stranger decision because of the fact that Erstad was one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball. In 2004, Scioscia's decision made a certain amount of sense: the Angels had a strong hitting outfield in MVP Vlad Guerrero, Garret Anderson and a career-year from Jose Guillen. But after the surly Guillen was shipped off, the Angels made the mystifying decision to sign the soon-to-be 40-year old Steve Finley to a two-year contract. So it wasn't as much Erstad that was blocking Kotchman as it was Finley.

After Finley bombed in 2005 and was shipped off to San Francisco, the Angels moved Erstad back to CF and finally gave the first base job to Kotchman on Opening Day of 2006. But something wasn't right with Kotchman as he hit .152/.221/.215 in his first and only 29 games that year; his last game of the year was May 8 as he was diagnosed with mononucleosis.

But Kotchman came back strong in 2007 and for the first half of the year looked to be the player that the Angels had hoped he'd be, sitting on a .333/.411/.556 line on June 16 when he went down with an injury for a week and a half. When he came back his numbers plummeted, although he still managed to finish the year with a respectable .296/.372/.467 line. That, coupled with strong defense, gave the Angels a sense of hope for the future.

But it wasn't to be. Kotchman's first half of 2007 form never returned. After hitting a mediocre (for a first baseman) .287/.327/.448 through 87 games in 2008, he was included with Stephen Marek for a rental of Mark Teixeira, who destroyed AL pitching for a third of a year, hitting .358/.449/.632. The Teixeira trade was controversial; talent-for-talent, it was a heist for the Angels, but there was no certainty that Teixeira would sign with the Angels and some still hoped that Kotchman would at least return to 2007 form. After supposed hand-shake promises, Teixeira departed for New York and the Angels were left without their former future first baseman or the star they had traded him for.

But the Angels had an ace in the hole. Kotchman wasn't their only top first base prospect--Cuban Kendrys Morales was waiting in the wings, after three years of destroying AAA pitching (.335 BA in 208 games). In 2009, the 26-year old Morales was even better than advertised or than Kotchman ever was, hitting .306/.355/.569 with 34 HR. Finally, Angels fan thought, we not only had a true MOTO bat to replace the declined and then departed Vlad Guerrero, but we had a long-term solution at first base.

For the first third of 2010, Morales--while not quite as good as in 2009--continued to fulfill that promise but then, on May 29, was sounded the Home Run Heard Around the Angels World: Kendrys Morales broke his ankle during a walkoff grand slam celebration at home plate. He hasn't played a game since (273 missed games and counting).

For the rest of 2010, the Angels patched together a motley crew of first basemen; Mike Napoli got the majority of starts, but fully eleven players played the position.

2011: Year of the Bone
Year of the Bone, you ask? Read on...

As late as spring training in 2011, the Angels hoped that Kendrys Morales would be able to start the year healthy. But it quickly became clear that it wasn't to be and finally, on May 11--three days after the anniversary of his injury--Kendrys went under the knife again to re-repair his broken ankle bone and was sidelined for the rest of the year.

Which brings us to Mark Trumbo, who hit .301/.368/.577 with 36 HR and 122 RBI for AAA Salt Lake in 2010. The name itself just exudes power--one imagines a brassy blast, not a trumpetbut a trumbone. And power Trumbo has...but not much else. The big concern for Trumbo entering the year was--and this should be a familiar refrain for Angels fans--his plate discipline, or lack thereof. In his January 1 2011 Angels Prospects preview, prospect guru John Sickels commented that Trumbo "has tons of power and had a great year, but I've seen him strike out and look bad so often in person that I can't buy into the Salt Lake numbers completely."

Yet Trumbo held his own in his first year as a major leaguer, hitting 29 HR with 87 RBI and a .477 SLG. But he also only hit .254 which, coupled with just 25 walks, produced a poor .291 OBP. His year was ended unceremoniously with a broken foot bone. That said, anyone following the team knows that Trumbo was responsible for many game-winning heroics and will be given the chance in 2012 to improve upon his numbers.

2012 and Beyond - an Uncertain, but Improving, Future
Kendrys Morales should be healthy for 2012, but after missing 273 games no one knows what to expect. With Bobby Abreu no longer a viable outfielder, first base and DH figures to be a platoon of Trumbo, Morales and Abreu. Or does it?

The Angels could take a few different routes here. The above scenario is the cheapest and most likely. But it isn't out of the question that they go after one of the two big bats on the market, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. Yet Pujols--one of the three greatest first basemen in major league history--will probably command a contract in the range of 10 years for $250 million, and Fielder will likely get 6-8 years, $20+ million a year. After being burned or underwhelmed in recent big free agent signings and trades, Arte Moreno might not want to spend that kind of cash. But he must also be tempted by the appeal of bringing in a true Latino superstar in Pujols and might be willing to open his wallet to do so.

If Pujols or Fielder comes to Anaheim, the Angels have an excess of 1B/DH bats. Abreu is probably going to be benched anyways and would likely be reduced further or traded. Trumbo and Morales would have to fight over what was left, depending upon Kendrys' health and performance, and how well Trumbo evolved his on-base skills. This, of course, doesn't even tough the logjam in the outfield that might require Vernon Wells and Torii Hunter to starts some games at DH.

The other interesting possibility is based upon the rumor that Trumbo might work on his third base defense this offseason. If Trumbo can play third base adequately (or, at least, better than Mark Reynolds), it solves a number of problems. But that rumor is largely based upon a comment that Tony Reagins made, and Reagins is now filing paperwork somewhere in the Angels offices.

Down on the Farm
For whatever reason, the Angels have had a strange attraction for light-hitting, but solid-field first basemen. Not only Casey Kotchman, but think back to Robb Quinlan and Nick Gorneault and Chris Pritchett. They currently have a Quinlan Qlone in AAA in Efren Navarro who may prove to be a useful backup and defensive replacement at some point; and then they have a series of fringe prospects in lower levels, including 1B/3B Dillon Baird, who has been declining as he moves up the levels and is not much of a prospect at this point, weak-hitting Casey Haerther whose upside might be as AAA filler, and Brandon Decker, who produced big numbers in his Orem debut in 2010 but trailed off in Cedar Rapids last year.

New scouting director Ric Wilson changed pace with the 2011 draft by picking college star CJ Cron, son of former minor league journeyman and Angel, Chris Cron. Cron the Younger hit very well in his minor league debut, with a .308/.371/.629 line in 34 games in Orem. But we must remember that he was an advanced prospect playing in Rookie ball; a lot of college hitters mash at that level and don't amount to much beyond that (just ask Brandon Decker). But Cron is a legit prospect and a rare Angels draft pick: An advanced hitter who does little other than hit. But hit he does; some scouts called him the best hitter in the 2011 draft not named Anthony Rendon. His upside is as a .290, 30-HR hitter with average or above plate discipline. If all goes well, Cron will burn through the minors in two years or less and be in Anaheim by late 2013 or 2014. But Anaheim is light years from Orem, and it remains to be seen how Cron will handle more advanced pitching. Look to see him start the year in A+ Inland Empire, with a possible promotion to AA later in the year.

While the Angels don't have a clear road forward or a sure-fire star at first base, they have some solid options--Mark Trumbo and Kendrys Morales--and, for the first time in a few years, a legit first base prospect in the minors.
Love to hear what you think!

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