Sunday, November 13, 2011

By Jonathan Northrop - Columnist

This is the fourth part in a seven-part series. The previous three parts can be found here:
There's No Glausing Over It: A Troublesome Recent Past
As I mentioned in Part One, recent history for the Angels has been particularly problematic at catcher and third base. Both positions carry, for different reasons, a patina of infamy. At catcher you have the Saga of Mathis and Napoli, at third base you have a position that has been unstable for nearly a decade. A decade, you say? Wasn't Troy Glaus an Angel through 2004?

Let's dial back to the end of the 20th century. Troy Glaus was part of a very promising generation of young third basemen that included Scott Rolen as the elder statesman (the NL Rookie of the Year in 1997), followed by Eric Chavez, Fernando Tatis, Adrian Beltre, and Aramis Ramirez--all making their debuts in 1997 or 1998. Like many of those players, greatness was expected of Glaus who, after leading the AL with 47 home runs and with an OPS of 1.008 (and an 8.3 WAR) in 2000, looked like a superstar in the making--all at the relatively tender age of 23. Granted, it was the height of the "Roidball" era and Glaus was later indicated as a user, but that kind of offensive production was nothing to sneeze at. When Glaus' numbers fell to 41 HR/.898 OPS in 2001 Angels fans thought it was a slight down-turn but weren't too worried. But then in 2002, his numbers dropped further to 30 HR/.805 OPS and it looked like Glaus wasn't going to be a superstar after all, merely a star or borderline star. But a World Series MVP performance eternally ingratiated fans to Glaus and he was expected to man the hot corner for the next decade.

2002 was the last year that Glaus played a full season for the Angels. In 2003 and 2004 he totalled 149 games and then, after the 2004 season, he was released to the waters of free agency. Why was he, just 27 years old, let go of? The Angels had a top prospect by the name of Dallas McPherson who had, in 135 games in AA and AAA in 2004, hit an astounding .317/.387/.670 with 90 extra base hits, including 40 HR. The Angels felt confident that McPherson would more than fill in for the injury-prone Glaus, and at a less expensive cost.

It just wasn't in the cards. McPherson battled injury for the next two years, playing 61 games in 2005 and then 40 in 2006. During those two years he would follow a pattern of starting slow, getting hot and then sustaining an injury. Then, after rehabbing, he'd come back and start the cycle all over again. Finally, after missing all of 2007 to injury, the Angels released him after the season. Glaus, meanwhile, re-established himself, hitting 75 HR in 2005 and 2006, the two years that McPherson struggled to stay healthy enough to remain in the lineup. Glaus hit another 20 HR in 2007, 27 in 2008, then missed most of 2009 and struggled in 2010 before retiring with 320 HR and a .254/.358/.489 line - a very nice career, although not quite what had been hoped for after his 2000 career year.

The Angels attained stability at the corner for a few years in 2007 to 2009 when Chone Figgins, previously a super utility player, took over, sharing duties with Maicer Izturis in the first couple years. By the time that Chone was the full-time third baseman during his career year in 2009, he was an excellent defensive player. But the Angels decided to let him go after the season because they hoped that another (former) top prospect, Brandon Wood, would take over. Despite the fact that some analysts panned the Angels for letting Figgins go to division rival Seattle, the decision turned out to be a wise one as Chone completely fell apart in Seattle and is now a bench player (Angels fans may enjoy the irony that sportswriter Rob Neyer called Figgins a "superstar" after he was signed by--and flopped for--his hometown Mariners).

Which brings us to Brandon Wood. The 23rd pick in the 1st round of the 2003 amateur draft, Wood didn't really breakout as a top prospect until his monumental 2005 season when he hit .321/.381/.667 with 101 extra-base hits, mainly for A+ Rancho Cucamonga at the age of 20. Wood vaulted up the prospect charts and it has been all down hill for him since. His numbers were still good, but more modest, in AA the following year, when he hit .276/.355/.552 with 71 extra base hits. His numbers dropped further in AAA the following year and he spend the better part of three years--2007-09--in AAA, waiting for his chance to break into the lineup. At first, as a shortstop, he was competing with Erick Aybar, but Scioscia seemed to prefer the slicker-fielding Aybar who won the starting job in 2008, while Wood struggled in a month and a half long stint in the majors. Wood spent most of 2009 back in AAA and then got another chance in 2010 after Figgins departed, but was an absolute flop, hitting .146/.174/.208 in 243 PA, one of the worst performances with that many appearances in major league history. Just six games into the 2011 season and Wood was selected off waivers by the Pittsburgh Pirates. In Pittsburgh he wasn't quite as terrible but still managed only a .220/.277/.347 line.

Collapse-O in 2011? Not Quite
After Wood's terrible performance in 2010, the Angels were once again shopping for a third baseman. Adrian Beltre seemed like a natural fit: He wanted to be an Angel and the Angels needed a third baseman, and Beltre was coming off one of his best seasons, after hitting .321/.365/.553 with 28 HR and 102 RBI for the Red Sox. Critics cited his previous mediocre performances in Seattle, where he hit .266/.317/.442 over five seasons. Supporters of a Beltre contract countered with Beltre's superior hitting outside of Safeco Field, well-known as a difficult place for righthanders to hit.

The Rangers surprisingly swooped in with a 5-year, $80 million contract (with a $16 million 6th year vesting option), ending the Angels' hope of stability at the hot corner. This loss, coupled with the Tony Reagins' inability to sign other major free agent targets (notably Carl Crawford) led to the ill-fated Vernon Wells trade in January of 2011, but we'll save that for our next installation.

Despite the disappointment of Beltre, in 2011 the Angels attained some semblance of stability as Alberto Callaspo put together a solid performance, hitting .288 with a .366 OBP and solid defense.

2012 and Beyond
Callaspo had a good year but is generally viewed as the back-up plan in 2011. Back-up to what? There are three options for the Angels next year, four including Callaspo. First of all, Mark Trumbo is supposed to work at third base once his foot is fully healed, probably in February. Yet Scioscia is likely to only use him as a part-time player; he was quoted as saying that he'd like to see Trumbo as an option at third, perhaps playing about 60 games. In other words, the Trumbo option would be a platoon with, presumably, Callaspo and Maicer Izturis.

Another option would be a free agent signing. Yet the only big name available is Aramis Ramirez who, despite still having a strong bat (.306/.361/.510, with 26 HR in 2011) is going to be 34 and is a terrible defender.

The third option, and a source for endless speculation by Angels fans, is a trade for a star like David Wright, whom the Mets are supposedly shopping, or even Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman is probably the second best third base commodity in baseball after Evan Longoria and signed to a relatively club friendly $26 million over the next two years, so it is uncertain why the Nationals would trade him other than the fact that they have top prospect Anthony Rendon in the wings (although likely still at least a couple years away). David Wright is a more likely acquisition, but he hasn't been a superstar since 2008 when he had a 7.1 WAR; in the three years since then he has totaled only 9.5 WAR, at least partially due to injury but also a steep decline in his defense and a smaller dip in his offensive numbers. The Mets want a young center fielder so it is likely that the Angels would have to give up Peter Bourjos for him, an idea that Fangraphs' Dave Cameron wrote an article discouraging. Yet if the Angels could get Wright for a package of, say, Jeremy Moore, Tyler Chatwood, and another prospect, then it might be worth the cost.

On the farm, Luis Jimenez is a solid prospect and could see the majors as soon as next year. He generated interest after hitting .331/.361/.630 for Orem in 2008 at age 20 but then missed all of 2009. He came back to hit .288/.326/.506 in A and A+ ball in 2010, and then .290/.335/.486 last year in AA. Jimenez will be 24 next year in AAA Salt Lake and could help the Angels in the second half. He projects as an average, or slightly above, major league third baseman, maybe hitting something like .270/.320/.460 with 15-20 HR and average to above average defense. Those aren't spectacular numbers but the Angels would be happy to have them.

Another possibility, as mentioned in the last installment, is Ryan Mount, who is a second baseman but has played some third in the minors. Mount's biggest problem is staying healthy; when he's healthy he can hit.

2010 first-round draft pick Kaleb Cowart hasn't taken the minors by storm but has been holding his own. Last year he hit .283/.345/.420 in Orem and will play his first full season next year at low-A Cedar Rapids. Some question Cowart's defense at third; he should be a good hitter but probably not enough to be a star at first base or a corner outfield position; in other words, his road to stardom must include improved third base defense.

It is unclear what the Angels plan to do at third base in 2012. Cowart is the future, but that's a future that won't begin until 2014 at the earliest, probably 2015. That means that the Angels have 2-3 years before Cowart is ready. If they don't make a trade or sign a free agent, we'll probably see a platoon of Callaspo, Izturis, and maybe Trumbo, with Luis Jimenez and even Ryan Mount possibly entering the picture in the second half. Angels fans, it might be another year of patience at the hot corner.
Love to hear what you think!

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