Question No. 1: Can the Angels land a leadoff guy?

January, 13, 2011
1/13/11
11:18
AM PT
Each week leading up to spring training, Mark Saxon breaks down a big question facing the Angels heading into camp.

By now, Mike Scioscia knows that SABR isn't a curved sword or part of a prehistoric cat's repertoire, but he's not exactly a card-carrying member of the baseball research society.


Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Mike Scioscia sees the need for on-base percentage.


Even Scioscia has zeroed in very quickly on the one number that absolutely had to be addressed this offseason.

"I think we definitely need on-base percentage; that's very clear," Scioscia said at the winter meetings. "Independent of Kendry [Morales] coming back, we need some guys that are going to get on base and make some things happen."

For endless stretches of 2010, it seemed as if nothing was happening at Angel Stadium when the Angels were at-bat. The primary culprit was a stubborn inability to locate first base. The Angels finished 27th in baseball in on-base percentage, and their leadoff hitters, which seemed like an endless carousel of candidates, were 17th-best.

The manager said it had to change, but so far nothing has. The Angels watched in astonishment as the Boston Red Sox swooped in and signed Carl Crawford to a stunning seven-year, $142 million contract, leaving the Angels flat-footed in their pursuit of speed. Crawford wouldn't have batted leadoff most likely, but he would have injected enough dynamism into the table-setting part of the lineup that finding a leadoff guy would have been an elective.

Now, the Angels are desperately trying to sift through two palatable free-agent options, both of whom could be entering the decline phases of their careers. Should they pick Johnny Damon or Scott Podsednik?

If they don't sign one of those guys, they're reliant on a trio of frightening in-house candidates: Peter Bourjos, who barely looked capable of holding down the No. 9 spot last year; Erick Aybar, who seems terrified of taking more than two pitches; and Bobby Abreu, who might be the most appealing option though he turns 37 years old in March. Abreu's ideal lineup spot is No. 2, Aybar's is No. 9 and Bourjos' might be as the pinch runner.

In other words, it seems like a prudent time to engage the agents for Damon and Podsednik in serious dialog, but keep this in mind: The Angels' best prospect -- and maybe the best prospect in baseball -- is a leadoff hitter. Mike Trout is only 19, but he figures to start next season at Double-A Arkansas, and Scioscia has already said he expects Trout to be "depth" for the big league team at some point next year.

Make no mistake, he's coming. It's only a matter of when.

So, the Angels' interest level in one of those free agents may not stretch more than one season, making Damon the more likely choice. Podsednik is two years younger and coming off a better season and likely is seeking at least a two-year deal.

Here's the rub: Damon's agent is Scott Boras, a man the Angels have worked with only grudgingly since they felt jilted in the Mark Teixeira talks two winters ago. So, it could be a coin flip -- Podsednik or Damon. the Angels also could do what they've done the rest of this winter: sit back.

That would be a bad move, or rather, a bad lack of a move.

Let's examine in more detail the cases for Damon and Podsednik.



Johnny Damon brings more than his baseball skills. He brings star appeal. The Angels weren't only boring on the bases last year, they were just boring. Damon once was a quiet family man in Kansas City before he went to Oakland. Then, he signed a massive deal with the Boston Red Sox and became a celebrity. He let his hair and beard grow and found an identity as a likeable rogue.

Signing Damon would certainly sell more tickets than getting Podsednik, but would it be a bad baseball move? Damon is a speed guy who has stolen 23 bases the past two seasons and played 97 games at designated hitter last year. His home runs declined from 24 in 2009, when he swatted many of them into the short porch at Yankee Stadium, to eight last season at spacious Comerica Park.

Still, Damon has a knack for doing what nobody other than Abreu does for the Angels: He works pitchers and gets on base. His .355 on-base percentage last year matched his career norm.

Podsednik would be the safer baseball move. He'll be 35 on opening day and is coming off a stronger 2010 season (split between Kansas City and the Dodgers). Neither player is a great outfielder, but Podsednik's throwing arm isn't quite as laughable as Damon's.

When Damon first returned to Kansas City after the trade that sent him to Oakland, fans taunted him with the chant, "Throws like a girl." Damon's throwing hasn't gotten any better with age. Angels pitchers would watch a lot of singles turn into doubles on balls hit to left.

But Podsednik has never been a great player, and in most phases of the game he's barely average. He's been invited to one All-Star game and has a career on-base percentage of .340 (last year's league average was .325). He's not a player who likes to take pitches or work deep counts. Sounds like the Angels' kind of guy.

There you have it. It's a smorgasbord of imperfect choices, but the Angels would be best served by coming to the table.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Howie Kendrick
BA HR RBI R
.292 7 72 85
OTHER LEADERS
HRM. Trout 35
RBIM. Trout 109
RM. Trout 112
OPSM. Trout .951
WJ. Weaver 18
ERAG. Richards 2.61
SOG. Richards 164