Los Angeles Angels: Hideki Matsui

Each week leading up to spring training, Mark Saxon breaks down a big question facing the Angels heading into camp.

You can still hear the frustration in Arte Moreno’s voice as he looks back at the 2010 Angels, his first losing team in 7 1/2 years as the owner. He recalls an endless series of mental mistakes, balls dropping in front of -- and over -- outfielders. He thinks of shoddy relief work.

And then he comes to this: “We weren’t prepared to replace Morales.”

A year ago, the Angels knew they were going to be thin in some areas, particularly the outfield. They had no idea how thin their lineup was. Then came that fateful May 29 afternoon, when Kendry Morales made an awkward hop onto home plate in celebration of a winning grand slam against the Seattle Mariners, slipped and snapped a bone in his left leg.

For the next four months, nearly everyone in the Angels’ lineup was forced into uncomfortable roles. Hideki Matsui and Bobby Abreu, who thrived as auxiliary hitters in deep lineups, struggled under the pressure of having to carry a team.

“I was batting cleanup,” Torii Hunter said. “I’ve never been a No. 4 hitter in my life.”

The Angels' offense essentially collapsed, going from No. 2 in baseball in runs scored in 2009 to No. 19. They touched the plate 202 fewer times, a fairly astonishing drop.

Morales’ return -- and the early indications are that he should be healthy by Opening Day -- could be more important to the Angels than any big-splash free agent they might have signed. But there are warning signs, too. It might be unrealistic to expect Morales to pick up where he left off, as one of the up-and-coming young sluggers.

Consider the case of Jermaine Dye. The Oakland A’s cleanup hitter shattered the shin bone of his left leg fouling off a pitch from Orlando Hernandez in the 2001 Division Series. The A’s would go on to blow that series after taking a 2-0 lead. Dye just wasn’t the same the following season.

He batted .252 and had the lowest doubles total, 27, of his career to that point.

Is it realistic for the Angels to expect Morales to return to MVP-contending form eight months after a surgery in which doctors attached screws and steel plates to hold his bones in place? Speed has never been an integral part of Morales’ game, but lingering pain could affect him both in the field and at bat.

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Hideki Matsui took batting practice, ran the bases a little and shagged some fly balls in the outfield Sunday morning. He did not, however, make his Angels debut as rain rolled into Diablo Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., around 10:30 a.m. and the scheduled game against the A's was called shortly thereafter.

Matsui said afterward he would also not play Monday when the Angels have to make a hour-long drive to Surprise, Ariz., to play the Texas Rangers.

"I don't think the bus ride would be good for my knees,'' he joked.

The rainout disappointed the 25-deep crowd of Japanese reporters, who'd spent the morning taking video and filming Matsui's name in the batting order posted on the wall outside the Angels clubhouse -- he was set to hit fourth -- and recording the number of balls he hit during batting practice.

The Angels have been easing their new designated hitter into things slowly this spring, allowing him to wait until he felt his chronically sore knees were fully ready to go before he participated in games.

"I've been cautious everyday,'' Matsui said, through his interpreter. "But I've been progressing forward and everything looks good.

"You want to play under good conditions, you don't want to force yourself to play in a condition like this and then something bad happens. We're going to play everyday anyways, so it's not a big deal.''

-- Ramona Shelburne

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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 110
RM. Trout 113
OPSM. Trout .949
WJ. Weaver 18
ERAG. Richards 2.61
SOG. Richards 164