Wednesday, March 31, 2010
By Mark Saxon
For many years, the Los Angeles Angels have been a free-running anomaly in the American League.
They rarely neglected to traffic the basepaths aggressively. They encouraged their players to go from first to third on most singles. They would break for home even on balls hit to the left side, presuming there was at least one out.
Even when guys got thrown out, they usually entered the dugout to high-fives. If it was a mistake of aggressiveness, manager Mike Scioscia could usually live with it.
One way to get Scioscia all riled up has been to suggest that all that basepath action was part of his National League roots, a remnant of being a catcher in an era of 100-steal players. When you grew up having to control Vince Coleman on the bases, you gained a measure of respect for speed. His style was based on the talent at hand, Scioscia would argue. Give him speed, he'll run. Give him power, he'll sit back and let them mash.
This season, fans will finally get to find out if he means it. This 2010 Angels team has the potential to hit for as much power as any team Scioscia has had since 2000, but it also has a chance to be among the slowest teams he has fielded.
It could be a jarring adjustment. Scioscia said this team will have to search for offensive chemistry as hard as it ever has.
"I think we're going to have speed at the top and bottom of our lineup," Scioscia said. "Maybe not so much in the middle. At first glance, we're more of a batter's-box offensive team. I think we'll be better in the batter's box than we've shown before."
Chone Figgins was the poster child of Angels baseball for half a decade. He gradually learned to get on base as frequently as any leadoff hitter in the game, but he always had speed and good baserunning instincts. When the Angels were slumping at the plate, Figgins sometimes pulled them along for weeks at a time.
From 2005 to 2009, he averaged 46 stolen bases and 95 runs scored per season.
Not only do the Angels no longer have Figgins, who signed with the Seattle Mariners, but they're going to have to contend with his pesky style 19 times this season. Figgins' replacement at third base, Brandon Wood, has mediocre speed at best. Wood averaged fewer than 10 stolen bases in seven years in the minors. He has stolen four bases in 86 major league games.
That's the bad news, Angels fans. On a positive note, Wood hit 43 home runs in the minors in 2005 and scouts think he could be good for as many as 25 if he's given enough at-bats.
Meanwhile, the Angels replaced Vladimir Guerrero with Hideki Matsui. Both players had decent speed five years ago, but age and knee injuries put a resounding end to that. If anything, Matsui probably runs the bases with better awareness: He tried to steal a base only once last year and he hasn't successfully pulled it off since 2007.
The Angels figure to have flashy speed at the top of the lineup in Erick Aybar, decent speed in the Nos. 2 and 3 holes (with Bobby Abreu and Torii Hunter) and a bunch of boulders after that. When Mike Napoli is catching and Maicer Izturis is on the bench, the Angels will have one of the slowest teams in the league.
The worrisome question for the Angels is whether their power can actually make up for their declining speed. The Angels' power surged last year, with the team's .441 slugging percentage ranking behind only the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Texas Rangers. Angel Stadium is a far harder stadium to hit home runs in than the home parks of those teams.
But many people don't expect Kendry Morales to match his 34-home run pace of last year. Bobby Abreu's power appears to be diminishing and Hideki Matsui won't have the short right field of Yankee Stadium to count on. Many of his long flies will die in the cool night air of Anaheim.
Wood's power is an upgrade over Figgins', but how much will he play if he can't keep his strikeouts down? The Angels have high hopes for their offense, but questions galore.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.