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Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Dealing season begins for Angels

By Mark Saxon

The Los Angeles Angels' Tony Reagins flew to Orlando, Fla., on Monday for the start of the annual general managers meetings. At some point in the next two days, he'll touch base with Brian Peters of Legacy Sports, the man who represents speedy outfielder Carl Crawford, one of the most coveted free agents on the market.

Carl Crawford
Speedy Carl Crawford could help the Angels get back to a style of baseball that once distinguished them.

Listening to bids for Crawford's services, of course, has only just begun, with three more months to go in a process that can seem endless to fans and players alike. Peters said that not a lot of concrete talks have gone on entering this first set of meetings.

"As you probably suspect, it's a little early," he said.

The GM meetings, however, kick off a string of events that provide face-to-face opportunities for Reagins and other Angels deal-makers to get together with agents and try to sign players. Immediately after the GM meetings, Arte Moreno will fly in for the owners meetings. Starting Dec. 6 are the winter meetings, a grand mingling of agents, executives and media types. By then, players might be ready to sign on the dotted line, so the rumors could be a bit juicier.

All the meetings are in the same locale this year, which is new.

Angels fans will keep a sharp eye trained on Central Florida because their team has shown every sign of being among the most active teams on the market. The Angels badly need an offensive catalyst and would love to ratchet up production from third base and the bullpen.

To do nothing this winter could be fatal to the Angels' chances and perhaps to their business. They had one of the sharpest declines in performance in baseball last season, going from a 97-win season that fell two wins shy of the World Series to an 80-win, third-place finish. According to a baseball source, they also lost about $10 million. An offseason of inactivity could further dampen ticket sales.

The Angels have been hazily linked to the top free agent out there -- Texas Rangers left-hander Cliff Lee -- but that rumor doesn't seem to have sturdy legs. Starting pitching is the least of the Angels' concerns. They had the fourth-best starters' ERA in the American League last season and were second in innings pitched. Plus, they've been hesitant to give long-term deals to free-agent pitchers in the past, for good reason. Those contracts have proved exceedingly risky. The last deal the Angels signed with a free-agent pitcher for more than two years went to Bartolo Colon in 2003, months after Moreno took over. John Lackey now pitches for the Boston Red Sox in large part because the Angels aren't keen on giving long-term deals to pitchers in their 30s.

In order of priority, here is what the Angels figure to be busy with during the next few months:

Trying to woo Crawford

The ESPN Stats & Information group put into numbers what seemed evident before but now seems almost predestined: The Angels have to land Crawford or at least stick in it to the bitter end. Indications are they're willing to set a franchise record and cough up the $100 million or more it could take to land him.

If the Red Sox or some other team simply outbids them, they'll at least have a reason they can offer their fans: He's ridiculously overpaid. But he's the perfect man to fix what ails them.

The Angels showed the greatest decline in runs scored and on-base percentage of any team in the league last season. Those numbers, you might have guessed, are related. As Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information wrote, Crawford finished second only to AL MVP front-runner Josh Hamilton among left fielders in weighted on-base percentage, which gives greater heft to extra-base hits.

Crawford also would allow the Angels to get back to the style of baseball that distinguished them in this league for so long.

Last season, they stayed off the bases in droves and, when they did get there, were largely anchored to the bag. Manager Mike Scioscia would love to ramp up the running game that helped them weather batter's-box droughts in the past.

Crawford, 29, is one of the fastest men in baseball, maybe the fastest. He steals between 47 and 60 bases every season and has led the league in that category four times. According to former teammate Scott Kazmir, he's also one of the hardest-working, best-conditioned players in the game, so you wouldn't expect his legs to give out on him any time soon.

Although the Angels' greatest need is at leadoff, they likely would bat Crawford third to satisfy his desire and to give them enviable depth in the middle. He would be followed by Kendry Morales, Torii Hunter and Bobby Abreu, likely in that order. That's not a bad meat of the order. It's better, by a mile, than anything the Angels fielded last season once Morales got hurt.

Trading a catcher or two

The catching situation is messy. By one measure, bodies, the Angels have too many catchers. Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis would like to be everyday guys, and Hank Conger looks as though he's ready for his big league shot.

By another measure, the Angels are coming up short. Mathis is a nonentity in the batter's box (.199 lifetime average), and Napoli is too big a liability defensively for Scioscia, the ex-defensive specialist, to ever trust as an everyday catcher.

Mike Napoli
Mike Napoli's defensive liabilities could keep him from an everyday job with the Angels.

Conger has his defensive shortcomings as well, but it looks as though now is the time to find out how much he can help the team. That means the Angels will be listening to offers for Napoli. They spoke to the Red Sox about him in August, but the teams couldn't work out a deal.

Plenty of teams that value defense less than the Angels would love to have a catcher who mashes 26 home runs, as Napoli did last season. Put him in a smaller home ballpark, and he probably could swat as many as 35. He's as naturally powerful as they come.

Look for the Angels to move Napoli, perhaps in a bid to shore up one of the areas below.

Figuring out third base

Brandon Wood had his chance and flopped. Maicer Izturis is good but brittle. Kevin Frandsen was fine as a stopgap. Alberto Callaspo was probably the best of a lot of bad options, but his lack of power makes him a dubious everyday player at best.

The Angels figure to take a good, hard look at signing Adrian Beltre, who would upgrade their infield defense and give them pop at the corner they sorely lacked. One problem: He's represented by Scott Boras, an agent the Angels have avoided since the Mark Teixeira talks ended in a cloud of recriminations two years ago.

Although Moreno was clearly stung by Boras' hardball style, the guess here is he'll get over any hard feelings if he thinks he can improve his business.

Bulking up the bullpen

Another reason for Moreno to get over it: Boras also represents the top free-agent reliever out there, Rafael Soriano. Scioscia would love to have another mid-90s thrower at the back end of his bullpen, and the way Fernando Rodney pitched after Sept. 1 (5.65 ERA, four blown saves), the Angels just might need him.

The other candidates, Kevin Jepsen and Jordan Walden, have never dealt with the pressure of being a major league closer.

There already has been speculation that the Angels will add Crawford, Beltre and Soriano, a haul that would be reminiscent of Moreno's first offseason, when he brought in Colon, Vladimir Guerrero, Kelvim Escobar and Jose Guillen. Three out of four of those signings turned out well, with a bunch of playoff appearances, an MVP and a Cy Young trophy to show for it.

If Moreno does something like that again, he won't need to lower beer prices again.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for Follow him on Twitter.