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Los Angeles Angels fantasy team preview

The Angels won their first World Series title in 2002 after missing the playoffs for 15 consecutive years. Since then, the club has captured the American League West crown three times but has managed only four postseason wins. Mainstays John Lackey, Francisco Rodriguez and Chone Figgins were rookies during that 2002 championship run, and the only other holdovers are veterans Garret Anderson and Scot Shields.

The Angels continue to view themselves as a pitching-oriented team, but they have built a nucleus of hitting talent around Anderson and 2004 acquisition Vladimir Guerrero. Catcher Mike Napoli, first baseman Casey Kotchman, second baseman Howie Kendrick and shortstop Erick Aybar all are young organization products looking to step up their contributions in 2008. Aybar will compete with Maicer Izturis for the right to replace Orlando Cabrera, who was traded to Chicago for Jon Garland. The club's biggest offseason move was the signing of longtime Minnesota center fielder Torii Hunter. The Angels now have the deepest outfield in the AL, with Juan Rivera and Reggie Willits still in reserve and former center fielder Gary Matthews Jr. now able to rotate at the corner spots, allowing Guerrero and Anderson to spend more time at designated hitter.

The pitching staff is similar to the 2007 version, with Garland the only newcomer to a rotation that includes Lackey, Kelvim Escobar, Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders. The latter two were set to battle for the fifth starter's job until the team's recent revelation that Escobar likely will start the season on the disabled list due to a sore shoulder. Shields and Justin Speier will again set up Rodriguez at the back of the bullpen.

The Angels didn't make many offseason changes but still are the preseason favorites to repeat as AL West champions. However, the rotation will be a trouble spot if 18-game winner Escobar can't get healthy.

Ballpark: Angel Stadium has been close to the league average in terms of runs scored, but it has limited home runs, by about 20 percent in the case of left-handed batters and 10 percent for right-handers. Those marks are similar to those of Hunter's old home, the Metrodome, but starter Garland should find his new park much more pitching-friendly than U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago.


Intriguing Spring Battle: Santana and Saunders were set to duel for the fifth starter's job, but Escobar's injury means both will begin the season in the rotation. That leaves shortstop as the only spot really up for grabs this spring, with Aybar and Izturis both vying for the position. Both are ground-ball hitters with speed, although Izturis is the more polished baserunner. Aybar is perceived as having excellent defensive upside, but he is raw, and the Los Angeles Times recently indicated he had fallen behind Izturis in the race due to a whopping 19 errors in 35 winter games. Aybar showed more power in the minors, but Izturis' power is showing signs of development. The major difference between the two at this point is Izturis' vastly superior batting eye. Until Aybar develops better plate skills, he's likely to post a very low on-base percentage, which does not bode well for his chances to win the job. Izturis never has held a starting role in the majors and could be overexposed in full-time duty. However, he performed well in back-to-back seasons of more than 330 at-bats. At this point, he is both the favorite to start and the better bet to succeed.

Top Sleeper: It probably would take an injury to wrest Rodriguez from the closer's role, but it's worth noting that he did experience a major second-half dropoff in most statistical indicators last year. And given Shields' miserable second half, it's not unthinkable that Speier could be in position to snatch some significant saves at some point this year. Speier is 34, but his trends are strong after an excellent debut season with the Angels. He's likely to overtake Shields as the club's top setup man early this year, and has the skills and experience to be effective finishing games, should Rodriguez hit the disabled list.

Trainer's Room: The shoulder inflammation Escobar battled last year has not subsided, and the right-hander has experienced soreness throughout his offseason throwing regimen. Escobar has spent part of the past three seasons on the disabled list and has tossed 200 innings only once in his career. His spring shoulder woes likely will have him out for most of April, if not longer. This is a potentially serious problem for both the Angels and Escobar's owners, and the risk of a lost season cannot be understated. Escobar has excellent skills and will be effective when healthy, but given his injury history, it's time to move him far, far down your draft boards.

Backup to Watch: He won't get much notice in many drafts due to the crowded nature of the Angels' outfield, but Rivera could be an impact player if enough at-bats come his way. A broken leg cost Rivera nearly all of last season, but in 2006, he smacked 23 home runs in 448 at-bats while posting an impressive .310/.362/.525 line. Rivera has both power and contact ability, and it's no certainty that he will be outperformed by either the aging Anderson or Matthews, who never has hit 20 homers or slugged .500 in a season. Look to stash Rivera early, while all the other Angels outfielders are healthy and he still is a forgotten man.

Fantasy Stud: Guerrero's 27 home runs last year were a career low for a 400 at-bat season, but a career-high 45 doubles indicated the power is still there. In 10 seasons, Guerrero has fallen short of 520 at-bats only once and never has posted an OPS lower than .934. More frequent designated hitter duty should keep him fresher, and the addition of Hunter should mean better pitches to hit. His base-stealing days are over, but Vlad is a virtual lock for a .300-plus batting average and 200 runs plus RBI. Still only 32, Guerrero remains a reliable four-category superstar.

Prospect to Watch for 2008: Brandon Wood showed his immense power potential when he bashed 43 home runs and 51 doubles in Class A in 2005. Wood is a fine athlete with the hands for shortstop, although his range is a better fit at third base. He is a fly-ball hitter with excellent bat speed, and his power should carry forward to the majors. Unfortunately, Wood whiffs like he's getting paid by the strikeout. His contact rate is abysmal, and he was overmatched in a brief big league trial last year. Wood is only 22, however, so he eventually should become a productive .250 hitter at the major league level. He will back up Figgins at third base for now and could be a bargain late-round power source in deep leagues. Watch his strikeout rate for signs of progress.

Prospect to Watch for the Future: Former top prospect Jeff Mathis now looks like a career backup catcher, if he manages much of a major league career at all. Fortunately for the Angels, Hank Conger is not far behind. A 2006 first-rounder, Conger is a switch-hitter with bat speed, plate discipline and power potential from both sides of the plate. He will see Double-A for the first time this year and isn't likely to debut before 2010, but he's one of the top catching prospects in the minors and the clear heir to Napoli.

Base-Running Philosophy: The Angels have led the AL in stolen base attempts for five consecutive years. With Mike Scioscia still at the helm, that's not likely to change. Expect Hunter to have a banner year on the basepaths, Figgins to remain a stolen-base stud, and both Izturis and Aybar to log double-digit thefts.

Will Harris is a fantasy baseball and college football analyst for ESPN.com.