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Wednesday, April 06, 2005

2005 Angels Preview: Part 2, Infield

Mea culpa for not getting this out sooner. No excuses.
Continuing 6-4-2's Angels 2005 preview, today Matt and I inspect the Angels' infield.

Rob: Bill Stoneman and injuries shook up the 2005 infield more than at any time since 2002. Consider:

Matt: This might be the last transition year for the infield, before we settle into an extended Mathis/Kotchman/Kennedy/Cabrera/D-Mac run. Lotta question marks, but I predict a slight upgrade on last year on both sides of the ball.

Rob: There's plenty here to discuss, so let's get started.


Benjie Molina
Age: 30
2004 stats: 337 AB, .276/.313/.404, 10.8 VORP; 36 CS, 45 SB, 6 PB; 96 Rate2
PECOTA: 0.8 VORP, 307 AB, .255/.290/.379, Similarity: 49

Jose Molina
Age: 29
2004 stats: 70 AB, .261/.296/.374, 2.7 VORP; 22 CS, 23 SB, 3 PB; 120 Rate2
PECOTA: -6.0 VORP, 206 AB, .236/.267/.337, Similarity: 51

Josh Paul
Age: 29
2004 stats: 70 AB, .243/.308/.371, 1.5 VORP
PECOTA: -6.0 VORP, 206 AB, .236/.267/.337, Similarity: 59

Rob: The excuse for keeping Benjie in the lineup is that he won a Gold Glove in 2002, but that was a long time and a number of pounds ago. His defense now is below average, and well below his brother's. With the big changes in the rotation, I'm willing to cut him some slack on throwing out baserunners (especially with big, slow Bartolo Colon on the mound), but even ignoring that, his better defensive days are behind him. PECOTA shows Benjie finally doing a Wile E. swan dive into the pavement of mediocrity, with Jose following right behind. That both have had health problems in spring training is a big fat red light, weird considering Will Carroll gave the Angels a green light at catcher in his preseason Team Health Report.

Matt: The X factor is Bengie's massive weight loss; the Y factor (related) is that it's his walk year, and there's no way in hell he's coming back in 2006. I presume he'll regain some lost ground on his defense, which really did slip badly in 2004, especially with his terrible habit of trying to backhand pitches in the dirt. The Angels were third in the league in wild pitches last year, and have a staff full of guys (K-Rod, Escobar, Gregg and Lackey) who have stuff that breaks sharply down. My biggest single fear this year is that Bengie will cost us five games by his inability to catch Frankie's bouncing sliders in the ninth inning. Also, it's a testament to Scioscia's devotion to avoiding the double play that BM only grounds into 16-18 double plays a year. I'm pretty sure my dad can out-run him, and he's a fat 66-year-old with a metal knee.

Rob: Benjie's defensive superior, Jose Molina can't hit over any extended period of time, though he did a pretty good Mike Piazza imitation in April (.333/.366/.538) . Good thing, too -- his brother missed the first week of the season. Getting awfully close to his freshness date, he probably wouldn't be in Anaheim unless former-superprospect-now-mere-mortal Jeff Mathis hadn't had such a weak second half in AA Arkansas. Jose can still pick 'em, though: last year he combined with Frankie Rodriguez for the most amazing play I've ever seen, a blind toss to throw out Cleveland Indian Ronnie Belliard.

Matt: Jose is a terrific defender; I love watching him play. He seemed to make noticeable strides in driving the ball last spring, then reverted to his normal self. I still expect him to hit better than our brutal backup catchers from 1999-2003. What will help all three guys is that the Angels are likely to see more left-hand pitching this year, to neutralize Finley/Erstad/Anderson/D-Mac, and each one of these guys slugs at least 65 points higher against southpaws (Jose goes from a woeful .226/.263/.300 to a downright cheerful .281/.318/.404).

Rob: They don't keep you in the show for fancy glovework, so all the better that Josh Paul should be around. The Angels took a lot of heat for keeping three catchers on staff going into 2004, but Shawn Wooten's departure after 2003 left the Halos with nobody to don the tools of ignorance in an emergency. Paul gave the Angels another option while managing not to embarrass himself at the plate. Paul, whose comparables include durable whiffleballers like Mike Matheny and Paul Bako, has mostly green up-arrows in his similarity scores. Expect to see playing time split about evenly between these three, and collective offense at catcher the worst in three years.

Matt: The most important thing for the Angels' catching corps this year will happen in the minor leagues. If Jeff Mathis rights his ship, I like the franchise's chances against Oakland the second half of this decade. Oh, and Fat Bart, who you really seem to despise, is one of the best pitchers in baseball at suppressing the running game....

First Base

Darin Erstad
Age: 30
2004 stats: 495 AB, .295/.346/.400, 22.7 VORP
PECOTA: 0.5 VORP, 443 AB, .267/.314/.378, Similarity: 49

Rob: Okay, if I'm gonna go down with the epithet Erstad-hatin', I may as well explain it. Another full season of Darin Erstad is like...

You get the point: name the disappointment, he's been there. Can't hit, can't play center, and if it weren't for first base, can't stay healthy. In fact, it's been suggested that, even if the Angels came to their senses and dropped him back in centerfield for his phenominal glove, Erstad doesn't have the arm anymore. In short, he's rapidly becoming a two-tool player; his glove remains impeccable whether measured by UZR (+14) or RAR2 (108), and he can still steal bases (only one caught stealing in 17 attempts). But that's about it.

So it's an understatement to say he's not producing at the level his $8M 2005 salary might suggest. He's the weakest-hitting first baseman in the league, and while he managed an acceptable season last year, the chances of him seeing anything like his fluke year of 2000 are pretty slim. Hitting leadoff, it's altogether possible his PECOTA projection is accurate, since it's a new role for him. I'm speculating Erstad's 2005 will be slightly worse than his 2004, but not so much they'll call up Kotchman.

Matt: Don't forget that he hits lefties like a girl! I'll actually defend the guy (not his contract), just to provide "counter-point." He's a clubhouse leader on a team that's had two pretty good years in the last three. Plays hard, runs the bases both aggressively and smartly, shines on D no matter where he's plopped, and grows a beard that looks about as lousy as mine. And he's been consciously taking pitches and drawing walks this spring, in anticipation of leading off. My only complaint about Ersty is that he's stubborn enough to play when he's too hurt to contribute, and Scioscia's too enamored of him to correct for this.

The Erstad/Kotchman conundrum boils down to this -- Casey will be first in line when the next guy gets hurt, whether it's Erstad (likeliest), G.A., Finley or Vlad. In order, that's a man with no hamstrings, another with degenerative arthritis, a 40-year-old, and a dude who makes your back hurt just by looking at him. One of these guys is going to spend significant time on the DL this year, and when that happens, Kotchman will insert himself into the lineup and never come out. As wrong as this might feel, I'd rather be deep than stretched too thin. And if hell freezes over and everyone's healthy (including Kennedy), then we've got some trade bait.

Second Base

Chone Figgins
Age: 27
2004 stats: 495 AB, .296/.345/.419, 30.3 VORP
PECOTA: 11.5 VORP, 501 AB, .274/.331/.390, Similarity: 55

Adam Kennedy
Age: 29
2004 stats: 495 AB, .278/.351/.406, 27.3 VORP
PECOTA: 22.0 VORP, 419 AB, .280/.346/.421, Similarity: 61

Rob: For sure Figgy will spend a month or two subbing for Kennedy, who in turn will miss a bit more of the season than his PECOTA projection shows. The principle differences between these two guys is that Kennedy's a hair better at taking walks and hitting for power, while Figgins' Flash imitation boosts what little power he actually has. Kennedy's noticeably better with the glove, though his 2004 Rate2 of 95 says that needs watching. Figure about a combined 16 VORP from this position in 2005. Neither player walks enough, and if their batting average falls, look out. The Angels, not known for their comprehension of OBP, assigned Erstad to hit leadoff, recognizing the dangers inherent in letting Figgins bat first last year. But no matter how you slice it, the pair is unlikely to match Kennedy's 2004 campaign numbers, so I'm expecting a slight downturn in production here.

Matt: My biggest worry about the crowded roster is what happens to Figgins when Kennedy comes back (which he seems to be doing sooner than expected). A.K. looked great in the field last year, though his bat can still disappear for weeks at a time (I blame Mickey Hatcher for always trying to "fix" his sweet uppercut). I expect Kennedy to hit slightly better than last year, and for Figgins to maintain or slightly improve his .345/.419 line, as long as he plays regularly. Is there room for a full-time utility player on this squad? With Rivera and DaVanon around, I'm not sure.


Orlando Cabrera
Age: 30
2004 stats: 618 AB, .264/.306/.383 (combined), 20.0 VORP
PECOTA: 14.4 VORP, 488 AB, .265/.315/.393, Similarity: 66

Rob: Bill Stoneman has a fetish for former Montreal players, and this year's indulgence is Orlando Cabrera, the more talented of the two Cabrera brothers in the majors. (His brother Jolbert played briefly for the Dodgers, and looks to continue playing on Seattle's bench.) Cabrera played a solid, if unspectacular, shortstop in Boston, and when the Red Sox decided to give him a Crackerjack box with matching ring but no 2005 contract, he landed with the Angels.

I've already beaten up on Stoneman for this acquisition; considering the Angels' talent in their minors, it seems almost criminal to pay $32M/4 years to a guy who's had exactly one good year, especially when that acquisition blocks a mess of high quality shortstop prospects in your own minor league system. Even though he's a better bet to stay healthy than the diminutive Eckstein, he's also a free swinger on a team fairly dripping with them; Eckstein, at least, could be counted on for a middling OBP (PECOTA tags him for a .268/.335/.342 line), placing the team at rather severe risk of not having a leadoff hitter. Translated: expect to see a lot of solo homers from Vlad. Cabrera's glove, once outstanding, is now slightly below average (98 Rate2 in 101 games in Montreal, 88 Rate2 in 57 games in Boston). Cabrera is a great example of Stoneman using Arte's pockets -- and erasing any advantages that accrue therefrom.

Matt: I think the crime is the fourth year: Unless Izturis turns out to be a keeper, the prospects won't be ready until 2007 at the earliest, and Eckstein was breaking down physically and at the plate (where he seemed to have no response to American League pitchers figuring out that there was no penalty for grooving him a fastball on the first pitch).

If Cabrera's had only one "good" year, I'd be happy with some of his "bad" ones -- the 61 extra-base hits and 96 RBIs of 2001, the 42 doubles per year the last four seasons, the SB/CS average of 20/5 over the same. He's a big offensive upgrade over Eck right now, will be a bigger one in 2006 and '07, and I think his defense will be a measurable improvement, too, despite the naysayers. And though I'm worried a bit about his health, and don't like his anemic OBP any more than you, he and Byrd were the most significant pickups in the offseason, and will help transform the 2005 squad into more of a pitching/defense team than last year.

Also, there is actually no shortage of legitimate leadoff hitters on this team -- Erstad had a .370 OBP against righties last year; DaVanon (projected at #2) .383, and Figgins went for .393 against lefties. All of 'em are high-percentage base-stealers. In fact, if you count Finley and D-Mac, that's six or seven legitimate SB threats in the lineup.

Third Base

Dallas McPherson
Age: 24
2004 stats: 40 AB, .225/.279/.475, 0.5 VORP
PECOTA: 23.2 VORP, 324 AB, .272./.351/.496, Similarity: N/A

Rob: Finally, it's D-Mac time at the show. His weak cuppa coffee last year didn't faze Angels HQ, as the kid's just crushed the ball at every level. While opinions are mixed as to his future, the Angels bet he'll continue whacking the ball, letting Troy Glaus and his gimpy shoulder sign with Arizona. Angels third basemen last year accumulated a Scott Rolen-sized 55.0 VORP (including Shane Halter's -4.8); they're sure to lose half that as McPherson acclimates to big league pitching.

One problem McPherson has is his notoriously weak glove. He's never been terribly good defensively in the minors (he booted two balls in a Travs game we attended last year), but he's made substantial strides in his late season appearances. He'll never be more than okay with the leather, but if he can mash like he did in the minors, nobody will care.

Of course, none of this will matter if McPherson starts the season on the DL. As of today, D-Mac remains on the DL, but he's hopeful of returning to the lineup by opening day. His herniated disc followed insufficient diligence in his exercise program; it may prove helpful to have core training nut Steve Finley on the team.

Matt: Jeesh, I hate to sound like the Kool-aid drinker around here, but I sure wouldn't call 3 HRs in 40 AB, and a .475 SLP "weak".... The kid looked overmatched against lefties at times (I hope Scioscia lets Quinlan platoon a bit), and spooked in the field, but that was mostly a good little stint.

Anyway, D-Mac is the crucible upon which this season hangs (along with Oakland's young pitching and Orel Hershiser's voodoo). Put bluntly, we need more power. There'll be a net power gain in CF and especially SS, but not much prospect for improvement anywhere else. Third base and DH (where Glaus split his time) just can't be too big a dropoff, or we're the 1985 Cardinals, with Vladdie as our Jack Clark. McPherson needs to hit 25 homers, and hopefully his deteriorating K/BB rates won't get too much worse. And he also needs to not be Steve Garvey at 3B. The good news is cthat everyone who played third base last year stunk up the joint, so it'd be hard to be much worse. I have pretty strong faith in the Angels' infield coaching, which (along with hard work) helped transform Adam Kennedy from a mediocrity to one of the league's best. McPherson's an impressive looking athlete, so I think there's hope. And he's got a lovely stroke.

And that's the infield. Join us again next time when Matt and I cover the outfield.


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