Commentary

Angels' power shifts to young infield

Credit the farm system: All five starters on Opening Day figure to be homegrown

Updated: February 1, 2010, 9:15 PM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

It wasn't long ago that the Angels leaned on their outfielders for virtually all of their power and most of their name recognition. With Vladimir Guerrero off to Texas and age creeping up on the remaining outfielders like a late-afternoon shadow, the focus shifts inward for 2010.

The Angels' farm system deserves some credit. The emergence of Erick Aybar and Kendry Morales, plus a late push by Howie Kendrick, means the Angels will look to ride their infield to another AL West title. Each of the five starting infielders on Opening Day figures to be homegrown.

The Angels' infield is young and talented. Its progress in 2010 will, in large part, determine the course of the team's season.

First base

A year ago, the Angels were pretty sure Kendry Morales' bat was ready to do some damage. They just didn't know what kind of glove he would wear between at-bats.

Fate solved it. They couldn't re-sign Mark Teixeira, and Bobby Abreu landed in their lap, so an opportunity popped open at first base. Morales began the year as an unknown and ended it as an emerging superstar, finishing fifth in MVP balloting.

The Angels believe Morales' 2009 -- 34 home runs, 108 RBIs and a .306 batting average -- might have been just a taste of his vast potential. He displayed effortless power at times and began to punish left-handed pitching in the second half. His glove work was surprisingly solid, especially since early scouting reports from Cuba had Morales pegged as a designated hitter.

Morales, 26, had issues controlling his weight early in his career, but the Angels have positive reports about his offseason workouts in Miami. If he stays fit and healthy, you can't rule out an MVP-caliber season.

Second base

The Angels thought they would find out last year whether Howie Kendrick was ready to be an everyday player. Instead, the same question lingers going into this spring.

Kendrick was a mess, stuck in the worst slump of his career, when the Angels pulled the plug and optioned him to Triple-A last June.

Three weeks later, they brought him back up but explained that he would be splitting time with utility man Maicer Izturis. After that, he went crazy, allowing his natural talent to take over, and hit .358 and slugged .558 the rest of the season.

A strong postseason hints at a good 2010, but some guys simply aren't cut out for playing every day. At last, the Angels will find out what kind of player they have on their hands at second base.

Third base

For the first time in three years, Brandon Wood can tell people where to send his mail. He's out of options, meaning the Angels can't continue to shuttle him back and forth between Anaheim and Triple-A Salt Lake.

Now Wood has to show them he's ready. He'll be given every chance to win the third base job, but Izturis is a perfectly suitable option if Wood fumbles the chance. Wood has a big swing that makes him susceptible to strikeouts. He stands out in manager Mike Scioscia's contact-based offense. He also has the potential to hit 30 or more home runs, which would help the Angels continue an uptick in their power numbers.

The Angels believe that Wood, a converted shortstop, has the potential to be one of the best third basemen in the league. His limited range made shortstop a less likely destination.

Shortstop

Angels fans flooded the message boards and radio call-in lines complaining about Aybar last April and May. By the end of the season, they either were quiet or were praising a player with dazzling skills and a boxer's attitude.

The Angels' patience paid off as Aybar settled into the role and combined acrobatic fielding with steady production at the plate. He's only 26 and entering his fifth season, so he has room to improve.

Aybar at times seemed comically unwilling to take a walk. He hit .312 but had just a .353 on-base percentage. That makes him a less-than-desirable candidate to replace Chone Figgins in the leadoff spot, but the Angels may not have a better option.

Catcher

If the Angels could combine their two catchers into a single man, they would have a perennial All-Star. Instead, they have to suffice with Mike Napoli's explosive, if sporadic, offense, and Jeff Mathis' defensive skills and weak hitting.

Napoli batted better than .270 for the second season in a row, but he also struck out more than 100 times for the first time. Angels pitchers perform better when Mathis is behind the plate, and his good showing in the postseason probably means that Scioscia will probably leave playing time at roughly a 50-50 split.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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