Commentary

Little backup for aging Angels outfield

Cast of light-hitting minor leaguers is a small safety net for Hunter, Abreu and Rivera

Updated: February 3, 2010, 1:29 AM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

If baseballs were made of foam, games were played indoors on mattresses and teams padded their outfield fences with feather pillows, the Angels might stand a better shot of winning in 2010.

But conditions are a bit rougher than those, so the Angels will be holding their breath at times when they send an aging cast of veteran outfielders onto the field. The safety net below Torii Hunter, Bobby Abreu and Juan Rivera is virtually nonexistent.

Hideki Matsui hasn't played in the outfield since 2008 because of his two balky knees and the Angels are throwing their reserve outfielder job open to a cast of light-hitting minor leaguers led by speedster Reggie Willits, who got some rookie of the year consideration in 2007.

The team might add a veteran bench player between now and spring training, but for now the Angels are left to cross their fingers and pray for good health.

Left field

The youngest starter in the Angels outfield turns 32 in July.

The good news for Rivera is that he appears to be a late bloomer. Of course, he might have bloomed a lot earlier if he hadn't been relegated to a bench role most of his career. He had to sit behind Garret Anderson for most of the first three seasons after being traded from the Montreal Expos.

The Angels surprised a lot of people when they gave Rivera a three-year, $12.75 million contract extension before last season, especially since he had struggled in 2008. It panned out well the first year. He recorded career highs with 25 home runs and 88 RBIs while batting a solid .287.

For a player with good power, Rivera rarely strikes out. He has never struck out as many as 60 times in a season.

Rivera's effort level while playing the outfield can be questioned, but Angels fans, who were used to Anderson's play, are not accustomed to seeing their left fielders dive for balls. In his "Baseball Handbook," Bill James identified Rivera as the worst base runner in baseball last year.

Matsui is hopeful he can play a game per week in left field. If he can, manager Mike Scioscia likely would pick between Rivera or Mike Napoli for designated-hitter at-bats.

Center field

Hunter tries to tell himself not to run into walls. He repeats it over and over in his mind, then the ball is hit and & WHAM!

The Angels have one of the best center fielders in baseball, but his style makes him prone to disaster. Hard collisions with outfield walls at Dodger Stadium in May and in San Francisco in June eventually sent Hunter to the disabled list. Because of them, he needed offseason surgery to repair a hernia on his right side.

Hunter expects to be healthy at the start of spring training. The injury appears to have cost him the chance of a monster 2009 season. He still finished with career highs in batting average (.299), on-base percentage (.366) and OPS (.873). But Hunter had a .938 OPS before the All-Star break and a .762 OPS (with only 12 extra-base hits) when he returned from the injury.

Hunter turns 35 in July, so he might want to tone down the reckless abandon that has characterized his game. Then again, can he? Can the Angels afford for him not to?

Right field

If not for Kendry Morales'huge second half, Abreu might have been the Angels' team MVP. His patience injected the Angels' offense with a dimension it had lacked and rubbed off on the team's younger hitters.

In October, Abreu had one of the Angels' biggest postseason hits -- a double off the Green Monster that ignited a game-winning rally off Jonathan Papelbon and the Boston Red Sox.

Is it too much to ask Abreu to continue this pace now that he's 36, an age when some players decline rapidly? The Angels bet $19 million (over two years) in November that it was not.

There are some worrisome trends: His 2009 slugging percentage was the worst of any full season he has played; only 29 percent of his hits went for extra bases, a career low; he averaged a home run every 37.5 at-bats.

To call Abreu a mediocre right fielder would be charitable. He doesn't run as well as he once did and his concentration occasionally lapses in the field. Still, just showing up healthy enough to work will be a crucial step for Abreu and his outfield teammates.

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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