2008: Down Gene Autry Way

Baseball is poetic. “Tinker to Evers to Chance.”

It’s perceptive. “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.”

It’s hopeful. “Wait till next year.”

For the past few years, the refrain for the Los Angeles Angels has been rather simple. “We need a big bat.” Ever since Troy Glaus left for Arizona (instigating the infamous Dallas McPherson ‘era’), the Angels had sought to provide protection for Vlad in the middle of the lineup. Guillen was great for 150-odd games… before imploding and burning every bridge within reach. Cuban defector Morales was held up for months with visa issues. Hillenbrand was an expensive stopgap; Finley even more so – but the results were equally dismal. Salmon and Anderson grew old and injured, the former retired, the latter experiencing an unlikely ’07 resurgence before his eye swelled up like Will Smith in Hitch. Even Mighty Maicer had a crack at it. But after another definitive and premature playoff dismissal at the hands of the Red Sox, the Angels headed into the offseason, and back to the chalkboard, with the familiar task. We needed a big bat.

New GM Tony Reagins announced his presence with a stunning trade in November: Orlando Cabrera for Jon Garland. Yes, O.C. was heading into the final year of his contract. Yes, we had three candidates ready to take over the position. Yes, you can never have too much pitching. But Cabrera was the heart of the team. The vocal clubhouse leader, fiery and passionate, the gamer in the vein of Erstad and Kennedy. He had carried the offense last year from the #2 spot – the most consistent bat up and down the lineup. 100 runs scored. 85 RBIs. .300 average. And he was the anchor of the defense. We now had six pitchers for five spots. And while Escobar’s injury will ease that pileup for the moment, it still seemed unnecessary.

I hated the trade at the time. I’m still coping. The only justification I saw was if we turned around and flipped our sixth pitcher for that elusive bat. And it seemed like it was going to happen. Miguel Cabrera for Kendrick, Mathis, Adenhart, and Santana. It was certainly a heavy price: a stud second baseman, a young catcher, and a prized prospect. But Arte Moreno and Reagins didn’t pull the trigger. Not because of those three, but because of Ervin Santana. The sixth pitcher. The kid whose potential we had talked about for three years. 25-9 at home, 10-24 with a disastrous 7+ ERA on the road. I couldn’t fathom it. If the issue was the inclusion of Kendrick, I would have been fine. But it was Ervin. Maybe it’s because he’s still just 26. Maybe it’s because he’s got electric stuff. Whatever the reason, we couldn’t part with this kid. And so, that elusive big bat went to Detroit.

The big signing of the offseason was the $90 million deal given to Torii Hunter. Much as I like Hunter, much as I appreciate his defense and persona, Torii Hunter is not worth $90 million, just as Gary Matthews wasn’t worth $50 million. Worst, Hunter’s signing created an absolute logjam in the outfield. Hunter and Matthews (hey, it’s like an episode of Boy Meets World!), Anderson and Guerrero, splitting the positions and the DH slot. But what about Juan Rivera, who had a terrific year two seasons ago before breaking his leg in ’07? What about Figgy, whose defense at third has always been questionable? Reggie Willits, the on-base machine at the top of the lineup? Morales? Speedster Nathan Haynes? Even with G.A.’s contract coming off the books at the end of ’08, it didn’t seem to make a lot of sense. We were getting older and losing some of the small-ball identity, yet remained without the big bat we so desperately needed.

So, here we are in March, about to begin the baseball season anew. We’ve still got one of the best bullpens in the league. We’ve still got one of the best staffs in the league. And our outfield is tremendous, both offensively and defensively – at least for this year. But the infield is full of question marks. Will Kotchman develop more power? Is Kendrick going to stay healthy and hit? Who will take command at shortstop? Being in the AL West certainly helps, as it has the past few years. I’d imagine that Seattle will stay on our heels the entire year. We’re the better team. Yet, the problem remains the same. The big bat. When we face the Red Sox and the Tigers, do we match up? That’s the only question that matters.

As much as I love this team, as much as the games are probably the best part of my life, I know what the answer is. I’ll push it out of mind as August and September rolls around, but I have no rational reason to expect a different outcome this year. Maybe we’ll finally pull the trigger with the deadline in July. More than likely, however, we’ll be playing well enough to stick it out with what we have. That’s a mistake. It’s the first round and out. I can already hear the familiar refrain. We need a big bat.

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