Sunday, May 30, 2010

Without a Leg to Stand On

    By Ross Newhan

    A man came into the Foothill Fruit Stand in Corona Sunday wearing an Angel T-shirt and a dour expression on his face.

    "Man," he said, "I've never seen anything like that. What a killer."

    He did not have to explain.

    He was talking about the improbable circumstances in which Kendry Morales suffered a broken leg Saturday and the impact of his loss on the Angels over the rest of the season..

    Given his team's struggle through the first two months, the impact of the first baseman's loss is beyond measurement, although may be not.

    Morales led an inconsistent offense in batting, home runs, total bases and runs batted in. That's a pretty good measurement in itself.

    The Angels can't replace Morales from within, and will have a difficult time doing it from without. There has been speculation that Milwaukee could make Prince Fielder available at the trading deadline in July, and the Chicago White Sox might make Paul Konerko available.

    However, neither of those power hitters would come cheaply, and the top levels of the Angels system has been depleted already.

    In fact, seldom during his successful decade at the Angels helm has manager Mike Scioscia been forced to cope with a roster containing so many comparatively anonymous names and faces.

    I recently wrote that it was starting to look as if owner Arte Moreno and General Manager Tony Reagins had made a mistake--from a chemistry and talent standpoint--in allowing John Lackey, Chone Figgins and Vladimir Guerrero to all leave at the same time. The Angels haven't replaced Lackey's ability and leadership in the rotation, haven't replaced Figgins' speed and catalytic role at the top of the lineup and haven't really replaced Guerrero's intimidating power--he is far from done as his stats with Texas would confirm--nor quiet leadership among the club's Hispanic players.

   I recognize that Figgins' hasn't appeared to be the same player with Seattle that he was with the Angels, but it often takes time for a player to feel comfortable in a new environment, and instead of batting leadoff he is now batting second behind Ichiro Suzuki and experiencing something of a role reversal. Figgins is now learning how difficult it can be to take pitches in certain circumstances so that the man batting ahead of him,  and who has pretty much of a green light to run at any time, can do just that.

  Meanwhile, the Angels now have a power vacuum at first base to go with the power vacuum at third base. The three players who have seen the most time there--Brandon Wood, Macier Itzuris and Kevin Frandsen-- have combined for two home runs. Wood hit both, but with 36 strike outs in 122 at bats and a .156 average, there is no solid evidence that he has the major league future that the Angels have long believed him to have.

   In addition, the new leadoff man, shortstop Eric Aybar, went into Sunday's game batting .231 with an on base percentage of .298, meaning Scioscia's belief in an aggressive running style, which was going to be curtailed some anyway with Figgins gone, has come to even more of a stop. None of this would be quite as damaging if the manager had a rotation and bullpen he could count on, but starters Joel Piniero, Scott Kazmir and Joe Saunders were a combined 9-16 entering Sunday, and Scioscia has been forced to employ a battery of often no-name relievers getting to the back end of a bullpen that has been a test in itself.

   As I recently wrote, despite their inconsistent start, I thought the Angels would still win a division in which the strength of their opposition is problematic.

    With Morales gone, I don't think that can happen.

     Is anyone to blame for what happened Saturday? Of course not.

    You can't blame Morales nor his teammates for their exuberance in celebrating his walk off grand slam. Those dog piles are always dangerous but difficult to contain.

    This time the Angels paid a heavy price, and as the fruit stand visitor stated in obvious dejection, it has all the earmarks of being a killer.                       

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