All eyes on Angels youth
Talented infield serves as foundation of team's future
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Youth must be served, but it's always hit and miss with baseball prospects. "Can't-miss" players manage to miss, while unheralded ones sometimes exceed all projections to make it big.
The Angels, having nurtured a lush crop of infielders in recent years, are confident they are about to connect more often than not with a unit that could be aligned, star-power corner to corner, for years to come.
In one version of the master plan, Casey Kotchman, Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar and Brandon Wood emerge as the second Los Angeles coming of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey -- pillars of stability and success at Dodger Stadium in the 1970s and early '80s.
"The past year or two," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia -- an impressionable young Dodgers catcher in his day -- "we've exercised patience to see them develop. We need production now, first and foremost."
There are variations on the theme that bring Chone Figgins and Maicer Izturis into play, and perhaps Kendry Morales. No longer in the picture is one-time phenom Dallas McPherson. His Angels career undone by injuries, he's now a non-roster invitee of the Marlins, hoping to kick-start his career.
The ideal chess piece with his matchless versatility, Figgins is the third baseman of the moment and stands ready to handle the job down the road should Aybar or Wood fall short of expectations.
Izturis, competing with Aybar for the shortstop job vacated by Orlando Cabrera, is smooth and steady at 27, three years older than the acrobatic Aybar.
Kotchman, 25, and Kendrick, 24, both had breakout seasons interrupted by injuries in 2007. Each has heard his name surface in trade rumors, always disarming for a young player.
Kotchman last summer was linked with teammate Joe Saunders in a possible swap for Rangers slugger Mark Teixeira -- before Texas pulled the trigger on the blockbuster with the Braves.
Kendrick this offseason was the linchpin in a potential deal with Florida for Miguel Cabrera that fell through when the Marlins preferred the Tigers' merchandise.
This could turn out to be a very good thing for Angels fans if the infield of the future turns out to be as productive, as quickly, as Scioscia believes it can be.
In the short term, of course, the bang the Angels would have received from Teixeira or Cabrera would have quieted skeptics convinced they'll never go deep into October until they protect Vladimir Guerrero with another major weapon.
But who's to say Kotchman and Kendrick won't compete for batting titles and claim Gold Gloves in a new-age rendition of Don Mattingly and Willie Randolph in their Bronx primes? The talent clearly is there.
Aybar and Wood also have been popular targets in trade talks, both having shown extraordinary talent throughout their Minor League careers.
"We've held on to these players because we knew they were ready to contribute at the Major League level and make an impact on our season and in the future," Scioscia said. "We have the potential to be a difference-maker on the infield. That's important."
Defensively, Kendrick and Aybar could make sweet music once they get in tune with each other.
"Howard was turning double plays as well as anyone last year," Scioscia said. "He has terrific range and is working on his consistency. Aybar has the potential to be as dynamic as any shortstop in baseball, Gold Glove-caliber.
"Defensive continuity is important. We'll be looking closely at our infield this spring. We feel we have some exceptional talent out there. It's just a matter of these players getting a feel for each other. That doesn't happen overnight. It takes some time."
Blessed with tremendous raw power, Wood, best-case scenario, channels Troy Glaus doing Mike Schmidt. The Angels feel Wood is Major League-caliber defensively at shortstop and third but needs some fine-tuning offensively. When his strike zone becomes a comfort zone, he'll make better contact and keep rallies alive.
While Wood spent most of 2007 at Triple-A Salt Lake, Kendrick, Aybar and Izturis were set back by injuries costing them significant playing time.
Especially hit hard was Kendrick, whose season was upended when he was drilled in the left hand on April 18 in Oakland by Chad Gaudin. Hitting .327 at the time and one of the few Angels off to a good start, Kendrick didn't return to action until May 22, missing 32 games with a fractured left middle finger.
On July 9, having recaptured his form with hits in 21 of 22 games, Kendrick was struck again. Taking a swing, he fractured his left index finger. This trip to the disabled list cost him 35 games.
Remarkably, Kendrick managed to finish the season with a .322 average in 88 games, fortifying the popular belief that he has the skills to contend for future batting crowns. He had a .435 slugging percentage and is expected to add power over time.
Kotchman and Figgins are unconventional corner weapons. There's no brute force here. In the Angels' slash-and-dash style, Kotchman and Figgins are better fits than they'd be in places where the long ball is the be all and end all.
Kotchman, on his way to a career year when he was derailed by injuries, still finished with a .296 average and career highs in doubles (37), homers (11) and RBIs (68). His .372 on-base percentage was third-best on the club after Vladimir Guerrero's .403 and Figgins' .393.
"It seems like it was a season of getting comfortable and then having to start all over," Kotchman said. "We ran into a lot of obstacles you can't anticipate."
In a statistical study of glove men by John Dewan, author of "The Fielding Bible," only the Cardinals' Albert Pujols was found to be superior at first to Kotchman.
Kotchman was ranked among the AL's top 10 in batting, slugging and on-base percentage on June 16 when he was struck on the helmet by a pickoff throw from Dodgers catcher Russell Martin.
Sustaining a concussion and treated with stitches behind his right ear, Kotchman missed nine games and wasn't the same when he came back, going hitless in 18 at-bats. A hand injury courtesy of a Mariano Rivera cutter on Aug. 22, curtailed Kotchman's ability to turn on pitches, but he still managed to hit .299 in September.
Nine of Kotchman's 11 homers came before the All-Star break, when he was sound.
The Angels believe they are protected behind Kotchman with another emerging performer, Morales, a switch-hitter with power.
It's easy to fall in love with young talent. Only time and fate determine how fulfilling the ride will be -- and where it will take you.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.