January 23, 2006
Erstad in the Outfield
We're in the process of doing organizational reviews each day on RotoWire's Fantasy Focus radio show on XM Satellite Radio (Channel 175, from noon to 1:00 EST, Mon-Fri). When we covered the Angels, we realized just how many job battles in the field they'll have in spring training and likely throughout the season. Before even factoring in potential reinforcements from their rich farm system, no fewer than five positions are in play--catcher, first base, third base, center field and designated hitter.
The catcher battle is pretty straightforward--Jose Molina and Jeff Mathis will split time behind the plate, and Michael Napoli will work on his defense in the minors. Molina's offense isn't anything special, but look for him to get more playing time than Mathis. Mathis struggled quite a bit in 2004 at Double-A Arkansas, hitting only .221/.306/.389 there, but rebounded to have a better season at Triple-A Salt Lake last year, hitting .276/.340/.499 thanks in part to the hitter-friendly altitude. Mathis, who turns 23 in March, already draws compliments from scouts on his defense, so the primary question for him is whether he can handle the jump to major league pitching at the plate, and not behind it.
Last week, in a move that slid under the national radar, the Angels quietly announced that they will try to play Darin Erstad in center field this season, finally creating room for Casey Kotchman to play regularly at first base. We say "try" to move him to center, because there's considerable doubt that his chronically balky hamstring will hold up over the course of a season there. While the move clears playing time for Kotchman, it raises just as many playing time issues elsewhere. Chone Figgins originally was slated to play center, and now he'll have to slide back down to third base or otherwise play a super-utility role. Occasionally he'll supplant Adam Kennedy at second base. Dallas McPherson goes from potentially starting at third base to a platoon role at DH with Juan Rivera. Somewhere in that mix, Edgardo Alfonzo and Robb Quinlan will vie for the leftover at-bat scraps as well. All of this doesn't address what happens when the Angels deem prospects Kendry Morales, Brandon Wood and Howie Kendrick ready.
It's critical for the Angels to get the playing time decisions right. Their failure to get the offense going in the ALCS against the White Sox only illustrated their greater problem scoring runs over the course of the season. They scored only 761 runs last season, 75 less than they scored in 2004. Yes, Vladimir Guerrero had a DL stint and Adam Kennedy missed the start of the season, but there were other fundamental problems with the offense. Garret Anderson hasn't aged well, losing significant time and power due to what appears to be a chronic back problem. Orlando Cabrera's power numbers also have been in decline. As a team, the Angels slugged just .409 in 2004, ninth in the AL, just barely ahead of Oakland and Toronto.
No player better illustrates the Angels' offensive problems better than Erstad. His last really good season was way back in 2000, which was the only season in his nine-plus years that he's topped the 20-homer barrier. Last year might have been his worst season yet, dropping down to a .273 batting average to go along with his subpar power and on-base numbers. He also stole just 10 bases, down from 16 the year before and 23 in 2002, thus lessening the impact of his one saving grace from a fantasy perspective. All of this has come at the low, low price of $8 million per season, thanks to the four-year contract extension he signed in August of 2002. Yet despite the negative trends, there's precious little pressure from local media to replace Erstad. Orange County columnist Randy Youngman, doing a "New Year's Resolutions" piece, got to the Angels and said for Erstad, "… earn a contract extension by having another 200-hit season--and stay just the way I am." Keep in mind, Erstad has had one 200-hit season in his entire career. So he's great in the clubhouse and good defensively--those are good qualities to have. Nonetheless, Darin Erstad hurts the Angels offensively, and his good qualities don't overcome that fact.
Moving Erstad to center field is a good first step, in that it gets Kotchman in the lineup sooner. After a slow start in 2005, Kotchman's bat came around over the second half, first at Triple-A Salt Lake and later upon his recall by the Angels, where in 126 at-bats he had as many homers as Erstad had all year (seven). A full season of Kotchman in the lineup should at least give the Angels league-average production from the first base slot, something they haven't had in years and now need more than ever. From a defensive perspective, Erstad had an excellent reputation in center field before his move to first base, one that was precipitated by his inability to stay healthy. The questions about Erstad's hamstring linger, so it's a good bet to project a slight reduction in playing time for him due to the demands of the position.
The move essentially switches which player Erstad blocks this year. Instead of Kotchman riding the pine and splitting time at DH with Juan Rivera, now Dallas McPherson will have to scratch and claw for his at-bats. Chone Figgins, who was named the team's co-MVP last year, will move from center field to third base. Given his stolen base total and recently signed three-year deal with the team, there's little chance that he'll be asked to split time with McPherson. Further clouding the playing time picture for McPherson is the acquisition of Alfonzo, who will most often step in at third base when Figgins isn't there. There's a very real chance that McPherson will have to start the year off in Salt Lake. The Angels have the ready-made reasoning that he's coming back from hip surgery and needs the additional time there to regain his stroke, no matter what he does in spring training. Eventually the Angels are going to need to find places to play for Brandon Wood and Kendry Morales, both of whom could play third base if asked. A major league organization lacking young power hitters might do well to try to acquire McPherson on the cheap.
Here's how RotoWire's projections changed as a result of this move. We increased Kotchman's playing time projection by 10% across the board, increasing his strikeout rate slightly because he'll be facing more left-handers. We decreased Erstad's playing time projection by 10%, out of fear of more injuries by playing center field. Alfonzo's playing time projection decreased by 35%, and McPherson took the biggest hit, dropping his projected playing time in half.