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Angels juggle options to find fit at leadoff

Angels juggle options to find fit at leadoff

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Angels juggle options to find fit at leadoff
ANAHEIM -- The heart of the Angels' lineup -- Torii Hunter, Kendry Morales and Vernon Wells -- is in place.

The rotation and bullpen are deep and proven, despite some concern over the identity of the closer.

The lineup is relatively set, except for third base and catcher, where three candidates at each position will compete for playing time.

What remains to be resolved is a winter-long issue involving the leadoff role. Who will emerge, and how successful will he be in setting a potentially strong offense in motion?

Pending the arrival of an experienced leadoff man such as free agent Scott Podsednik, here's a look at the candidates:

Erick Aybar

Entrusted with the leadoff role in Chone Figgins' absence, Aybar had a disappointing start with .330 and .305 on-base percentages in April and May, respectively. In the prevailing evaluation, the pressure of living up to the responsibilities had a negative impact on the athletic shortstop after a brilliant 2009 season.

What's interesting, however, is that his season numbers leading off were not all that bad: .279 batting average, .336 on-base percentage, .370 slugging in 95 games, with 60 runs scored. His slash line in 103 career games leading off is .282/.338/.375. Lifting the OBP about 12 points would make him a respectable leadoff man.

Manager Mike Scioscia felt Aybar became too selective when he should have been aggressive, thinking he needed to take more pitches. This led to hacking at pitchers' pitches when he fell behind in counts.

It's a delicate balance all good leadoff hitters eventually find. Keep in mind that Figgins wasn't an overnight success in the role. He was seen as a guy who was too aggressive early in his career for the role, swinging at too many first pitches. When he found his comfort zone, he became one of the best.

It's too early to give up on Aybar, still maturing at 27. Raising his confidence and comfort levels is the key.

Maicer Izturis

Scioscia is Izturis' No. 1 fan. The only quality that concerns the boss is the versatile Venezuelan's ability to stay healthy. Izturis played a career-high 114 games in 2009 but fell to 61 last year after suffering a shoulder injury. Previously in his career he was disabled by thumb, back, hamstring and knee issues.

If Scioscia can get 114 games again out of Izturis, he'd be thrilled with the .300 batting average and .359 on-base percentage the switch-hitter put together in '09.

Izturis' career slash line as a leadoff man is .253/.326/.364 in 52 starts. That is down from his .275/.340/.390 overall line in seven seasons. Yet Izturis loves to lead off and feels he could handle it given the opportunity to play regularly. He'll be given a shot at claiming third base in the spring.

Izturis, Scioscia has said, is his best leadoff man and also his best No. 2 hitter. One way to deepen the lineup would be to have Aybar and Izturis as table-setters, followed by the big bats. Izturis is a career .323 hitter with runners in scoring position.

Bobby Abreu

Abreu had a run of seven consecutive 100-plus RBI seasons end in the worst of his 14 Major League seasons last year. With a .255/.352/.435 slash line, he was far off his career .296/.400/.488 numbers.

Abreu did, however, reach 20 homers for the ninth time and 40 doubles for the seventh time. He's still dangerous; while his plate discipline and baserunning skills -- 24 steals in 2010 -- make him a fit leading off, he flourishes with men on base.

Abreu, in 20 starts leading off, had a .263/.356/.474 line last year. His career leadoff line, 49 starts, is impressive: .286/.391/.500.

Reggie Willits

The switch-hitter is the most natural of all the leadoff candidates. It's a role he is comfortable with, having handled it throughout his professional career. Yet Willits' roadblock is obvious. He has no shot at playing on a regular basis unless Peter Bourjos doesn't hold the regular job in center field or an injury sidelines Hunter, Abreu or Wells.

In 91 career starts leading off, the highly selective Willits has a .246/.349/.300 line. In 2007, with Garret Anderson injured, Willits had 71 starts leading off and came in at .267/.359/.322 on his way to club rookie records in batting average (.293) and OBP (.391).

Howard Kendrick

The second baseman has spent most of his career hitting second, sixth and seventh. In 11 leadoff starts, he owns a .255/.327/.404 line. He is considered too aggressive a hitter to lead off, but his plate discipline is improving and he is an excellent baserunner. He had a career high 14 steals last year and has an impressive 75 percent career success rate.

Several teammates feel Kendrick would adapt to the role, pounding more fastballs than he sees lower in the lineup. But it's a doubtful move.

Alberto Callaspo

Even if he lands the third-base job with a strong spring, Callaspo does not, in terms of career performance and speed, fit the leadoff profile. His career offensive line is .278/.327/.393. In 58 games with the Angels after arriving from Kansas City, he struggled to find his stroke with .249/.291/.315 production.

He has a total of 10 career steals with a success rate of 59 percent. A contact hitter who rarely strikes out, he's better suited to hitting second or down in the order with his gap power.

Bourjos? Scioscia will not put leadoff pressure on the developing hitter this early in his career.

Best guess: Aybar gets first crack again unless Izturis claims third with a strong, healthy spring.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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