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As Morales heals, Angels confident in rebound
As Morales heals, Angels confident in rebound
By Lyle Spencer
ANAHEIM -- Rebounding from an uncharacteristic losing season, Angels manager Mike Scioscia sees his glass as half-full. Actually, it's closer to three-fourths full, with a little of the nectar missing.
That would be Kendrys Morales, the slugging first baseman who will open the season on the disabled list as he tries to recover fully from surgery on his lower left leg.
"In some ways, we're really pleased with the way we're moving forward and where we're going," Scioscia said as his Angels put the finishing touches to preparations for Opening Day at 1:10 p.m. PT on Thursday in Kansas City.
"In some ways," he added, "there's not as much clarity with issues as we wanted -- particularly with Kendrys Morales. We see where we're going; we're confident where we are. But until he gets some at-bats, we're not sure where we are."
Joining Morales on the DL to open the season are right-hander Joel Pineiro, left-handed reliever Scott Downs and outfielder Reggie Willits. Pineiro's stay is expected to be short-lived, with the club anticipating his return to work the home opener on April 8 against Toronto.
Willits also should not be out long as he attempts to regain full strength in his strained left calf. Downs, needing some time to regain arm strength and stamina after fracturing a bone in his left big toe, is probably three or four weeks away.
The Angels are looking to absorb the loss of Morales' booming bat with rookie Mark Trumbo getting first crack at first base. Trumbo hit monster shots all spring, just as he has in the Minor Leagues and in the Venezuelan Winter League after a breakout 2009 season at Triple-A Salt Lake.
On the heels of a rare down season after claiming three consecutive American League West titles, the Angels came into the spring with issues involving third base, the fifth starter and closer.
The immediate answers are Maicer Izturis, Scott Kazmir and Fernando Rodney, respectively, but reinforcements are in place on the depth chart.
Scioscia feels Izturis, a sure-handed defender at three positions, is his best leadoff man. But his injury history raises doubts about his ability to withstand a heavy workload.
In support at third are Alberto Callaspo and Brandon Wood. The likely leadoff man on days Izturis doesn't play is Erick Aybar, the ultra-swift shortstop.
Kazmir's erratic 2010 season has been followed by a similar inconsistency this spring. The Angels are hoping he'll rediscover his Tampa Bay form, but there are concerns about diminished velocity and command.
In the wings are Matt Palmer, who showed he can handle the demands of starting in the Major Leagues with a brilliant 2009, and Trevor Bell, one of a collection of young power arms the club has assembled.
Palmer missed much of last season with shoulder issues and had postseason knee surgery that has freed his delivery, giving him range of motion he hasn't felt in six years. Bell was set back by shoulder soreness but is back throwing heat.
Rodney has had dominant efforts this spring and fought his control in others. He'll open as the closer, but if he falters, the line of prospective replacements is long and intriguing.
Power arms Jordan Walden and Kevin Jepsen are rated highly, along with Michael Kohn, and Downs and fellow acquisition Hisanori Takahashi are versatile veterans capable of handling just about anything put in front of them.
While the fifth spot remains a question mark, the top four in the rotation -- Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and Pineiro -- are about as good as it gets.
"We're better than anyone to me," Santana said of the club's starters. "We know how to pitch. I'm always confident. If you're not confident, you're in trouble. Big trouble."
Santana also thinks the Angels have the game's premier defensive outfield now with Vernon Wells and Torii Hunter serving as bookends for Peter Bourjos, fast gaining a reputation as a center fielder with few equals.
"With Torii and Vernon on the corners and Peter in center," Scioscia said, "this can be an incredible outfield, potentially as good as any I've seen."
The trio has blended quickly and seamlessly, with Bobby Abreu -- the principal designated hitter -- serving as the swing outfielder.
Determined to erase the stigma of a career-worst season, Abreu has had a sensational spring.
Catchers Jeff Mathis and Bobby Wilson also have produced offensively beyond expectations, and they're plus defenders. Hank Conger, a gifted receiver and switch-hitter, also is in the mix.
In the heart of the infield, Aybar -- fully recovered from knee and groin ailments -- appears to be back to Gold Glove form. Second baseman Howard Kendrick has refined his footwork to go with fine range.
"With the defensive aspect of our club, we're excited," Scioscia said. "As for Aybar and Kendrick, players never stop growing. I think Howie and Erick have gotten comfortable and are playing as well as we've ever seen them. We're solid at third, and we'll get the job done at first."
Hunter, the vocal and inspirational leader of the club, is characteristically upbeat heading into what he views as a season of redemption.
"I love our athleticism," Hunter said. "We'll have a lot more speed and aggressiveness than last year. A guy like Bourjos, you're on the other team and you see him run and you panic. He's going to force a lot of mistakes. That's game-changing speed.
"We've got a lot of guys who can run. We'll be going first to third, forcing the action. We won't be sitting back waiting for something to happen. Our pitching is top-notch, and defensively, it's night and day. We're so much better than last year.
"I love our chances. I'm not talking about the division. I'm talking about the whole thing."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.