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Morales' health big question heading into '12

Morales' health big question heading into '12

Morales' health big question heading into '12
ANAHEIM -- The Angels have now played a season and two-thirds without their best hitter, Kendrys Morales.

Will the Cuban missile launcher finally make it back to the lineup in 2012 and give the club the equivalent of a wonderful, inexpensive free-agent acquisition?

Morales remains the big question the Angels carry into another intriguing offseason as they try to formulate a consistently productive offense in support of a deep and resourceful staff led by premium starters Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana.

Mark Trumbo, whose season ended on Monday with a stress fracture in his right foot, was a godsend at first base and in the heart of the order in 2011, arriving with modest expectations and performing at a Rookie of the Year level, both offensively and defensively.

As big a force as he was with his towering home runs and searing line drives, Trumbo could not replace the left-handed threat Morales, a switch-hitter, brought to balance the middle of the order.

A return to 2009 form, or close to it, by Morales would solve the biggest issue facing the Angels braintrust. But counting on Morales to recover fully from two surgeries on his left ankle is seen as a leap of faith by most evaluators and analysts, given the nature of his injury and the difficulty in making it back.

That home-plate leap Morales made in May 2010 on the heels of his game-winning grand slam at Angel Stadium is turning out to be the most expensive celebration in franchise history.

The optimistic view is that Morales will be ready to test his left leg in Spring Training after spending the entire '11 season in rehab. If he can hit and run well enough to get around the bases, he can open the season as a designated hitter now that Trumbo has established himself at first.

That would create what Scioscia would call a "happy dilemma," squeezing seven talented bodies -- Trumbo, Morales, Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells, Peter Bourjos, Bobby Abreu and Mike Trout -- into five roles.

Wells came on like gangbusters down the stretch, but the former Toronto star is coming off an uncharacteristically unproductive offensive season. The same is true of Abreu, who experienced a steep decline in power and batting average in 2011. It took Hunter, the third member of the veteran trio, until midseason to get over a leg ailment and regain his stroke, delivering clutch hits in his familiar fashion.

Finding at-bats for these seven players in the three outfield spots, at first and at DH will be a challenge, but one Scioscia won't mind.

It's doubtful the front office will see the need to shop for home improvements in the infield. All-Star Howard Kendrick, Erick Aybar, Maicer Izturis and Alberto Callaspo -- as well as Trumbo and Morales -- are all signed and sealed. All but the absent Morales had exceptional seasons. Overall, the Angels' infield is among the best in the game.

The catching situation seems to need some sort of resolution after Scioscia patched it together most of the season according to matchups.

The pitching, top to bottom, is loaded with quality. The only thing that's missing is a left-handed starter, and Scioscia doesn't believe that is significant.

Catcher: Jeff Mathis and Bobby Wilson are solid receivers, respected by the pitchers for their skills and brains. But neither hit well enough in 2011 to satisfy the public or media -- or, most importantly, the boss in the dugout. Young Hank Conger, a switch-hitter with upside, has to smooth over some rough edges defensively to claim the job. Mathis and Wilson could be shopped in exchange for an offensive upgrade. The free-agent market isn't particularly attractive.

First base: The only question is whether it will belong exclusively to Trumbo or if he'll share the position and DH role with Morales. The most likely scenario has Morales, if he's healthy enough to run, serving as the primary DH in the first half to get his legs back in shape. There is no need to rush him back defensively now.

Second base: Kendrick, improving each season defensively, now brings power to a non-power position, enhancing his value. Izturis, versatile and dependable at three positions, is a luxury few clubs have. Izturis and Kendrick both can hit almost anywhere in the lineup. Izturis is wrapping up a three-year deal, and Kendrick becomes eligible for free agency after the 2012 season.

Shortstop: Aybar is among the best at the position, and Izturis is a perfect backup. Like Kendrick, Aybar has developing power, making him a more complete package. He has become a superb basestealer to go with his superior glove. He can become a free agent after the '12 season. Look for the Angels to try to keep him, along with Kendrick and Izturis.

Third base: Callaspo is a contact hitter and solid defender. The downside is that he brings little power to a power position and doesn't run well. Izturis is highly capable and does some things better than Callaspo, but he's prized for his versatility. A deal is unlikely given that this is arguably, along with catcher, the most difficult position to fill with an all-around talent.

Left field: Wells is locked in for three more years, and he's optimistic he'll rebound for a disappointing debut season in Anaheim with a performance closer to what characterized his decade as the Blue Jays' centerpiece. He made a seamless transition to left and joins Bourjos and Hunter in a matchless threesome. Trout, capable of handling all three outfield spots, is knocking on the door, loudly. On most teams, he'd be a lock to start in 2012.

Center field: Bourjos is fast becoming the gold standard defensively, and he improved by leaps and bounds offensively as the season moved along. He should be ready to take the leadoff role full-time and approach .300 with 50 to 70 steals and 15-homer pop. He's the total package. Try to find a team in MLB history with the depth the Angels have at this position, with Wells, Trout and Hunter available if Scioscia needs them. That's 12 Gold Gloves already claimed (nine by Hunter, three by Wells) and perhaps a dozen or more on the way from Bourjos and Trout combined.

Right field: Hunter gave up center for Bourjos, an unselfish act, and turned right into his domain, playing it as well as anyone in the game while featuring an accurate cannon that produced a career high in assists. Trout and Abreu are on the depth chart here, but if Hunter is healthy, he doesn't need much backup.

Rotation: Weaver, Haren and Santana give the Angels a top three the equal of any in the Majors. Out of nowhere, Jerome Williams' strong finish gave him a leg up for the No. 4 spot. Trevor Bell, Tyler Chatwood and Garrett Richards are talented youngsters capable of putting it all together and becoming consistent winners. Bringing back Joel Pineiro after an offseason at a lower cost is an option, but doesn't seem likely.

Bullpen: It's unlikely Fernando Rodney, also a free agent, will be back after an ongoing struggle with control. Anchored by young closer Jordan Walden and setup men Scott Downs, Bobby Cassevah and Hisanori Takahashi, this group is deep and loaded with strong, young arms. Michael Kohn, Kevin Jepsen and Francisco Rodriguez, each enduring disappointing 2011 seasons, figure to be fired up for the challenge of reclaiming roles along with the likes of Bell, Rich Thompson, Jason Bulger, Matt Palmer and Horacio Ramirez. No need for expensive upgrades here.

Blessed with so many young athletes with upsides along with a formidable corps of veterans, the Angels don't appear to have major winter needs. If Morales can make it back, they're set.

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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