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Halos cover their bases with talented infield

Halos cover their bases with talented infield

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Mike Scioscia was a young, impressionable catcher during the final leg of an eight-year run, the longest in Major League history, by a Los Angeles Dodgers infield featuring Ron Cey, Bill Russell, Davey Lopes and Steve Garvey, from third to first.

Now helping formulate master plans for the Angels as a two-time American League Manager of the Year, Scioscia is optimistic he can assemble something similar to that dynamic foursome for years to come in Anaheim.

The names are Brandon Wood, Erick Aybar, Howard Kendrick and Kendry Morales, with Maicer Izturis in the picture as a one-man support system.

"I don't know if you plan to lock up an infield, an outfield, a pitching staff," Scioscia said on a rainy Sunday, his athletes confined to hitting and throwing bullpen sessions inside cages and under cover at Tempe Diablo Stadium. "But we do have a young infield that's very talented.

"The fact you have guys intact -- much like the Dodgers during those years, playing together six, seven years -- there are some inherent advantages to guys understanding every nuance of playing together and positioning, playing hitters.

"That also applies to our catchers, knowing the pitching staff and how to call a game."

Chone Figgins over the winter became the latest veteran Angels infielder to depart entering what likely will be the second half of his career.

When the dynamic leadoff man and Gold Glove-caliber third baseman signed a four-year, $36 million deal with the Mariners, he followed such equally popular infielders as Troy Glaus, David Eckstein, Adam Kennedy, Orlando Cabrera and Casey Kotchman out the door.

It's not that the Angels didn't embrace and appreciate these highly productive athletes. Concluding that they had an abundance of young infield talent on the way, they bit the bullet on each occasion.

CHANGING FACES
Year
1B
2B
SS
3B
2000VaughnKennedyGilGlaus
2002SpiezioKennedyEcksteinGlaus
2004ErstadKennedyEcksteinFiggins
2006Kendrick/QuinlanKennedyCabreraIzturis
2008KotchmanKendrickAybar/IzturisFiggins
2010MoralesKendrickAybarWood/Izturis

Aybar and Kendrick have shown uncommon skills offensively and defensively in the heart of the infield along with Izturis, who arrived along with Juan Rivera in a trade after the 2004 season that sent Jose Guillen to Montreal. That was another example of the Angels surrendering proven talent for youthful upside.

A vital infield piece arrived dramatically last season. Morales, still absent from camp as he finalizes immigration paperwork, emerged as one of the game's rising young power hitters and a quality defender at first to take the sting out of losing Mark Teixeira to the Yankees in free agency.

In each case, the Angels have flourished with youthful, less expensive alternatives for fixtures the fans -- and staff -- hated to see leave.

"Why a veteran leaves, there are a lot of reasons for it," Scioscia said. "There's an opportunity [financially] for them an organization might not be able to match. It might be [more] playing time. Resources come into play. There's been some talent in this room that played here a long time and hasn't come back.

"I don't know if it's running guys out to make opportunities for younger guys. There's only so much revenue a team has to put a championship-caliber team on the field."

Asked about Figgins, Scioscia said his former catalyst "had mixed emotions but got an unbelievable deal. He loved it here, and we are going to miss him."

Now it is Wood's turn to show he is up to the challenge with his sure hands, accurate arm and thunder in his bat. Former Minor League teammates such as Kendrick and Aybar are convinced he won't stumble.

Buying out two years of free agency with Izturis, handing him a three-year, $10 million contract, the Angels have all five of their core infielders under contract at least through 2012.

For a total outlay of $8.05 million -- almost $1 million less than the salary Figgins will command in Seattle this season -- the Angels have all five under contract this season. That includes the $500,000 signing bonus that brings Izturis to $3.1 million, the highest figure of the five.

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Aybar, Izturis and Kendrick are under club control through 2012, Morales through 2013, Wood through 2014. These are highly manageable contracts for a collection of infielders who could match any in the Majors in offensive production and defensive skills.

The Angels are equally protected for the future behind the plate. Mike Napoli, 28, and Jeff Mathis, 26, form a tandem few clubs can match for power (Napoli) and defense (Mathis). In support are capable Bobby Wilson and Ryan Budde, and the organization's premium position prospect, Hank Conger, is only a year or two away at 20.

The departures of the Molina brothers, Bengie and Jose, created openings for Napoli and Mathis.

Scioscia recalls that the makeup of the club was entirely different when he assumed the reins in 2000.

"It depends on where the talent is with your young players," Scioscia said. "When [Tim] Salmon, [Darin] Erstad and [Garret] Anderson came up, we had a very young outfield and veteran guys in the infield.

"I don't think there's an organization out there that doesn't have its finger on the pulse of the club. This is where our scoring and development staffs come into play. Age isn't a negative. If you don't have that youth in the organization that is developing and coming up through the ranks, it's going to be tough.

"These are guys we've been talking about for five years now -- Aybar, Kendrick, Wood, Napoli, Mathis, [Dallas] McPherson. A lot of these guys have come up and are feeling comfortable in the big leagues."

Among those players, only McPherson, a non-roster invitee of the Athletics, is not with the Angels. Largely because of injuries, he never really connected at third base as the successor to Glaus.

Those critics comparing Wood to McPherson would get a stiff argument from infield coach Alfredo Griffin, who, along with Minor League instructor Rob Picciolo, has worked to develop the rangy Wood since he signed as a first-round pick in 2003 out of Scottsdale (Ariz.) Horizon High School.

"He's going to be fine," Griffin said. "If you can play shortstop, you can play anywhere. Brandon is very good defensively, and he can hit.

"We have a lot of versatility in our infield. They're young, but they can play [multiple] positions. Wood can play third, short and first. Izturis can play third, short and second. Aybar can play second as well as short.

"These guys are young and good. It's been a long time since I've seen that kind of young talent in an infield."

The best part is, they could work and play together for years to come, developing the harmony and timing of the Beatles -- or Cey, Russell, Lopes and Garvey.

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

{"content":["spring_training" ] }
{"content":["spring_training" ] }