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Out of Their Depth

Angels don't have much behind outfield starters, and there's no help on the way

May 29, 2003|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer

Just when the defending World Series champions could use a little help in replacing injured center fielder Darin Erstad, there are no angels in the outfield.

The lingering absence of Erstad exposes short-and long-term outfield weaknesses, flaws that have jeopardized the team's chances to return to the playoffs this season and could require costly corrective action.

In the five weeks since Erstad last played, the Angels have fallen from one game to 8 1/2 games out of first place in the American League West, with inconsistent play from substitutes Eric Owens and Jeff DaVanon. And, because the Angels have not drafted many outfielders in recent years, there are few appealing options at the upper levels of the minor league system.

In the seven drafts since they selected Erstad with the first overall pick in 1995, the Angels have not chosen an outfielder in the first three rounds. For the first time since 1983, when Baseball America began its annual ranking of the top 10 prospects in each organization, the Angels have no outfielders in their top 10.

They plan to draft some next week, but the kids selected will be years away from approaching Anaheim and no help as the Angels ponder how long to maintain their current alignment of Garret Anderson in left field, Erstad in center and Tim Salmon in right.

None of the Angels' minor league outfielders has established himself as a player solid enough to start in Anaheim next season. One team official, asked what he sees among the outfielders at the top rungs of the farm system, said dryly, "I don't see a Dunn," a reference to Adam Dunn, the 23-year-old Cincinnati outfielder who leads the major leagues in home runs.

After the Angels won the World Series, General Manager Bill Stoneman chose to keep the championship roster largely intact and offered a contract to reserve outfielder Orlando Palmeiro, who hit .300 last season. When Salmon sat out almost a month because of injury last summer, the Angels went 16-6 and Palmeiro hit .339.

Stoneman read the market correctly but still lost Palmeiro. Stoneman offered him one year at $1 million, same as his 2002 salary -- and the same deal accepted by designated hitter Brad Fullmer, who made $3.75 million last year. Palmeiro wanted two years, guaranteed, and a nice raise. He eventually signed with St. Louis for one year at $700,000.

The Angels replaced Palmeiro with Owens, signed as a free agent for $925,000. Since Erstad's injury, the Angels are 15-17 and Owens is hitting .200, having recently lost playing time to DaVanon. In his fifth stint with the Angels, DaVanon is hitting .452 in his last nine starts after hitting .143 in his first eight.

Once Erstad returns, the Angels can turn their attention from patchwork repair in center field to the long-term outfield foundation.

The Angels could ask Erstad to move to left field or first base next year, in the hope of reducing the injury risk to a player never fearful of diving for balls or slamming into walls. Salmon, at 34, has been on the disabled list four times in the last five years and is regularly removed for defensive purposes, so they could broach the delicate topic of his playing less in right field and more at designated hitter.

But those questions appear moot so long as the Angels cannot produce a prospect ready to replace Erstad or Salmon. They could buy a free agent, of course, or trade away premium prospects at other positions to acquire an outfielder, an expensive price either way and one Stoneman tends to reject.

When they discussed a trade for Carlos Beltran, Kansas City's star center fielder, the Royals asked for a package that started with first baseman Casey Kotchman and catcher Jeff Mathis, two of the Angels' brightest prospects and each a first-round pick. The talks ended there.

Providing the Angels' outfield depth are DaVanon, Gary Johnson, Robb Quinlan and Barry Wesson, none drafted before the 10th round -- and all older than Beltran, 26, who is in his fifth full major league season.

According to a Baseball America study, a first-round draft pick has a one-in-four chance of developing into a major league regular, a second-round pick has a one-in-10 chance, a fifth-round pick a one-in-20 chance.

"If you're not spending premium picks on outfielders, then you're not going to get premium guys through the system," said Allan Simpson, editor of Baseball America. "They've got some pretty marginal guys."

The Angels have not abandoned hope that Johnson might emerge as a corner outfielder or designated hitter or that DaVanon might secure at least a bench spot in Anaheim. Still, the outfielder in that group most likely to start for the Angels next year is Quinlan -- at first base.

That leaves the Angels rooting hard for Nathan Haynes, whom the Oakland Athletics selected in the first round of the 1997 draft and traded to Anaheim two years later, as the key prospect in a five-player deal that sent Randy Velarde and Omar Olivares to Oakland.

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