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He's a Keeper

BASEBALL 2004 PREVIEW

Anderson, once considered odd man out in Angel outfield, becomes one of the game's stars

April 04, 2004|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

The irony is not lost on Angel center fielder Garret Anderson or his teammates. All those years the Angels had four quality outfielders -- Anderson, Jim Edmonds, Tim Salmon and Darin Erstad -- from 1996 to 2000, it was always Anderson's name that came up most in trade rumors. Columnists and radio talk-show hosts said he should be dealt for a pitcher, and many Angel fans thought the team could most easily part with him.

"I know," said Erstad, now the Angels' first baseman. "Isn't that crazy?"

Who would have thought then that Anderson -- the singles and doubles hitter who seemed too laid-back for some in the organization, the competent but hardly spectacular defender, would turn out to be the best and most reliable of the bunch?

Edmonds had two superb years after being traded to St. Louis in 2000, but his RBI totals dipped dramatically, to 83 in 2002 and 89 in 2003. Salmon was a 30-homer, 100-RBI guy from 1995 to '97 and again in 2000, but his production has tailed off considerably since. Erstad had a monster 2000 season, batting .355 with 25 homers, 100 RBIs and 121 runs, but he hasn't come close to matching any of those numbers since.

And Anderson? He has hit .299 in the last four seasons, averaging 30 home runs and 120 RBIs and blossoming into "one of the best players in all of baseball," Angel closer Troy Percival says.

Anderson led the American League in doubles with 56 in 2002 and 49 in 2003. He won team most-valuable-player honors the last three seasons, All-Star game MVP honors last summer and had the game-winning, three-run double in the third inning of Game 7 of the 2002 World Series.

Anderson, 31, has never been on the disabled list in nine big league seasons and has sat out only 11 games in four years. He has more hits, 1,508, than all but one player -- Derek Jeter, who has 1,534 -- over the last eight years.

Anderson will bat cleanup this season in a strong Angel lineup, and after developing into a Gold Glove-caliber left fielder the last three years, he will start in center field when the Angels open the 2004 season Tuesday at Seattle.

"I knew it back then," Salmon said. "Everyone was saying, 'You have to trade Garret.' I felt like, 'Hey, get rid of me.' For the betterment of this organization, Garret is a guy you want to keep around. Thankfully, the right people believed that too."

For all the speculation, Bill Bavasi, Angel general manager from 1994 to '99, could not recall a potential deal to trade Anderson.

"We came closer to moving Edmonds," said Bavasi, now the Seattle Mariner GM. "We liked having all the outfielders, and people knew it."

Anderson understood the logic behind the rumors. Edmonds and Salmon were more advanced than he at the time, and Erstad, as the No. 1 pick of the 1995 draft, was considered a prized possession.

"They were thinking, 'Garret is a good player, but he doesn't do anything special,' " Anderson said. "I think that had a lot to do with it."

So did the perception -- warranted or not -- that Anderson lacked grit. Whereas Edmonds and Erstad dived into gaps and crashed into walls, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Anderson was a stranger to grass stains.

With his long arms, long strides and an ability to catch balls off his shoe tops or high over his shoulders, Anderson has always believed he could get to more balls by running and lunging at the final moment instead of diving or sliding.

"When you're running that fast and you go to slide, you slow up -- that's been proven," Anderson said. "The track stars, they lean forward at the tape. Why? Because it keeps you going."

Now that Anderson is one of baseball's most consistent run producers, a two-time All-Star, a World Series hero and the player the Angels look to for the clutch hit, it's interesting how perceptions of him have changed.

Now he's praised for knowing his athletic limits, for realizing he is simply not as acrobatic as Edmonds and Erstad, and that by diving or crashing into walls, he would risk serious injury that would take his valuable bat out of the lineup.

Now Angel fans would be irate if Anderson, who is in the last year of a four-year deal that will pay him $6.2 million, is not signed to a contract extension soon.

"What it all boils down to is numbers," Anderson said. "If I had these numbers the first five years, that 'lackadaisical' would have been 'graceful' and 'smooth.' It's the truth. But you know what? Over nine years of playing and being consistent, people can appreciate that."

Joe Maddon, the longtime Angel bench coach who was the team's director of player development when Anderson was drafted out of Granada Hills Kennedy High in the fourth round in 1990, always has been a believer.

"Garret plays at a gait or a speed that indicates to some people that he doesn't care, but just because it's effortless doesn't mean he doesn't care," Maddon said. "A lot of people misread him early on. The fire within has always been there ... but intensity comes in different forms. Some aren't as demonstrative.

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