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Bill Shaikin / ON BASEBALL

It's a `great' thing they kept Kotchman

June 29, 2007|Bill Shaikin

Maybe that Los Angeles thing is working out for the Angels. The Dodgers' most celebrated Hollywood blogger has taken notice of the Angels.

Or, at least, of their first baseman.

Alyssa Milano, actress and Dodgers season-ticket holder, called him "Angels great Casey Kotchman."

Kotchman hears those words and squirms in his chair. His face reddens, ever so slightly. He appears uneasy, almost mortified.

He just wants to drive in runs, keep his mouth shut and stay off the disabled list. Three months qualifies as a good start, not a great career.

Angels great Casey Kotchman?

"You can't use that," he says. "That's uncomfortable -- and unwarranted."

Or, perhaps, simply premature. After the Angels scoured the country for an elite first baseman, throwing $60 million at Paul Konerko two winters ago and pursuing trades for Todd Helton and Adam LaRoche last winter, they stumbled across a pretty good first baseman in their own clubhouse.

Kotchman, 24, is hitting .319 with eight home runs. Not bad for his first full season in the majors. But look closer: He walks more than he strikes out, with a slugging percentage higher than Albert Pujols'. He's the second-toughest guy in the American League to strike out, behind Detroit second baseman Placido Polanco.

Add on-base percentage to slugging percentage, compare him with other first basemen with 200 at-bats, and he's already among the elite -- tied with Pujols, trailing only Prince Fielder, Mark Teixeira, Ryan Howard and Derrek Lee.

Yet ask him about his highlight this season, and he turns into a Boy Scout: opening day, he says, because his parents and sister flew out from Florida.

He speaks to his father, a scout and minor league manager for the Angels, every day. In the winter, he helps his mother, a principal, at her elementary school.

That good deed almost cost him his career with the Angels.

He spoke to a few students two winters ago. Next thing he knew, he came down with pinkeye and a sore throat. The pinkeye went away. The sore throat never did.

He found out why, but not until he got to spring training and took his physical. The blood tests revealed he had contracted mononucleosis.

He didn't say a word about it. Neither did the Angels. Try to play anyway? Why not?

Kotchman hit .421 in the spring, tired all the time but getting plenty of rest. Then the season started, with constant travel at odd hours, and he hit .152. He played his last game of the year in May, but he didn't feel right again until October.

"It goes through your system along the lines of a tornado going through a city," he said. "It's gone, but you have to build yourself back up."

When he did, he packed for winter ball in Puerto Rico, getting his swing back while adapting to a culture in which red lights and stop signs are merely suggestions.

"The driving there makes the 405 at rush hour a treat," he said. "It's every man and woman for themselves on the road."

The Angels handed first base to Kotchman last year and got burned. They weren't about to do that again, not without exploring a trade, not with mononucleosis following a minor league career that included three wrist injuries, two hamstring injuries, and a bad-hop grounder off his face, all within three years.

"That was the question in everybody's mind: Is this guy ever going to be able to play?" hitting coach Mickey Hatcher said. "He showed us something from day one in spring training. He's just taken off from there. He's a very important part of this lineup."

So important, in fact, that teams that could have traded for him last winter can pretty much forget about it now.

"He might be the best big bat we could have," General Manager Bill Stoneman said.

The working theory, for two years running, is that the Angels need a big bat. The biggest bat available this July might be Teixeira. That could mean swapping Kotchman -- and a pitcher too -- to the Rangers.

"The big bat theory was sound, but we've gone above and beyond that with the emergence of some players," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "This lineup is as deep as we've ever had here. I feel we now have the offense that can pressure a team every inning.

"That [big bat] issue has been tackled with the emergence of four or five bats."

He cites Reggie Willits, Howie Kendrick, Willy Aybar -- and Angels great Casey Kotchman.

Kotchman's father, Tom, the scout, chuckles at the label the actress bestowed on his son.

"It would be nicer if it was Don Mattingly or someone like that," he said.

Milano will do just fine for now. Yes, she has met Kotchman, just once, when she visited Angel Stadium to promote her baseball-themed clothing line. No, they're not dating. Yes, she's a fan.

"He's got the heart, and he's got that young player's mentality of doing whatever it takes to make a play," she said. "The Angels look really good this year. I'm especially taken by his ability. I'm always impressed by the guys that get out there and do their job without fanfare."

She is, you might say, charmed. In this case, so are the Angels.

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bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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Begin text of infobox

Heady company

The top five major league first basemen in OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage):

*--* No. Player Team OPS 1. Prince Fielder Milwaukee 994 2. Mark Teixeira Texas 959 3. Ryan Howard Philadelphia 946 4. Derrek Lee Chi. Cubs 932 t5. Casey Kotchman Angels 928 t5. Albert Pujols St. Louis 928

*--*

Minimum 200 at-bats; through Wednesday.

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Source: mlb.com

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