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Pitching and defense keep Angels in the game

The Angels enter a weekend series at Texas in first place in the AL West but have had to overcome the loss of slugger Kendrys Morales and the struggles of their highest-paid player, Vernon Wells.

May 12, 2011|By Mike DiGiovanna
  • The Angels are off to an encouraging start even without first baseman Kendrys Morales, who will miss the entire 2011 season after deciding to have surgery on his injured left ankle.
The Angels are off to an encouraging start even without first baseman Kendrys…

You can't miss what you didn't have. That's the approach the Angels must take toward the latest shot to their solar plexus, news that slugger Kendrys Morales will undergo a second surgery on his left ankle and miss the entire 2011 season.

The Angels (21-17) enter a weekend series at Texas in first place in the American League West, with a $140-million payroll that is being propped up by a number of capable minimum-wage earners.

Yes, Morales was a beast in 2009, when he hit .306 with 34 home runs and 108 runs batted in, and he was off to a monster 2010 (.290, 11 homers, 39 RBIs in 51 games) when he got hurt.

But Morales had not stepped into the batter's box once this season, and there was no guarantee he would have returned to his pre-injury form.

"Even if he came back, he would have been out for a year — you couldn't expect him to jump in and hit homers right away," Angels right fielder Torii Hunter said. "It might have taken days, weeks, months, for him to get back to where he was."

Six weeks into the 2011 season, the Angels have overcome the loss of Morales, as well as the struggles of their highest-paid player, left fielder Vernon Wells, who was batting just .183 with four homers and 13 RBIs when he was placed on the disabled list with a strained groin.

Their rotation, led by Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Joel Pineiro, has a 3.12 earned-run average that is second best in the league.

The bullpen, anchored by rookie closer Jordan Walden, has been erratic but mostly effective. The defense has been excellent.

Erick Aybar (.347), Maicer Izturis (.328), Howie Kendrick (.320), Alberto Callaspo (.302), Peter Bourjos (.290) and Hank Conger (.279) are off to solid starts, and rookie Mark Trumbo, who replaced Morales, is hitting .263 with six homers and 17 RBIs.

Hunter is heating up after a sluggish April, going 16 for 49 in his last 14 games to raise his average from .196 to .241, and Bobby Abreu, though he hasn't found his power stroke, leads the team with a .387 on-base percentage.

"We talked about it last winter, that no matter who we bring in, the lion's share of the improvement would have to come from the guys in-house," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "Our younger guys have to contribute, but I think our core is still terrific."

That's a bit of a stretch, considering a prominent part of that core has been horrific.

Wells, acquired from Toronto in January, could be sidelined for a month. And when he was playing, he was a shadow of his 2010 self, when he hit .273 with 31 homers and 88 RBIs.

"Depth is concern now — we don't have many bats to move in and out if guys are banged up or struggling," Scioscia said. "Hopefully we can create some offense and get Vernon back and productive in some reasonable amount of time."

If not, General Manager Tony Reagins will look to add a power hitter, though he's not ready to dive headfirst into the trade market.

"I'm more inclined to observe how the team does over the next couple of weeks and evaluate it and see where we are," Reagins said. "I don't think we have to rush to make any kind of acquisition."

Among the players who could be available are outfielders Carlos Beltran (New York Mets), Hunter Pence (Houston), Jason Kubel (Minnesota) and Carlos Quentin (Chicago White Sox).

Beltran, 34, is batting .282 with five homers and 18 RBIs and is in the final year of a contract that pays $18.5 million this season. Pence, 28, is hitting .307 with five homers and 31 RBIs for a 14-23 Astros team that is being sold. He makes $6.9 million.

The left-handed-hitting Kubel, 29, is batting .355 with four homers and 20 RBIs and is making $5.25 million. Quentin, who makes $5 million, is hitting .270 with eight homers and 23 RBIs but would only be available if the White Sox fall out of contention.

Working against the Angels: they have very few pitching prospects, which teams covet — they traded away six to acquire Haren and Callaspo last season — and the player every team wants, double-A outfielder Mike Trout, is virtually untouchable.

Other possible trade chips: Catchers Jeff Mathis or Bobby Wilson, whose defensive skills could interest a team such as the catching-thin Boston Red Sox.

Without a trade, the Angels, who lead the AL with a .270 average but are seventh in runs (159) and ninth in homers (32), must hope their pitching and defense hold up, their young players continue to hit, and Wells and Hunter add some muscle to the order.

"We have our pitching and defense, and at the plate we'll have to grind it out," Hunter said. "We've made due with less power for a month and a half, and we're still winning."

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

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