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Angels looking beyond the big three

Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton figure to produce, but the key to the lineup's success might be who bats second.

February 14, 2013|By Mike DiGiovanna
  • The Angels will rely on the bats of Josh Hamilton, Mike Trout and Albert Pujols but the team still has to figure out how to set the rest of the lineup.
The Angels will rely on the bats of Josh Hamilton, Mike Trout and Albert Pujols… (Morry Gash / Associated…)

TEMPE, Ariz — The Angels should have plenty of firepower this season with Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Mike Trout, who combined for 103 home runs and 316 runs batted in last season and have four most-valuable-player awards, two rookies of the year, 10 Silver Sluggers and 15 All-Star game selections among them.

"I don't think I'll be going to the bathroom any time during the game," said ace Jered Weaver, who famously violated baseball superstition by using the restroom after the eighth inning of his no-hitter last season. "I don't want to miss anything."

But as good as that trio is, there are questions as to how to fill the gaps between and behind them — and, perhaps, how to arrange Pujols and Hamilton in the middle — to maximize an offense the Angels will be depending on to snap a three-year playoff drought.

The dynamic Trout will lead off, Pujols will hit third, Hamilton will bat cleanup, and Mark Trumbo, who hit a team-leading 32 homers last season, will bat fifth. Beyond that, "There are a lot of things to consider," Manager Mike Scioscia said.

First is who bats second, a spot the departed Torii Hunter filled so capably in 2012, when he hit .343 with 69 RBIs in 85 games after being inserted between Trout and Pujols in early June.

Shortstop Erick Aybar, second baseman Howie Kendrick and third baseman Alberto Callaspo are the candidates.

"We're going to match up until we find some chemistry there," Scioscia said. "Ideally, you'd want one guy to get on base and do everything so your lineup is pretty stable, but that might not be the case."

The ideal No. 2 hitter would be patient enough to give Trout a chance to steal, be able to bunt, hit-and-run and advance runners with grounders to the right side, set the table for Pujols and Hamilton and have good speed.

Callaspo, a switch-hitter and the most patient of the three, has the best career on-base percentage (.335) but has the least experience and success hitting second, where he has a .247 average and .303 OBP in 85 career starts.

The free-swinging Kendrick, who has a .328 career OBP, has a .257 average and .294 OBP in 173 starts in the two-hole. He opened last season batting second and hit .273 with 23 strikeouts and three walks in 21 games before being dropped in the order April 30.

But most of Kendrick's starts in the second spot came before Trout was called up and before Pujols, who hit .194 with no homers and five RBIs through May 4, found his stroke.

The switch-hitting Aybar, who has a .320 career OBP, is the fastest of the three and an excellent bunter. He has a .285 average and .330 OBP in 129 career starts in the second spot and hit .432 with a .475 OBP in 10 starts there last season. But he has never been known for patience.

If Aybar hits second, Callaspo and Kendrick would probably bat sixth and seventh, followed by catcher Chris Iannetta and speedy center fielder Peter Bourjos.

When the Angels signed Hamilton on Dec. 15, Scioscia considered hitting him second, but four days later the Angels traded cleanup batter Kendrys Morales to Seattle, leaving a void behind Pujols.

"He might get a few more at-bats, and his speed would play, but to lengthen the lineup, it makes more sense to have him hit cleanup," Scioscia said of Hamilton. "We'll adjust if we have to."

No player in baseball saw fewer fastballs last season than Hamilton (44.6%), and no one swung at more pitches outside the strike zone (45.4%). With Trout on base and Pujols on deck, Hamilton could see more fastballs in the second spot.

But despite his speed, Hamilton is not an ideal two-hole candidate because he is so aggressive and strikes out a lot. Last season, he swung at the first pitch in 103 of 636 plate appearances — though he hit .412 with nine homers on those swings — and whiffed a career-high 162 times.

"We want to take advantage of Albert's OBP," Scioscia said, "so Josh hitting behind him makes sense from a balance and production standpoint."

Pujols and Hamilton have been No. 3 hitters for most of their careers. Scioscia believes Pujols' career .414 OBP makes him a better fit in front of Hamilton, who has a .363 career OBP. But Hamilton (.354) had a better OBP than Pujols (.343) last season.

Hamilton's RBIs — he had 128 last season — could suffer because the slow-footed Pujols, who is recovering from knee surgery, will bat in front of him. And he'll be one more spot removed from Trout, who scored 129 runs in 139 games in 2012.

During batting practice this week, "I asked Albert, 'Are your legs loose?' " Hamilton said. He was joking … kind of.

"I'm not sure it will matter how we line up," Hamilton said. "I think there's going to be plenty of opportunities."

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

Twitter: @MikeDiGiovanna

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