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Party's Just Getting Started

Imaginative, aggressive management and a steady stream of promising young talent make the Angels not only SI's pick to win it all, but also a potential superpower for years to come

Posted: Tuesday July 10, 2007 11:58AM; Updated: Tuesday July 10, 2007 11:58AM
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Aybar (left) and the
Angels have been relentless in pushing the Dodgers for supremacy in greater
L.A.
Aybar (left) and the Angels have been relentless in pushing the Dodgers for supremacy in greater L.A.
Robert Beck/SI
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Reggie Willits belts a majestic fly ball toward the leftfield foul pole in Baltimore's Camden Yards, a typical blast during batting practice, when coaches groove 55-mph meatballs and players jovially pump balls out of the yard to massage their egos and amuse their teammates. But leaning on the back of the batting cage, Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia is not amused.

"Hey!" he yells at his 26-year-old rookie outfielder. "What was that? That's going to cost you."

Willits hangs his head, chagrined at having been busted. He's a speedy, switch-hitting leadoff man who made it to the majors last season three years after being drafted in the seventh round -- and two years after he whiffed 112 times in A ball -- because he shortened his stroke, developed patience at the plate and became a pest. Willits has not hit a home run in his first 276 big league at bats, but he is a perfect little Angel because at the All-Star break he led all rookies in on-base percentage (.408), walks (40) and stolen bases (18, in 22 attempts).

Scioscia is so insistent that Willits not swing for the fences that he instituted a rule: For every home run he hits in batting practice he must run a lap around the ballpark. When Willits lofted a ball over the wall at Yankee Stadium in May, he complained to Scioscia that the short porch in rightfield was to blame. The appeal was rejected. Willits ran his lap. This time, in Baltimore, Scioscia commuted the sentence because Willits's drive had curved foul.

"I've had to run a bunch of laps," Willits says, "but not that many [lately]. Line drives and ground balls. That's what I need to be working on."

Slugging outfielder and perennial MVP candidate Vladimir Guerrero is the Angels' franchise player, but Willits is the freshest symbol of how, under the discipline of Scioscia and the direction of owner Arte Moreno, the Angels are becoming baseball's model franchise. With their deep pockets, robust farm system, blossoming major league talent and organization-wide culture of unselfishness, they have what it takes to contend for years, perhaps even to dominate in a way that no club has since the Atlanta Braves and the New York Yankees in the 1990s. Willits is just one of many promising L.A. regulars to advance through a development system inspired by Scioscia's principles of aggressive baserunning, smart situational hitting and strong defense -- elements of team play known as the Angel Way.

"Coming up through the minor leagues, everything is charted," Willits says. "How many times you go from first to third base, every time you break up a double play, every sac bunt and every hit-and-run you're given. . . . This is what the Angels do. It's easy for people to buy into it because you see the results."

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