Is Tim Salmon finished as an All-Star-caliber hitter? Salmon, the Angels' rightfielder, kicked that question around after a pathetic 2001 season in which he had a slugging percentage (.383) more feeble than those of lightweights Cesar Izturis and Jose Macias. "It was embarrassing," Salmon says of last year, when he hit .227 with 17 homers and 49 RBIs with a weakened left shoulder. "You do sometimes say, 'Man, is my shoulder ever going to feel strong again? Am I ever going to be the same again?' "
Then, three months into a workout regimen that began three days after the season ended, Salmon stepped into a batting cage for the first time and emphatically drove away any doubt. "Right away—I mean right away—I could feel it," he says. "The ball just jumped off my bat again. It was like, Wow, where was that last year?"
Over the winter Anaheim added free-agent righthander Aaron Sele; acquired righty Kevin Appier in a trade with the Mets for a homesick, hefty Mo Vaughn and a pizza to be named later; and brought in its first full-time DH since Chili Davis by getting Brad Fullmer from the Blue Jays for minor league pitcher Brian Cooper. However, the Angels' season hinges on whether their list of additions include the former, better versions of Salmon and centerfielder Darin Erstad, who pulled an equally baffling disappearing act last season. Erstad had a higher batting average (.355) in 2000 than MVP Ichiro Suzuki did last year (.350) but then sunk to .258.
Salmon, 33, and Erstad, 27, have relative youth on their side and no systematic pattern of decline. Each offered forensic evidence to explain his crash. Salmon's shoulder was so weak that he couldn't lift weights all season, which caused him to drop about 20 pounds, to 212. He reported to camp this spring at a robust 240. Erstad, who would seem due to rebound if only because he's a .322 hitter in even years and .269 in odd ones, suffered from back and knee ailments and the emotional fallout of a marriage breakup.
Salmon and Erstad hit 33 fewer homers and drove in 85 fewer runs combined than they did in 2000. That helped drop the Angels to 12th in the American League in runs. Also abetting the decline—and provoking the need for Fullmer—were the DHs, who were the least productive in the league (.212, eight homers).
Anaheim did stay in the wild-card race deep into the season—at least until a 6-25 flameout—thanks to the progress of young starters Jarrod Washburn, Ramon Ortiz and Scott Schoeneweis. Largely because of them, Oakland's rotation was the only one in the league that threw more innings than the Angels'. Says pitching coach Bud Black, "All of them should be better with another year under their belts." Or three. Ortiz, known as Little Pedro because of his resemblance to Martinez, aged three years under the crackdown on visas. He's 29, or only one year younger than Pedro Classic.
The only rotation filled entirely with double-digit winners from a year ago falls into the soft hands of catcher Bengie Molina—that is, unless his kid brother Jose takes his job away. Bengie, 27, never caught until he signed as a pro in 1993, rushing to Kmart to buy the catcher's mitt he used in rookie ball. Jose, 26, a lifelong receiver, tutored his older brother. "I kid him all the time, 'Don't forget. I'm the teacher. You're the student,' " Jose says.
They played together briefly in the big leagues last year, with Jose (.270 in 15 games) and Bengie (.262 in 96 games) showing a familial resemblance in batting averages. Another brother, Yadier, 19, is a catcher in the Cardinals' system.
One way or another, the Brothers Molina (See them catch! Gasp at their throws!) and the rest of the Angels are a changed team. To the dismay of no one but Martha Stewart, they ditched the unis that featured periwinkle in favor of a red-dominated ensemble. Now they can only hope that Salmon and Erstad are as completely transformed.
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