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WHEN TORII HUNTER filed for free agency in October, he had no idea which team would sign him. But Hunter thought he knew which team would not come after him. "The Angels," he says. "There was no chance they would call me. They already had way too many outfielders."
If the Angels enjoyed a surplus before, they have an embarrassment of talented outfielders now: Hunter, a seven-time Gold Glove winner whom they signed to a five-year, $90 million contract; Gary Matthews Jr., whom they signed to a five-year, $50 million deal in 2006; Garret Anderson, one of the most accomplished hitters in franchise history; Vladimir Guerrero, one of the game's most dangerous hitters; Reggie Willits, who at the midpoint of last season was an AL Rookie of the Year candidate; and Juan Rivera, who two years ago was the team's second-best hitter. Los Angeles could fill two starting outfields.
Instead, they will put Hunter in center and have everyone else make room for him. Guerrero, Anderson and Matthews Jr. will rotate at the corner spots, with the odd man out serving as designated hitter. Willits could be the most overqualified pinch runner in the league, Rivera the most overqualified pinch hitter. "I worry about it," says Rivera, who also worked out at first base in spring training. "They've got to do something."
Then again, judging by last fall, they need the insurance. On Sept. 20 the Angels had the best record in the majors, but there were signs of trouble everywhere. Matthews suffered from patellar tendinitis in his left knee, which would keep him off the playoff roster. Guerrero was hampered by an inflamed right triceps. Anderson came down with a nasty infection in his right eye. Rivera was still coming back from a broken leg, Willits from a two-month slump. L.A. was swept by the Red Sox in the divisional series, scoring four runs and batting a collective .192.
"To play as well as we did, as long as we did, and then not be able to do it in the playoffs--it was really hard," says Matthews, who as a free agent signed with the Angels thinking he would be the starting centerfielder for several years.
The Rangers, Royals and White Sox went after Hunter, enamored of his speed and grace in the field. The Angels, who ranked second in the AL in stolen bases in 2007 and boasted a solid outfield defense, appeared a less likely suitor. However, Los Angeles--which was particularly adept at putting balls into play (fourth-lowest strikeout total in the AL) but not out of the ballpark (tied for third-lowest home run total)--was intrigued by Hunter's power, which has held up very well into his 30s. The last two seasons Hunter, 32, averaged 30 homers and 103 RBIs. Those numbers are almost certain to slip over the back half of Hunter's contract; for now, though, he provides the middle-of-the-lineup threat needed to thump it out with the AL's other elite teams.
In March 2000 the Angels had a similarly crowded outfield that included Anderson, Jim Edmonds, Darin Erstad and Tim Salmon. Then, as now, everyone wanted to play and no one wanted to be the designated hitter. Ten days before the start of the season the club shipped Edmonds to St. Louis, sparing itself a lot of uncomfortable decisions.
Anybody who needs a centerfielder should call the Angels--again. Although Hunter and Matthews say they can coexist, it is hard for born-and-bred centerfielders to defer. They are taught that every ball is theirs. Three years ago the Mets signed Carlos Beltran to play centerfield and moved Mike Cameron, who had won two Gold Gloves at that position, to right. It wasn't a particularly successful experiment, one that came to a gory end when Beltran and Cameron had a head-to-head collision in San Diego that broke facial bones in both players.
The Angels should boast one of the best outfields in baseball, and certainly the deepest, provided they keep out of each other's way.--Lee Jenkins
CONSIDER THIS a modest proposal ...