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IT WASN'T just the deceptive delivery that appealed to the Angels, or the 111 saves over the past four years, or the career-best 2.73 ERA last season, or the fact that closer Brian Fuentes put up those numbers while playing his home games at Coors Field. There was also the quote that Fuentes gave to his hometown newspaper, the Merced, Calif., Sun-Star, in December: "Anaheim would be a great fit. That would be my first choice."
The Angels are used to being a popular destination for free agents. But after first baseman Mark Teixeira spurned their contract offer of eight years and $160 million, forgive them if they felt a little insecure. Fuentes reminded the club that it is still an attractive draw. "His desire to be an Angel definitely played a part in [our signing him]," general manager Tony Reagins says.
Though Fuentes had a two-year offer on the table from the Cardinals for a reported $16 million to $18 million, he decided to wait for the Angels, knowing they could afford him if they lost Teixeira. Two days before Christmas, Teixeira signed with the Yankees; eight days later Fuentes signed a two-year, $17.5 million contract with Los Angeles.
The Angels had tried to acquire the 33-year-old Fuentes at the trading deadline last July, but not to be the closer. They already had Francisco Rodriguez, who was on his way to setting the major league record for saves in a season (62). And even after Rodriguez signed a free-agent deal with the Mets in early December, L.A. didn't necessarily need to sign a new reliever. The Angels' bullpen is among the deepest in baseball, and they could have promoted a setup man, either Scot Shields or Jose Arredondo. Still, Shields says, "when we got [Fuentes], I was happy. You can never have too much bullpen."
Fuentes is a unique asset—a side-winding, short-arming lefthander with a 91-mph fastball. Plenty of closers throw 91, but not many hide the ball as effectively as Fuentes. He keeps his arm close to his side, making the ball seem as if it's popping out of his body. Lefties hit .219 against him in his seven years with the Rockies, and he struck out a stunning 11.8 batters per nine innings, a ratio better than that of such closers as Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon and K-Rod himself. The far more pitcher-friendly confines of Fuentes's new home park, too, will benefit him greatly.
Fuentes came up through the Mariners' system as a starter with a more traditional over-the-top motion. But he struggled with location—"One game, it's great, and the next game you can't get out of the second inning," he says—and then tinkered with his arm angle. Seattle turned him into a reliever in 2001 and traded him after that season to Colorado, where he earned the nickname T-Rex because of his short-arming.
At Angels Stadium, Fuentes will not have to worry about the altitude, but he will have to cope with more attention. The Angels were hit as hard as any team this off-season, losing Teixeira and Rodriguez. They are counting on Fuentes, along with newly signed outfielder Bobby Abreu—one of the great bargains of the off-season at $5 million for one year—to soften the blow and help deliver their third straight AL West title. The club is October-ready in the starting rotation and bullpen, but the offense, without Teixeira, could use an infusion of patience and power. And face it, even with Teixeira, who had a .449 on-base percentage and slugged .632 in two monstrous months with the Angels, Los Angeles remained a middling offensive team that could muster only 13 runs in its four-game Division Series loss to the Red Sox.
The Angels will not win 100 games again, yet there is little question that they will get to the postseason, where underdogs have ruled since the end of the Yankees' dynasty. With the dependable, Fuentes-anchored bullpen and a similarly deep rotation bolstered by the return of Kelvim Escobar—who missed all of last season with a shoulder injury but was one of the AL's top five starters in '07—the Angels can match the Yankees and Boston arm-for-arm. Power arms win in October and L.A. has more than enough to go deep into the final month.
CONSIDER THIS A Modest Proposal ...