Three weeks from today the home plate umpire will shout "Play Ball" and the 55th season of Angels baseball will begin.
Here is a look at the Angels infield in the season ahead.
1B - Albert Pujols
He may not be saying he is in the best shape of his life but he seems to be in the best shape of his Angels career coming into this season. A vintage season of Albert would cement the Halos as front runners in the division. While his MVP days are behind him, his .790 OPS last season was about 75% of the superhuman numbers he put up in St. Louis over eleven seasons. If he could improve on that, fighting father time if only for 162 games and a postseason run, he could help bring a ring home to Anaheim. After Mike Trout he is the most important position player on the team.
C.J. Cron - Albert is the better defensive 1B but Cron's bat is good enough in the lineup that CJ will be on the field more than last year. He played 251 innings there to Pujols' 1,017 innings.
Efren Navarro - Batting from the left side, he seems to have been demoted with the acquisition of Matt Joyce from Tampa Bay, but with the absence of Josh Hamilton for an undetermined time, look for Navarro to sneak in a few games at 1B and in LF.
Howie Kendrick Anyone's Guess
With three weeks to go before opening day as of this writing I could not tell you who will be the opening day Angels second baseman, nor who will play the most innings at the position over the season.
Josh Rutledge - He appears to have the inside track based on little more than the way that giving out playing time seems to consistently be a way of sharing the future love in this organization. Acquired from the Rockies for reliever Jairo Diaz, he is having the lousiest spring of any contender. While less than twenty plate appearances in under half of spring training's games is a terribly small sample size, it is looking like Salt Lake City for Josh at this point from a neutral observation - balance that with him being Dipoto's guy and see what you get, the tea leaves are too cloudy for me.
Johnny Giavotella - He has had a good couple of games this spring and is probably the best pure defender of the group. He could be there on opening day or be cut between now and then, these guys lead stressful lives on the bubble.
Grant Green - He is easily the best choice for an offensive 2B but the defense is still a work in progress and all of his talk about working out at SS in the offseason to prepare him for 2B is still just that - while he is the best option to replace Howie's bat in the lineup he is the worst option to replace Kendrick's glove in the field. The team seems bound and determined to put as many obstacles in Green's way but let me propose a radical idea here - Why not give Green 3 ABs each game and then replace him with a better defender if that night's contest is tight? Just an idea. They did it with Tim Salmon in RF in 2002 with Alex Ochoa. Grant Green is no Tim Salmon but until the ultimate replacement for Howie is found in the next few seasons (if ever), hey, you got a better idea?
Alex Yarbrough - He will be sent to the minor league camp before too long but look for him to be a major league second baseman somewhere, regularly, starting next season. If the team is dying for offense and has no luck with this musical 2B game early in the season, Yarbrough has a smidgen of a chance to get a callup here. He is the minor league player I see as most likely to be traded in July for something that helps the veteran club now.
Taylor Featherston - Grabbed at the Rule 5 draft, he is the crux of the problem - and solution - to this post-Howie Kendrick mess. If he is sent to the minors he would have to pass thru waivers and then be offered back to the Rockies. This probably gives him the inside track to being this year's Maicer Izturis, they guy that gives you your day off at 3B, SS and 2B, but never takes your job.
SS - Erick Aybar
Next to Trout and Pujols, Erick Aybar is the most important position player on the team. If he produces another 4 WAR season like 2014, the Halos will be sitting on top of the AL West.
Anything other than Aybar here is a worst case scenario - Featherston as a backup for days off is all the Halos can afford to see here. There are guys in the minors and sure trades abound if something happens but let's not consider a world where anything happens other than Erick Aybar taking the field every day for his tenth season in an Angels uniform.
3B - David Freese
The best thing about the hot corner in the upcoming season is that it is Freese's contract year. This might not seem important but understand that everyone who is in an athlete's sphere is hyper-focused on him doing not just good but great. The agent, the relatives, the wife, the whole team will be staying out of his way and giving him plenty of room to focus on being as good as possible in 2015 in order to garner a big deal in free agency.
That is about as good as it gets with Freese whose OPS+ of 100 in 2014 made him the average ball player. A little bit more than that would be helpful. Anything less and the team has little to rely on. Perhaps Featherston the supersub arises. Sherman Johnson in the minors could come up for a cup of coffee. Kyle Kubitza has looked downright terrible in limited Spring exposure so where does that leave us? Rooting for Mister Freese is where it leaves us.
This is as good a place as any to mention Roberto Baldoquin. He will likely start the season at High-A San Bernadino for the club but if he has the magic that scouts and staffers say he does, it might be a quick trip up to appear in an infield spot. He appears to be most ready to play SS but 3B and 2B could be where a savior is most needed in Anaheim.
C - Chris Iannetta
This will be Mike Napoli (406 games caught as an Angel) and Jeff Mathis (411) and move into fourth place on the franchise all time standings for a Catcher behind only Bengie Molina (625), Buck Rodgers (894) and Bob Boone (962). It is a contract year for Chris and so, like David Freese, he will be working hard to do great things in order to make that payday. Iannetta is an asset with the bat and only a little lousy behind the plate. He would be next to impossible to replace in a trade and the team has to already be on the lookout for an offseason move were he to make it to free agency and bolt. If he is cruising along well this year, the team might very well drop a three-year deal in his lap.fourth season in red. If he Catches 120 games he will surpass
Drew Butera - the Angels acquired Butera as a backup defense specialist. There is always the fear that Mike Scioscia will overuse a player like this but Iannetta's bat and bad memories of having his Mathis-like dreams of catching perfection shattered in a downpour of sharp criticism will hopefully have left Mike a changed man.
Carlos Perez was acquired in the Hank Conger trade and Jett Bandy is making his way up the organizational ladder. Either would seem to be a place holder for that big question mark in the sky, or as I like to call it, another Molina brother appearing out of the heavens and donning the tools of ignorance for the Halos.
Best Hope: Pujols gives us a taste of his Cardinals years, Grant Green learns to pivot on a double play and hits better than Howie, Aybar is Aybar, Freese gives it a little extra at the plate and Iannetta is Iannetta, maybe even DHing a little on his days off.
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Complete Halos Heaven 2015 Season Previews:
The Infield (LINK)
The Outfield (LINK)
The Starting Pitchers (LINK)
The Bullpen (LINK)
The DH & Bench (LINK)