Around the Horn: Middle infield
With longtime second baseman Kendrick gone, Angels to audition quartet of candidates
With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to Tempe, Ariz., by Feb. 19, it's time to dissect the Angels' 2015 roster. This is the second of a seven-part Around the Horn series taking a position-by-position look at projected starters and backup options heading into the season. Next up: Middle infield.
ANAHEIM -- For the first time since basically his Class A days, 31-year-old shortstop Erick Aybar will be turning double plays with someone other than Howie Kendrick.
The pair joined the Angels in 2002, Aybar as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic and Kendrick as a 10th-round Draft pick out of Palatka, Fla. Three years later, they teamed up in Double-A, then came up to the big leagues at around the same time, established themselves as everyday players at around the same time and agreed on extensions to delay their free agencies at around the same time.
The parallel course of their baseball careers finally ended on Dec. 11, when Kendrick was traded to the Dodgers for young starter Andrew Heaney. And now the Angels will try to make up for his absence at second base by committee, throwing an assortment of names against the wall with the hope someone sticks.
The candidates, in no particular order: Josh Rutledge, Grant Green, Johnny Giavotella and Taylor Featherston.
From this group -- all right-handed hitters in their mid-20s, with varying degrees of versatility and uncertainty -- the Angels hope to find their starting second baseman and utility infielder. Rutledge and Green can be stashed in the Minor Leagues, but Giavotella is out of options and Featherston -- a Rule Draft 5 pick -- must be sent back to the Rockies if not on the active roster all season.
The Angels were hopeful of bringing back the recently non-tendered Gordon Beckham, but they weren't willing to meet his demands -- financially or with regards to playing time -- and now figure to move on without him.
Giavotella -- acquired from the Royals on Dec. 19 for journeyman reliever Brian Broderick -- is 27, stands 5-foot-8, has some experience at third base and sports a .238/.277/.334 slash line in 465 career plate appearances in the Majors, spread out over four seasons.
Green has batted .277/.313/.371 with the Angels the last two years and sports a .309/.357/.473 career slash line in the Minor Leagues. Second base is his most comfortable position, and this may be the 27-year-old's best chance to finally earn extended playing time in the big leagues.
Featherston has batted .276/.346/.457 in the Minors since being taken in the fifth round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, playing 242 games at second base, 113 at shortstop and 18 at third. The Angels haven't carried a Rule 5 Draft pick on their roster since Derrick Turnbow in 2000, but they believe Featherston has a chance to stick because he does a little bit of everything and projects as an ideal utility man.
But if there's a favorite in this group, it's Rutledge.
The Angels acquired Rutledge from the Rockies for relief-pitching prospect Jairo Diaz shortly after trading Kendrick, mainly because of his everyday experience while covering for Troy Tulowitzki for extended periods. The 25-year-old appeared in a career-high 105 games last year, batting .269/.323/.405 for the season while serving as an everyday shortstop over the last two months. In 133 career games away from hitter-friendly Coors Field, he has a subpar .628 OPS.
But the Angels see a guy who batted .328/.386/.506 in the Minor Leagues and believe there's more there.
"He's had extended streaks of performance that suggest he has a chance to be better than a Major League utility player, and we're going to give him the opportunity to show what he can do in Spring Training," Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto said. "But we have other players who are going to make it tough on him."
This much is clear: The Angels don't expect one player, or even a group of them, to replicate the 112 OPS-plus Kendrick carried as an everyday second baseman over the last five years.
They hope to supplement that with the addition of Matt Joyce, more consistency out of Josh Hamilton and David Freese, along with another standout season from Aybar.
With a much healthier lower half, Aybar returned to form in 2014. He played in 18 more games, his on-base percentage jumped from .301 to .321, his Ultimate Zone Rating went from minus-6.6 to 7.5, he led American League shortstops in Wins Above Replacement -- 4.1, according to fangraphs.com -- and he brought his usual spark.
"Erick is a guy who always has fun," teammate and good friend Albert Pujols said. "He wants to win, but every time he's on the field, he loves to have fun. It doesn't matter if he's 0-for-4 or if he made an error."
Beyond the active roster: Alex Yarbrough, ranked 11th in the Angels' system by MLB.com, is on the cusp of the big leagues. The 23-year-old batted .285/.321/.397 in Double-A last year, is slated to start 2015 in Triple-A and could be called up as soon as this year's second half. … Roberto Baldoquin, the 20-year-old Cuban middle infielder who was given an $8 million signing bonus this offseason, figures to spend most of the season playing shortstop at Double-A Arkansas. He ranks third in the Angels' system and projects to be Major League ready once Aybar hits the free-agent market after the 2016 season. … Shortstop Eric Stamets, a non-roster invitee for Spring Training, figures to start 2015 in Triple-A. The 23-year-old is considered Major League ready with the glove, but needs to make strides offensively.