Angels have options at top of order
Should free-agent Figgins leave, club has suitable fill-ins
ANAHEIM -- Raising his on-base percentage a whopping 39 points, from .356 in six previous seasons to .395, Chone Figgins affirmed his stature as an elite leadoff man in 2009, taking his place alongside the Yankees' Derek Jeter and the Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki as the best in the Majors.
With his ability to get on base and prevent opponents from reaching with his glove at third and several other positions, Figgins is in demand in the free-agent market.
The Angels' exclusive negotiating rights to their dynamic catalyst expire on Friday, raising questions among fans regarding the team's in-house options to replace Figgins at the top of a batting order that produced a club-record 883 runs.
There is no shortage of candidates, with as many as six from the 25-man roster that manager Mike Scioscia took into postseason play.
In alphabetical order, Bobby Abreu, Erick Aybar, Maicer Izturis, Howard Kendrick, Gary Matthews Jr. and Reggie Willits could assume the leadoff role if Figgins doesn't return or a deal is not completed for a proven leadoff man.
A capsule look at the candidates:
Abreu -- There is no doubt the lord of home-plate discipline could handle the job. He had a .390 on-base percentage and was fifth in the American League in pitches seen and pitches per at-bat -- trailing good buddy Figgins in both categories. He also stole 30 bases, his most since 2005.
The question is whether you want a guy who has driven in at least 100 runs for seven straight seasons atop the order, rather than in the No. 3 spot, with his .354 average with runners in scoring position. Abreu prefers hitting third, although he'll do whatever the team needs.
Aybar -- In part because of Abreu's influence, the dazzling shortstop made great strides in his strike-zone judgment in '09, improving his OBP from .314 in '08 to .353 while hitting a team-high .312. If he can lift it another 10-15 points and become a more confident baserunner, Aybar could be a quality leadoff man.
He has not yet learned how to take full advantage of his blazing speed on the bases, in the fashion of Figgins, but Aybar has shown a willingness to learn. His upside is tremendous. He also could slide comfortably into the No. 2 spot while continuing to improve his plate discipline.
Izturis -- His role as an all-purpose infielder appears to also apply to where he hits in the lineup. He's once again a fallback option at three positions unless he claims third base outright if Figgins exits and heir apparent Brandon Wood is dealt or falters. Scioscia loves having Izturis as a pawn to move around with his remarkable versatility in the field and at the plate.
Izturis also made a significant gain in OBP (.329 to .359) with Abreu's tutelage and is a smart, aggressive baserunner. A switch-hitter, like Aybar, Figgins, Matthews and Willits, Izturis is comfortable against lefties and righties. He scored 74 runs in 114 games in '09 and would love to lead off. A quality player, he'd handle the role with customary aplomb.
Kendrick -- His inclusion probably raises eyebrows, but Darren Oliver -- another free agent who has been an astute judge of talent as a bullpen rock the past three years -- thinks the second baseman could thrive leading off, seeing more fastballs than he does down in the order.
Kendrick's .333 on-base percentage in 357 Major League games would seem to work against him. But his .351 average from July 4 to the end of the season underscores the notion that he could be an Ichiro-type leadoff hitter, hitting for high average while continuing to develop better strike-zone judgment. Like Aybar, Kendrick has just scratched the surface of his potential as a baserunner and has the ability to steal at least 20 bases.
Matthews -- For the first half of his first season with the Angels in 2007, Matthews might have been the club's MVP, providing offense in the No. 1 and No. 4 spots in the order along with excellent defense in center field. He had a .365 OBP leading off before an injury to Vladimir Guerrero forced a move into the cleanup spot in mid-May. Matthews' season -- and Angels career -- turned when he damaged his right knee chasing a Ken Griffey Jr. homer in mid-June.
The signing of Torii Hunter, a stroke of fortune for the player and the club, made Matthews a fourth wheel in the outfield in 2008, and he has been a frustrated player ever since. He yearns to find a new home enabling him to play center full time. But if a deal can't be completed -- he's owed $23 million for two more years -- Matthews could be an option as a swing outfielder and part-time DH in the leadoff spot. He was effective enough leading off for the Rangers in 2006 to make the AL All-Star squad, scoring 102 runs with a .371 OBP.
Willits -- Another talented athlete, Willits has been undone by injuries the past two seasons. Like Matthews, Willits, another switch-hitter, excelled in the first half of 2007 when Garret Anderson was sidelined, emerging as a valuable performer. Willits finished his rookie year with club records for freshmen in batting average (.293) and on-base percentage (.391), scoring 74 runs in 136 games.
Only Abreu (and Figgins, if he returns) among Angels hitters has Willits' plate discipline. His 4.44 pitches per at-bat in '07 led the AL. Willits is a smart, aggressive baserunner, having stolen 27 bases in his rookie year. No kid at 28, he's eager to make up for two disappointing seasons, having played a total of 131 games since his rookie year, primarily as a late-innings chess piece.
While there isn't a Figgins in the bunch, there certainly is some strength in numbers.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.