By Tony Jackson
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Angels manager Mike Scioscia said Wednesday that outfielder Gary Matthews, who proved this year to be a valuable presence in the middle of the lineup, will begin next season back at the top, either leading off or batting second. Third baseman Chone Figgins will occupy whichever of those spots Matthews doesn’t.
The switch is a nod to last week’s addition of free-agent center fielder Torii Hunter, who likely will bat fifth behind Vladimir Guerrero and Garret Anderson.
“Obviously, Vlad will be the keystone,” Scioscia said. “It will be a question of whether we are setting the table enough. Whether teams are pitching to Vlad or not, you have to create (run-scoring) opportunities. The whole lineup is contingent on how the pieces fit and whether we’re setting the table enough for Vlad or we need to adjust.”
Scioscia said likely No. 9 hitter Erick Aybar — who probably will be the Angels’ primary shortstop no matter how much club officials continue to pay lip service to Maicer Izturis as a candidate for the job — also figures into that tablesetting formula for later innings.
Scioscia contined to say that outfielders Anderson, Guerrero, Hunter and Matthews will rotate into the designated hitter role so they all can be part of the everyday lineup and each can get adequate playing time in the outfield. But Hunter is a seven-time Gold Glove winner, and Matthews, who figures to see time at all three spots, also is an above-average defensive outfielder. That means Anderson and Guerrero likely will get the bulk of the DH duty, perhaps as many as 60-70 games apiece, and that is a role neither of them relishes.
“We want to keep those four bats … connected in the lineup for as many games as we can, so one of them is obviously going to have to DH,” Scioscia said.
With the Dodgers and Seattle the perceived frontrunners in the bidding for Japanese free-agent pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, Mariners manager John McLaren sounded cautiously optimistic two weeks after traveling to Japan with general manager Bill Bavasi for a face-to-face meeting with the right-hander.
“I don’t think we’re in the driver’s seat, but I like our chances,” McLaren said. “I was very impressed speaking with him. One thing that impressed me was that he put a list of questions in front of us, and they were about his family more than him. It shows what kind of player he is. We know he is a bulldog. He is a control guy, a fierce competitor, and we like his ability. He is well scouted, and we have had him well scouted.
“I don’t care who is the frontrunner as long as we get him. That is the bottom line.”
With the Mariners, Dodgers and Arizona all having offered Kuroda a three-year deal between $27 million and $33 million, the Mariners are believed to be on the verge of increasing their offer to four years — something that almost certainly would prompt the Dodgers to follow suit at a time when Kuroda appears to be their last chance of landing a frontline pitcher.
Dodgers GM Ned Colletti declined to say whether he was prepared to offer Kuroda more than a three-year contract.
A major-league source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the team’s spring-training trip to China and Taiwan is set and that the only reason it hasn’t been announced is that the accompanying paperwork isn’t complete. The Dodgers are slated for split-squad exhibition games with San Diego on March 14-15 in Beijing, followed by one or two games with a Taiwanese national team over the ensuing two or three days.