Spring is in the air for Vlad, Angels

Tim Brown

TEMPE, Ariz. – Opening day is a month away, and it's beginning to look like Vladimir Guerrero will make it.

He's leaner. He has rediscovered the weight room. And his right knee is recovering from offseason surgery, which cleaned up some cartilage damage and, he hopes, will relieve him from three years of on-and-off pain.

He's not in games yet, but he's wearing out midmorning batting practice pitchers and those little orange cones he skirts in the outfield.

So, Guerrero toils mostly away from view, and isn't that the perfect symbolism for his ballclub?

The Los Angeles Angels remain decorated and capable.

They also are overlooked in their league because of what old friend Joe Maddon has done with the Rays and an all-new generation of Steinbrenners has done in New York and what the Red Sox have done to them in October.

They are, for the moment, overlooked in their city because Manny has drenched it in blue again, because the Dodgers went to the league championship series and they didn't, and because their best player – Mark Teixeira – will play for the Yankees instead.

They should win the AL West again, so they again are relevant. They recovered from the Teixeira negotiations, so they again are dangerous.

"We chopped Tex up into three pretty good ballplayers," manager Mike Scioscia said, meaning closer Brian Fuentes and outfielders Juan Rivera and Bobby Abreu. "Those are certainly three guys we wouldn't have if we had signed Tex."

But, it remains the club that was so offensively dynamic with Teixeira around, and now doesn't have him.

And it still is the club that goes soft in October, and that's months from being solved.

So, at a time when the Angels could be looking for a fresh identity and certainly seek a different outcome, wouldn't it be fitting if their man is again Guerrero, again upright and strong?

They say he has fixed his right knee, the one that holds up and stabilizes his back leg at the plate. They say he'll run freer, the way he did before a gradual decline in right field caused a gradual increase in at-bats as a designated hitter.

"He looks good," Torii Hunter said, "better than last year. No limp or anything.

"I saw him running those cones all day yesterday. He looked like he was 25."

There are elements that make the Angels different. The way they run the bases. They way they adhere to Scioscia's offensive philosophies. They way show up and play hard and that is that. But no one and nothing has made them more different than when Guerrero was at his most productive, slashing and chopping and lunging … and making it all work. He still is working on that run of consecutive seasons of 25 or more home runs and a .300 or better average. Last season made it 11, which only Lou Gehrig can claim.

He said he feels better, and his grin confirms it. He said he'll show up on opening day ready to play. And he said there's a lot more here and to the Angels than just him.

"It was tough, not signing Teixeira," said Guerrero, who batted fourth to Teixeira's third and was dramatically better when Teixeira was around. "But this is a good group. We're all working together to get where we need to be."

He batted .303. He hit 27 home runs. He even had seven hits in 15 postseason at-bats (and no RBI). But, there are degrees of Vlad and, at 33 (he since has turned 34), this either was a fading player or an injured player.

Now Scioscia talks about Guerrero being clear of that limp and perhaps buying back some of the games he left on the turf in Montreal.

"I think it all points to a guy maybe turning back the clock a couple years," Scioscia said. "He's going to be able to play baseball. … We're going to see a more complete player."

If it goes as planned, that also means a more complete order.

"Vlad's been the cornerstone of our offense for going on five years now," Scioscia said. "That's important to us, that middle of the lineup you can build around. Vlad's the lead dog in our offense, and he does it in so many ways."

Scioscia will hope for development from Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar and Kendry Morales. He'll hope for 2006 again from Juan Rivera. He'll hope for the same old Abreu and a renewed Gary Matthews Jr. and something out of his catchers. The real difference, though, would be Vlad, who'll have a contract to play for, and a season to play out and maybe a knee to get him there.

"I feel good," Guerrero said. "I can't say [like] 25 because you know I'm 34. But I feel a lot better. That's where I'm at right now."