When Jeff Mathisreached the big leagues last season, just four years after becoming a catcherby default, he neither understood nor cared that manager Mike Scioscia and thenbench coach Joe Maddon began calling him Beave. "Somebody told me it hadsomething to do with a TV show," Mathis says. "I was in the bigleagues, so they could call me anything they wanted."
Scioscia stillcalls him Beave, a reference to the title character of the sitcom Leave It toBeaver, who was played by Jerry Mathers (sounds like Jeff Mathis). The manageris also calling the 22-year-old Mathis his starting catcher, though he willshare time with Jose Molina as the Angels try to replace the 69 RBIs and GoldGlove of Molina's big brother, Bengie, who signed as a free agent with the BlueJays.
Since divisionplay began in 1969, only three teams who started a rookie behind the plate havereached the playoffs. Says one player from an AL rival, "I don't care whatthey say, they'll miss Bengie. He was their best clutch hitter, and he knew howto handle the staff."
The Angels areloaded with veteran pitchers as Jeff Weaver joins a deep, all-righthandedrotation (Cy Young winner Bartolo Colon, John Lackey, Kelvim Escobar and ErvinSantana) and J.C. Romero and Hector Carrasco bolster a bullpen that last yearwas the second toughest to hit against in the league (.231). Scioscia isentrusting the staff to Mathis, a .278 hitter in the minors who is athletic butinexperienced at calling games.
Mathis was ashortstop and quarterback in high school in Marianna, Fla., a town of about6,200 people in the Florida Panhandle. He had his heart set on playing bothsports at Florida State when, in 2001, his high school baseball coach realizedthat none of his catchers could handle Alan Horne, a righthander with a 95-mphfastball. So Mathis, the best athlete, went behind the plate to catch Horne,and scouts who came to see Horne began to take notice of Mathis. A few monthslater the Indians drafted Horne at No. 27, and the Angels took Mathis six pickslater.
"I neverthought I would get drafted where I did," says Mathis. "Going thathigh, it was an easy choice to sign rather than go to Florida State."
With a strong armand a stronger work ethic, Mathis rose through the Angels' system. Scioscia, aformer major league catcher, says Mathis understands that his top priority isto provide defense and work with the staff, but Los Angeles will need offensivehelp anywhere it can get it. The Angels ranked seventh in the league in runslast season and 10th in home runs, then hit .175 against the White Sox in theALCS.
After whiffing onattempts to sign free agent Paul Konerko and to trade for Manny Ramirez, MikeSweeney and Miguel Tejada, Los Angeles decided to try to upgrade its offenseusing its loaded farm system. In addition to Mathis, the Angels will startfirst baseman Casey Kotchman, 23, a .323 career hitter in the minors, and theyhave four other hard-hitting infielders knocking on the door: first basemanKendry Morales, 22 (.315); second baseman Howie Kendrick, 22 (.359); thirdbaseman Dallas McPherson, 25 (.308); and shortstop Brandon Wood, 21 (.288; with43 home runs last year).
Those sixprospects represent the future of the franchise in what looks to be atransition season: Leftfielder Garret Anderson, 33, is on the decline(career-worst .283 average in 2005 with a .308 OBP), and the contracts ofcenterfielder Darin Erstad, 32, second baseman Adam Kennedy, 30, and thirdbaseman Edgardo Alfonzo, 32, expire at the end of the year. Los Angeles willtry to copy the formula of the '05 Braves, who made the playoffs withcontributions from 18 rookies, including catcher Brian McCann.
If the Angels areright in thinking that the 6-foot, 180-pound Mathis is ready to help them getto the postseason, he might become the biggest name to come out of Mariannasince.... "Uh, I really don't know," says Mathis, apparently as unawareof Marianna-born Bobby Goldsboro, the pop singer of the 1960s and '70s, as heis of the Beave. Clearly, a new generation for the Angels has arrived.
Vladimir Guerrero has batted above .300 in each of the last nine seasons, thelongest active streak in the majors. In seven of those years he also topped 30home runs and 100 RBIs.
a modest proposal
The two most productive shortstops in the Angels' system won't begin the seasonin the majors. According to Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA player projections,minor leaguers Erick Aybar and Brandon Wood would outhit Angels starter OrlandoCabrera (right) this season at the big league level. (Another prospect, secondbaseman Howie Kendrick, is projected to outhit L.A. regular Adam Kennedy.)Dealing Cabrera, who's solid defensively but had a dismal .674 OPS last year,in a package for a DH such as the Royals' Mike Sweeney would upgrade the Angelsat two positions.
projected roster with 2005 statistics
first in AL West
seventh season with Los Angeles
EDGARDO ALFONZO [New acquisition]
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
*Triple A stats
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 59)
coming to a ballpark near you this summer...
If the low-scoring Angels continue to sputter early this season, the nextprospect to get a shot at energizing the lineup might be Howie Kendrick, theteam's 10th-round draft pick in 2002. "He could hit in the big leagues now,and hit in a big way," says manager Mike Scioscia. Kendrick, a 22-year-oldsecond baseman, needs more polish afield, but he has batted .318, .368, .367,.384 and .342 at his minor league stops.
TRANSITION GAME - With Mathis behind the plate and another rookie at firstbase, the Angels' youth movement is under way.
ROBERT BECK (CABRERA)
MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (KENDRICK)