Willits faces situation similar to '07
Angels outfielder again competing with friends for job
For Reggie Willits, it will be deja vu all over again in Arizona when he reports to camp in Tempe and embraces good buddies Terry Evans and Chris Pettit.The three athletes will be competing for an outfield roster spot vacated by Gary Matthews Jr. following his shipment to the New York Mets for reliever Brian Stokes.
In the spring of 2007, Willits arrived in camp knowing he was competing with friends Nick Gorneault and Tommy Murphy for an opening in the Angels' outfield.All three performed capably, especially Gorneault, but it was Willits and Murphy, with their versatile skill sets, who landed on the Opening Day roster when Chone Figgins broke two fingers and went to the disabled list. This took Robb Quinlan from the outfield to a primary infield backup role. Willits answered every challenge presented by manager Mike Scioscia. "In '07, my goal wasn't to play every day -- it was to make that team," Willits recalled by phone from his Oklahoma home. "Circumstances came up with injuries. Garret Anderson injured his hip and I ended up getting 500 plate appearances. "My goal this spring isn't to play every day. It's to get a job on the ballclub. Then circumstances will determine my role, like they did in '07. You never know what will happen. "Terry and Chris are my friends, just like Nick and Tommy. I won't be rooting against anybody. Those two guys have great talent and deserve a chance to play in the Major Leagues. Terry's out of [Minor League] options, so if he doesn't make the Angels' roster, he'll get his chance somewhere." A fourth candidate, Mark Trumbo, could surface later in the season if his planned introduction to the outfield goes well. The 6-foot-4 slugger, born in Anaheim and schooled at nearby Villa Park High, has shown big-time power in the Minor Leagues as a first baseman. He is expected to open the season at Triple-A Salt Lake. Evans, long, lean and graceful in the Dale Murphy mold, hit .291 at Salt Lake last season with 26 homers and 90 RBIs in 135 games. He batted .286 in seven at-bats with the Angels and has one big league homer, in 2008, in 15 total at-bats. If Evans is the Gorneault of the threesome, Pettit is similar to Murphy, solid in all phases of the game. Pettit batted .321 at Salt Lake in 96 games and hit .286 with the Angels in seven at-bats. He hits bullets to all fields and handles all three positions capably. Willits and Evans are 28, Pettit is 25 and Trumbo is 24. It is worth returning, for informed background, to that 2007 season that served as Willits' breakthrough. Matthews, in his debut season as the Angels' center fielder, had a major impact in their rise to the top of the American League West with his solid all-around play in the first half. Moving from the leadoff role to cleanup after an injury to Vladimir Guerrero, Matthews was productive in both spots, drawing daily praise from Scioscia. Willits, meanwhile, was taking full advantage in April of occasional starts in the outfield and as a DH, flourishing in the leadoff role in Figgins' absence. When Anderson went down with his hip injury in Chicago, Willits stepped into left field and excelled. Defensively, his range factor ratings there were among the best in the game, and it was the first time he'd played left field with any regularity. Showing exceptional plate discipline, Willits batted .345 in April. Figgins, struggling to find his timing when he returned in May, hit ninth as Willits batted .330 in the month and then .342 in June, moving to second and ninth in the order as Figgins got scalding hot. On a team that won the AL West by six games, Willits led off more often (71 times) than Figgins (56) and Matthews (34). Willits made 54 starts in left, 24 in center and 23 in right, serving 15 times as the DH. He was batting .312 at the All-Star break, but a stomach ailment that would lead to winter surgery for removal of his gallbladder took a severe toll. Willits finished with club records for a rookie in batting average (.293) and on-base percentage (.391), stole 27 bases in 35 attempts and scored 74 runs in 136 games. "I doubt that anybody realized how sick I got in the second half," Willits recalled. "I don't talk about things or complain. My personality is to keep my mouth shut and perform." Fifth in American League Rookie of the Year balloting in '07, Willits has every reason to trust his talents. Matthews, meanwhile, was never quite the same after damaging a knee chasing after an eventual Ken Griffey Jr. home run in Cincinnati in mid-June. A .279 hitter at the All-Star break with 10 homers and 43 RBIs, Matthews finished the season at .252 -- and on the disabled list with a right knee injury that would need surgery. That winter, the Angels signed Torii Hunter, a perennial Gold Glove center fielder with the Twins, to a five-year, $90 million contract. This, along with ensuing moves, would diminish the roles of Matthews, who became a fifth wheel, and Willits, who would spend most of the next two seasons hoping for a call to Anaheim while stationed at Salt Lake. "I just know deep down that if I get a chance to play every day, I can show that '07 was no fluke," Willits said. "I believe with everything I've got that I can be a good Major League leadoff hitter. I don't believe the Angels would want me if I didn't feel that way."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.