Versatile Izturis a valuable asset
Halos' utility infielder came into his own in 2009
TEMPE, Ariz. -- When they dressed 10 feet apart in the home clubhouse at Angel Stadium and bonded as baseball brothers, Chone Figgins called Maicer Izturis "The Natural."
Figgins, a grinder, made no secret of his envy of the native Venezuelan's easy, relaxed approach to an extremely difficult game.
"Everything I've had to work so hard at, it just comes naturally to Izzy," Figgins, now with the Mariners, said last season. "He can do anything. It's like he came out of his crib playing baseball. That's why I call him 'The Natural.'"
Modestly soft-spoken in two languages, Izturis would smile hearing Figgins' praise, mentioning how his father raised his sons -- older brother Cesar is long-time Major League shortstop -- from a very young age to play the game right.
"It's something we've always done," Izturis said. "We started when we were kids and worked very hard, and we're still working hard."
Armed with a new three-year, $10 million contract, Izturis recently strolled into camp smiling freely. He doesn't know what 2010 holds for him, but if recent history is a barometer, he'll contribute mightily to another successful season for the three-time reigning American League West champions.
"I'm happy with the contract, happy knowing they want to have me around," Izturis said. "I hope to play a lot, and I'll do whatever they want me to do."
Angels manager Mike Scioscia, an unabashed Izturis fan, figures to find ways to get him at least as many as the 97 starts the versatile infielder made in 2009.
Izturis batted an even .300 with a .359 on-base percentage and .434 slugging mark, dividing time primarily with Howard Kendrick at second base but also getting some turns at shortstop and third base.
The early blueprint has power-hitting Brandon Wood at third, replacing Figgins, with Erick Aybar and Kendrick in the heart of the infield and Izturis getting time at all three positions.
Injuries or slumps could turn Izturis into an everyday player at the drop of a bat.
"Izzy's going to play and contribute," Scioscia said. "We are a much stronger team with his versatility. Izzy's going to play third, short and second, and he has the ability to lead off or hit down in the order. He can do a lot of things offensively."
Izturis, 29 and entering his seventh Major League season, is expected to share Figgins' leadoff responsibilities with Aybar, who broke loose in '09 with a team-high .312 batting average and a .353 on-base percentage.
"I don't expect Erick to walk 100 times this year," Scioscia said, "but he has increased his pitch count per plate appearance. I don't think he's a finished product, but he's understanding more of it. Erick brings a lot of positives, whether he's a first or second hitter, and he could be a third hitter at some point.
"Izzy developed that part of his game, as far as being patient, earlier in his career. He's a little more refined in that area. He can get deeper in counts. It's not just taking pitches; it's fighting off pitches, fouling them off, keeping an at-bat alive. Figgy evolved into that type of hitter."
Izturis would relish the challenge of leading off.
"I can get on base, steal some bases, score runs," Izturis said. "We have a lot of good hitters. We'll see how it goes."
Izturis, who has hit everywhere but fourth in the lineup in recent seasons, can play be deployed as a chess piece defensively, moving around in response to health, performance levels and matchups.
Izturis is the rare player gifted enough to handle all three spots at close to Gold Glove level.
"I was a shortstop coming up," he said, "but I enjoy all three positions now. As long as I'm on the field, I'm happy."
In 68 starts last season at second, Izturis committed two errors in 296 chances for a .993 fielding percentage. His errant throw ending Game 2 of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium was one of the few mistakes he made all season.
In 28 games at shortstop, Izturis committed two errors in 87 chances, a .977 percentage. He made only five starts at third and was errorless in seven chances.
"He has the best hands and most accurate arm you'll see," Figgins said. "He's a great player. Not many guys can do what he does."
Determined to avoid injuries after visiting the disabled list each of the previous four seasons, Izturis came through 2009 without a trip to the DL.
"I've learned a lot from guys like Figgy and Bobby Abreu and Orlando Cabrera," Izturis said. "Staying healthy is the most important thing for me."
Clutch hitting always has been one of Izturis' assets. A .327 career hitter with runners in scoring position in 492 at-bats, he hit .302 in those situations last season.
Izturis stole 32 bases in consecutive Minor League seasons in the Cleveland organization in 2001 and 2002 and is 54-for-71 in steal attempts in the Majors, an impressive .761 success rate.
He stole 13 bases in 2009 and easily could reach 20 if he's leading off frequently, with ever-patient Abreu behind him.
"That's always been a part of the game I enjoy, running the bases," Izturis said.
Add up the virtues, and the bottom line defines a complete player. There is a sound reason why the Angels bought out two years of impending free agency with Izturis.
The Natural is the jack of all trades in Scioscia's deck, close to indispensable in his quiet, subtle way.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.