10/06/09 12:01 AM EST
Vlad hopes to add 'champion' to resume
With future uncertain, Angels slugger focused on title run
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
Vladimir Guerrero, a masher of baseballs with few peers across the past 13 seasons, rarely makes definitive statements in his occasional sessions with the media. He is a quiet, humble gentleman never known for bravado or bold proclamations.With the American League Division Series against Boston approaching, however, the pride of the Dominican Republic made it crystal clear that a World Series championship -- the one prize that has eluded him in a career that will end with Hall of Fame enshrinement -- is something he would treasure. "The emotion you feel winning a division [title] is hard to describe," Guerrero said through good friend Jose Mota's translation."I can't even imagine what it would be like to be a champion. Of course, it's very important to win one." Guerrero is making his fifth trip to the postseason, and he's in relatively good health for a change. He has been banged up and nicked up in previous Octobers, owing in part to seven years spent roaming Montreal's artificial turf and in part because of the way he has hurled his body around right field and the basepaths throughout his career. Guerrero is coming to free agency this winter, unsure of where he stands and where he'll land. Even though he'd never admit it, he obviously would love to make a major statement on the big stage. "I have a lot of baseball in front of me," he said. "It's very important for personal reasons to win a championship. But I don't think it will affect other things." Those other things, of course, are his future place of work and his eventual residence in Cooperstown, N.Y., with the other giants who have graced the game. Guerrero, for the first time since 1997, did not reach .300 in this injury-riddled season. He had right knee surgery after the 2008 season, which limited his preparation in Spring Training, and went to the disabled list on April 16 when the pain from a tear in his right pectoral muscle -- caused by a throw in an exhibition game at Dodger Stadium -- became severe.
Missing 35 games, he returned to the active roster on May 24 but injured his lower right hamstring/upper calf on a play in right field on July 7 and returned to the DL, missing 21 more games.A man who loves to play the total game, he was forced to adjust to a new role as strictly a designated hitter. His streak of 12 consecutive .300-plus seasons ended as he hit .295 with 15 homers and 50 RBIs in 100 games. His .468 slugging percentage was nowhere close to his .568 career mark. His one big moment arrived at home against the Rays on Aug. 10, when he joined the 400-homers club, finishing the season with 407. Guerrero is only a .240 career postseason hitter, but it's skewed by a 1-for-20 effort in the 2005 American League Championship Series against the White Sox when he was having trouble planting and driving with painful knees. Guerrero had a productive 2008 ALDS against the Red Sox, hitting .467 with four walks raising his on-base percentage to .579. He had one double. "Vlad is using his experience in the playoffs to move forward," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "He knows he doesn't have to be Superman. We need that foundation he gives us to keep that continuity." Younger teammates Kendry Morales and Juan Rivera had better seasons than Guerrero statistically, but he remains the cleanup man. He brings a certain fear factor with pitchers, who are fully aware of his ability to break open games at any moment, with any pitch in any location. "At times this year," Scioscia said, "his bat speed has been as good as at any time in his career." The manager is keenly aware of Guerrero's past struggles in October -- and of the assorted ailments that contributed to those disappointing performances. Guerrero had a few moments but overall did not fare well in 2004, '05 or '07 in postseason assignments before delivering a solid '08 ALDS against the Red Sox, hitting .367. The hits were all singles, reflecting, in Scioscia's mind, an advance in his approach. "At times, you're going to have to take what pitchers give you," Scioscia said. "It's not always going to be a mistake you can hit 480 feet. It wasn't just Vlad who was hitting singles last year. [Mark] Teixeira and Torii [Hunter] also hit a lot of singles." Guerrero, when he was relatively new to postseason play, clearly pressed to carry his teams. His biggest postseason moment came when he launched a grand slam in his first series, the '04 ALDS against Boston, which became a Red Sox sweep in spite of his slam. It's his only home run in 75 postseason at-bats, and he has seven RBIs in 20 games. "In earlier series," Scioscia said, "he was very confident in his ability and at times bit off too much. In '05, his knees were really bothering him. "A healthy Vlad has the potential to be something special in the playoffs."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.