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Disappointed Angels Look to the Future

Times Staff Writer

Pitcher Paul Byrd was bleary eyed as he packed up his belongings in the Angel clubhouse on Monday, the morning after the Angels were eliminated from the American League championship series by the Chicago White Sox.

“I still haven’t fallen asleep yet,” Byrd said, “for obvious reasons.”

Darin Erstad cleaned out his locker, but the first baseman hadn’t cleared out the bitterness and frustration of the Angels’ season-ending, four-game losing streak, in which they were manhandled by the White Sox.

“I feel like there’s a bone sticking out of my arm, and I’m in shock still,” Erstad said. “Getting it handed to you is no fun, especially [in the playoffs].”

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Fifteen hours did little to dull the pain of the AL championship series loss for the Angels, who picked the worst possible time to go into their deepest offensive funk of the season, batting .175 with 11 runs, 22 strikeouts and four walks in a five-game series that ended with Sunday night’s 6-3 loss in Angel Stadium.

But as the Angels came to grips with their disappointing finish, said their farewells and dispersed to various parts of the globe -- shortstop Orlando Cabrera to Colombia, pitcher Kelvim Escobar to Venezuela, right fielder Vladimir Guerrero and an entourage of about eight to the Dominican Republic -- eyes were already turning toward 2006.

The Angels expect to contend for their third straight AL West championship next season, but it won’t be with the same cast that took them to the threshold of the World Series in 2005.

Jarrod Washburn has almost certainly thrown his last pitch as an Angel -- the team is not expected to make a serious bid to re-sign the free-agent left-hander -- and Byrd, the veteran right-hander who solidified the No. 5 spot in the rotation, could leave via free agency as well.

The Angels will attempt to re-sign catcher Bengie Molina, a mainstay for six years, but they could be outbid by catching-hungry teams with deep pockets, such as the New York Mets, possibly forcing the Angels to turn to highly touted but untested prospect Jeff Mathis to handle their veteran pitching staff in 2006.

Erstad could return to center field to replace the struggling Steve Finley and clear the way for a new first baseman -- White Sox slugger Paul Konerko heads the Angels’ free-agent wish list, though the position also could be filled from within by Casey Kotchman.

The Angels could look to trade for a proven run-producer, with Minnesota center fielder Torii Hunter, Boston left fielder Manny Ramirez and Florida first baseman Carlos Delgado possibly in their sights, or they may give Cuban slugger Kendry Morales a shot at a starting job. And they’ll need to fill the bullpen void left by Escobar’s return to the rotation.

“We have some flexibility, players who can move around, and that’s certainly a plus,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “I like the versatility of our club. It will help Bill [Stoneman, Angel general manager] address the offensive side of it.”

For the first time in Stoneman’s six years as GM, the Angels’ top winter target will not be a starting pitcher. Bartolo Colon, John Lackey, Escobar and Ervin Santana will return in 2006, and if Byrd isn’t back, the Angels have a talented pool of prospects -- Joe Saunders, Jered Weaver, Chris Bootcheck -- to fill out the rotation.

“Adding a bat will be the top priority,” Stoneman said, “and there’s more than one way to do it.”

With the White Sox reaching the World Series for the first time since 1959, there already is a strong sentiment in Chicago to re-sign Konerko, so it’s possible the 40-homer threat won’t even be available come mid-November. And the pool of free-agent power hitters drops off considerably after Konerko, who could command a four-year deal in the $50-million range.

That could force Stoneman, who has filled virtually all of his needs through free agency the last two years, to be more creative this winter, bolstering an inconsistent offense through trades.

Stoneman said the payroll -- about $97 million now -- will “probably be a little higher” in 2006, but unless the Angels shed some salary in trades, there won’t be a whole lot of flexibility. “Bill doesn’t have endless resources,” Scioscia said.

The Angels have $73 million committed to nine players under contract for 2006, and with such players as Lackey, Francisco Rodriguez, Scot Shields and Chone Figgins due big raises in arbitration, it will cost about $16 million to retain the 14 players who are under their control and expected to return next season.

So, even though Tim Salmon’s $10-million salary and Washburn’s $6.5-million salary will come off the books, the Angels have about $89 million committed to their 2006 payroll, without Molina or Byrd.

Scioscia and Stoneman said the team will attempt to secure Lackey, Rodriguez, Shields and Figgins to multi-year deals to avoid arbitration, and that could provide some payroll relief next season.

The return of power-hitting third baseman Dallas McPherson, who missed most of 2005 because of injury, could provide a boost to the offense, and Scioscia expects better production from left fielder Garret Anderson and Erstad, who “were banged up a lot more than people realized this year,” Scioscia said.

“They’ve already got a big part of the puzzle,” said Salmon, the 12-year veteran who sat out the season recovering from knee and shoulder surgeries and probably will be invited to spring training next February on a minor league contract.

“This team is very capable of winning the World Series -- it’s all about getting hot at the right time. It was the wrong week for us against the White Sox. Next week, who knows? Can the team improve? Sure, a big bat, a proven run-producer, would definitely help. But this is the strongest pitching I’ve ever seen the club have, in the rotation and the bullpen. We have all the pieces.”


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