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Kotchman Might Make Deep Impact

Times Staff Writer

Just because Casey Kotchman’s power numbers from 126 at-bats last season (seven home runs, 22 runs batted in) would project to 28 homers and 87 RBIs over a full season of 500 at-bats, it would be unfair to expect the first baseman to put that much of a surge into the Angel offense this year.

Kotchman, a 2001 first-round pick and the son of longtime Angel scout and rookie league manager Tom Kotchman, hasn’t hit more than 10 home runs in five professional seasons.

But it is Kotchman’s developing power that helped prompt the Angels to move first baseman Darin Erstad back to center field, clearing first base for Kotchman, and how the 23-year-old responds will be one of the interesting story lines of the season.

“It’s not our expectation that he’ll jump off the charts and his power will show up in that big of a way,” Manager Mike Scioscia said, “but he showed last year that if he gets the at-bats, he will drive the ball the way a first baseman should.”

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Unable to acquire a big bat to bolster an offense that ranked 10th in the American League in home runs and ninth in slugging percentage, the Angels will be relying heavily on players such as Kotchman, Juan Rivera and Garret Anderson to generate power and help protect Vladimir Guerrero in the lineup.

It’s a lot to ask of a youngster entering his first full big-league season with a team that is expected to contend for the pennant, but Kotchman, who had extended stints with the Angels in 2004 and 2005, is unfazed.

“Pressure is dodging bullets, not knowing where your next meal is coming from,” Kotchman said. “This is fun. This is a game.”

Kotchman is a contact hitter who uses the whole field, and he could bring some much-needed plate discipline to a team filled with free swingers. In 240 at-bats for triple-A Salt Lake and the Angels last season, he had 25 walks and 25 strikeouts. Kotchman had minor league on-base percentages of .430 in 2004 and .438 in 2005.

Only last season, after an Aug. 4 recall, did Kotchman emerge as a power hitter, clubbing seven homers in 40 games after not hitting a homer in his first 46 major league games.

“We knew Casey had the potential to hit the ball out of the park, and he came on in a big way in a small number of at-bats last year,” Scioscia said. “It was a pleasant surprise.”

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Erstad has been a Gold Glove center fielder, but don’t expect Gold Glove-caliber play too early in the exhibition season. In one of his first outfield drills this week, Erstad went back for a ball, and the ball clanked off his glove.

“I’m sure I’ll butcher some plays in spring training,” Erstad said. “I’ve got to go out and screw up and get used to playing the outfield again. That’s the only way I can get back to normal.”

Erstad, who also won a Gold Glove at first base, said he doesn’t prefer one position over the other, but admits he’s a little more comfortable in the outfield.

“Your palms don’t get as sweaty in center field as they do at first base when a big left-hander is hitting,” Erstad said.

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The Angels suffered their first serious injury of the spring Thursday, but it won’t affect their playoff hopes -- bullpen catcher Steve Soliz sprained an ankle during a drill and will be on crutches for about 10 days.


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