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Matthews has Angels interested

Times Staff Writer

The representative for free-agent center fielder Gary Matthews Jr., said the Angels are “extremely interested” in the Texas Rangers defensive whiz, and the feeling appears to be mutual.

The Angels, according to industry sources, also plan to bid for left-hander Barry Zito, the top starter on the free-agent market, but it appears they will not enter the bidding for highly touted Japanese right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka. The Dodgers are engaged in serious discussions this week about whether to post a bid on Matsuzaka, a 26-year-old right-hander who was the most valuable player of the World Baseball Classic last spring.

Scott Leventhal, Matthews’ agent, met Angels General Manager Bill Stoneman at an Arizona Fall League game Tuesday night, and while the sides aren’t allowed to discuss contract figures until Nov. 12, Stoneman made it clear that the Angels plan to pursue Matthews aggressively.

“He reached out and let Gary and I know that he’s extremely interested,” Leventhal said Wednesday. “I was able to relay his sentiments to Gary, and Gary was very excited. Bill wanted to know if Gary is interested in playing for the Angels, and he is. He has them high on his list.”

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Leventhal said the Dodgers also have expressed some interest in Matthews, a Granada Hills High graduate who is the son of Gary Matthews Sr., who played 16 years in the major leagues.

The younger Matthews, 32, had a breakout offensive season in 2006, batting .313 with a .371 on-base percentage, 19 home runs, 44 doubles and 79 runs batted in from the leadoff spot, but he gained even more acclaim with his numerous highlight-reel catches in the outfield.

The Angels also have identified free-agent third baseman Aramis Ramirez as a top priority, and if they can land the slugger as well as Matthews, they probably would look to trade speedy leadoff batter Chone Figgins for bullpen help.

The addition of Ramirez and Matthews would add significant pop to a lineup in desperate need of a power boost. The pair, combined with the expected return of first baseman Casey Kotchman, also would greatly improve a defense that made an American League-high 124 errors.

The Rangers have said re-signing Matthews is a top priority, and they are believed to have offered him a two-year deal, but Matthews is expected to command a three- or four-year deal that would pay him $6 million a year or more. The San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs and Colorado Rockies also are interested in Matthews.

“Being in the same division and seeing the Angels the way he has, Gary has all the respect in the world for that team,” Leventhal said. “With their young pitching, Vladimir Guerrero and Garret Anderson at the corner outfield spots, young players like Jered Weaver and Howie Kendrick, and their bullpen, Gary feels they’re just a few pieces away from being back in the World Series.”

Could Zito be one of those pieces? Starting pitching would not seem to be a priority for the Angels, who ended the season with a very effective rotation of John Lackey, Ervin Santana, Kelvim Escobar, Weaver and Joe Saunders and have Bartolo Colon rehabilitating from a shoulder injury.

But if they could land Zito -- and were unable to acquire a bat through free agency -- the Angels would have enough pitching to package Santana, Weaver or Saunders in a trade for a hitter such as Vernon Wells, Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada or Manny Ramirez.

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As expected, the Angels essentially severed ties with veteran second baseman Adam Kennedy, who was informed by Stoneman this week that the team would not attempt to retain the free agent. Stoneman, who spoke by phone with Kennedy on Tuesday, did leave the door open a crack for a possible return.

“I told him if he doesn’t find a deal to his liking, and he’d be interested in coming back on a short-term contract, we’d be open to that,” Stoneman said.

Kennedy, though, has already drawn interest from three to five teams, according to his agent, Paul Cohen, and it is possible he could command a deal in the four-year, $18-million range.

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mike.digiovanna@latimes.com


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