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Matthews is the centerpiece

Times Staff Writer

The Angels, convinced Gary Matthews Jr., won’t be a one-year wonder, signed the free-agent center fielder to a five-year, $50-million contract Wednesday, a move that doesn’t address their need for a power hitter but should improve their defense and allow them to keep one of the game’s best pitching staffs intact.

Matthews, a 32-year-old switch-hitter, was a career .249 hitter with a .324 on-base percentage and .397 slugging percentage for the first six years of an undistinguished big league career in which he played for seven organizations, was claimed on waivers three times, traded three times and released once.

But Matthews had a breakout 2006 season, batting .313 with 102 runs, 44 doubles, 19 home runs, 79 runs batted in and a .371 on-base mark for Texas, and the Angels essentially wagered $50 million that Matthews’ next five years will bear more of a resemblance to 2006 than 2000 to 2005.

“I think he’s figured it out,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “Last year, he was consistent from both sides of the plate, his power played at home and on the road -- it wasn’t just a Texas thing, playing in that park -- and being a premium defender, that’s a priority for us.... The bottom line is he’ll be productive offensively and a difference-maker in center field.”

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The Angels can’t underestimate the importance of defense -- they made an American League-high 122 errors last season and gave up 80 unearned runs, second most in the major leagues.

But Matthews, who made several highlight-reel plays last season, including a spectacular catch high above the wall to rob Houston’s Mike Lamb of a home run July 1, will be an upgrade over Chone Figgins in center and will enable the Angels to move Figgins to third base, a position he excelled at with regular playing time in 2005.

“When you have someone who plays at a high level defensively, it makes the guys around him better,” Scioscia said, with not-so-rangy corner outfielders Garret Anderson and Vladimir Guerrero in mind.

“Gary’s range will help G.A. and Vlad. He’ll bring the whole outfield play to a higher level. And it makes us a lot better with Figgy being able to concentrate on one position.”

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If Matthews, whose deal includes a partial no-trade clause and is contingent on passing a physical next week, comes even close to matching his 2006 season offensively, he’ll be an upgrade over Figgins in the leadoff spot and will allow Scioscia to move Figgins to eighth or ninth, which should strengthen the bottom of the order.

“We’re going to look at him in the leadoff role, but he can also hit in the middle of the order from time to time,” Scioscia said of Matthews.

“He can play little ball or he can drive the ball, and he’ll add versatility and depth to the lineup. We should have more options, so we won’t go through the long dry spells we did last year.”

The Angels had hoped to boost their offense with a slugger to protect Guerrero, but after failing to land free agents Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano, they were reluctant to part with the pitchers required -- most likely starter Ervin Santana and setup man Scot Shields -- to land star center fielders Vernon Wells (Toronto) or Andruw Jones (Atlanta) in a trade.

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In essence, General Manager Bill Stoneman believes a team with Matthews, Santana and Shields will be stronger than a team with Wells or Jones and without Santana and Shields.

“We’re a pitching-based club, that’s our philosophy,” Stoneman said. “Losing Santana and Shields would be tough.”

Stoneman didn’t rule out a move -- White Sox third baseman Joe Crede is still a possibility -- but intimated any trade won’t be of the blockbuster variety.

“We might look here and there to see if there’s someone who might help us,” Stoneman said. “Obviously, our options are more limited than what they were.”

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mike.digiovanna@latimes.com


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