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Defense to rely on Matthews, steadier lineup

Times Staff Writer

There is no defensive coordinator to fire, and they can’t switch from a man-to-man defense to a zone.

So, the Angels will stick to their usual spring training drills, the same regular-season system and hope a change in personnel and an increase in continuity will shore up what was a shoddy defense last season.

The Angels ranked last in the American League with a .979 fielding percentage in 2006, committing a league-high 122 errors and giving up 80 unearned runs. They led the league with a .986 fielding percentage in 2005.

Injuries and illness knocked out Gold Glove center fielder Darin Erstad and first baseman Casey Kotchman in early May, and the Angels were forced to move Chone Figgins from third base to center field, use utility player Maicer Izturis at third and go with a patchwork arrangement at first, including Howie Kendrick, a second baseman who had never played first, Robb Quinlan and Kendry Morales.

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Figgins, who had eight errors at third during the first six weeks of the season, struggled initially in the outfield, where he made five errors. Izturis committed 13 errors at third, and Angels first basemen combined for 10 errors.

This season, the Angels added highly regarded center fielder Gary Matthews Jr., who should ease the burden on corner outfielders Vladimir Guerrero and Garret Anderson and help reduce the number of outfield errors -- 23 last season. Matthews also enables the nomadic Figgins to remain almost exclusively at third, where he will use a slightly bigger glove than he did in 2006.

Kotchman, an outstanding defender, appears recovered from the mononucleosis that sidelined him for most of 2006 and seems poised to reclaim his first base spot. Kendrick, though not as skilled and experienced as predecessor Adam Kennedy, will return to second base.

“Obviously, we need to do things better on defense, but there’s nothing more we can do to pound that into these guys,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “The solution comes in different forms, and hopefully this year it will be with the addition of Matthews, with Figgy getting comfortable at third and some stability at first.”

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Nearly two months since Juan Rivera broke a bone in his left leg in a Venezuelan winter league game, the Angels still don’t have a good read on the outfielder’s recovery. Rivera underwent surgery in December and has begun physical therapy, but he is not scheduled to be examined again for several weeks.

“There’s no way to predict if he’s ahead of schedule,” Scioscia said. “There are so many hurdles he has to clear ... this thing will move slowly.”

Recovery time for Rivera’s injury -- a broken tibia -- ranges from four to nine months, depending on how long it takes the bone to heal. The Angels hope Rivera, who hit .310 with 23 home runs last season, returns by the All-Star break.

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Asked whether Rivera might sit out the season, Scioscia said, “We haven’t heard that scenario, but this is an extreme injury that needs time to heal.”

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com


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