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Erstad will take chances with White Sox

Times Staff Writer

The Angels lost another link to their 2002 World Series team and a big chunk of their heart and soul Tuesday when Darin Erstad agreed to terms on a one-year contract with the Chicago White Sox that includes an option for 2008.

The deal, which is pending a physical this week, ends an 11-year Angels career marked by highlight-reel defensive plays, a spectacular 2000 season, several years of injury and frustration, and an endless reservoir of grit and determination.

“He’s almost the last real gamer we have,” Angels bench coach Ron Roenicke said. “I don’t mean the other guys aren’t gamers, but Darin is the old-school type, like David Eckstein and Adam Kennedy. He’s probably the biggest gamer I’ve been around as a coach. He really doesn’t play for personal success. He plays to win the game.”

Erstad, 32, played little in 2006, when a right ankle injury limited him to 40 games, but Oct. 6 surgery to shave down a bone spur and remove scar tissue appears to have cured the problem.

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The Angels, unsure of Erstad’s status, signed center fielder Gary Matthews Jr. to a five-year, $50-million deal, and with first baseman Casey Kotchman apparently recovered from mononucleosis, the Angels couldn’t guarantee Erstad a major league contract.

They offered a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training, much like the terms veteran Tim Salmon accepted in 2006, but Erstad opted for a guaranteed contract and a chance for significant playing time in Chicago, where he is expected to challenge Brian Anderson for the center-field job.

And with news that left fielder Scott Podsednik underwent groin surgery Tuesday and will be sidelined for at least six weeks, Erstad could play some left field too. Erstad, who also drew interest from Florida and Oakland, could also back up Paul Konerko at first base, a position at which Erstad won a Gold Glove in 2004.

Erstad, who was nearly traded to the White Sox after 2001, had one of the greatest seasons in Angels history in 2000, batting .355 with 240 hits, 25 home runs, 100 runs batted in and 121 runs, but he never came close to matching those numbers -- in any category -- in subsequent years.

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Slowed by hamstring injuries, Erstad, the first overall pick of the 1995 draft, hit .252 with four homers and 17 RBIs in 67 games in 2003 and .295 with seven homers and 69 RBIs in 125 games in 2004. In his last injury-free season, Erstad hit .273 with seven homers and 66 RBIs in 2005.

A fearless defender who won two Gold Gloves as an outfielder, Erstad also thrived on playoff pressure, hitting .339 (40 for 118) with three homers, 12 RBIs and 18 runs in 29 postseason games.

His homer to lead off the eighth inning in Game 6 of the 2002 World Series brought the Angels to within a run of San Francisco in a game the Angels eventually won. The next night, Erstad caught the last out of the Angels’ Series-clinching victory.

But with this winter’s departure of Erstad and Kennedy, Brendan Donnelly’s trade to Boston and Salmon’s retirement, the Angels lost four more pieces of that championship team, the most recent of which will leave a gaping leadership void.

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“Even when he wasn’t healthy, he was still valuable because of his presence,” Roenicke said of Erstad. “He doesn’t say much, but everyone watches him and sees how he plays and acts. I guess you could find someone to replace that part of the team ... but I doubt it.”

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mike.digiovanna@latimes.com


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