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Staking out the middle ground

Times Staff Writer

Chone Figgins speaks with some authority about center field. He played there last year, before the Angels signed Gary Matthews Jr. and bumped him to third base.

When the Angels and Dodgers renew their rivalry tonight at Angel Stadium, Matthews will play center field for the home team, Juan Pierre for the visiting team.

Figgins sees Matthews every day. He speaks with Pierre, his best friend in baseball, almost every day. He gives Matthews the edge in power, Pierre the edge in speed, and thumbs up to the clubs that invested a combined $94 million to bring them to Southern California.

“You can’t go wrong with either one,” Figgins said.

That opinion was far from unanimous during the winter, after Matthews and Pierre each signed a five-year deal to play in the Southland.

The Angels paid $50 million for Matthews, and the critics howled: way too much for a guy coming off a career year! The Dodgers paid $44 million for Pierre, and the critics howled again: way too much for a singles hitter with a spotty on-base percentage!

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Yet, if you base the early returns on the standings, the investments are paying off. The Angels are in first place with Matthews, the Dodgers are in first place with Pierre, and isn’t that the point?

“To some people,” Pierre said.

The Angels are getting all of what they wanted from Matthews, the Dodgers most of what they wanted from Pierre.

Matthews, 32, has been a godsend to an offense that scarcely extends beyond Vladimir Guerrero.

Matthews came into Thursday’s game at Seattle batting .303 with six home runs, seven stolen bases and 28 runs scored, on pace for career highs in the latter three categories. With Garret Anderson injured, the Angels have dropped Matthews from the leadoff spot to third, fourth and fifth as they scramble for lineups that could offer some protection for Guerrero.

“How is that going to affect him?” Angels bench coach Ron Roenicke wondered. “He was in the leadoff spot all year last year and he had the best year of his career.”

He’s the only Angel besides Guerrero with more than three home runs, and he’s running too. He stole 10 bases last season with the Texas Rangers; he could pass his career high of 15 by the All-Star game.

“In Texas, they didn’t need me to steal 30 or 40 bases,” Matthews said. “There’s a different game here. In Texas, if we had a guy on second base or third base with one out, it didn’t matter. He was going to get driven in.”

The Angels coveted him for defense, and he has delivered from opening day, when he robbed Mark Teixeira with a leaping catch so impressive that television cameras caught pitcher John Lackey mouthing, “That’s why we got him!”

Said Lackey: “I got dividends right out of the gate. He’s made a lot of difference. He’s already robbed a few home runs. His range has helped us a lot.”

Pierre has not starred on defense. In the first inning of the first game, Vin Scully pointed out Pierre’s weak arm, explaining how Rickie Weeks set up the Milwaukee Brewers’ first run by racing from first base to third on a single to center field.

He has occasionally taken a poor route to a ball. Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti said Pierre’s range has been statistically outstanding over the years and suggested he might simply be struggling to adjust to the conditions of his new home field, with its five decks and palette of pastel seats.

“No,” Pierre said. “If I play bad, it’s because I play bad. It’s not the field or any kind of condition.”

On offense, he gets hits and steals bases, as expected. He leads the Dodgers in both categories, and he’s on pace to score 100 runs. But he’s batting .278, below his career average of .302, and his on-base percentage of .304 would be a career low.

“He’s hitting .280 and stealing bases. That’s all right,” Figgins said. “If you want to take that as struggling, a lot of guys will take that. He’s scoring runs, which is what you want, and they’re in first place.”

And, since the weekend when Rafael Furcal rejoined the team after opening the season on the disabled list, giving the Dodgers their planned 1-2 punch atop the lineup, Pierre is batting .317.

“For the first three weeks or so, he was trying to get six hits every game and steal five bases every game,” Colletti said. “I told him, ‘All you have to do is be Juan Pierre.’ The last couple weeks, he has settled down and definitely has gotten better. As Furcal gets heated up, it should definitely help Pierre.”

Said Pierre: “I should be having better at-bats and getting on base a lot more. I’m not hitting anywhere near what I’m capable of. I started pretty slow. I’ve come on of late, but it’s a matter of being consistent.”

Pierre, 29, says he is hitting too many fly balls for a player whose game is built on speed. Even if he hits a routine ground ball, he might beat it out, or an infielder might bobble it.

“At this level, there aren’t too many guys that miss pop-ups,” he said. “Any time I hit a ball in the air, it’s a wasted at-bat.”

Matthews absorbed a double shot of criticism this spring, over his contract and allegations he received a shipment of human growth hormone. Angels owner Arte Moreno pressured Matthews into releasing a statement -- Matthews denied using HGH but did not address whether he ordered some -- and the club has not publicly challenged him on the issue since then.

The contract criticism continues, for both center fielders, and Pierre feels the sting.

“I don’t understand,” he said. “I worked my butt off for it. I know a lot of people think I don’t deserve it. It doesn’t matter to me what they think. Guys make twice as much, and nothing is ever said about their contracts.

“Some people don’t think of my game as being that valuable. You’re not going to change people’s minds. I just go out there and try to help the team win and not get caught up in the money aspect of it.”

Colletti said he could not have signed Pierre for less. The San Francisco Giants bid up the market for free-agent center fielders, nearly signing Matthews and Pierre before settling for Dave Roberts.

Matthews said he was not bothered by criticism of his $50-million deal.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “The market dictates what you’re going to be worth. This year, the market was what it was for center fielders. We’ll see what the market is like three years from now. That could be a bargain. You never know.”

So Matthews and Pierre will take center field tonight, one after the other, with a nod to the standings.

“There’s nothing wrong with being in first place,” Matthews said, “while you figure out how to get better.”

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bill.shaikin@latimes.com


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