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Hunter is now richest Angel

Times Staff Writer

The Angels pulled off their second stunning -- and somewhat perplexing -- move of the week late Wednesday night, signing free-agent center fielder Torii Hunter to a five-year, $90-million contract, the highest in team history.

Numerous teams, including Texas, the Chicago White Sox, Atlanta, Kansas City and Washington, were pursuing the former Minnesota Twins star (the Dodgers did not make an offer), and the Angels seemed set in center field with Gary Matthews Jr., a superb defender who is entering the second year of a five-year, $50-million contract.

But Tony Reagins, the Angels rookie general manager, began speaking with agent Larry Reynolds “a few days ago,” negotiations heated up with microwave-like quickness, and a deal for Hunter, which will be finalized pending a physical, came together “within the last 24 hours,” Reynolds said.

“They shocked me,” Hunter said on a hastily arranged conference call late Wednesday night. “I wanted to be with these guys. I thought maybe they didn’t need a center fielder like me. They shocked the world. I love these guys. . . . I want to say thank you guys for choosing me. I’m honored.

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“I’ve watched the Angels play for a long time, I’ve seen them work us [during the American League Championship Series] in 2002. They play the game the right way, they play hard-nosed baseball every day, they go first to third, which I like.”

The Angels, who for three years have been searching for a power bat to protect Vladimir Guerrero in the lineup, were in serious trade talks with the Florida Marlins for Miguel Cabrera, but Reagins refused to say Wednesday night whether they would still pursue the power-hitting third baseman.

It marked the second major move this week for Reagins, who on Monday traded popular shortstop Orlando Cabrera to the White Sox for veteran right-hander Jon Garland.

That deal created a surplus of starting pitchers -- the Angels now have six. Wednesday night’s acquisition of Hunter gives the Angels a glut of outfielders.

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Hunter, who has won Gold Glove awards in each of the last seven seasons, will play center field for the Angels, and Manager Mike Scioscia said Matthews would rotate through the corner outfield spots, while right fielder Guerrero and Garret Anderson rotate through the designated hitter spot.

“The bottom line is we want to keep those four bats in the lineup as much as possible and maybe move Gary back to the top of the order,” Scioscia said. “We’re thrilled to have talent like Torii. He’s going to help us in a lot of different areas.

“He’s a big bat who will complement guys like Vladdy and G.A. and some of our younger bats. I think it will give us one of the best defensive looks we’re going to have here. We’ll be able to move some guys around, and having Torii will give us a special look in the outfield.”

Reagins says he plans to “speak with Gary in depth” in the next few days and said the signing of Hunter “is no indication” that Matthews, who recently spoke to Commissioner Bud Selig about last spring’s report that he received shipments of human growth hormone in 2004, is facing a lengthy suspension in 2008.

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“We value Gary as a player and as a person,” Reagins said. “I just thought this was an opportunity to make us better, to give us more depth, more of an offensive punch.”

Scioscia was confident that Matthews would accept the switch.

“We want Gary Matthews, there was no happier guy in the clubhouse when we clinched the division,” Scioscia said. “He has the drive to put a ring on his finger. It’s not going to be a huge adjustment for Gary. I’m sure we’ll get a positive response. He’ll do whatever it takes to win. I’m sure he’ll be on board with it.”

Hunter, 32, hit .287 with 28 home runs, 107 runs batted in, 45 doubles and 94 runs in 160 games for the Twins last season after batting .278 with 31 homers and 98 RBIs in 2006.

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A first-round pick of the Twins in 2003, Hunter has a .271 career average with 192 home runs and 711 RBIs in 10 seasons.

“We are very excited to have Torii joining our organization,” Reagins said. “Not only is he an outstanding ballplayer, but he’s also an outstanding human being. He’ll impact our ballclub and community in a very positive way.”

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mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

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