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Angels can’t quite reel in this Marlin

Times Staff Writer

The formal news conference was about to break up into small-group interviews Wednesday when Torii Hunter, who already had gotten a few laughs out of a large media assemblage in Angel Stadium, launched into what was obviously a prepared gag.

“I want to tell you guys that for years I’ve been coming here and this Rally Monkey has been a thorn in my side, he’s been in my nightmares,” said Hunter, the seven-time Gold Glove-winning center fielder who agreed to a five-year, $90-million contract Nov. 21.

Hunter, introduced with recently acquired pitcher Jon Garland, then pulled out a small stuffed Rally Monkey and placed the creature on his right shoulder, like a father toting a toddler.

“I’m happy being a part of this organization and the monkey,” said Hunter, the former Minnesota Twins star. “The monkey is going to be my friend. We’re going to go to malls together, the beach, everything. That’s my buddy, the Rally Monkey.”

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If not for several breakdowns in negotiations with the Florida Marlins, Hunter might have been joined on the dais by another new buddy, something much more valuable than a furry marketing ploy -- a young slugger who has averaged 31 home runs and 115 runs batted in for the last four years.

Owner Arte Moreno said Wednesday that he thought the Angels had a trade in place for Miguel Cabrera not once but twice this month, only to have the deal fall apart because the Marlins increased their demands at the last minute.

“They came back and asked for more,” Moreno said. “They’re doing it to everybody. The Dodgers thought they had a deal [for Cabrera], and it changed on them. [The Marlins] maneuvered us against the Dodgers. We both need a third baseman.”

The Marlins asked the Dodgers for a package that included first baseman James Loney, outfielder Matt Kemp and top pitching prospect Clayton Kershaw. Florida is insisting second baseman Howie Kendrick be part of any trade with the Angels for Cabrera.

The Marlins also have expressed interest in pitchers Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders, catcher Jeff Mathis, outfielder Reggie Willits and the Angels’ two top prospects, infielder Brandon Wood and pitcher Nick Adenhart.

The Angels, according to sources, are willing to part with any of those players, with the possible exception of Wood, but if they’re going to trade two young pitchers, they’re reluctant to include Kendrick and Mathis. And if they have to give up Kendrick, they are reluctant to part with both of their top prospects.

“They’re looking for four guys, three of them major leaguers and two of them pitchers,” Moreno said. “If we can improve our team and it fits, we’ll do it, but if you’re going to give up three major leaguers and a minor league pitcher, or two major leaguers and two pitchers . . . it’s going to be really hard to give up the talent.”

With Hunter, whose deal includes a $2.5-million signing bonus, a no-trade clause and calls for him to make $16 million in 2008, $17.5 million in 2009 and $18 million in each of the final three years of the contract, the Angels’ projected 2008 payroll is about $125 million.

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Moreno said that is “over budget,” but he did not rule out boosting the payroll for an impact player. In addition to Cabrera, the Angels are pursuing Baltimore shortstop Miguel Tejada and Minnesota pitcher Johan Santana, and a deal could be consummated at the winter meetings in Nashville next week.

“If you’re doing something for the short term, a Band-Aid thing, to me, it’s not worth going over budget,” Moreno said. “If you think it’s going to make your business better in the long term, then you make the investment. We want to get better every year and compete at the highest level. Our focus is on winning championships.”

That’s what attracted Hunter, 32, to Anaheim.

“I want a ring, I’m hungry,” Hunter said. “The reason I came here is this organization is on the right track, they’re trying to win right away. I signed for five years, and I know that all five years, I’ll have a chance to win.”

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Hunter will push outstanding defensive center fielder and longtime friend Gary Matthews Jr. to the corner outfield spots, but the two spoke at length Monday in the office of Lewis Yocum, the team physician, and there is no friction.

“A lot of people are fishing for it, but there is no animosity, no jealousy at all,” Hunter said. “I’m not trying to step on anyone’s toes. If something were to go down, we would clean it up right away. Gary said as long as we win and get that ring, it doesn’t matter.”

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mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

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