Will he get an extended stay?
In one corner of the Angels’ clubhouse, Francisco Rodriguez all but counts down the days to free agency. In the opposite corner, so does Mark Teixeira.
In the middle of the clubhouse, the best player on the team sits on a shelf inside his locker so you can sit on his chair. As Vladimir Guerrero talks, softly, he wants to make his position perfectly clear.
He has no desire to test the market, to solicit bids from far and wide, to count down the days until he can become a free agent. He wants to sign a contract extension and finish his career with the Angels.
“That’s something I’d like,” Guerrero said through translator Jose Mota, “to stay here and not have to move again.
“I’m a human being. I have feelings. I’m very comfortable here. But I understand that’s not my decision.”
At first glance, this should be a no-brainer for the Angels. You keep your best player. You keep the customers happy. You keep the sellout crowds coming, and the pennants too.
But, on second glance, this is not a no-brainer. If the Angels keep Guerrero at any cost, they might look good now and not so good later.
So the Angels roar toward October, with the hint of a winter chill to follow. If Guerrero and the Angels do not agree on an extension this winter, the team is expected to exercise its $15-million option for the 2009 season, and he could exercise his option to become a free agent thereafter.
“I’d love to have Vladdy,” owner Arte Moreno said. “My intention is to keep him here.”
If the Angels keep him, and if he keeps hitting, the Angels might finally have someone wear their cap into Cooperstown.
He is the ultimate low-maintenance player. He plays hard, every day, without prompting. He shows up on time, without clogging the clubhouse with an entourage, sometimes with a pot of his mother’s Dominican specialties to share.
He wears a blue T-shirt with the Superman logo, hangs out on the couch with teammates and never bothers Manager Mike Scioscia -- unless Scioscia puts up a lineup without him in it.
“The guy is the most unassuming superstar I have ever been around,” Scioscia said.
In his first season in Anaheim, he won the American League most-valuable-player award. In his first four, he started in the All-Star game. He is batting .320 in his career with the Angels, the best in club history.
The only players with a better career batting average and more home runs: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams and Stan Musial.
He is batting .292 this season, on pace to hit 29 home runs. He could join Gehrig as the only players to hit .300 with 25 home runs in 11 consecutive seasons.
Guerrero played the first seven seasons of his career in Montreal, a star without an audience. It still tickles him to see 40,000 fans in Anaheim every night. It still delights him to hear them chant his name.
“It’s always gratifying,” he said. “That’s a thrill I’ve had for my five years here. People have always been there for me, whether I get four hits or I strike out. I appreciate it, because I never experienced that in Montreal.”
None of that matters, of course, in terms of a contract extension. If the Angels decide his game will fade in the near future, all the applause in the Southland won’t keep him here.
“He’s still mega-talented,” Scioscia said. “There’s no difference in his bat speed.
“Vlad’s got a lot of baseball left in him. He’s certainly a guy you can project keeping his talent level for some time.”
So, with Guerrero on the verge of negotiating his last big contract, how much longer would he like to play?
“I’m 33 now,” he said, though the Angels’ media guide lists him at 32. “I’m not even thinking about how many years I want to play.”
He plays less in the outfield and more at designated hitter with each passing year: 13 games at DH in 2004, 19 in 2005, 30 in 2006, 41 last year, a projected 45 this year.
He had a major back injury before the Angels signed him, and he runs as if he is one step from knee surgery. However, in five years here, he has been on the disabled list once, because of a separated shoulder.
The agent for Guerrero, Diego Bentz, did not return a call for comment. Moreno declined to discuss possible contract parameters.
Moreno said last year that he would be reluctant to pay any player more than Guerrero. The Angels subsequently signed Torii Hunter for five years at $18 million per season, so they probably would offer Guerrero a similar annual salary. Hunter is 33 as well.
The Angels are believed to have had preliminary discussions with Bentz about extending Guerrero’s contract last winter, with the parties far apart on dollars and years.
The Angels pride themselves on fielding a perennial contender by infusing young and affordable players on a regular basis rather than risking overpayment for the declining years of a fan favorite, then applying the savings toward free agents as needed.
They did not yield to sentimentality when they let Troy Percival go, when they let Troy Glaus go, when they let David Eckstein and Darin Erstad and Adam Kennedy and Jarrod Washburn go. If Moreno concludes he would have to sacrifice flexibility by guaranteeing Guerrero so many dollars or years, the Angels could let him go too.
We take Moreno at his word when he says he wants to keep Guerrero in town. But, to those fans who might say there would be no way Moreno would let him go, we remind them of the fans who said there was no way Moreno would brand his team with an awkward name with two cities in it.
For now, Guerrero remains the right fielder for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. For how long, we’ll see.