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Angels need Guerrero ... now

The evening was rather warm, and a bit breezy. The fans were languid at times, and understandably so. The kids ran up, down and around the grass slope beyond the box seats.

And then one guy stepped to bat, and everyone snapped to attention.

He wore an unfamiliar blue shirt, with a random number -- 43 -- on the back. The scoreboard did not display his name. But one look at his gait, his swing, his hair, his smile, and everyone knew.

This was Vladimir Guerrero, perhaps the best hitter ever to play for the Angels, in what might well be the final months of his glorious tenure with the Angels.

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They came, they saw, they cheered wildly. They took pictures with their cellphones and digital cameras. They filled every seat at the Lake Elsinore Diamond on Friday, for the first game of Guerrero’s brief minor league rehabilitation stint.

He came, he saw, he swung. He whacked a line drive for a double, two hops to the wall. He flied out and struck out too, and the Angels called it an evening for him, after three at-bats.

“He looks good. He feels great,” said Kelvim Escobar, also here on a minor league rehabilitation assignment. “He should be good to go in two days.

“He doesn’t need much. He just swings. He’s not about mechanics. . . . He’s about see the ball, hit the ball.”

The Angels get him back Monday, barring a setback. The team needs him desperately, a legitimate power hitter to fortify an offense that too often requires three hits to produce a run.

They rank next-to-last in the American League in home runs, with 30.

Torii Hunter is on pace to hit 36, but he’s never hit more than 31. Kendry Morales is on pace for 32, but he has yet to play a full season in the major leagues. Mike Napoli is on pace for 24, but his playing time will drop when Guerrero reclaims the designated hitter spot.

Bobby Abreu, the Angels’ prized winter acquisition, has hit no home runs. The Angels have no immediate plans to promote Brandon Wood, even if he hits a home run every day at triple-A Salt Lake, or to pursue a big bat.

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“I think we’re swinging the bats OK, with not as much power as we liked,” General Manager Tony Reagins said. “I think the power will come. We also believe there’s more ways to win a game than just hitting home runs.”

The Angels rank 10th in the league in runs scored, fourth in runs allowed. With John Lackey and Ervin Santana back from the disabled list, and with Guerrero and Escobar on the way, they’ll let the season play out.

“We think, with the team intact and as we had planned in the off-season, it’s enough to do something special,” Reagins said. “Our focus is on getting healthy.”

If Guerrero stays healthy, he’ll have about 100 games to hit the Angels into October, and hit himself into a new contract. His timing might be good for the Angels, not so good for himself.

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His agents made what we might call a Jody Reed blunder last year. The Angels had just signed Hunter for five years and $90 million; Guerrero’s agents reasonably imagined the negotiations for a Guerrero extension might start there. The Angels had nothing that long or that rich in mind, and so the two sides tabled the issue before last season and have not revisited it since.

He’ll be 35 by the time next season starts, and he can ask Abreu what the new economy means for players of that age. Of the 44 free agents to sign major league contracts last winter at 35 or older, three got contracts of three years or longer.

Derek Lowe got four years, Casey Blake and Raul Ibanez three, all with a recent track record of durability.

Guerrero will be limited to designated hitter for the near future, maybe beyond. He’s making $15 million this season; one major league executive said Friday he might be looking at $5 million to $7 million next season, for no more than two years.

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The only 35-and-over guys to average more last winter: Manny Ramirez, two years at $22.5 million per year; Lowe, four years at $15 million per; Ibanez, three years at $10.5 million per; Randy Johnson, one year at $8 million.

The Angels would like to keep Guerrero, but make no promises.

“We want him to get healthy,” Reagins said, “and be a productive player for us.”

Guerrero would like to stay in Anaheim, but who knows? Just ask the fans in Lake Elsinore, a Padres affiliate. The Storm has retired the number of one Padres player, a homegrown star, a guy everyone thought could play out his career in San Diego.

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Guy by the name of Jake Peavy.

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bill.shaikin@latimes.com


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