Vlad focused on Yankees, not future
Impending free agent could be finishing Angels chapter
NEW YORK -- He insists he doesn't think about it, that his focus is on the American League Championship Series and the Yankees, where, of course, it belongs.
But somewhere in the back of his mind Vladimir Guerrero must be wondering if this is it, the end approaching to an amazing run of excellence with the Angels as free agency looms.Signed as a free agent after the 2003 season, departing the cold and unyielding artificial playing surface of Montreal, Guerrero became arguably the greatest player in Angels history. He was the AL Most Valuable Player in 2004, immediately finding the West Coast to his liking, and has been bruising baseballs and pitchers' egos ever since. Yet, here he stands at 35, unsure of his future on the heels of an injury-marred season that prevented him for the first time in his career from reaching the .300 level. He settled for .295 in 100 games to end his streak at 12 seasons.
He has done things only Lou Gehrig did before him -- 11 consecutive seasons hitting at least .300 with 25 or more home runs -- and takes his place with Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Stan Musial, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams as the only players in history to hit at least .320 lifetime with 400 or more home runs.Guerrero has also played the outfield and run the bases with abandon, a player taking immense pride in playing the total game. He has done it all with a smile on his face and never a complaint. As heroes go, he's about as big as it gets in his native Dominican Republic. Alighting in the Big Apple for the start of the ALCS, Guerrero made an intriguing response when he was asked if he's always enjoyed playing in New York, with its large Latino population. "Yes, I like playing here," he said through broadcaster Jose Mota's translation. "I have relatives and friends here, and I'm very comfortable here." Guerrero is driven to win a World Series, the one prize that has eluded an eight-time All-Star who has finished among the top 15 in the MVP balloting seven times. "I have a lot of baseball in front of me," he said. "It's very important for personal reasons to win a championship. "The emotion you feel winning a division [title] is hard to describe. I can't even imagine what it would be like to be a champion." Nobody knows what the free-agent market will bear for Guerrero, who is not making himself available at the perfect time. He had right knee surgery last winter, suffered a torn pectoral muscle early in the season and then injured a muscle behind his left knee making a play in July in one of his few ventures in right field. He's viewed strictly as a designated hitter now, but he still thinks of himself as a right fielder, not a DH, and there might be a club out there that would like to let him prove he can still handle the glove, make plays in gaps and unleash that powerful arm. The Yankees happen to have three outfielders also headed for free agency: Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui and Xavier Nady. They clearly could have an opening out there, and Guerrero could be a fascinating fit in a lineup with Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez. Guerrero, whose two-out, two-strike, ninth-inning single against Jonathan Papelbon drove in the tying and go-ahead runs in a dramatic Game 3 AL Division Series in Boston, doubled to deepest left-center at Yankee Stadium and scored the Angels' only run against CC Sabathia in Game 1 of the ALCS on Kendry Morales' single. The wind, whipping the flags toward home plate, clearly knocked it down, depriving Guerrero of what would have been his second postseason homer. "Vlad is using his experience in the playoffs to move forward," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "He knows he doesn't have to be Superman. We need that foundation he gives us to keep that continuity." Even if he's not as fearsome as he once was, Guerrero retains a presence. Pitchers know he can break open a game at any moment, crushing any pitch in any location. "At times this year," Scioscia said, "his bat speed has been as good as at any time in his career." Guerrero did not fare well in 2004, '05 or '07 in postseason assignments before hitting .467 in the '08 ALDS against the Red Sox, following that with a .400 performance in the recent sweep. He's still looking for his second postseason home run in 69 at-bats, having launched a grand slam in his first exposure to the big stage against Boston in 2004. "At times, you're going to have to take what pitchers give you," Scioscia said. "It's not always going to be a mistake you can hit 480 feet." Guerrero has a history of abusing Yankees pitching, hitting .320 lifetime with 10 homers and 51 RBIs in .320 at-bats. He's a .283 hitter at Yankee Stadium with three homers and 16 RBIs in 127 at-bats. Set back by offseason knee surgery, Guerrero struggled all season to find his rhythm and stroke. Finally starting to feel healthy, he tore his pectoral muscle making a throw on the eve of the regular season. The injury to his left knee came as he was getting set to unload a throw from right center on July 7 at home against Texas. He was exclusively a DH when he returned on Aug. 4. Torii Hunter, who used to admire Guerrero from a distance, has grown to appreciate him as a teammate. "Vladdy is a Hall of Famer in my book," Hunter said.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.