Wish list finally comes true for Angels

Angels sign Matthews to play center, lead off

The Angels landed a centerpiece for their holiday table with the signing of free agent Gary Matthews Jr. on Wednesday.

Matthews agreed to a five-year, $50 million deal that includes a partial no-trade clause. In the process, the Angels sidestepped a strong run at Matthews by the Giants and secured a key piece of their offseason agenda. The Dodgers were also in serious talks with Matthews until they signed Juan Pierre, also on Wednesday.

The deal still hinges on a physical exam that Matthews will take next week, probably Monday.

"His ability to be a switch-hitter, his versatility and the ability to lead off and to hit in the middle of the order" is how manager Mike Scioscia explained what Matthews brings to the Angels. "I think he is a great fit."

Scioscia added that a lunch at Houston's in Santa Monica, Calif., on Tuesday, where Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen stopped by to say hello, didn't hurt.

The 32-year-old will take over in center field and provide Gold Glove-caliber defense while adding speed and some power to the top of the order. Matthews will likely lead off, where he hit .313 with 19 homers and 79 RBIs for Texas last season. He also posted a .371 on-base percentage while leading the Rangers with 102 runs scored.

Matthews represents an offseason victory for the Angels, a team that has seen its wish list rearranged in the past year. It was first baseman Paul Konerko that spurned a free-agent deal to remain with the White Sox last winter, and this past summer, the club couldn't land Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada or then-Brewers outfielder Carlos Lee at the trading deadline.

And until Wednesday, it appeared to be second verse, same as the first, as third baseman Aramis Ramirez re-signed with the Cubs and free agent infielder/outfielder Alfonso Soriano landed a whopping $136 million deal from the Cubs that easily outdistanced the Angels' offer. They also put in a bid for the negotiating rights to Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, only to see the Red Sox came out on top there.

But general manager Bill Stoneman said Matthews ranked as high as any player on their list.

"We approached Gary right from the outset. There was a period after he filed for free agency when you couldn't make any offers," Stoneman said. "There was a waiting period, but we made him aware right away that we were interested."

The signing of Matthews will require less position shuffling than the accommodation of Soriano would have. It allows Vladimir Guerrero and Garret Anderson to remain in the corner outfield spots while sharing designated hitter duties with Juan Rivera, who will also play the outfield.

It may also help other pieces fall into place.

Center was not the only target for the Angels this offseason as they hoped to boost an offense that finished in the second tier in a number of offensive categories last season, including runs scored (11th), home runs (12th), RBIs (ninth) and on-base percentage (10th).

The Angels have also earmarked third and first base but with Matthews in the fold, the club has the luxury now of retaining Chone Figgins and returning him to third full time.

With free-agent second baseman Adam Kennedy not returning, Figgins would be a strong candidate to take over the ninth spot in the batting order and group with Matthews and Orlando Cabrera as a speedy lead-in to the bigger bats in the middle supplied by Guerrero, Anderson and Rivera.

"Gary is a guy that is very versatile offensively. He is very consistent from both sides of the plate and he was consistent on the road; his numbers weren't just a Texas thing," Scioscia said. "He is going to be a lift in center field and he'll be a huge lift to the team."

The Angels also signed right-handed reliever Justin Speier earlier this week and have a surplus of pitching both in the bullpen and in the rotation if they wish to trade for a third baseman like the White Sox' Joe Crede. The club is also believed to be in the running for free-agent starter Barry Zito.

"We're still going to be active," Stoneman said. "We're having conversations with other clubs."

A local product and the son of former big leaguer Gary Matthews, aka Sarge, the younger Matthews was born in San Francisco but attended Granada Hills High School. He was drafted in 1993 by San Diego and made his Major League debut in 1999 with the Padres. He then played with the Cubs, Pirates, Mets and Orioles before returning to San Diego in 2003.

"I think having roots in L.A. and playing in the American League the last few years more specifically, his familiarity with the pitching made for a pretty good visual," agent Scott Leventhal said.

Matthews signed as a free agent with the Rangers in April 2004 and finally put the offensive pieces together last season to combine his athleticism, speed and power. But he's has always flashed excellent defensive skills with a strong arm and the ability to go get the ball. He posted the highlight-reel play of the year last season when he robbed Houston's Mike Lamb of a home run at Ameriquest Field.

Stoneman and Scioscia both feel that Matthews' emergence in the middle of his career indicates that he's begun to figure the game out.

"Guys learn at different stages of their careers. Gary is coming into his own," Stoneman said. "Otis Nixon comes to mind. He started to figure it out in Montreal and became a very good offensive player. He was in his 30s."

The five-year contract will take Matthews to age 38, a certain selling point for the newest Angel.

Mike Scarr is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.