TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) – He’d never admit it, but Reggie Willits might have cringed a bit when the Angels went outside the organization to acquire outfielders Gary Matthews Jr., Torii Hunter, Bobby Abreu and Hideki Matsui over the past three years.
In trying to keep up with the Steinbrenners, the Angels have never been shy about spending money through free agency. But in acquiring those players, Willits was shoved, not only to the side, but to the minors.
Since a breakthrough rookie season in 2007 when he finished fourth in the American League in the Rookie of the Year voting, Willits has racked up 271 at bats at Triple-A Salt Lake and 188 with the big club.
“In 07, I got an opportunity and was fortunate to do well with that opportunity,’’ said Willits, who hit .293 with an on-base percentage of .391 and stole 27 bases over 136 games that season.
And even though the Angels are currently looking for a leadoff hitter to replace Chone Figgins, Willits won’t be considered because he plays in an outfield that has Juan Rivera in left, Hunter in center and Abreu in right with Matsui as the designated hitter.
“They’ve signed some free agent outfielders since then and that’s something I can’t control,’’ said Willits, 28. “I think I’d be lying if I said I liked sitting the bench. Everybody in baseball wants to play. If we didn’t want to play, they wouldn’t want us on their roster.
“I want to play, but there is also a sense in me that I understand my role. I’m never going to complain about that role and I’m happy to have a job and whatever role they put me in I’m going to try my best to be good at that role.’’
Willits likely would have gotten considerably more playing time elsewhere around the majors.
“I probably would have gotten a lot of playing time but I wouldn’t have been in the playoffs every year,’’ said Willits, whose speed and defense made Angels manager Mike Scioscia place him on the playoff roster the past three seasons. “That’s something that’s worth a lot. That’s something I’ve been able to experience. I’ve been in the playoffs three years here.’’
This season, Willits has a few more variables to be optimistic about. For starters, Matthews has been shipped out to New York with the Mets. He’s also heard that the leadoff man and speed figure to come more into play in the seasons to come.
“I think in the role that I’ve been put in recent years, which is playing all three outfield positions, in playing and coming off the bench and running and bunting, stuff like that will keep you around,’’ Willits said. “If you can stick around, you won’t know when that opportunity might come up again.
“My mindset is always the same, it’s to make the team. Once you get on the team then roles get determined.’’