Willits no stranger to hard work

The building that houses the batting cage is still there on Reggie Willits' five-acre spread in Fort Cobb, Okla.

Unlike a few years ago, it's now a place where Willits swings a bat and stretches. It's no longer where he and his family lay their heads at night.

When Willits was a rookie leadoff hitter for the Angels in 2007, the story gained a bit of national traction. Here was a hardworking ball player who lived in the batting cage. Literally. The story ran in The New York Times, among other places.

Now that the Willits' home has been built, the family has more ample quarters nearby. But the way his winter has been going, Willits might as well live in the cage.

"I've been hitting for a couple months now," Willits said this week. "I've been throwing, working on defense. I've been doing pretty much anything I'd have to do on the field."

Willits, 28, has hit his offseason workouts with the gusto he normally applies to stealing a base. When Oklahoma was buried under snow and ice for three straight weeks earlier this winter, he boarded a plane bound for Orange County. He has been shuttling back and forth, taking advantage of the convenience of his home batting cage and the sunshine of Southern California.

For Willits, there is light at the end of a two-year-long tunnel again, the glimmer originating from the trade of Gary Matthews Jr. to the New York Mets. Going into spring training -- which begins when pitchers and catchers report Wednesday -- Willits looks like the front-runner to become the Angels' fourth outfielder.

His two-year banishment to the minor leagues appears to be over. Willits, however, has good reason not to trust appearances.

"I'm excited about the opportunity, but every time you go into spring training, there are so many guys competing for the same job. I don't know if anything is set in stone," he said.

Fans and media members like to pick winners and losers when teams swap players. After the Angels sent Matthews to New York, it was hard to see who won that deal. The Angels unloaded a player who no longer wanted to be with them, but they're still paying him more than $21 million over the next two years. The Mets got a temporary replacement for injured Carlos Beltran, but a player whose best years appear to be behind him.

There was at least one clear winner: Willits.

"I'd be lying if I didn't say it was a little exciting to see an opening," Willits said. "When you're trying to make a roster, every single spot is huge. I think it was good for me, I think it was good for the Angels and I think it was good for Gary."

It wasn't as if Willits deserved to be exiled to the minors after he finished fifth in rookie-of-the-year balloting in 2007. He had gotten the opportunity because Juan Rivera broke his leg, but he seized it and didn't let go. He batted .293. More important, he had a .391 on-base percentage. His willingness to take walks and his ability to steal bases (27 that year) made him a dangerous table setter.

But players like Willits, who is generously listed at 5-foot-11, can't count on permanent locker stalls in major league clubhouses. The Angels signed a Gold Glove-winning center fielder, Torii Hunter, before the 2008 season. They signed Bobby Abreu before last season, then extended his contract this winter. All the while, Matthews was serving as the team's very expensive backup.

Every time a door opened for Willits, it slammed quickly shut. He averaged fewer than 100 at-bats in each of the two previous seasons, spending the bulk of those seasons at Triple-A Salt Lake.

"My focus was not to get mad, but to look at it like, 'How could I get better at the job they gave me?'" Willits said. "My role was to be a bench player. It was the first time I've ever been put in that situation. I don't think in life anybody is ever handed a whole lot. If you get an opportunity, you try to capitalize on it."

Now, he'll be competing with youngsters Terry Evans and Chris Pettit for one or two extra outfield jobs. On a veteran team with few questions this spring, it's one of the only hot competitions. That presumes that the Angels don't sign a veteran reserve between now and Opening Day.

If Willits does win a job, he might instantly be the Angels' most dangerous baserunner now that Chone Figgins plays for the Seattle Mariners. Willits is also adept at bunting, a skill that can come in handy late in games. He plays better defense than two of the Angels' starting outfielders. He looks like an easy choice, but at this stage, he can't take anything for granted.

It will be a tense spring for Willits. That won't be anything new.