Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Season Preview

I've written at length at how the takeover had begun in earnest; The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are sowing the seeds to become the premier baseball club in Southern California. No sooner did I predict seeing Albert Pujols billboards up and down the 405 Freeway, did I go home a couple of weeks ago to see a gigantic "EL HOMBRE" billboard, with the broad back of #5 turned to the millions (and millions) that pass by every day.

Though the OC invasion might not last for long now that the Dodgers are back in the hands of competent and morally upright citizens, Arte Moreno's club has a chance to strike while the Boys in Blue are still down.

As consistently competitive as the Angels have been since their title win in 2002, this might be one of the most impressive rosters the front office has ever put together. Top to bottom, the team is flush with "Top 5" players at so many positions, and have several blue chip prospects knocking on the door. However, just because the roster is "impressive" doesn't necessarily mean it's the most complete. As a Angeleno born and bred, I find it almost impossible to keep myself away from peripherally becoming familiar with the "other" home town team. Let's run down the Halos in MAMBINO's Angels season preview:

Infield


The Halos have 2 certainties in their infield, and 3 big question marks. However, when one of those certainties is worth over $240 million dollars and is generally regarded as the best player in the game, your questions don't seem as pressing, do they?  
  • Howie Kendrick is coming off a career year and his second consecutive of at least 140 games. With an OPS of .802, 18 homers and a .285 batting average, there aren't too many second basemen in the game better than Kendrick.
  • Erick Aybar suffers from "Dodgers-Infield-itis", meaning the guy could field any ball hit in his general direction, but hitting the thing really isn't his strength. With how much firepower is scattered around the rest of the team, they can stand to have Aybar's replacement level offensive production because of his glove.
  • Here's the deal: Even at his very, very best, incumbent third baseman Alberto Callaspo is a league-average player with a fantastic defensive acumen. Then you have Mark Trumbo, who's never played third base at any professional level, with 29 rookie season home runs and nowhere to hit with a returning Kendrys Morales at DH and some scrap heap pick-up at first base. Trumbo committed two errors in his first start at the hot corner, so the decision might not be on hold for long, but I really have no idea who's going to end up at third in two months.
  • Catcher Chris Ianetta was once an absolute masher for the Colorado Rockies, hitting 57 homers over 4 seasons. However, the Coors effect seems to have boosted Ianetta's numbers, seeing as he has a .870 OPS at Coors, but a very very mortal .707 OPS elsewhere. Which is the real Chris Ianetta?
  • DH is going to be a solid spot for the Angels all year long, with Bobby Abreu, Mark Trumbo, Kendrys Morales and one other guy rotating in and out. Morales is the key here, who had All-Star level projection before a broken leg two years ago and hasn't played a game since.
  • And then you've got Albert at first base. He'll be just fine.
Outfield
This redition of the Angels outfield seems to be on it's last legs. TIme is rapidly running out for Vernon Wells, Torii Hunter and Bobby Abreu, with at least 3 kids nipping at their heels:

  • Wells and Hunter are the opening day outfielders and Abreu is on the bench as a reserve, and even with world class defense propping them up, manager Mike Scioscia won't be able to keep Vernon and Torii in there if they're going to continue declining, or in Wells' case, stay at historically awful levels.
  • Despite all the over $90 million combined owed to them (Hunter and Abreu expiring and Wells over 3 years!), super prospect Mike Trout and former minor league outfielder Mark Trumbo won't be denied at-bats just because other GMs far inferior to new sheriff Jerry DiPoto got drunk on Apple Pucker and handed out bad contracts.
  • Peter Bourjos will most likely keep his spot because of his Gold Glove-caliber defense and on-base speed.
There's a lot of questions about the Angels outfield, and they will continue no matter who replaces them. The key component here seems to be age, whether it's the advanced years of Wells, Hunter and Abreu, or the inexperience of Trout, Bourjos and Trout. Much like the infield, I don't think we'll have the answer to this question for months to come.
Bench

DiPoto has assembled a quality crew of wood-warming backups, from overpaid vets like Abreu (who probably will be traded sooner than later), to two infinitely cheaper and better Chone Figgins in Maicer Izturis and Alberto Callaspo. Even with injury, the Angels are going to be just fine.
Starting Pitching
I've seen Jonah Keri write from underneath Andrew Friedman's desk that the Rays have the best rotation in the majors and heard painfully and often of the pitching superiority coming from Philly and San Francisco. Defiantly, I've got to disrespectfully say that this Angels starting five is the best in the game.

The Angels top four can't be matched by anyone in regards to playoff experience, season-long toughness and the potential for all of them to make the All-Star team.
  • As I did earlier in the year, I'd count Dan haren as one of the top 10 to 15 best pitchers in the league, with Jered Weaver and new import CJ Wilson either in that group, or trailing close behind. Those three have the ability to be as downright dominant as Halladay, Hamels and Lee in Philly, or Lincecum, Cain and Bumgarner in the Bay.
  • Ervin Santana is pretty damn good for a fourth starter, having pitched at least 219 innings three of the past four seasons, throwing a no-hitter, making an All-Star team and finishing 6th in Cy Young voting along the way.
  • Jerome Williams (yeah, remember him?) is the de facto fifth starter, but prospect Garrett Richards will be right up if he falters. Until 2011, Williams had been out of the majors for years, and I wouldn't be surprised if he showed why at some point during the year. A semi-reliable option years ago with San Francisco, I don't know how much faith I'd have in Jerome come August or September to win every five days.  
Relief Pitching
The Angels pen will feature more melodramatic questions this year than My Chemical Romance after a bad break-up, crying rivers into a Twilight snuggie. It's the Angels biggest weakness, and I'm sure we'll hear about it endlessly until the trade deadline.
  • Closer Jordan Walden has a ridiculous fastball, a great rookie campaign with 32 saves...and 10 blown opportunities. While he was brilliant at times, he did a spectacular Mel Gibson impersonation the others, melting down publicly in front of thousands of people.
  • Speaking of meltdowns, LaTroy Hawkins is in the Angels pen this year, now at the age of 39 and with the strangest career stat line year by year of nearly any reliever. Check it out.
  • Scott Downs, Hisanori Takahashi, Jason Isringhausen and Kevin Jepsen round out the rest of the relievers, and while incredibly capable middle, 7th and 8th inning guys, aren't closer material.
Management

I've said it once and I'll say it 1,000 more times: Mike Scioscia is the best manager in the game. He consistently gets the best out of the players he has, and year after year, the message never seems to get lost on his players. No matter how big the star or how dominant the ego, guys come into the Angels clubhouse and play ball Scioscia's way. Undoubtedly being one of the very best player-coach communicators in the majors has something to do with it, but his charisma, hard work and incredible strength of character shine through on every team he helms. But don't take my word for it - his coaching progenies Bud Black (San Diego), Joe Maddon (Tampa Bay) and Ron Roenicke (Milwaukee) are all using these same type of philosophies that made Scioscia into a winner in Anaheim and using them to guide their squads to the same type of regular season and playoff success.

Goals for the year
  • Stabilize...almost every part of the line-up: This is going to be the story in Anaheim this year. As you've seen, nearly every part of the Angels roster has some pretty serious question marks. The back end of the bullpen, who will play third base and the age (whether it's advanced or inexperience) in the outfield are the most glaring problems. The third base situation must be addressed sooner than later, as well as the fifth starter spot. Though the Angels are better off seeing as they'll probably have solutions on hand or in the farm system, these problems need fixing ASAP, so this team can start building continuity and chemistry.  That all being said...
  • Don't bring the kids up before you have to: The reason why teams like the Red Sox, Yankees, Rays and Braves stay successful year after year is that they bring up their prospects when they're ready, and not a moment before. Mike Trout, Garrett Richards and SS Jean Segura are all highly regarded, but if the Angels expect to contend for years to come, it's better not to pick the fruit before it's ripe. Have you ever eaten a hard avocado? Like cutting off one of your toes. Just an awful experience. Don't cut off your toes, Angels. Wait to make that guacamole. And you can have it for years to come. Anaheim needs to be patient like they've always been and not to panic if they need to fill a hole before the prospect is ready just because they're in "win-now" mode. That's what free agent money is for!
  • Win the World Series: Hard to believe that it's been 10 years since Anaheim won their first title. The only link between that team and this one is manager Mike Scioscia. With over $300 million dollars invested this offseason, a pennant would be nice (which they also haven't come close to since 2002), but the goal is a World Series win. Angels fans have long clamored for the big free agent splash from the best owner in baseball Arturo Moreno, and they got it. The expectation is winning it all, and anything less is failure. 

For a team with so many uncertainties, baseball writers of America seem to be equally certain that they'll be World Series contenders. However, Moreno, DiPoto and Scioscia know that with the massive contracts for Wilson and Pujols, this team is all-in. If Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo demand more playing time, those three won't allow big contracts to get in the way of sitting Wells, Abreu and Hunter on the pine. I imagine that the bullpen will remain the biggest issue, and will probably be addressed at the trade deadline, but by then the third base situation should be settled, with Trumbo settling in after a rocky few weeks. 


This team, not the Rangers, is the best in the AL West. Pitching, and a slightly more than adequate offense, will carry them to the ALCS, at the very least. Winning something close to 100 games isn't out of the question.


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