The Los Angeles Angels enter 2012 after the most eventful offseason since 2003. For the first time since 2000-2001 the Angels are looking to bounce back after missing the playoffs for back to back seasons (technically they missed the playoffs for 15 straight years. On a personal note, I refused to cheer for the Twins, my Dad’s favorite team, because they sucked in the mid ‘90s. Little did I know, so did the Angels). Owner Arte Moreno orchestrated a $3 billion, 20 year television contract that allowed him to sign the top hitter and pitcher on the free agent market. With the additions of Albert Pujols and CJ Wilson, many publications have declared the Angels title contenders.
World Series aspirations may ride on a bullpen that goes largely unchanged from 2011 as well as the hopeful resurgence of Vernon Wells and Kendrys Morales. Realistically, the Halos may be better suited to contend for a championship in 2013 after youngsters like Peter Bourjos, Mike Trout and Jordan Walden continue their development. Other questions that could be answered within the next year are: the log jam at first base and in the outfield, the craptastic play at third base and who will form a reliable bullpen. Despite those question marks, this collection of players should again contend for a playoff spot and once you’ve made it to the dance, anything can happen.
Manager Mike Scioscia demands the highest level of defensive prowess from his catchers. Thankfully, new General Manager Jerry DiPoto listened to the cries of the masses and traded Jeff Mathis and his sub .200 batting average to the Blue Jays (Mathis is a .197 career hitter).
So what does that mean for the newly acquired Chris Iannetta who takes over the starting job this season? Offensively the bar has been set low; if he can produce at his career norm of .235/.357/.430 many fans will be satisfied. But the reverse Coors effect has the potential to send those number spiraling. Iannetta has produced at a .172/.321/.266 clip away from Coors Field for his career; numbers that are eerily similar to Mathis.
The problem is that Mathis had gained notoriety among Angels pitchers for being one of the secrets to their success. If Iannetta does not produce offensively and does not gain the trust of his staff, fans will continue to dream of the offensive firepower of former Angel Mike Napoli while calling for former first round pick Hank Conger to get a shot at the starting job.
If Iannetta turns in to Mathis 2.0 and Conger isn’t able to capture his moment then catcher will continue to be a huge problem for this team. Lets just say I’m not ready to forgive those responsible for trading Napoli.
Am I a little bitter? Absolutely.
Two words, Albert Pujols. Do I really need to go in depth here? Pujols is an offensive beast. Since 2001 he leads all hitters in homeruns, hits, runs batted in, doubles, runs and average. No big deal, that’s just 6 of the 8 major offensive categories.
If one person on the 2012 Angels is poised for a major breakout its incumbent second baseman Howie Kendrick. With Pujols batting behind him in the three hole, Kendrick should see a steady diet of fastballs. For the spring, Kendrick hit .396 with 4 homeruns in 53 at bats in Cactus League play. Touted as a future batting champ after hitting .369 in 2006 at AAA Salt Lake, Kendrick may finally live up to that promise.
Defensively, Kendrick had a breakout season in 2011 ranking third among Major League second baseman in Ultimate Zone Rating. He and Erick Aybar have become a formidable double play tandem up the middle of the infield.
I’m calling it right now; Howie Kendrick will be the break out star for the Angels this season as both a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger contender (Kendrick was my big fantasy sleeper until he went for more money than Starlin Castro and Brandon Phillips in my auction draft).
Erick Aybar is one of those players that you don’t appreciate until you’re stuck with Mike Aviles. He makes the routine plays in the field, he lays down timely bunts, and he’s a terrific base runner. Those traits made him an ideal player of the Angels of yesteryear who earned the reputation of an NL team playing on the junior circuit.
How does he fit in this season? I have no idea. His place atop the order is anything but certain and with number two prospect Jean Segura waiting in the wings at AAA Salt Lake this may be his last year in Anaheim. If any player on the roster needs a breakout season its Erick Aybar.
I for one hope Segura tears up the PCL so the Angels can invest at another position of need and let Aybar leave via free agency after the season.
Here is where things get interesting. The Angels have 3 options to play third base this season. Alberto Callaspo led the team in hitting a year ago but isn’t viewed by many talent evaluators to be anything more than a utility man. Maicer Izturis is one of Mike Scioscia’s favorites who excels in many of the areas he holds in high regard: solid fielding, good base running and an ability to put the team above himsel). Izturis has battled to stay healthy throughout his career and seems destined for a utility role or a trade.
The most interesting third base prospect is Mark Trumbo. Trumbo finished second in American League Rookie of the Year voting while providing some much needed power while filling in at first base for the injured Kendrys Morales. The transition from first to third remains a work in progress for Trumbo who fractured his foot in the offseason and did not start fielding ground balls until the start of Spring Training.
Using WAR (wins above replacement) Callaspo is the best option compared to his competition. He was worth 1.3 wins more than Trumbo (3.6 to 2.3) a year ago.
If spring is any indicator, Scioscia seems to favor splitting time between Trumbo and Callaspo relative to who the starting pitcher is. Trumbo has received the majority of starts when extreme fly ball pitchers like Jared Weaver are starting while Callaspo has gotten the start when ground ball pitchers like CJ Wilson are on the bump.
All in all, third base remains a question mark, something that has been true since Chone Figgins took his talent (can you still call him talented?) to Seattle. The ideal situation may be via trade although the lack of third base talent in the majors may make finding a suitable trade partner difficult. The Angels would probably like one of these options to lay claim to the position so the other player can be used to acquire bullpen help.
Personally, I don’t see how fitting Trumbo’s .291 OBP into the lineup is worth sacrificing above average defense.
Just trade Trumbo to one of those dumb teams like the Orioles that reek of desperation and don’t use advanced statistics.
Fuck Tony Reagins. The Mike Napoli for Vernon Wells trade not only cost Reagins his job (thank god) but it is now preventing Mike Trout, the most dynamic Angel prospect in years, from starting the season in left field. Not to mention the fact that Napoli is the best power hitting catcher in MLB and that he is now a Texas Ranger. Seriously, good job Tony. I warned you I was bitter.
I admit looking for positives in Vernon Well’s game is difficult. Watching Wells bat last year was like watching your drunk friend hit on the best looking girl at the bar, you know he’s giving it his best effort but he has no shot to hit it. If there is one ray of light, it’s that throughout his career he has bounced back well from off years.
I’m grasping at straws here, the Trout era can’t start fast enough. The fact that the Angels have another $63 million and three years left of the Vernon Wells disaster makes me want to puke. Let’s move on.
No player had a bigger defensive impact on the 2011 Angels than Peter Bourjos. He rated as the 5th best center fielder in baseball in ultimate zone rating and was worth 4.3 WAR. He is simply dazzling in center field (http://espn.go.com/blog/los-angeles/angels/post/_/id/3434/bourjos-has-them-covered).
Offensively, Bourjos improved upon runs scored, home runs, runs batted in, K/BB ratio, on base percentage and slugging percentage in 62 fewer at bats post All-Star break. While he is a work in progress he is the likely lead-off man of the future as he possesses elite speed and is only 24 years old. Bourjos growth is key to outfield production as he is the only current starter that is not trending towards the downward portion of his career.
In right is the grizzled veteran and incumbent leader of the Halos. Torii Hunter is still doing Torii Hunter things even at age 36, he plays great defense, hits 20 bombs, knocks in 80 plus runs and does it all while having the time of his life. I love that Hunter recently called out the Rangers big offseason acquisition Yu Darvish saying: “all Japanese pitchers are the same.” Torii never fails to appreciate the moment, and that’s what I love about him.
When you break your ankle jumping on home plate after hitting a walk off homerun and then don’t appear in 336 straight games (including Spring Training) you probably shouldn’t test your luck in Vegas anytime soon.
However, Kendrys Morales’ luck may be about to change. He will attempt his comeback by hitting in the cleanup spot behind the best hitter in the world. An optimistic man would say Kendrys is poised to enjoy a year much like Victor Martinez had hitting behind Miguel Cabrera last season. Me? I’ll take something around .280 with 25 jacks and zero leg injuries. If Kendrys can’t handle the two year break from baseball than Mark Trumbo and Bobby ‘I may or may not be wearing a fat suit to force a trade’ Abreu will split time at DH. Let’s just hope Morales is healthy and Abreu enjoys riding pine this season.
Personally, I can’t wait to play this offense in a video game. The potential 3-7 hitters have all hit 20+ homeruns at some point during their career and once Vernon Wells gets benched we can start being amazed by Mike Trout on a nightly basis.
Just imagine if this offense had Mike Napoli! Where’s the reset button on that trade? Does Tony Reagins wake up with nightmares of Naps going back to back with Albert? I hope so. My bitterness ensues.
Here’s what you need to know about the Angels pitching staff, CJ Wilson’s stat line from last year reads thusly: 223.1 innings pitched, 206 strikeouts, 16 wins and a 2.94 earned run average. CJ Wilson is slated as the Angels fourth starter this year. Now, here is where you ask “why would the Angels pay $77.5 million to their 4th starter?” Glad you asked. Simply put, having a fourth starter that good gives the Angels a huge advantage in the new playoff format. If the Rangers win the division and the Angels grab one of two wildcard spots, they get to throw ace Jared Weaver in the one game playoff and then jump in to the divisional round without missing a beat. Dan Haren and Ervin Santana will pitch second and third in the rotation while the fifth spot remains up for grabs after an injury to Jerome Williams.
Simply put, the Angels biggest strength is their starting rotation. No other team in either league has the quality or the depth to match the Angels. If this was a basic math class, the comparison between the Angels rotation and the Rangers rotation would look something like this: Angels>>>>>>>Rangers (this equation also represents the gap between the in game managing abilities of Mike Scioscia and Ron Washington).
As for the 5th turn in this rotation, I’m all for giving it to top pitching prospect Garret Richards. What can I say, I’m a sucker for giving young guys a chance even after Dallas McPherson and Brandon Wood crapped the bed.
One word describes this bullpen: scary. Jordan Walden will anchor the bullpen while veterans LaTroy Hawkins, Scott Downs, Hisanori Takahashi, Kevin Jepsen and Jason Isringhausen will bridge the gap from the starters to Walden. Although Walden was an All-Star last season, he blew 10 saves while converting 32. It’s a long cry from the days of K-Rod when the 9th inning was a mere formality. Understanding bullpen dynamics is like trying to understand women, sometimes things are a little crazy, they’re prone to mood swings and once you’ve experienced a good one you don’t want to let it go.
The Scioscia Effect:
Statistical analysis has become more precise in recent years but one team that continues to defy the experts is the Los Angeles Angels. For eight straight seasons the Angels have won more games than their run differential suggests they should (in 2008 their projected win total was 88; they won a franchise record 100 games). For many Angel fans this phenomena has become known as the Scioscia Effect. Since 2000 when Mike Scioscia took the helm, only the Mariners have prevented more runs from scoring. This dedication to defense has fueled much for the Angels success.
Defense and base running are the fundamentals that create the foundation for the franchise. In the same time frame, only the (Devil) Rays have more stolen bases. No team goes first to third better than the Halos, they have consistently manufactured runs without having a huge middle of the order presence. While Scioscia can be stubborn in his regard to the importance of catching defense, he is not afraid to make changes to his lineup for the overall health of his ball club. Last season while Vernon Wells was lighting $23 million of Arte Moreno’s money on fire with his .220 average, Scioscia relegated him to platoon duty with Mike Trout. That one move should be an indicator for the upcoming season. While the Angels enter the season with several question marks, fans can expect their manager to make the necessary changes when things do not go as planned.
What to Expect:
One of the byproducts of the Pujols signing is that the entire organization has established a win now mentality. Expectations are sky high this season because Arte Moreno is perceived to have made an all in bet. In my mind this club is a year away from serious championship contention (I’m trying to keep my expectations low. Do I think they can win the Series? Of course I do). Once, Trout is entrenched in left field, Wells is on the bench, the bullpen is fixed and a solution for third base is found then this team can be something special. The silver lining for 2012 is that once you make the playoffs anything can happen. That notion is especially true when starting pitching, defense and Albert Pujols are your strengths. However, the bullpen seems to be the proverbial Achilles heel of this team. If the bullpen doesn’t come together or if DiPoto isn’t able to maneuver within the market place to acquire help, then this season will be another lost opportunity.
With that being said, I think this team has a legitimate shot at capturing a championship. The starting schedule is weak and the AL West will be decided after the All Star break (the Rangers and Angels will meet 6 times before the break and 13 afterwards). You can never anticipate how things are going to break in October but come playoff time, I expect the starting pitching to be dominate and the middle of the order to be dangerous.
Sign me up. I’m convinced this will all work out even though there are at least 4 huge question marks heading in to the season (this is when Cris Buckley calls me cocky; I prefer optimistic). I’m drinking the Kool-Aid, hell I might be a little tipsy on the Kool-Aid at this point.
Albert Pujols wins AL MVP
Howie Kendrick hits above .300 with 20+ homers
Vernon Wells loses his starting job by Independence Day
Mark Trumbo is traded at the deadline
The Angels win the World Series (you really thought I’d pick someone else?)