Los Angeles Angels preview: Better, but playoff worthy?
After two wildly disappointing seasons, the Los Angeles Angels approached the offseason differently than the previous two. After securing the two biggest free-agent sluggers in 2012 and 2013 — Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, respectively — they pumped the brakes on lavish spending. Hopefull, for Angels fans, this means they are gearing up to hand Mike Trout a massive extension (they are currently in talks), but it also means management may have re-evaluated and realized spending heavily on older players isn’t the long-term answer going forward.
They did make a few smaller moves which should make them better. Grabbing David Freese from the Cardinals could sure up third base, assuming Freese regains his All-Star form.
The biggest move for the Angels was the three-team trade with the Diamondbacks and White Sox, which sent slugger Mark Trumbo packing in return for young, left-handers Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs from Chicago and Arizona, respectively. The deal nets them two controllable starters for the foreseeable future while giving up a one-dimensional slugger who struck out a ton. Still, they’ll miss Trumbo’s 30-homer, 100-RBI output. Enter Raul Ibanez as a replacement. With the ageless Ibanez, they get cheap power and a fantastic clubhouse leader.
Before we dive into 2014, let’s take a look back at 2013. After winning 89 games and missing the playoffs in 2012, the Angels looked to rebound in 2013. Didn’t happen. They fell to 78-84, while losing Pujols for much of the season and watching Hamilton battle ineffectiveness and injury. Mike Trout solidified himself as the best player on the planet, and the Angels received some nice contributions from Howie Kendrick, C.J. Wilson and rookie Kole Calhoun.
Other than that, not a whole lot went right for the Angels. The bullpen was atrocious, staff ace Jered Weaver only threw a pedestrian 154 innings and Joe Blanton made 20 starts. That’s right, Joe Blanton was allowed to start 20 times. Blanton, he of the 6.04 ERA and 62 ERA+, shouldn’t be on a major league roster much less start 20 times!
The 2013 season was also marred with controversy as rumblings about Mike Scioscia being fired and clashing with general manager Jerry Dipoto persisted as the team continued to underperform. Right now, the duo seem to have quashed whatever issues they had, however, one can imagine more drama in Disney if this team gets off to a bad start.
With the offensive pieces in place this year, assuming they rebound from injury and ineffectiveness, the Angels should boast one of the more formidable lineups in baseball. The major question: Will the pitching hold up?
Aside from two underperforming sluggers, the Angels still scored 733 runs, good for seventh in all of baseball. If Pujols and Hamilton can rebound, the offense should be even better, possibly bringing it into a top-five lineup.
Calhoun should enjoy batting leadoff in front of Trout, Pujols and Hamilton with the only fear being that he regresses as major league pitchers adjust to his hitting. If he can adjust, as well, he should do just fine atop this potent lineup. Losing Trumbo’s 34 home runs will hurt a little, but the addition of Freese should solidify third base and give the Angels another right-handed bat to complement Hamilton and Ibanez.
Kendrick should put up his typical numbers batting lower in the order. If he stays healthy, he can build on the second-highest home run total of his career. Erik Aybar returns as the starting shortstop and looks to improve on his .307 OBP from a year ago. Aybar was battling nagging injuries throughout most of last season, which could have contributed to his down year.
Chris Ianetta and Hank Conger should platoon at catcher and give the Angels average to slightly above average production. Neither will light the world on fire, but you know what you’re getting with them. If the rest of the lineup performs as expected, L.A. only needs these two to handle the pitching staff.
Well, it can’t be any worse than last year right? When Jerome Williams, Jason Vargas and Blanton each make 20 or more starts, you know you’re in a tough spot. Williams and Vargas are no longer with the club, and if the team was smart, it would banish Blanton to Narnia, or more realistically, just release him. Even if Skaggs stumbles as a N0. 5 starter, he will post better numbers than Blanton. It might seem like I’m being tough on old Joe, but I’m really not. He’s terrible, just terrible. Word out of Angels camp is he “opened some eyes” with his strong start the other day. Whoever reported that should be fired.
But enough about their fifth starter, they still have four other spots. Weaver and Wilson return as the No. 1 and No. 2 starters. While Wilson posted decent numbers, his peripherals suggest regression. Speaking of regression, if Weaver’s fastball regresses further, he will be playing in a recreational adult league. Weaver has never relied on his heat, he’s more of a control and off-speed pitcher, but his fastball was sitting around 86-87 mph last year. As the staff ace, Weaver needs to rebound and get some life back, not to mention stay healthy. He may never again be a Cy Young candidate, but he needs to stay healthy, throw over 200 innings and pitch to around a 3.50 ERA for the Angels to contend.
Garrett Richards and Hector Santiago will come in as the No. 3 and No. 4 starters, and the Angels will need them both to continue to progress. Richards has the stuff, he just needs to harness it. But is he a No. 3 starter? Santiago has had a great spring and will look to build on a pretty solid 2013 for the White Sox.
You know it’s been a rough year when your closer has an ERA just shy of 4.00. I’m speaking, of course, of Ernesto Frieri, who was demoted from closing at one point last year. Even though he can still rack up the strikeouts, Frieri will be on a short leash with closer-in-waiting Dane De La Rosa champing at the bit to handle the ninth. In addition to De La Rosa, the Angels have some pretty hard throwers in Kevin Jepsen and Fernando Salas handling the middle innings. The lone lefty appears to be Sean Burnett who should continue to be a reliable option. The added boost will come in the form of reliever Joe Smith who the Angels signed away from Cleveland in the offseason. Smith is an above-average reliever who is devastating on righties and pretty darn good against lefties as well. He managed to strand 78 of 107 inherited runners last year on his way to a 2.42 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP.
Opening day lineup
1. Kole Calhoun, RF
2. Mike Trout, CF
3. Albert Pujols, 1B
4. Josh Hamilton, LF
5. David Freese, 3B
6. Raul Ibanez, DH
7. Howie Kendrick, 2B
8. Erik Aybar, SS
9. Chris Iannetta, C
No. 1 prospect Kaleb Cowart reached double-A last year and didn’t necessarily light the minors on fire; however, this switch-hitting third basemen could be next get the call up. If Cowart improves and Freese gets injured, it’s conceivable to see Cowart promoted. The more realistic chance is he gets some more seasoning in the minors to prove he can hit better than .221.
Another prospect blocked from advancing is C.J. Cron. This 6’-4″ first basemen also reached double-A last year, slugging 14 home runs and knocking in 83 runs. While Pujols blocks his immediate future, an injury to Ibanez at DH could pave the way for this future slugger.
Lastly, No. 3 prospect Taylor Lindsey bares mentioning. Lindsey provided a .780 OPS at double-A last season and has the tools to be a solid offense-first second baseman. Depending on how the season progresses, the Angels may choose to trade Kendrick at the deadline to restock other areas and promote Lindsey. They also could leave him in the minors for more seasoning and promote him after they let Kendrick walk after 2015. Either way, after slugging 17 home runs last season, Lindsey doesn’t have much longer to wait in the minors.
As much as I would love to say the Angels are a playoff team, I don’t believe they are. A lot has to go right for them to make the playoffs. For starters, both the Rangers and A’s look stronger than last season, and both finished above L.A. in the standings. Plus, with its flurry of offseason moves, Seattle has improved drastically. Even if the Mariners finish fourth again, they are a tougher opponent and one the Angels will battle 19 times.
Pujols and Hamilton will rebound to have decent years, but I believe their years of being MVP candidates are over. Trout should be signed to an enormous contract at some point in 2014 (if not, the Angels are insane) and he should reward them with his first MVP.
The pitching is where they could unravel, thus ending their playoffs hopes. While I feel the backend of the rotation is improved, it will probably go through some growing pains, and the No. 3-5 slots are rather young. The bullpen is better with Smith and the eventual replacement of Frieri, however, it will not be enough to save the inconsistent starting pitching. My prediction: third place yet again, miss the playoffs and 84 or 85 wins.