Can Mike Scioscia get the Halos back into the playoffs?
The Angels once again return from an offseason fishing expedition in which the big one got away. Two years ago, they tried to re-sign Mark Teixeira after a three-month rental and were outbid by the Yankees. Smaller signings (Brian Fuentes, Juan Rivera and Bobby Abreu) and a breakout season by Kendry Morales soothed their loss, and the Angels went on to win 97 games and another AL West title in ’09. This time, free agent outfielder Carl Crawford was the object of their offseason affection, but they were outbid again (by the Red Sox). The Angels are again counting on Morales (returning from a fractured ankle that ended his 2010 season in May), smaller signings (relievers Hisanori Takahashi and Scott Downs) and the trade that brought Vernon Wells into the fold, to put a championship-caliber team on the field in 2011. It will be much more difficult to make that work after a number of needs were exposed in Morales’ absence last season.
Since Mike Scioscia and then-GM Bill Stoneman became the Angels’ decision-makers in 2000, the emphasis has been on a strong foundation of pitching. At no point have they had a stronger starting rotation than the one on which they will pin their hopes in 2011. The front four (Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and Joel Pineiro) is as strong as almost any in the big leagues. Weaver emerged as the staff ace in 2010, enduring miserable offensive support (and, at times, costly defensive lapses behind him) to go 13–12 with a 3.01 ERA and a major league-leading 233 strikeouts. Haren was acquired at the trade deadline and finished with a burst, going 4–0 with a 1.70 ERA over his final eight starts. Santana was nearly as consistent if not as dominant as Weaver and led the team with 17 victories (thanks to the kind of offensive support Weaver never saw). Pineiro was a bargain in free agency, going 10–7 with a 3.84 ERA. Fifth starter Scott Kazmir is the weak link in the rotation. The Angels might have little patience for the reclamation project after a 9–15, 5.94 ERA season in 2010.
Offense was the Angels’ top priority during the offseason. But it was the bullpen that got more attention. Free agent lefthanders Downs and Takahashi were signed, giving depth and flexibility to an area that had neither last season. There is still a large question mark at closer, though, where incumbent Fernando Rodney did nothing to solidify his status with a shaky finish to the 2010 season. Inserted into the closer role after Brian Fuentes was traded in late August, Rodney blew four saves down the stretch and had a 5.65 ERA in September. His hold on the job heading into 2011 is tenuous with setup men Downs and Kevin Jepsen as well as hard-throwing rookie righthander Jordan Walden threats to take away save opportunities (if not the closer role entirely) from Rodney. The 23-year-old Walden opened eyes with his 100 mph gun readings while striking out 23 in 15.1 innings last year.
A number of Angels regressed in 2010, chief among them shortstop Erick Aybar, who lost his aggressiveness as a hitter — and eventually his position at the top of the lineup. He finished the season with a disappointing .253 average and .306 on-base percentage. The offensive struggles and a series of nagging injuries affected his defense as well (career-high 21 errors). Aybar might not be the .312 hitter of 2009 every year, but a bounce-back in 2011 is essential. Second baseman Howie Kendrick turned in a mixed bag of a season. His batting average (.279) was a career low and continued a four-year slide. But he also set career highs in home runs, doubles, RBIs, stolen bases and hits. Continued slides by either Aybar or Kendrick could open the door for Alberto Callaspo and Maicer Izturis, who figure to get playing time at a combination of infield positions.
This was Ground Zero for the Angels’ offensive struggles in 2010. When Morales fractured his ankle while celebrating his walk-off grand slam on May 29, it ended his season and crippled the Angels’ offense. Scioscia started nine different players at first base in the 111 games Morales missed and got only a fraction of the production they expected from Morales. A full recovery is expected for Morales, and the Angels are counting on him to pick up where he left off in 2009 (a .306 average, 34 home runs, 108 RBIs and .569 slugging percentage). The solution is nowhere near as obvious at third base, where long-heralded prospect Brandon Wood was a total flop in 2010. The Angels did nothing to address the black hole during the offseason and appear committed to crossing their fingers that a combination of Izturis and Callaspo can do better in 2011. The oft-injured Izturis has been on the DL at least once in five of his six seasons with the Angels, but they might turn to him to address their need for a leadoff hitter as well.
After missing out on Crawford, the Angels will instead rely on Wells while they wait for the arrival of Mike Trout, one of the top prospects in baseball, who is on a fast track to the majors at age 19. Wells, a former Gold Glove winner in center field, hit 31 home runs and drove in 88 for the Blue Jays last season. While those numbers are acceptable, they are not worthy of the four remaining years on his contract that will pay him an average of $21.5 million a season. Peter Bourjos did wonders for the Angels’ outfield defense after his promotion to the big leagues in early August. The speedy center fielder’s exceptional range was enough to move nine-time Gold Glove winner Torii Hunter to right field. It remains to be seen, though, how quickly Bourjos’ offensive game can develop and whether the Angels can sacrifice offense for defense at that spot in the lineup while it does. Hunter carried a tremendous load in the Angels’ Morales-deprived lineup last season and led the team in RBIs (90). He’ll have a little more help with Morales back in 2011 but must continue to produce at the same level. With Wells taking over in left, this will be among the best defensive outfields in the majors.
The Angels may be prepared to turn over the catching duties to former first-round pick Hank Conger. With Mike Napoli gone to Texas via Toronto in the Wells trade, Jeff Mathis is the only catcher with experience. Mathis has long had the reputation of all defense and no offense, but he regressed defensively after an early season wrist injury in 2010 and remains ineffective as a hitter. Mathis will play until Conger proves he’s ready, which the Angels hope will occur in spring training. Bobby Wilson can be a serviceable backup.
Despite respectable production in 2010 (.274, 21 homers, 84 RBIs and a team-leading .820 OPS), the Angels let Hideki Matsui leave as a free agent. That clears the way for Bobby Abreu to spend a good deal of time at DH in 2011. Abreu’s defense declined noticeably in 2010. His offensive numbers dipped in most areas as well, but the Angels are hopeful a less stressful role (with Morales back) will produce a rebound in 2011. Only in the infield, where Callaspo, Wood, Izturis, Kendrick and Aybar will fill three spots in the lineup, is there any depth.
The Angels have been a model of stability over the past decade with Scioscia acknowledged as one of the best managers in baseball and GM Tony Reagins having succeeded Stoneman seamlessly. But there was turnover and upheaval in the scouting department this past winter and yet another offseason in which the team’s attempts to improve were thwarted by one of the big-money powers back East (the Red Sox this time). That has created some cracks in the Angels’ self-image and industry-wide reputation, cracks that could be exacerbated by another disappointing season in 2011.
The Angels’ reign over the AL West (five division titles in six seasons from 2004-09) came to a crashing halt with Morales’ season-ending injury, which exposed a dangerous lack of depth in the lineup and organization. They will point to Morales’ return (and having Haren for a full season) as reasons for optimism in 2011. But the stark truth might be that the Rangers (and possibly even the A’s) now have the talent advantage over the Angels.