Can Angels overtake Rangers?
Los Angeles Angels
Arte Moreno clearly doesn't like finishing second. After the Angels missed the playoffs in consecutive years (2010-11) for the first time in his ownership, Moreno fired GM Tony Reagins and a handful of long-time front-office employees in a thorough purge. Jerry Dipoto was hired as GM, bringing a fresh vision to an organization that had not made a significant front office addition from outside the franchise since 2003. After annually falling short in pursuit of their big-ticket offseason targets, Moreno handed Dipoto a blank check and a clear mandate to think big in upgrading the team. Fueled by a new TV deal that gave the franchise's bottom line a robust boost, the Angels splurged on the biggest single-day free agent expenditure in baseball history - a combined $331.5 million committed to first baseman Albert Pujols and left-handed pitcher C.J. Wilson. Those two moves have transformed the Angels from a fading franchise trying to rebuild around young players into a serious threat to the Texas Rangers, the reigning power in the AL West and the American League.
A starting rotation fronted by Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana put up a 3.59 ERA in 2011, the second-lowest in the American League and fifth-lowest in the majors. Weaver (18-8, 2.41 ERA, 1.01 WHIP) had the kind of season that would have won him a Cy Young in most years not featuring Justin Verlander's dominant performance. But the Angels' rotation was very much a front-loaded group with a serious drop-off after that trio. The Angels were a very good team when Weaver, Haren or Santana started (58-42) with those three combining to go 45-30 with a 2.98 ERA and 568 strikeouts in 702.2 innings. When one of their big three didn't start, though, the Angels were not a very good team (28-34). So they signed the best starting pitcher available on the free agent market in Wilson, creating a rotation that might be the best in baseball in 2012. The left-handed Wilson (an Orange County native who grew up rooting for the Angels) gives the rotation balance and lets Jerome Williams and top prospect Garrett Richards fight it out for the fifth spot.
Angels relievers were among the least reliable in baseball last season, blowing 25 saves (tied for the most in the American League). Rookie closer Jordan Walden had 10 of those blown saves, tied with Cubs reliever Carlos Marmol for the most in the majors. Growing pains from a rookie closer are understandable. But as big a problem for the Angels was their inability to find any consistency in their setup crew beyond veteran Scott Downs (who was exceptional). A revolving group of relievers took turns earning manager Mike Scioscia's trust and then promptly losing it - from Kevin Jepsen and Michael Kohn to Fernando Rodney, Jason Bulger and Rich Thompson. Dipoto made the bullpen a high priority in the offseason but emerged only with veteran setup man LaTroy Hawkins and Jason Isringhausen (on a minor league deal) added to Downs, Hisanori Takahashi, Bobby Cassevah and the remnants of last year's pen to build the bridge between the starting rotation and Walden.
Manning the middle has been a three-man job over the past few years. Injuries, inconsistency and a search for the best lineup matchups prompted Scioscia to rotate the two jobs among three players — Howard Kendrick at second base, Erick Aybar at shortstop and Maicer Izturis at both positions. Kendrick (an All-Star in 2011) and Aybar (the American League Gold Glove winner at shortstop) are entering their primes and have stronger grips on the every-day duty. But Izturis remains a valuable and versatile role player who should see significant playing time at second, third and shortstop.
Pujols' average season (.328/.420/.617, 42 home runs, 126 RBIs and 123 runs scored) blows away anything the Angels have had in their lineup since Vlad Guerrero's prime. His arrival also creates a potential surplus at first base. The Angels are optimistic that Kendrys Morales can finally return from his fractured ankle in 2012. Rookie of the Year runner-up Mark Trumbo returns for his sophomore season after leading the Angels in home runs (29) and RBIs (87). While Morales figures to make his return primarily at DH, Trumbo might have to become a utility player in order to get his at-bats this season. The Angels plan to try Trumbo at third base (in a part-time capacity), where he would join a co-op with Alberto Callaspo and Izturis. The Callaspo-Izturis combo provides little of the power expected from a corner infielder, but Callaspo did lead the team in batting average (.288) and on-base percentage last season.
The Angels head into 2012 with six outfielders vying for playing time in three spots — seven if you count Trumbo, a man without a position. Two of those players represent the Angels' dynamic future - Peter Bourjos and Mike Trout. Three of those players are costly veterans in their declining years (Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells and Bobby Abreu). Bourjos emerged as a Gold Glove-caliber defender, one of the best centerfielders in baseball. He was also the first player in franchise history and one of only two in the majors last season (along with Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson) to have at least 25 doubles, 10 triples, 10 home runs and 20 stolen bases. Hunter, Wells and Abreu, on the other hand, set career-lows almost across the board. Hunter bounced back in the second half and could be re-energized in a lineup bolstered by the addition of Pujols and the return of Morales, allowing him to slip back into a complementary role. A bounce-back for Wells is almost inevitable — it seems impossible he could be as bad as he was in his first season with the Angels (a .218 average and .248 on-base percentage). Ryan Langerhans will provide a lefty bat off the bench. Looming over all is the rising star Trout. He made the leap to the majors from Double-A last summer with limited success (a .220 average in 40 games). His electrifying skill set was apparent, though, and his time is coming.
Scioscia's love of defense from his catchers couldn't blind him forever to the offensive incompetence of Jeff Mathis. Things finally changed this winter with Mathis jettisoned by Dipoto (in a trade to the Blue Jays) and Chris Iannetta acquired to restore some much-needed balance to the position. The question now is whether Iannetta can carry his offense out of Coors Field and into the American League - his career splits heavily favor his former home. Iannetta's arrival also casts a shadow over Hank Conger as the Angels' catcher of the future. With the 28-year-old Iannetta likely to make 100 starts or more, Conger (a former first-round pick) will compete with Bobby Wilson for backup duty at best.
In an ideal world for the Angels, Morales would return healthy in 2012 and ease back into things as their primary DH. However, as optimistic as the Angels are that Morales will be healthy on Opening Day, his health remains a question mark; Abreu lurks as a $9 million albatross with fading skills; and Trumbo is a second-year player with tremendous power but nowhere to play. Scioscia will piece together a DH out of that group with the remains (plus the idle half of his Callaspo-Izturis infield time-share) making up the meat of the Angels' bench.
Dipoto has brought a new vision, surrounding himself with a group of evaluators and assistants with a distinctly analytical bent. With greater job security than any other manager in baseball, Scioscia had become a looming power in the organization, stifling dissent. That has clearly changed with the new power structure in the front office. Dipoto's offseason moves (aided by Moreno's decision to throw open the bank vault) reflect his philosophy, pushing the Angels toward greater regard for on-base percentage and pitchers who can “control counts.” It represents a new direction for a franchise that had begun to grow stale.
The offseason splurge for Pujols and Wilson has upped the ante for this season. Anything short of a return to the top of the AL West (a division the Angels ruled with five first-place finishes in six seasons from 2004-09) might make them question their investment. It won't be easy. The Rangers remain a power, with a strong farm system and a deep team anchored by players entering their primes. The Angels-Rangers rivalry figures to be as competitive as any in baseball.
SS Erick Aybar (S)
Switch-hitter was much more dangerous from the left side — a .308 average, .341 OBP and seven home runs.
2B Howard Kendrick (R)
Added power (career-highs of 18 HRs and .464 slugging percentage) to .285 average last season.
1B Albert Pujols (R)
Contract includes $3 million bonus for 3,000th hit, $7 million for 763rd home run - has 2,073 hits, 445 homers.
DH Kendrys Morales (S)
Has missed 273 games since fracturing his left ankle on May 29, 2010.
RF Torii Hunter (R)
Reversed aging process in second half of 2011 - .324 average, 10 home runs, 31 RBIs after the end of July.
LF Vernon Wells (R)
Wells' .218 average, .248 OBP in 2011 were lowest of any major leaguer who qualified for batting title.
3B Alberto Callaspo (S)
Should share playing time with Maicer Izturis, possibly Mark Trumbo as well.
C Chris Iannetta (R)
Had OBPs of .390 and .370 in the only two seasons in which he played 100-plus games (2008, '11).
CF Peter Bourjos (R)
Hit better against lefties (.289 average, .503 slugging) than righties; candidate for spot starts at leadoff.
INF Maicer Izturis (S)
One of Angels' smartest hitters, stayed healthy enough to play career-high 122 games in 2011.
C Bobby Wilson (R)
Caught Ervin Santana's no-hitter; penciled in to back up Chris Iannetta.
OF Bobby Abreu (L)
In serious decline but rare left-handed bat for righty-heavy Angels. He may serve as DH until Morales proves completely healthy.
OF Ryan Langerhans (L)
Veteran gives Angels another left-handed bat, provides solid defense at all three outfield positions
INF Mark Trumbo (R)
First rookie to lead Angels in homers (29) and RBIs (87) has to fight for at-bats now. Should get some work at third base in order to get his bat in the lineup.
RH Jered Weaver
Only Cy Young winner Justin Verlander had a better year among AL pitchers in 2011.
RH Dan Haren
Durable and dependable, Haren has not missed a start since becoming a regular in 2005.
LH C.J. Wilson
In two seasons since converting to starter is 31-15 with 3.14 ERA, 376 strikeouts.
RH Ervin Santana
Went 7-1 with 2.18 ERA in July and August including no-hitter in Cleveland.
RH Jerome Williams
22-2 with 3.10 ERA in 206.1 IP combined in independent league, Triple-A, majors and winter ball last year.
RH Jordan Walden (Closer)
Had club rookie record 32 saves - and tied for MLB-high with 10 blown saves.
LH Scott Downs
Most reliable reliever in a shaky 2011 bullpen had 26 holds, a 1.34 ERA.
RH LaTroy Hawkins
Veteran joins his ninth team; gives Angels another veteran setup option with Downs.
RH Bobby Cassevah
Mike Scioscia grew to trust Cassevah's heavy sinker late in the 2011 season.
LH Hisanori Takahashi
A lefty specialist who fared better against righties (.206 average, .599 OPS) than lefties (.261, .733).
RH Rich Thompson
Never grabbed hold of a role in 2011 but did have 56 strikeouts in 54 innings.
RH Jason Isringhausen
The former Cardinals closer resurrected his career with the Mets last season, finishing with 19 holds, seven saves and just five blown opportunities. He's an inexpensive and dicey insurance plan for Walden.