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Angels under the gun to win now
Los Angeles Angels
Owner Arte Moreno’s millions have bought only dysfunction and disappointment the past two years. The mega-millions additions of former MVPs Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton have not gotten the Angels closer to their first playoff berth since 2009. The two have been expensive busts, failing to justify the Angels’ investments and handcuffing GM Jerry Dipoto’s ability to make other moves. The farm system has gone fallow, and Dipoto’s attempts to assemble a pitching staff within the confines of a budget strained by the commitments to Pujols and Hamilton have been failures, forcing him to expend other resources — young trade chips Mark Trumbo and Peter Bourjos — in a desperate search for pitching. This winter’s moves had better get the Angels back into contention, or another winter of discontent lies ahead.
As debilitating as the twin failures of Pujols and Hamilton were last year, the main reason the Angels have been among baseball’s biggest underachievers the past two seasons has been the crumbling of their pitching staff. Only C.J. Wilson and Jason Vargas (now gone via free agency) performed adequately in 2013. Wilson was outstanding, going 17–7 with a 3.39 ERA and giving the Angels their only 200-inning starter. Sidelined for a chunk of the season by an elbow injury, staff ace Jered Weaver took a step back in 2013. Wilson and a healthy Weaver represent the only reliable pieces in the Angels’ rebuilt-for-2014 rotation. Dipoto’s acquisitions a year ago — Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson and Vargas — were more bust than boost. This year, he is rolling the dice on three young pitchers to fill out the rotation — homegrown righthander Garrett Richards and lefties Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, both acquired in a three-way trade that cost the Angels Trumbo. Santiago must overcome control issues. Skaggs was made available by the Diamondbacks after losing velocity from his fastball last season.
The sagging rotation in 2013 replaced the bullpen as the biggest problem area on the Angels’ pitching staff. After a sad performance in 2012, the relief corps got only marginally better last season as Dipoto swung and missed on a series of moves — trading Jordan Walden for Hanson and signing Ryan Madson and Sean Burnett. Madson (Tommy John surgery) never threw a pitch for the Angels, and Burnett gave them fewer than 10 innings due to his own arm issues. Dipoto will try again this year. He acquired one-time closer Fernando Salas in the trade that brought third baseman David Freese from St. Louis and signed setup man Joe Smith to a three-year deal. Ernesto Frieri will once again close after converting 37-of-41 save chances last season. Kevin Jepsen, Dane De La Rosa and Michael Kohn return to the mix — as will Burnett. De La Rosa is fighting through a forearm strain that will delay his season.
Erick Aybar and Howie Kendrick will return for another season as the Angels’ primary keystone combination — and that is a surprise. Going into the offseason, Kendrick was considered more valuable to the Angels as a trade chip to obtain front-line pitching. The winter didn’t play out that way, and he returns as a steady, complementary bat in the Angels’ lineup and an improved defensive player. Meanwhile, the Angels are still waiting for Aybar to develop into a top-of-the-order hitter. It hasn’t happened, and the switch-hitter has settled in at the bottom of the order with a series of uneven seasons since his .312 breakout in 2009. Defensively, Aybar’s arm and range make him an asset at shortstop.
The last time Pujols and Freese were paired together across the diamond, the St. Louis Cardinals won a World Series title. Things have not gone very well for either in the two years since. The Angels knew they would be getting the worst years of his Hall of Fame career when they signed a 32-year-old Pujols for 10 years two winters ago. They just didn’t realize they’d be getting them at the front end of that contract as well as (almost assuredly) at the back end. Leg and foot problems were largely at fault in 2013 as Pujols put up career lows in every statistical category, including games played (99). Greater DH time should be in order — but the Angels traded away their best alternative at first base (Trumbo) in search of pitching. That leaves the Angels hoping for a return to health to buoy Pujols’ production in 2014. Freese, on the other hand, remains more of a mystery. After his postseason heroics in 2011 and an All-Star selection in 2012, he was discarded by the Cardinals following a power drop-off and whispers of lost bat speed in 2013. Still, he represents the Angels’ best hopes for a productive third baseman since Troy Glaus left as a free agent following the 2004 season.
As cloudy as the past two seasons have been for the Angels, Mike Trout has been the bright silver lining. At age 22, Trout has already stamped himself as the best player in baseball (status disputed only by Miguel Cabrera’s legion of supporters) with a two-year big-league arrival that ranks among the best in baseball history. After nearly winning a Rookie of the Year-MVP double in 2012, Trout was actually better in some ways last season, finishing as the MVP runner-up to Cabrera for the second consecutive season after leading the AL in runs and walks while posting a .323/.432/.557 slash line. If you like your statistics more New Age, Trout has led the majors in WAR in each of his two full big-league seasons. Trout will be back in his comfort zone, center field, full-time after moving to left field for Peter Bourjos at times in 2013. The Angels plan to flank him with Kole Calhoun and — they earnestly hope — a more productive Hamilton. Hamilton’s massive drop-off for most of 2013 was one of the biggest mysteries in baseball last season. But he did show signs of coming around as the dismal season wound down. The Angels can only hope his .329 average and .518 slugging percentage (albeit with just five home runs) over the final 45 games of last season augurs a rebirth in 2014. Hamilton has been dealing with a calf strain, which has prevented him from working out much of spring training.
Satisfying Mike Scioscia’s defensive demands and still contributing offensively has proved too much for a generation of Angels catchers. Chris Iannetta hasn’t been able to do it. He hit just .225 last season, and it might be time for the Angels to give former first-round pick Hank Conger a larger share of the workload. Conger’s defense has been a work in progress for the past three seasons spent largely on the bench. But he at least holds out the possibility of offensive contributions.
The ideal situation would have Pujols spending a far greater portion of his playing time at DH, putting less wear and tear on his legs, which have broken down each of the past two years. But Pujols doesn’t want that. So, the Angels signed 41-year-old Raul Ibanez to handle most of the DH duty. Behind Ibanez and Conger (who will share catching duties with Iannetta), the Angels’ bench is not likely to offer much. The team signed veteran Carlos Pena, who could spell Pujols at first at times.
The Angels’ dysfunction was not confined to the roster last season. Scioscia and Dipoto have not meshed well since Dipoto was hired before the 2012 season. The expectation was that last season’s failures would cost one or both their job. Instead, it was a couple of minor heads that rolled (coaches Rob Picciolo and Jim Eppard), and both Scioscia and Dipoto return. If the Angels’ playoff drought extends to a fifth season, though, it’s hard to see the status quo continuing.
The decade that followed Scioscia’s arrival as manager was the most successful in franchise history, including the Angels’ only World Series title in 2002. The franchise has drifted away from the foundation upon which that success was built, however. Moreno’s luxury spending binge on stars (Pujols and Hamilton) and other decisions have decimated the farm system and produced a dysfunctional roster that has more name recognition than functional strengths. The Angels now find themselves pinning their hopes on comeback seasons from three players (Pujols, Hamilton, Freese) who almost certainly have passed their best days — the kind of misguided strategy that too often characterized the franchise’s first four championship-less decades.
LF Kole Calhoun (L)
A .402 on-base percentage during his minor-league career makes him a candidate to fill leadoff void.
CF Mike Trout (R)
Only he and Willie Mays ever had consecutive seasons with a .320 AVG or better and at least 25 HRs, 30 SBs.
1B Albert Pujols (R)
Since moving from St. Louis to Anaheim, Pujols’ OPS has dropped more than 200 points as an Angel.
RF Josh Hamilton (L)
Batted .329, raised his average 33 points over final 45 games of 2013 — giving Angels hope for the future.
3B David Freese (R)
Freese would be a hero to Angels fans if he gave them their first prototypical 3B since Troy Glaus.
DH Raul Ibanez (L)
The Angels are banking on the 41-year-old Ibanez being able to keep Father Time at bay for another year.
2B Howie Kendrick (R)
Nearly traded to the Dodgers in midseason and dangled for pitching in the winter.
C Chris Iannetta (R)
The combination of Iannetta and Hank Conger produced pretty much the MLB average for catchers last year.
SS Erick Aybar (S)
Seems to be regressing offensively with his lowest batting average (.271) since 2010.
C Hank Conger (S)
Is it time to take off the “water wings,” as Mike Scioscia likes to say, and let him play?
OF J.B. Shuck (L)
Made defensive play of the year in 2013, tumbling into the outfield seats at Angel Stadium to rob a home run.
OF Collin Cowgill (R)
Journeyman gives Angels coverage in the outfield and some experience off the bench — but little else.
INF Grant Green (R)
A’s soured on their 2009 first-round pick, but Angels have to be more open-minded about his potential.
1B Carlos Pena (L)
Since leading the AL with 39 homers in 2009, Pena has hit just .206 with 83 home runs in four different uniforms.
RH Jered Weaver
Fractured elbow biggest reason for sub-par 2013, but Angels have to be worried about his shrinking velocity.
LH C.J. Wilson
Pillar of stability amid the shambles of the 2013 rotation, essentially matching his All-Star season of 2011.
RH Garrett Richards
GM Jerry Dipoto wanted Joe Blanton and Tommy Hanson in the 2013 rotation instead of Richards.
LH Tyler Skaggs
Dipoto has acquired Skaggs in trades twice (with the Diamondbacks and Angels).
LH Hector Santiago
Needs to harness his stuff or get bumped to the pen; has averaged 4.5 walks per nine IP in the big leagues.
RH Ernesto Frieri (Closer)
Fastball-reliant closer is vulnerable to the big mistake (11 HRs in 2013) but saved 37 games.
RH Joe Smith
After five successful seasons in Cleveland (a 2.76 ERA), Smith moves West to Anaheim.
RH Fernando Salas
Had 24 saves for the Cardinals in 2011 but fell out of favor and back into the minors the past two seasons.
LH Sean Burnett
Gave the Angels less than 10 innings last year before undergoing season-ending elbow surgery.
RH Kevin Jepsen
Has never developed into reliable back-end bullpen presence, but 8.2 career K rate makes him valuable.
RH Dane De La Rosa
Big surprise last year with 6–1 record, two saves, 2.86 ERA and 1.16 WHIP over 75 appearances.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Hunter Green, LHP
Free-agent compensation for their big-ticket signings have robbed the Angels of high draft picks and left their farm system ranked 30th out of the 30 clubs. With that backdrop, the Angels were thrilled to find Green — who had signed a letter of intent to pitch at the University of Kentucky — available in the second round. The Bowling Green, Ky., native made just a handful of appearances in the Arizona Rookie League after signing last summer, going 0–1 with a 4.32 ERA and 11 strikeouts in 16.2 innings. But the 18-year-old already ranks as the Angels pitching prospect with the highest upside in a system thoroughly devoid of high-end pitching.
RHP R.J. Alvarez (22)
Could rise quickly after posting 1.24 WHIP, 3.08 ERA and striking out 117 in 76 innings at Class A level in 2013.
1B C.J. Cron, 1B (24)
Top hitting prospect in system won Arizona Fall League batting title (.413). His path to big leagues is clearer with Mike Trumbo traded.
3B Kaleb Cowart (21)
Took big step back in Class AA (.221/.279/.301). His road to the big leagues now blocked by David Freese’s acquisition.
2B Taylor Lindsey (22)
Offense-minded infielder has hit at every level, showing newfound power (17 home runs) at Class AA last season.
RHP Mark Sappington (23)
The Angels have high hopes for 6'5" righthander who went 11–4 with a 3.38 ERA in Cal League before late-season promotion to Class AA last year.
2B Alex Yarbrough (22)
Ole Miss product blossomed in hitter-friendly Cal League last year — a .313 average, 11 HRs, 80 RBIs, 14 stolen bases.
SS Jose Rondon (20)
Venezuelan hit .293 with 50 RBIs and 13 stolen bases in 68 games in rookie ball last year.
LHP Ricardo Sanchez (17)
He’s young and he’s small (about 160 pounds), but his fastball hits 90 and he’s got an advanced curveball.
Beyond the Box Score
Tough words During his brief tenure on a sports talk radio show in St. Louis last year, former big-leaguer Jack Clark accused Angels slugger Albert Pujols of using performance-enhancing drugs. Clark said he knew for certain that Pujols was “a juicer.” In the aftermath of his comments, Clark’s show was cancelled, and Pujols sued for defamation of character, saying the accusations were “malicious, reckless and outrageous falsehoods.” Clark’s attorney responded by saying his client would be willing to undergo a lie-detector test — if Pujols agreed to do the same.
Big crowds Though attendance dropped slightly for the third consecutive season, the Angels topped three million in attendance for the 11th consecutive season in 2013. Only one team in the American League (the New York Yankees) can match that streak. But last year’s total of 3,019,505 fans drawn to Angel Stadium was the lowest of Arte Moreno’s decade as owner. Not coincidentally, the Angels have missed the playoffs each of the past four seasons.
Staff shakeup Despite speculation throughout the season that he might be fired, Mike Scioscia survived and returns for his 15th season as Angels manager. But his staff underwent some major renovations. Hitting coach Jim Eppard and bench coach Rob Picciolo were dismissed. Dino Ebel moves from third-base coach to bench coach, and two former Angels returned to the fold. Don Baylor was hired as hitting coach and Gary DiSarcina as third-base coach. In addition, the Angels added two positions — assistant hitting coach (Dave Hansen) and player information coach (Rick Eckstein). Both Hansen and Eckstein have been hitting coaches at the major-league level before.
Stadium talk The Angels have begun a potentially acrimonious negotiation with the city of Anaheim over a new lease for the team at Angel Stadium. Amid veiled threats from ownership about building a new stadium elsewhere, the Anaheim City Council agreed to open negotiations on a new lease and grant the Angels an extension on their opt-out clause from 2016 to 2019. The current lease runs through 2029, and the Angels are seeking massive concessions from the city in order to finance approximately $150 million in renovations.