By Jonathan O'Konis, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (92-70) - First Place (AL West); lost in ALDS to Boston
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: SP - Paul Byrd, SS - Orlando Cabrera, OF - Steve Finley, SS - Maicer Izturis, OF - Juan Rivera
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: SS - David Eckstein, 3B - Troy Glaus, OF - Jose Gullien, SP - Ramon Ortiz, RP - Troy Percival
PROJECTED LINEUP: Chone Figgins (2B), Darin Erstad (1B), Steve Finley (CF), Vladimir Guerrero (RF), Garret Anderson (LF), Dallas McPherson (3B), Jeff DaVanon (DH), Orlando Cabrera (SS), Bengie Molina (C)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Bartolo Colon (RHP), Jarrod Washburn (LHP), Kelvim Escobar (RHP), John Lackey (RHP), Paul Byrd (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Francisco Rodriguez (RHP)
MANAGER: Mike Scioscia
The AL West Champions made the best free agent signing last year when they inked Vladimir Guerrero to a five-year $70 million dollar contract. He not only won the AL MVP award, but single-handedly carried them in the month September to the playoffs. Arte Moreno and Bill Stoneman surrounded Vlad with enough talent that winning the AL West shouldn't have been a surprise. After signing pitchers Bartolo Colon and Kelvim Escobar to large free agent deals, as well as bringing in outfielder Jose Guillen, the Angels were the favorites to win the division. But a number of injuries to key players (Troy Glaus, Garret Anderson and Troy Percival) and a poor first half put that in doubt.
Chone Figgins emerged from out of nowhere to pick up the Angels wherever they needed it (playing 3B, 2B, SS and OF). Escobar emerged as the Angels' best starter and Francisco Rodriguez as their top relief pitcher. After managing to slip by the A's to win the division, they had the misfortune to play the juggernaut that was the 2004 Red Sox and were swept in the first round of the playoffs.
Entering this past offseason, the Angels had a number of issues to be dealt with. Guillen, the second best hitter on the team last year, was such a discipline problem that he was suspended with a week left of the season in the heat of the pennant race. He was shipped off to Washington. The Troy's - Glaus and Percival, two team leaders, were next and the Angels let both walk in favor of younger, healthier, cheaper alternatives. The Angels figured out that putting a leftfielder with an arthritic back (Anderson) in center field wasn't the best option, so they brought in free agent Steve Finley to play the position. They also brought in former Boston shortstop Orlando Cabrera to improve their infield defense. The Angels completed their revamping by adding starter Paul Byrd from the Braves.
The season's big question will be if Rodriguez can adapt to being the team's closer. Also, can rookie Dallas McPherson successfully step into the shoes vacated by Glaus? Can Vlad repeat as MVP? Most importantly, can the Angels repeat as AL West champions and go further in the postseason? And finally, what was the deal with that Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim naming thing?
The Angels have added a new left side to their infield by signing Cabrera and giving McPherson the everyday third base job. For those of you familiar with Cabrera only from his play in the World Series and the playoffs, don't be fooled, he may not be as good as you think. He's a good player and offers a lot of benefits to the Angels. First off, he's extremely durable having played in over 150 games every season since 2001. He can also steal a base (16 last year) as well as hit a home run (10 last year). His defense can still be excellent at times, but ever since he hurt his back in 2001 his defense has steadily been sliding downhill. Last season in 161 games he had an OPS (on- base percentage + slugging percentage) of just .689. He hit better after going to the Red Sox, but in Anaheim he'll be expected to produce from the start. Four years and $32 million dollars is just way too much for a thirty year-old shortstop who had an OBP of .306 last year.
At third base, McPherson is facing a tremendous amount of pressure after hammering minor league pitching to the tune of a 1.057 OPS with 40 home runs last season. Not only will he be one of the early favorites for Rookie of the Year, but he'll also be trying to top what Glaus accomplished. McPherson has the talent to be successful in the big leagues, but he has to develop better plate discipline. In a late season call-up with the Angels, he struck out 17 times in 40 at-bats with just three walks. He also has to continue to improve defensively.
At second, Figgins had a breakout season last year and the Angels will expect more of the same with starter Adam Kennedy sidelined until early June following knee surgery this offseason. At the plate, Figgins finished second in the majors with 17 triples. He was also a threat on the bases by stealing 34 times.
Darin Erstad returns to first base for the Angels where he won a Gold Glove last season (though Gold Gloves carry about as much weight as a world's #1 Dad T-shirt). Erstad, one of the best fielding OF's in baseball, is simply not a first baseman. His .400 slugging percentage and 37 extra base hits are decent for a second baseman, but shouldn't be acceptable for a first baseman. Despite that Erstad remains an excellent base runner stealing 16 bases last season and only getting thrown out once.
Behind the plate the Angels have the Molina brothers. Both players offer good defense, but weak skills with the bat. Bengie Molina hit .276 last season, while his younger brother, Jose (.261), generally has less power.
What can't Guerrero do? Last season he won the MVP by carrying the Angels on his back down the stretch hitting .560 with an OPS of 1.967 over the final week of the season with six home runs. For the season, he hit .337 with an OPS of .989, 39 home runs and 126 RBI. He even managed to steal 15 bases. Vlad isn't the best defensive rightfielder, and he has some back issues, but at 29 he should be good for the foreseeable future.
Finley takes over in center and hopes to continue his trend of getting better as he gets older. Last year he established a career-high with 36 home runs and had his third highest RBI total with 96 (including 46 in just 224 at-bats for the Dodgers). Finley is still excellent in the field finishing with a .992 fielding percentage last season. The 40-year-old's declining speed limits his range, but he makes up for it with good positioning.
Anderson mans left field after a failed attempt at center last season. Anderson was once one of baseball's most durable players. He had averaged 157 games a season the previous eight years entering last year. But after being diagnosed with inflammatory arthritis in his back, he managed to play just 112 games last season. He continued to hit when he was in the lineup, batting .301 with 14 home runs. Switching to a corner position will help to preserve his health.
The DH at-bats will be divided up between OFs Jeff DaVanon, Juan Rivera, Kendry Morales and 1B prospect Casey Kotchman. Rivera and DaVanon offer some pop off the bench with DaVanon having hit for a .780 OPS with seven homers and 18 steals, and Rivera putting up an .829 OPS with 12 homers.
The X-factor in the mix is Morales. The Angels wanted the Cuban defector so badly that they gave him a six-year major league contract to play either first or in the outfield. Playing with Havana last season, he hit .324 with 21 homers. No matter where he plays, signing a 22-year old to a six-year major league deal with no playing experience in the U.S. is an awful big risk.
Kotchman didn't impress in his time in the big leagues last season, hitting just .224 in 116 at-bats. But before he reached the majors last season, Kotchman had been tearing up the Pacific Coast and Texas Leagues to the tune of a .371 batting average and an OPS of .981. Kotchman still has to develop power and prove he can stay healthy to avoid comparisons to the Nationals oft- injured Nick Johnson. With the switch-hitting DaVanon and Morales, the right- handed Juan Rivera, and the left-handed Kotchman, manager Mike Scioscia should have plenty of options.
Anaheim's pitching staff managed a 4.28 ERA last season, good for fourth in the American League. Anaheim has an experienced rotation full of established number two and three starters with no clear ace. The Angels had hoped Colon, could step into that role. Colon wasn't horrible, after all he did manage to win 18 games, but most of those wins came from the Angels averaging seven runs per game when he pitched. Colon saw his ERA skyrocket for the second season in a row, this time going up over a run per game (3.87 in 2003 to 5.01 in 2004). Colon was particularly brutal at home, where his ERA was roughly a run higher than it was on the road last season (5.42 to 4.47). Also, 26 of his career- high 38 home runs allowed were at home. The best news for the Angels is that Colon was much better after the All-Star break going 12-4 with an ERA of 3.63.
Kelvim Escobar actually proved to be the Angels' best starter last season. His won-loss record wasn't fantastic (11-12), but his ERA was the best of any of the club's starters at 3.93. Escobar improved his strikeout total and came up with a career high 193 K's good for fourth highest in the AL behind only Johan Santana, Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez. He still walks too many batters with 76 last season.
Jarrod Washburn is scary. Not in a good way. Washburn is a disaster waiting to happen. In 2002, Washburn had by far his best season going 18-6 with an ERA of 3.13 and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of almost 2.5:1 (139-59). Compare those stats to last year, when Washburn went 11-8 with an ERA of 4.64 with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of roughly 2:1 (86-40). In 2002 Washburn gave up 19 home runs in 206 innings. Last year Washburn gave up 20 home runs in 149.1 innings. What this means is Washburn has lost speed or movement off his pitches and the hitters have adjusted. That kind of drop-off over three seasons does not bode well for the Angels. The fact that he's a lefty means he'll be kept around longer then he should be.
John Lackey is a pitcher that's good for 13-15 wins with an ERA around 4.50, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio around 2.5:1 (150-60), and around 200 innings. His big 2002 postseason caused him to be overrated by some. But as long as he stays affordable he's a good option for this team.
The Angels signed Paul Byrd as free agent this offseason to a one-year $7 million deal. That's way too much money for a player coming off an injury and leaving Leo Mazzone's side in Atlanta. Byrd lives on his control, which is excellent most of the time. Over the past two years he's pitched 342.2 innings with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.6:1 (208-57). His home runs allowed were way down last year to 18. With a move into the AL, if he pitches enough innings that number will be closer to the 38 homers he gave up two years ago.
The team's greatest strength by far last season was the bullpen. Last season the starters went 67-54 with an ERA of 4.70 and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2:1 (670-316) and averaged little better than six strikeouts per nine innings. Anaheim's bullpen, on the other hand, went 25-16 with an ERA of 3.47 with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of almost 5:2 (494-186) and averaged nine K/9. The big offseason development came as a no surprise when the Angels allowed Percival to walk and appointed Rodriguez their new closer. Comparing Percival's and Rodriguez's statistics from the previous two seasons prove just how great Rodriguez has been: (Percival:Rodriguez) Innings pitched 99:170, strikeouts 81:231, ERA 3.18:2.36. To put it simply, Rodriguez should be the least of Scioscia's worries. The most important thing for Scioscia to do is to not limit Rodriguez to just one inning. Last year he pitched over one inning 26 times and that's how to maximize his effectiveness.
Kevin Gregg, Brendan Donnelley and Scot Shields offer Anaheim the best chances of stepping into Rodriguez's setup spot. Gregg had a good year, pitching 87.2 innings with an ERA of 4.21 and averaging 8.62 K/9. The main concern with Gregg was that he may have pitched too many innings and tired down the stretch, watching his ERA rise to 5.40 after the All-Star break. Shields had an outstanding season last year, pitching 105 innings with an ERA of 3.33 and averaging 9.31 K/9. Donnelly could very well be the key to this bullpen and its success. In spring training last year, Donnelly broke his nose in 20 different places, causing him to be out until mid-June. He returned and was successful pitching in 40 games with an ERA of 3.00 and averaging 12 K/9. You have look at the 2003 to see just how dominate Donnelly could be for a full season when he pitched 74 innings with an ERA of 1.58 averaging 9.61 K/9. This should once again be the Angels' strength.
The Angels possess a versatile bench. Rob Quinlan backs up third base and first base. Last season Quinlan had an OPS of .926 in 160 at-bats for the Angels. It's unlikely he'll put up numbers like that again, but whenever you have someone come off the bench and hit like that it's a huge advantage. Maicer Izturis will back-up shortstop this year and he's a good option. The outfield and first base will be backed up by some combination of DaVanon, Rivera, Morales and Kotchman. Figgins' ability to play all over the diamond allows Scioscia to be creative.
The Angels are a solid team whose biggest concern will be their rotation. If Colon, Escobar, and Lackey are each healthy and throw 200 innings apiece, they should be OK. McPherson may have some growing pains at third, but he can be backed up ably by both Quinlan and Figgins. But with the A's retooling, Texas lacking a couple of starters, and Seattle trying to reach .500, if the Angels can manage to get off to a hot start they could easily run away with the division.