Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Looking Ahead: Los Angeles Angels

2006 W-L Record: 89-73
2006 pW-pL Record: 84-78
Runs Scored: 766 (12th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 732 (4th in AL)
Free Agents: Darin Erstad, Adam Kennedy, J.C. Romero

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Kendry Morales/Robb Quinlan
2B -- Howie Kendrick/Brandon Wood
SS -- Orlando Cabrera
3B -- Chone Figgins
LF -- Juan Rivera
CF -- Gary Matthews, Jr.
RF -- Vladimir Guerrero
C -- Mike Napoli
DH -- Garret Anderson

2007 Proj. Rotation:
John Lackey
Jered Weaver
Bartolo Colon/Joe Saunders
Kelvim Escobar
Ervin Santana

2007 Proj. Closer:
Francisco Rodriguez

There's plenty of room for shifting around in that starting lineup, especially with Figgins, the human patch, on the roster. There's about 4 or 5 guys on the roster who can play first, and two or three different third basemen. Rivera could shift to center, but neither he nor ideal DH Anderson are a good long-term solution there. The middle infield is also a bit crowded; along with second baseman Kendrick, you have minor league shortstops Brandon Wood, Erick Aybar, and Sean Rodriguez. None of these prospects have broken into the majors yet, but they could get there soon, which would put resident shortstop Cabrera on the trading block.
But any way you mix them up, this is still not a dominant offensive ballclub. Most of the hope for the lineup lies in the admittedly talented prospects littered across the infield. The Angels have had terrible luck getting things to work so far, but the new wave of middle infielders looks like it can help turn things around.
The Angels have Casey Kotchman, Kendry Morales, Dallas McPherson, and Robb Quinlan as potential corner infielders. Ideally, that's a fine arrangement of prospects that should produce at least two guys who can produce. But it hasn't worked out that well so far.
Kotchman looked like a monster, hitting for big averages with good plate discipline in the minors. It would be expected for him to take a while before handling the big leagues, but his 2005 stint looked like it showed good progress (278/352/484 in 47 games). But injuries limited him to 32 games combined between Triple-A and the majors last year. Kotchman will just be 24 next year, so there's still reason for optimism, but it has to be tempered somewhat with the ugly reality of his big-league career so far.
Morales, who looks like the starting first baseman, is a Cuban defector who's shown good offense in the minors. Morales spent the first half of 2006 at Triple-A, hitting 320/359/520. Granted, Salt Lake City is a hitter's park, and you'd expect a learning curve in the majors. But even taking this into account, Morales' second half has to be disappointing (234/293/371). Morales is also just 24 next year, so there's still some good potential there. And he at least has good health on his side.
With the signing of Gary Matthews, it looks like Chone Figgins will get shifted to third base. Figgins is a useful player who can play a number of different positions, steal some bases, and play good defense. The problem is that he's just not a very good hitter (267/336/376 in '06). The Angels may have some better third basemen on the roster, and they'd be well-advised to look into trading the overrated Figgins.
The Angels entered 2006 hoping that Dallas McPherson would take over the job of everyday third baseman. He was promoted to the majors despite a top-heavy 250/307/596 batting line in Triple-A, and he did indeed struggle in Anaheim (261/298/478 in 40 games). McPherson was promoted aggressively in the Angels system, and it's possible that being jerked around has had an impact on him. He hasn't had a good showing since 2004, where he split time between Double-A (321/404/660) and Triple-A (313/370/680), with an unimpressive MLB debut (225/279/475). McPherson began 2005 at the bottom of the Angels' system, but still managed to get a showing in the bigs, despite a Triple-A stint that's unimpressive in context (278/349/704 in just 14 games).
Add onto that his highly disappointing 2006, and it's getting harder to lo0k on the bright side with McPherson. He'll be 27 next year, and he still hasn't performed well in the majors. There are extenuating circumstances in his case, but he's getting farther removed from his last good season.
Robb Quinlan has filled in at both first and third base. Quinlan also has good potential, but unfortunately, he's hasn't been healthy and productive at the same time in years. 2004 was a relatively good season for Robb; he performed well in Triple-A and then hit well in 56 games in the bigs (344/401/525). But that was only 160 ABs, and the next year he struggled in the bigs (231/273/403 in 54 games). Quinlan made it into 86 games last year and hit 321/344/491, which has to be considered a victory, even if it was just 234 ABs. Quinlan will be 30 next year, and it's doubtful that he'll serve as anything but support for the other guys on this list.
Pressed for a third baseman, the Angels in 2006 turned to Maicer Izturis, who actually hit well (293/365/412). But it's highly unlikely that Izturis can produce like that again (career 265/335/377).
Surely the Angels will get a couple of these guys to hold their own and produce. But it's no sure thing; they thought it would happen last year, but it didn't.
Things are rosier in the middle infield, thanks to the arrival of some highly-regarded prospects. Orlando Cabrera is still clogging up shortstop. He's still a good producer (282/334/404 in '06), but he's about to become very superflous given his salary and the push he'll be getting from the prospects, especially uber-slugger Brandon Wood.
At second base, the Angels brought up Howie Kendrick last year and look to be sticking with him. Kendrick hit well enough in the minors that the club tried him at first base some in '06. But with Adam Kennedy gone, it looks like Kendrick will be taking over second. Kendrick will be 24 next year (what fascination do the Angels have with the Class of '01?) and while he didn't hit too well in the majors (285/314/616), he's got the potential to become one of the better 2Bs in the league (which is a pretty low standard, granted).
In the outfield, the team is surprisingly bereft of prospects. It looks like Juan Rivera and Garret Anderson will fill in the LF/DH spots. Rivera is a useful hitter obtained from the Nats who is quite valuable as an outfield/DH swingman. He's perfectly capable of hitting like an everyday player (310/362/525 in '06), although last year's numbers are likely a bit inflated. As for Anderson, he's degenerated into a pretty useless player, whose defense is limited and whose offense is simply inadequate for LF or DH (280/323/433 in '06).

In center field, the Angels tried the novel solution of signing a free agent. They signed Gary Matthews, Jr. to a 5-year, $50 million contract. His $10 mil. per year is fourth-highest on the team, behind Guerrero, Colon, and Anderson. And it's possible that he'll be the worst value of any player on the team, with the possible exception of Anderson. Matthews is a good fourth outfielder who has somehow managed to convince the Angels that he's an All-Star. At age 31, Matthews went to Texas and hit 313/371/495. Now considering that this is Texas, and that his career batting line is 263/336/419, we could safely say that this was a career year, right? But no; the Angels are going to pay Matthews on the assumption that he can produce 5 seasons of All-Star baseball, as opposed to the one season he's managed so far in his career.
The Angels didn't have a pressing need for a center fielder. They could have shifted Figgins to center and played one of the corner infielders at third. But for some reason, they decided to drop $50 million in one of the worst ways imaginable.
Catching for the Angels will likely by Mike Napoli. Jeff Mathis was supposed to be the #1 catching prospect for the Angels, but Napoli broke through in 2006 and hit 228/360/455 at the big club. It's highly doubtul that Mathis can hit like that, although he has a better defensive reputation. My guess it that Napoli has the job so long as he can hit the ball. And there's a lot worse things in life than having two genuine major-league catchers.

There's a lot of strong potential in this lineup, which is why the Angels are considered to be strong contenders in 2007 and for the near future. But even if the lineup doesn't live up to the hype, the Angels can always fall back on one of the best pitching staffs in baseball.

That starting rotation is scary good. Not only is Lackey a legitimate #1 and Weaver a legitimate #2, but the team has great depth and every opportunity to lead the league in ERA.

As for Lackey, he has broken through to the "ace" position in a short while, but there's every reason to believe he's for real. Lackey took off in 2005 and provided a fine repeat performance in 2006, notching a 3.56 ERA in 217.2 IP with 190 K and just 14 HR allowed. Lackey will be just 28 next year, and should anchor the rotation for the foreseeable future. He's definitely one of the more underrated pitchers in the game.
Behind Lackey is young Jered Weaver, who came upon the scene like a sensation in 2006. If the Angels had been hitting the ball worth a damn, they could have made the playoffs and given Weaver a shot at the Rookie of the Year. Weaver only pitched 123 innings, but managed a 2.56 ERA and a 33:105 BB:K ratio. Weaver was a star in college at Long Beach and showed off strong numbers in the minor leagues. The only real worry is that Weaver enjoyed a BABIP of .239, which was easily the luckiest in the league. You can chart this up to good defense and small sample size, but it could also be a sign that Weaver enjoyed a fair amount of luck last year. Still, even if he does take a step back, he should be a reliable starter, and the Angels have the depth to compensate.
Kelvim Escobar is another underrated pitcher. He has the reputation of a mid-level starter, but is actually a strongly above-average guy with a good strikeout rate. Escobar (who will be just 31 next year) threw 189.1 IP in 2006, with a 50:147 BB:K ratio and a 3.61 ERA. If this guy is your #3 starter, you're in fine shape. It should be noted that the Angels wisely signed Escobar to a contract extension early in the season, and so didn't have to deal with the slaary inflation of the offseason.
The #4 pitcher on the staff will be young Ervin Santana, although he could move up. Santana's name has been involved in a lot of trade rumors lately, but it looks now like the Angels will be keeping him. This is good news. Santana is young (24 next year) and has shown good break-out potential. Even if he stalls and repeats last year's performance (4.28 ERA in 204 IP), he'll still be a big asset.
The #5 spot will likely go to Bartolo Colon, although it's impossible to count on him considering his injuries and conditioning. Colon struggled through injuries last year, making 10 starts and posting a 5.11 ERA. He turns 34 in May, and the Angels would be wise not to count on Colon for very much going forward. His 2005 Cy Young was a minor fluke, and his stamina is such that he's not a good bet to stay healthy as he ages.
The Angels do have a backup in Joe Saunders. Saunders, who will be 26 next year, isn't a big-time prospect, but he held his own in 13 starts last year, managing a 4.71 ERA and a 29:51 BB:K ratio. That's not exactly awe-inspiring, but if your #6 starter is this good, then you're in good shape.
And the Angels' rotation has as much upside as any other in the league. Even if they do experience some speedbumps (regression from Weaver, injuries to Colon), they've got the depth and the personnel to compensate. The rotation is the biggest reason to consider the Angels contenders in the AL West.

The Angel bullpen is anchored by Francisco Rodriguez. I've heard a lot of comments from scouts expressing concern about K-Rod's violent delivery, believing that it could lead to major injury in the future. We have to keep that in the back of our minds, but we also have to consider that the youngster is still one of the elite closers in the game. Last year he posted a 1.73 ERA in 73 innings, striking out 98 and walking 28.
Behind K-Rod, the Angels have Scot Shields, the rubber-armed setup man who's shown good consistency. The Angels may feel that Shields' reputation has grown so that they can shop him around for a trade, but that hasn't happened yet. Behind these two, the Angels have taken a step back from their previous years of dominant bullpens. Stalwart Brendan Donnelly pitched well enough (3.94 ERA in 60 IP) and even Hector Carrasco, as unlikely a hero as there ever was, threw 100.1 innings with a 3.41 ERA.
Although it may not be as fearsome as it was circa-2002, the Angels have a good track record when it comes to assembling bullpens. All the major pieces are already there, so it just comes down to filling in the gaps.

Offseason Game Plan:
The Angels really don't have anything to do. They were rumored to be in on the Manny Ramirez trade, which would certainly be an upgrade over Garret Anderson. They may want to add some stability at the infield corners, but the roster is crowded enough with those guys as it is.
The Halos were rumored to be pursuing Barry Zito, and in recent weeks have come out as strong possibilities. I really don't see the wisdom of signing Zito. The Angels have a very, very strong bullpen, with three very good young pitchers (Lackey, Weaver, Santana), one 30-year-old gem (Escobar) and plenty of hope to fill out the back (Colon, Saunders). There's no need to overspend on a super-expensive free agent that doesn't in any way fill a pressing need. If you'll look back at the runs scored and runs allowed, you'll see that the Angels' #1 problem is offense. Their #1 priority should be improving their offense. Spending $50 million on Gary Matthews isn't going to help your lineup much, and spending $100 million on Barry Zito would be a tremendous waste of resources, as the Angels are one of the few teams in baseball that don't need any more starting pitchers.

Even if the Angels do nothing before Spring Training, they have to be considered a dark horse candidate to upset the A's in the AL West.

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