Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v San Diego Padres

Springtime Storylines: Did anybody have a worse offseason than the Los Angeles Angels?


Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

The Big Question: Did anybody have a worse offseason than the Los Angeles Angels?

These previews are supposed to be forward-looking, but with the Angels, it’s hard not to look back at the winter. Indeed, Arte Moreno all but demanded that we focus on the offseason when he said several months ago that the Angels were going to make a big splash in the free agent market. Well, they didn’t. Thought to be the favorites to land Adrian Beltre or Carl Crawford, they landed neither. After they signed elsewhere, it was revealed that the Angels’ bidding on them wasn’t as competitive as one would have hoped. It’s hard to conclude anything other than Moreno misread the free agent market, and the result of it is a lot of grumpy Angels fans.

Not that the Angels did nothing. They gave up a great-hitting catcher in Mike Napoli and a useful outfielder in Juan Rivera to land Vernon Wells and his massive contract (and then saw the catcher get shuttled to division rival Texas).  They signed excellent setup man Scott Downs, only to see him break his toe while horsing around with his kid, which could cost him a month of the season. They also signed Hisanori Takahashi.  In addition to Napoli and Rivera, out the door went Hideki Matsui.

From a baseball perspective, the additions of Wells, Downs (once healthy) and Takahashi are positives.  Wells provides Mike Scioscia with a good bat and good defense, allowing Bobby Abreu to slide over to the DH slot. With Torii Hunter and Peter Bourjos, Wells should help give Anaheim one of the best defensive outfields in baseball.  Given Scott Kazmir’s struggles, Takahashi — who did a little bit of everything for the Mets last year — could help solidify the rotation but, at the very least, provides a lefty-killing presence in the pen.

But at best these moves (when combined with some of the other things discussed below) merely help the Angels tread water. They were an 80-82 team last and they needed to get better in a number of ways to catch up to Texas and Oakland.  They didn’t do it. Adding an impact bat without giving up useful players was what needed to happen, and it didn’t.  Maybe that doesn’t add up to the worst offseason, but given the expectations of the fan base, it’s pretty darn disappointing.

So what else is going on?

  • While the lineup wasn’t bolstered in the offseason, the rotation remains pretty good. At least the top of it.  Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Joel Piniero (assuming he’s healthy) provide a nice 1-2-3.  The bottom is far more shaky. Ervin Santana has lately alternated adequate and poor years. There’s no legitimate reason for this and it’s probably just random, but if you do believe that cosmic forces are at work you’ll note that it’s an odd numbered year, and if form holds he’ll stink.  Scott Kazmir looks to be a disaster area in the fifth spot. If I’m Mike Scioscia I consider just plugging Takahashi in there and calling the Kazmir experiment a failure.
  • Kendrys Morales is starting the year on the DL as his left leg continues to cause him problems. And even when he comes back he’s going to be rusty and slow because he didn’t play any defense all spring and his leg problems have screwed up his conditioning regimen. That’s no good, but the silver lining to all of this is that it seems to have opened up a spot for Mark Trumbo who hit the tar out of the ball at Salt Lake City last year, hit the tar out of the ball down in Venezuela over the winter and has continued to hit the tar out of the ball this year during spring training.
  • That Wells/Hunter/Bourjos outfield may not hold up all year. Not because of their health, but because Bourjos may simply not hit well enough to justify his spot in the lineup. He turned heads with the glove last year, but didn’t hit a lick. And, given that he spent a lot of time in extremely hitter-friendly leagues while in the minors, he has never impressed.  Mike Scioscia’s love of defense may truly be tested if Bourjos can’t figure out what he’s doing at the plate.
  • There were a couple of interesting positional battles for the Angels. At third base, Brandon Wood entered the spring with what figured to be his last shot at snagging a full-time gig. Despite steady improvement as spring progressed, he appears to be the odd man out at third (in favor of Maicer Izturis) and first base, where Trumbo is the much better bet to replace Morales. Out of options, Wood will likely hit the waiver wire, and he still has enough residual promise, I presume, that a rebuilding team will take a chance on him.  Another battle was at catcher, where Jeff Mathis, Bobby Wilson and Hank Conger all got looks. Mathis — who couldn’t hit a baseball on the hittingest day of his life if he had an electrified hitting machine — will get the nod. This is Mike Scioscia’s team, so is that any surprise?

So how are they going to do?

Eh. They were roughly a .500 team last year. I’m struggling to see how they’re substantially better this year. And with the additional salary obligation to Vernon Wells, combined with what appeared to be Arte Moreno’s unwillingness to pay top dollar for top talent all winter, It’s hard to see how the Angels will have the will or ability to make significant in-season changes on the fly if they find themselves far behind Texas and Oakland.

The only saving grace for Anaheim is that both Oakland and Texas have durability questions at key positions. If guys like Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Brett Anderson and Andrew Bailey have things go sideways for them, sure, the Angels have enough solid players and a good enough rotation where they could contend in a weakened field. But if all things are equal — and when we make predictions we have to assume all things are equal — it’s hard to see Mike Scioscia’s squad doing any better than third place.

Maybe Alcides Escobar shouldn’t bat leadoff

Alcides Escobar

Alcides Escobar finished with a .292 OBP this year. He came in at .246 in 117 at-bats in August and .257 in 109 at-bats between September and October, so he wasn’t exactly flying high entering the postseason. Still, that didn’t stop Ned Yost from putting him into the leadoff spot for Thursday’s Game 1 against the Astros.

Yost finally did reconsider hitting Escobar first in September. It took Alex Gordon‘s return to health, plus the previous addition of Ben Zobrist to the lineup, in order to make that happen. However, it didn’t stick. Escobar hit ninth in each of his starts from Sept. 7-26, batting .236 with a .276 OBP during that span. With five games left to go, he was suddenly returned to the leadoff spot. The Royals went on to win all five games. Yost saw it as a sign, even though Escobar went 5-for-22 with no walks in those games.

Escobar went 0-for-4 in Thursday’s loss to the Astros. He did not swing at the first pitch of the game, which probably explains the defeat.

It’s been difficult to argue with Yost since last year’s World Series run and this year’s incredible run out of the game. The blind spot with Escobar, though, gets rather infuriating. One can defend hitting him leadoff against the Astros’ lefties. His career OBP against southpaws is .319 (.316 this year). Against righties, he’s the most obvious No. 9 hitter alive, with a career .258/.290/.342 line (.252/.284/.314 this year). He’s not a pace-setter. He’s not a spark plug. He’s a liability.

Astros top Royals in Game 1 of ALDS

Houston Astros' Jose Altuve, left, celebrates with teammate Luis Valbuena after scoring a run during the first inning in Game 1 of baseball's American League Division Series against the Kansas City Royals, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015, in Kansas City. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

After shutting out the Yankees in the AL Wild Card game on Tuesday, the Astros beat the Royals 5-2 in Game 1 of the ALDS on Thursday at Kauffman Stadium. Road teams are now 4-0 to begin the 2015 postseason.

The Astros grabbed an early 3-0 lead against Yordano Ventura through two innings. Chris Young took over for the Royals after a 47-minute rain delay and was very effective for the most part, allowing just a solo homer to George Springer over four innings while striking out seven batters. Colby Rasmus, who homered in the Wild Card game, took Ryan Madson deep in the eighth inning to give the Astros’ bullpen some extra breathing room.

Collin McHugh stayed in after the rain delay and ended up tossing six innings while allowing just four hits and one walk. Kendrys Morales did all the damage against him with a pair of solo homers. He’s the first Royals player to hit two home runs in a postseason game since George Brett in the 1985 ALCS.

The Royals’ offense showed some signs of life in the bottom of the eighth inning with back-to-back two-out hits against Will Harris, but Oliver Perez got Eric Hosmer to foul out to end the threat. Luke Gregerson tossed a scoreless ninth inning to finish off the victory.

Consistent with their identity during the regular season, the Astros won despite striking out 14 times. The same goes for the Royals, as they struck out just four times. Despite putting the ball into play more often, the Kansas City lineup wasn’t able to muster anything aside from the home runs by Morales.

Game 2 of the ALDS will begin Friday at 3:45 p.m. ET. Scott Kazmir will pitch for the Astros and Johnny Cueto will get the ball for the Royals.

George Springer homers to extend Astros’ lead over Royals

Houston Astros' George Springer (4) celebrates with teammates after scoring a run in the first inning in Game 1 of baseball's American League Division Series against the Kansas City Royals, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015, in Kansas City. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
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After Kendrys Morales brought the Royals within one run in the bottom of the fourth inning with his second solo home run of the game, George Springer took Chris Young deep in the top of the fifth to extend the Astros’ lead to 4-2 in Game 1 of the ALDS.

According to Statcast, the ball traveled an estimated 422 feet and left Springer’s bat at 109 mph. Royals fans are happy it was just a solo home run. It could have been worse, as Jose Altuve singled to lead off the fifth inning before being thrown out trying to steal second base during Springer’s at-bat.

The Royals will try to answer as we move to the bottom of the fifth inning at Kauffman Stadium.