2014 Preview: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

The Big Question: After two years of disappointments, do the Angels have a shot?

There has been no bigger disappointment in baseball over the past two years than the Angels. After signing Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson before the 2012 season and after signing Josh Hamilton a year ago, the Angels missed the playoffs both years. By a wide margin last season. And while Wilson has been solid, the two biggest bats on the market in those two seasons have been busts. Apart from promoting Mike Trout and watching him dominate baseball and apart from nearly single-handedly scaring teams away from long-term contracts for big sluggers, the Angels haven’t done anything of significance over the past two seasons.

But there is at least some reason to hope this year. It’s only modest reason, and it’s based more on unscientific things like the law of averages than anything truly tangible, but at the very least it’s too early for Angels fans to throw in the towel.

Simply put: it’s really hard to imagine Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton putting up two more dreadful seasons between them. Pujols was famously hampered by injuries last year and is supposedly healthy again. Hamilton was less famously aggravated by injuries. While it’s entirely possible that each of them has hit a Dale-Murphy-in-1989 kind of wall, it would be maddeningly improbable for a future Hall of Famer and a recent MVP to both do so at once. It could happen, but for me to believe it will require me seeing it. And if they do bounce back — even part of the way back, to respectability if not dominance — the Angels offense should be in fantastic shape.

Mike Trout is the best all-around player in the game and should continue to be so for a long time. While they lost Mark Trumbo’s homers, they also lost his nearly unprecedented out-making abilities. David Freese fell off a bit last year, but is capable of solid contributions. Kole Calhoun hit well in 58 games last season and has a nice minor league track record. Raul Ibanez can’t be expected to go on forever, but he had a fantastic season in 2013 and should contribute as well.  The upshot: the Angels were third on-base percentage, fifth in slugging and sixth in runs in the American League last season with Pujols and Hamilton doing close to nothing for them. It’s not hard to imagine the offense being among the best in the league with even a reasonable rebound from those two and expected contributions from the rest of the lineup.

So many ifs, obviously. And the “they look good on paper” thing hasn’t worked out too well for the Angels in a while. But the Angels could very easily have a playoff-caliber offense. And that’s reason to hope.

What else is going on?

  • Obviously offense isn’t everything. What really sunk the Angels last year was the pitching. The Trumbo trade did a lot to address that, bringing in Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, who should help bolster the back end of the rotation, which was hideous last season. Neither should light the world on fire — and while Skaggs has some upside, we pretty much know what Santiago is — but after the Joe Blanton experience in 2013, Mike Scioscia will probably welcome modest expectations reasonably-met.
  • The top end of the rotation is nominally OK with Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson — they’re big stars and at times have been among the best starters in baseball — but Weaver’s diminished velocity and some late-season forearm issues have to be cause for concern.He’s lost a good four miles per hour off his heater since he came up and has become more hittable. While there’s no reason to panic, if he declines more quickly than expected, all bets are off for the rotation.
  • The bullpen sucked eggs last year too, but it should be improved. Bringing in setup man Joe Smith from Cleveland is a big help. And, while Sean Burnett and Dane De La Rosa will likely start the season on the disabled list, their presence for most of the season will represent a big improvement over last year. More generally, Jerry Dipoto brought in a ton of organizational bullpen depth via minor league signings that, unlike last year, won’t require him to repurpose starting pitchers and generally scramble if and when the relievers who start the season in Anaheim falter.
  • Hot seat watch: It’s been a long time since a major league manager did less with more than Mike Scioscia has done over the past two seasons and not paid for it with his job. Not that the Angels’ problems have been his fault — who bet on Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton forgetting how to hit? — but managers do usually pay for such struggles. If the Angels limp out to a slow start for a third straight year, it’s going to be hard for Scioscia to avoid the hot seat. In his favor, though, are the lack of 2012 or 2013-size expectations.

Prediction: They could surprise and, for once, exceed expectations. But with the Rangers and A’s as stocked as they are, it’ll be hard to see the Angels finishing above Third place, American League West.

Yoenis Cespedes should be ready for Tuesday’s game

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The Mets are off today, and that day off may be just enough to get outfielder Yoenis Cespedes ready to start their next game, on Tuesday, against the Braves. At least that’s what he’s telling Mets manager Terry Collins.

Cespedes did not play in the weekend series against the Nationals, but was available as a pinch hitter yesterday. He was even on the on-deck circle at the end of last night’s game.

Cespedes, who tweaked his hammy running to second base on Thursday, is hitting .255/.364/.636 with six homers and 10 RBI in 15 games on the young season.

Marcus Stroman was called for an illegal quick pitch for some reason

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A “quick pitch” is an illegal action in which the pitcher pitches the ball before the batter is prepared. What makes a quick pitch a quick pitch? According to Rule 6.02(a)(5), it’s this:

 . . . Umpires will judge a quick pitch as one delivered before the batter is reasonably set in the batter’s box. With runners on base the penalty is a balk; with no runners on base, it is a ball. The quick pitch is dangerous and should not be permitted.

There are a couple of reasons why you don’t want quick pitches in baseball. In one respect, it’s about safety, as mentioned specifically in the rule. You don’t want a pitcher throwing a 90 m.p.h. fastball in the batter’s general direction if he’s not ready for it, because if it goes off course the batter will have no ability to defend himself and bail. But there’s also a spirit-of-the-game reason for it. The essence of baseball is the face-off between batter and pitcher. While everyone wants the game to move along promptly, the game isn’t really the game if the batter isn’t ready.

There is more art than science to all of this, of course, as all batters and pitchers have different pre-pitch routines, but when you watch a game, there’s a rhythm to all of that. You know the batter is gonna take a couple of practice swings and settle in. The pitcher tends to respect that. The quick pitch rule is rarely invoked for this reason.

It was used in yesterday’s Angels-Blue Jays game, however. And used badly in my view. Watch Marcus Stroman pitch to Kole Calhoun. The ump is Ramon DeJesus. The count was 3-1, so the automatic ball resulted in Calhoun being awarded first base:

Calhoun was obviously upset about something, calling time after Stroman is into his motion (which is not allowed) throwing his hands up and stuff after the pitch. But tell me, in what way was he not “reasonably ready” for that pitch, to use the language of the rule? He’s facing Stroman, looking at him. He’s done with his warmup swings, his bat is up and cocked and he’s standing in hitting position. I understand that it’s a judgment call by the umpire, but it seems to me like the umpire just called time too late because Calhoun didn’t feel ideally comfortable or something.

Either way, it set off Stroman and manager John Gibbons. Gibbons was ejected arguing the call. Stroman, who was otherwise excellent yesterday, was rattled for a bit, giving up a couple of hits and a run afterward. It was Calhoun who scored, natch.

It didn’t affect the outcome, but it certainly seemed like a bad call. And possibly a bad precedent, as batters may now try to lobby harder for quick pitch calls, given its success yesterday. Or, if umpires tend to think that was a bad call too, maybe they’ll overcompensate for it and be less likely to call quick pitches? You never know how this stuff will play out.

Whatever happens, I’ve been against Major League Baseball’s habit of increasingly taking judgment calls away from umpires, trying to make the subjective objective and making a flawed instant replay system the Supreme Court of Baseball Calls. But jeez, it’s hard to argue for allowing umps to hold on to judgment calls when they blow ’em like this.