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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.

Mets win 8th straight, Conforto and Flores HR to beat Giants

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NEW YORK — Michael Conforto and the bats are booming. Jacob deGrom and the pitchers are peaking. And the defense is making the key plays.

A year after the New York Mets stamped themselves as serious contenders with a big winning streak in April, they’re rolling again.

“There’s not much that we’re not doing,” manager Terry Collins said.

Conforto and Wilmer Flores homered and the Mets won their eighth in a row, building an early lead for deGrom and holding off the San Francisco Giants 6-5 Saturday.

“It just seems relentless,” Conforto said.

At 15-7, the defending NL champions have won 11 of 12. They could be poised for an even more impressive run – next week, they play seven games against last-place Atlanta and San Diego.

The crowd of 44,466 was the largest for a regular-season game at Citi Field since the park opened in 2009, with a lot of fans attracted by the Noah Syndergaard Garden Gnome giveaway.

The Mets almost gave away the game, too.

Ahead 6-3 in the eighth inning, they walked a pair of batters and let the Giants load the bases with no outs. Hunter Pence‘s bid for a go-ahead grand slam was caught just in front of the center-field wall for a sacrifice fly.

Brandon Crawford followed with another sacrifice fly, a liner that right fielder Curtis Granderson jumped to backhand on the warning track.

“Two long popups,” Collins kidded.

Jeurys Familia took over in the ninth and closed for his eighth save in as many chances.

“That’s a tough one for the guys, because they put up quite an effort there to get back in it and try to win that ballgame,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “Two balls to just miss like that, that’s a tough one for them.”

Conforto tied a Mets record by hitting a double in his sixth straight game. He also singled and drove in three runs. In his first full season, the 23-year-old outfielder who homered twice in a World Series game last October has comfortably settled into the No. 3 spot in a potent lineup and is batting .365.

“Really had no nerves about it,” he said, adding, “Getting the pitches I know I can hit and not missing them.”

Neil Walker capped a productive first month for his new team with a two-run single.

DeGrom (3-0) overcame his first four walks of the season, pitching two-hit ball for six innings and leaving with a 1.02 ERA. All three runs against him were unearned and came after a throwing error by Flores, who played third base to give David Wright a day off.

New York’s defense also helped deGrom. Pence fisted a bases-loaded, two-run single with two outs in the third, but first baseman Lucas Duda took the accurate relay from Granderson and threw out Brandon Belt trying to reach third.

After setting a club mark by scoring 12 runs in the third inning Friday night, the Mets quickly struck against Matt Cain (0-3).

Walker’s two-out single in the first made it 2-0. Conforto launched a two-run double off the top of the left-field wall in the second for a 4-0 lead.

Overall, the Mets have outscored opponents 50-21 during their winning string.

“It’s nice pitching with a lead,” deGrom said. “You can go right after guys.”

Cain has gone a career-worst 12 starts without a win, dating to his last victory July 22. Slowed by injuries and inconsistency in recent years, the three-time All-Star who once pitched a perfect game is saddled with a 7.00 ERA this season.

Conforto hit his fourth homer in the fifth. Flores connected the next inning for his first of the year. The Mets have 31 home runs in their last 14 games.

STREAKS

Conforto tied Joe Christopher’s team mark in 1964 with doubles in six straight games. Conforto has reached safely in 17 straight. … Yoenis Cespedes‘ club-record string of nine games in a row with an extra-base hit ended.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Giants: 2B Joe Panik was out of the lineup a day after tweaking his groin.

Mets: Wright and C Kevin Plawecki got to sit for a day. C Rene Rivera, who started 87 games for the Rays last year, made his Mets debut. He was hit by a pitch in the back his first time up.

UP NEXT

A prime pitching matchup on deck – if the weather holds. Steady rain is in the forecast Sunday and well could dampen the duel between Giants ace Madison Bumgarner (2-2, 3.64 ERA) and Syndergaard (2-0, 1.69). Bumgarner has won all three of his starts at Citi Field with an 0.78 ERA. Syndergaard has struck out 38 this season, matching Pedro Martinez for the most by a Mets pitcher in the first four starts of a season.

Zimmermann goes 5-0, Upton homers as Tigers top Twins 4-1

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MINNEAPOLIS — Jordan Zimmermann hasn’t required much run support this year. Justin Upton gave him all he needed in the first inning Saturday.

Zimmermann won his fifth straight start to begin his first season with Detroit, and Upton hit a three-run homer for the Tigers in their 4-1 victory over the Minnesota Twins.

“Give him a three-run lead, we’re pretty confident he can work with that,” said Upton, whose second homer of the year reached the second deck in left-center. “If we can fight and get on the board early, and let our guys work, we’ll be all right.”

Zimmermann (5-0) gave up one run and six hits with no walks and seven strikeouts over seven innings. His ERA actually rose to 0.55 as he became the first Tigers pitcher to win five games in April since Frank Tanana in 1988, according to STATS.

Upton and Zimmermann both signed as free agents with Detroit for more than $100 million this past offseason. Zimmermann knew he would be joining a team with a high-octane offense, though he hasn’t relied on the Tigers’ bats much yet.

“This is probably the best lineup I’ve ever seen,” Zimmermann said. “They’re going to score runs. It’s just a matter of when and what inning. For me, they’ve been scoring early and allowing me to settle in and just throw strikes.”

Victor Martinez doubled twice for the Tigers, who have won five of six. Francisco Rodriguez pitched a scoreless ninth for his sixth save in seven opportunities.

Eduardo Escobar had three singles for the Twins, who lost their third straight and fell to 7-17 overall.

Tyler Duffey (0-1) gave up just one earned run in 6 1/3 innings, striking out seven and walking none. But one mistake in the first marred an otherwise solid performance.

With two on and two outs, Duffey tried to get ahead in the count with a first-pitch fastball. But the pitch caught too much of the plate and Upton drove it an estimated 417 feet for his second homer with Detroit.

“It’s easy to look back and say I should have gotten out of that. I know I was more than capable of doing it,” Duffey said. “That mistake is a lot larger when you’ve got a guy like Zimmermann throwing against you.”

Zimmermann cruised through the first three innings, but Byung Ho Park homered in the fourth to break up the shutout. Park lined a 1-2 pitch into the bullpen in left-center, his team-leading sixth homer of the year.

It was the first home run allowed by Zimmermann in 29 2/3 innings this season.

After that, each time the Twins threatened, Zimmermann had an answer. John Ryan Murphy reached second on an error by right fielder J.D. Martinez with one out in the fifth before Zimmermann struck out Danny Santana and Brian Dozier to preserve the two-run cushion.

Minnesota got its leadoff man on in the seventh, but Zimmermann promptly induced a double-play grounder from Eddie Rosario.

CATCHER KNOWS BEST

Zimmermann might have kept the Twins off the board entirely if he’d just listened to catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who didn’t want to throw Park the slider he hit into the bullpen.

“That was really my only mistake all game. I tried going front door with it, and obviously that wasn’t the right pitch. I’m sure Salty will say the same thing. He didn’t really want to throw it and I did, so that was my fault,” Zimmermann said. “It didn’t work out, but solo home runs aren’t going to kill you, so it’s all good.”

TRAINER’S ROOM

Tigers: C James McCann (sprained ankle) caught nine innings for Triple-A Toledo on Friday, but manager Brad Ausmus said McCann will continue his rehab assignment through the weekend. McCann was expected to catch nine more innings Saturday and five innings on Sunday before rejoining the Tigers for their three-game series in Cleveland that begins Tuesday.

Twins: 3B Trevor Plouffe (strained intercostal muscle) was scheduled to begin a rehab assignment with Class A Fort Myers on Saturday. Plouffe has been on the DL since April 19. Barring any setbacks, he is expected to join the Twins in Houston on Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Tigers: RHP Mike Pelfrey (0-4, 4.64 ERA) faces his former team in Sunday’s series finale. Pelfrey spent the past three seasons in Minnesota. He pitched a season-high 6 2/3 innings in his most recent start, a 5-1 loss to the Athletics on Tuesday.

Twins: RHP Ricky Nolasco (1-0, 3.25) has been the team’s most effective starter this season. He’s averaged just shy of seven innings in his four starts and is second in the AL in strikeout-to-walk ratio with 24 strikeouts against three walks.

Rockies’ Story ties rookie mark with 10th HR in April

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PHOENIX (AP) Trevor Story is undoubtedly the story of the Colorado Rockies’ first month of the season.

The shortstop tied a major league rookie record with his 10th home run in April, a two-run shot that helped the Rockies cruise to a 9-0 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday night. In hitting his 10th home run in 21 games, Story tied George Scott in 1966 as the fastest player in major league history to reach that home run total.

Story tied Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox, who hit 10 in April 2014, for the rookie mark. Teammate Nolan Arenado, who also homered, is tied with Story for the major league lead in home runs.

Story took Diamondbacks starter Robbie Ray (1-1) deep in the fifth inning.

“Maybe when it’s all said and done it will be something cool to look back on, but right now I’m just worried about winning games,” Story said.

Arenado, Ryan Raburn and Nick Hundley hit solo home runs, Arenado’s blast immediately following Story’s in the fifth to knock Ray out of the game.

Hundley added a two-run double in the eighth after Gerardo Parra‘s RBI double.

Tyler Chatwood (3-2) held the Diamondbacks scoreless on five hits for 6 1/3 innings with four strikeouts and three walks.

The Rockies won for the third time in four meetings against Arizona in Phoenix, and have hit 14 home runs in those four games at Chase Field this season. Story hit four in the season-opening series.

“I feel like it’s always good weather here. We play spring training here, so it’s a familiar place,” Story said. “I grew up playing in the heat, so yeah, I guess you could say I feel comfortable here.”

Ray had not given up a home run in his previous four starts. The Rockies overtook the Diamondbacks for most home runs in the majors with 37 to Arizona’s 36.

“They obviously like swinging the bat in this ballpark,” Diamondbacks manager Chip Hale said. “It’s very obvious that that’s what it is. If you don’t locate your pitches, they’re going to hit them. That’s what happens with confident hitters.”

Raburn led off the fourth with a line drive into the seats in left field. One out later, Hundley homered to left.

“Great player. He’s got a lot of tools and he’s been pretty even-keel,” Raburn said of Story. “Right now he’s getting pitches to hit and he ain’t missing it.”

The Rockies took control in the fifth when Charlie Blackmon led off with a single. Story and Arenado followed with their home runs, and Ray’s night ended after giving up five runs and seven hits. He struck out five and walked two.

“This place has been tough on us the last few years,” manager Walt Weiss said. “Especially last year. It’s good to see us swing the bats and win games, especially on the road where we’ve had some demons in the past.”

DIAMONDBACKS CLAIM ESCOBAR

The Diamondbacks claimed LHP Edwin Escobar off waivers from the Boston Red Sox on Friday, and sent Escobar to Triple-A Reno. Pitcher Matt Buschmann was designated for assignment. Escobar, 24, was a top prospect for the San Francisco Giants before being traded to Boston in 2014. Buschmann made three appearances for the Diamondbacks this season.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Rockies: Blackmon (turf toe) was activated from the 15-day DL and started in center field as the leadoff hitter. The Rockies optioned OF Brandon Barnes to Triple-A Albuquerque to make room for Blackmon. “Unfortunately, it’s a numbers crunch at this point in the construction of our roster, but he’ll be back,” Weiss said of Barnes. … RHP Jason Motte (sore shoulder) threw a bullpen session Friday and is “moving full steam ahead,” Weiss said. … Hundley got some eye drops administered during the fourth inning, coming out from behind the plate and jogging over to the dugout for help from a trainer. … Raburn fouled a pitch thrown high and tight off the bottom of the bat near his hands, and was checked by a trainer when he shook his hands in pain afterward. He was later hit by a pitch. “Just got a little beat up tonight but it’s part of it,” Raburn said.

Diamondbacks: RHP Josh Collmenter, on the 15-day DL, will pitch three innings at Class-A Visalia on Monday as he comes back from shoulder inflammation.

UP NEXT

Rockies: LHP Chris Rusin makes his first start of the season. He’s appeared four times in relief and has a scoreless streak of 9 2/3 innings. He’s 2-1 with a 2.25 ERA in three starts against Arizona, all at Chase Field.

Diamondbacks: RHP Zack Greinke (2-2, 6.16 ERA) makes his sixth start of the season. He faced the Rockies on opening day and was tagged for seven runs and nine hits in four innings. He gave up seven runs in his most recent outing, Monday against the Cardinals, but got the win.

Cespedes has 6 RBIs during Mets’ record 12-run inning vs SF

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NEW YORK — Yoenis Cespedes and the New York Mets broke loose for a team-record 12 runs in the third inning Friday night, rolling to their seventh straight victory with a 13-1 blowout of the San Francisco Giants.

Cespedes set a club mark with six RBIs in the inning, connecting for a two-run single off starter Jake Peavy (1-2) and a grand slam off reliever Mike Broadway that capped the outburst.

The early barrage made it an easy night for Steven Matz (3-1) in the opener of a three-game series between the last two NL champions. The left-hander tossed six shutout innings to win his third consecutive start.

Michael Conforto had an RBI double and a run-scoring single in the Mets third, which lasted 39 minutes, 47 seconds. He and Cespedes were two of the four players who scored twice. Asdrubal Cabrera greeted Broadway with a two-run double.