Spring training questions: Los Angeles Angels

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Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be looking at a few of the questions facing each team this spring.
1. Will Maicer Izturis beat out Howie Kendrick at second base or Brandon Wood at third base?
Izturis finished last season as the starting second baseman against right-handers, and the Angels made a commitment to him last month, giving him a three-year, $10 million deal that bought out his first two seasons of free agency. Still, that doesn’t necessarily make him a starter. Kendrick hit .358/.391/.558 in 165 at-bats during the second half of last season, and the 26-year-old is clearly worthy of another opportunity to play regularly. Wood is out of options, so it’s now or never for the former top prospect. Odds are that Izturis will end up with 400 at-bats, but the Angels should go ahead and try the guys with more upside first.
2. Can Brian Fuentes hold off newcomers Fernando Rodney and reemerge as a quality closer?
Fuentes led the majors with 48 saves last season, but he also blew seven chances, took five losses and posted his worst ERA (3.93) and WHIP (1.40) since 2004. After the All-Star break, he gave up 13 runs and posted a 12/15 K/BB ratio in 24 1/3 innings. Wanting to shore up the pen, the Angels gave Rodney a two-year, $11 million contract over the winter. Rodney had worse marks in ERA (4.40) and WHIP (1.47) than Fuentes last season, but he managed to convert 37 of his 38 save chances for the Tigers. If Fuentes gets off to a rough start at all, the Angels might want to have the two switch roles. Rodney is no better of a pitcher than Fuentes, but he may play better in the ninth. Plus, if Fuentes isn’t locked into the closer’s role, manager Mike Scioscia can do a better job of playing matchups with him.
3. With Chone Figgins gone to Seattle, will the Angels get quality OBPs from the top of the order?
The guess was that the first two spots in the order would be divided between Erick Aybar, Izturis and Kendrick this year. However, Scioscia is again talking about using Bobby Abreu there. It worked out very well last year — he scored 36 runs and drove in 40 in his 50 games as a No. 2 hitter — but Scioscia still preferred him batting third. As things stand now, the Angels could be looking at the following lineup:
SS Aybar
RF Abreu
CF Torii Hunter
DH Hideki Matsui
1B Kendry Morales
LF Juan Rivera
2B Kendrick
C Mike Napoli/Jeff Mathis
3B Wood
When Izturis starts against right-handers — something that figures to happen a lot — it’s possible he’ll lead off, with Aybar getting dropped to the ninth spot.
Hitting Abreu second clearly is the best strategy for the Angels. If Abreu bats third, that means either Morales or Matsui would hit sixth and there’s no reason for either to be down that low. The Angels will be just fine if they get a .350 OBP from Aybar and Izturis in the leadoff spot and then Abreu’s .370-.390. We’ll just have to wait and see if Scioscia sticks to the plan this time.

Nationals’ sell-off a vindication for Dusty Baker

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The Nationals threw in the towel on Tuesday, trading second baseman Daniel Murphy to the Cubs and 1B/OF Matt Adams to the Cardinals. The club also placed outfielder and soon-to-be free agent Bryce Harper on revocable waivers but took him back. The Nats’ sell-off is a vindication for former manager Dusty Baker, let go after the Nationals failed to advance past the NLDS for a second straight year.

Baker had roughly the same team current manager Dave Martinez did. It was arguably worse, considering he never wrote Juan Soto‘s name on the lineup card. The 2018 squad, sans Baker, has been marked by mutiny and underachievement. While failing to reach the NLCS in Baker’s two years was disappointing, he took them to Game 5 in the NLDS both years as well as 95 and 97 regular season wins. Right now, Martinez’s squad has a winning percentage more than 100 points lower than Baker’s last year. They’re on pace to go 80-82, which would be their first sub-.500 season since 2011.

Baker has always had an undeserved bad rap. He was, correctly, blamed for the Cubs’ demise, due somewhat to Kerry Wood and Mark Prior falling apart, ostensibly from overuse. However, after his stint in Chicago, Baker took the lowly Reds from the bottom of the NL Central to the top in two years between 2008-10. Then he took the Nationals, which had won a meager 83 games in 2015 and had made the playoffs just twice since moving from Montreal, to two consecutive NLDS Game 5’s.

Not much changed from 2017 to ’18. Martinez inherited Ryan Zimmerman, Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, Michael Taylor, Bryce Harper, Adam Eaton, Daniel Murphy, Matt Wieters, Max Scherzer, Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg, Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler, Shawn Kelley, and Koda Glover, among others. But for one reason or another — injuries, admittedly, make up one reason — almost all of these players are having worse years under Martinez than under Baker. Describing the 2018 team to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, Baker said, “They’re together, but they’re separate.”

Is it strictly Baker that would make the difference? No, of course not. But the Nationals organization seems unwilling or unable to address issues that may extend into the front office. The Nats seem happy to go through a new manager every couple of years and hope that fixes all that ails them. Since Frank Robinson’s five years at the helm from 2002-06, Manny Acta managed two and a half years, Jim Riggleman one and a half, Davey Johnson two, Matt Williams two, Baker two. Maybe the problem was never the manager. Perhaps the problem is the Lerner family and Mike Rizzo.