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

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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.

Bellinger, Puig power Game 7 win to send Dodgers to the World Series

Yasiel Puig
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The Dodgers are headed back to the World Series following a 5-1 win over the Brewers during Game 7 of the NLCS. Cody Bellinger delivered the go-ahead shot after taking Jhoulys Chacín deep in the second inning, and Yasiel Puig‘s three-run blast in the sixth helped bolster the Dodgers’ lead as they wrapped up their second consecutive NL pennant.

The Brewers looked dominant from the get-go. Jhoulys Chacín set down a scoreless first inning while Christian Yelich proved he was capable of harnessing the power that nearly won him the Triple Crown during the regular season. He smashed an 0-1 pitch from rookie right-hander Walker Buehler in the bottom of the first, sending it out to center field to mark his first home run since Game 1 of the NLDS.

It wasn’t long before the cracks began to show, however. Cody Bellinger returned with a two-run shot in the second inning, and another double from Puig signaled the end of Chacín’s outing. He used just six pitches to get through all three outs in the second, then handed the ball to southpaw Josh Hader to start the third. The lefty didn’t disappoint. After sitting out of Game 6, he pitched a flawless three innings to keep the Brewers on the Dodgers’ tail, issuing just one hit, one walk, and four strikeouts until he made his exit in the sixth.

Had the Brewers been able to rely on Hader for a longer outing, they might have chosen to do so. Instead, Xavier Cedeño and Jeremy Jeffress combined for a disastrous outing in the sixth, first with back-to-back singles from Max Muncy and Justin Turner, then with a three-RBI homer from Puig that allowed Los Angeles to pull ahead with a four-run lead.

The Dodgers did their fair share of shutting down the Brewers at the plate, too. In the bottom of the fifth, Milwaukee verged on a tie after Lorenzo Cain drove a two-out, line drive double into left field. Julio Urias replaced Walker as Yelich came back up to the plate, but any thought of a go-ahead homer was quickly shut down as Chris Taylor sprinted to make a jaw-dropping, over-the-shoulder catch at the warning track.

The bats settled down from the sixth inning on — neither the Dodgers nor the Brewers found an opening against Milwaukee’s Corey Knebel and Brandon Woodruff and L.A.’s Kenley Jansen and Clayton Kershaw, respectively. Woodruff struck out the side in the eighth, while Jansen refused to allow a single batter to reach base in 1 1/3 innings of work. Things appeared to shift back in the Dodgers’ favor in the ninth, as Puig and Taylor collected a single and double and Woodruff loaded the bases after intentionally walking Matt Kemp to get to Enrique Hernández. That feeling was short-lived, though, as Woodruff decimated Hernández and Muncy in back-to-back strikeouts to cap the inning.

With a World Series berth on the line, not to mention the club’s 23rd NL pennant, the Dodgers weren’t taking any chances when the bottom of the ninth rolled around. Up 5-1 with three outs remaining, Clayton Kershaw stepped on the mound for the first time since his Game 5 win. He looked just as dominant in relief, retiring Shaw on a groundout, inducing a six-pitch strikeout from Jesús Aguilar, and effectively dashing the Brewers’ World Series hopes as Mike Moustakas struck out swinging for the third and final out of the game.

Game 1 of the World Series is set for Tuesday, October 23 at 8:09 PM EDT, when left-hander Chris Sale will take the mound for the Red Sox at Fenway Park. The Dodgers’ starter has yet to be formally announced. The Red Sox are currently looking for their ninth championship title, while the Dodgers are on the cusp of their seventh.