Springtime Storylines: Did the Angels buy themselves the A.L. West?

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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 2012 season. Up next: the Los Angeles Angels of Pujols.

The Big Question:  Did the Angels buy themselves the A.L. West this winter?

The Angels made the biggest splashes of the offseason: Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson.  But there was more paper crossing Jerry Dipoto’s desk than just the Pujols and Wilson deals. The Angels signed Howie Kendrick to a four-year, $33.5 million extension. They also brought in Chris Iannetta to replace the woeful Jeff Mathis behind the plate. Add that to what is one of the best rotations in baseball and it’s hard not to see why so many people are dubbing the Angels “Yankees West.”

That said, this is an Angels team that still finished ten games back of the Rangers, and it’s not like the Rangers have taken a step back.  Pujols will improve the offense, but it was still an offense that was 10th in the AL in runs scored last year.  Upshot: this is a team that has improved a lot, but it’s a team that had to improve a lot to keep up with their division rival from Texas.  Don’t crown them yet.

What else is going on?

  • Sometimes I think that someone told Dipoto that the zombie apocalypse is coming and that the only defense is to stockpile 1B/LF/DH types. Between Pujols, Kendrys Morales, Bobby Abreu, Vernon Wells and Mark Trumbo, the Halos have way too many corner guys. And that’s before you realize that some of them are blocking Mike Trout, who will start the season in Triple-A.
  • All of that muscle aside, the real key to how the offense does may well be the table setters: Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar.  Strong seasons from those two and Pujols will be coming to bat with men on base which, hopefully, will keep the opposition from just walking him.
  • The rotation is clearly the strength of this team with Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana going 1-4. There’s not a ton of starting pitching depth here, however. The fifth guy is probably Jerome Williams, and he would be followed up by guys like Garrett Richards, Trevor Bell, Brad Mills, and Eric Hurley. If the injury bug comes buzzing around the rotation, the Angels could be in trouble.
  • How we feeling about the pen?  Jordan Walden had some superficially good numbers as the closer last year — 32 saves, a 2.98 ERA, and 67 strikeouts in 60.1 innings — but he was inconsistent and blew ten saves. There is a lot of talent in the Angels bullpen, but if Walden gives Mike Scioscia headaches, it could all get shuffled around.

How are they gonna do?

Quite well, thanks. Like I said above: they have improved tremendously. But they are not as good an offensive team as the Rangers and are not as deep. I think the Pujols and Wilson additions pulled them close, but not ahead, and certainly not clearly ahead. This will likely be a bloodbath, and I expect the race between Texas and Anaheim to go down to the wire.

Phillies’ 6-run ninth tops Cardinals in 6-3 wild-card win

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Stacy Revere/Getty Images
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ST. LOUIS — Philadelphia scored six times in the ninth inning off the stingy St. Louis bullpen, highlighted by a bases-loaded single by Jean Segura, and the Phillies beat the NL Central champion Cardinals 6-3 on Friday in the opening game of their National League wild-card series.

The Cardinals, who were 74-3 on the season when leading after eight innings, were poised to put away another close game after Juan Yepez connected for the first go-ahead pinch-hit homer in franchise history with two outs in the seventh inning.

But after struggling all afternoon against Jose Quintana and the St. Louis bullpen, the Phillies finally got their powerful offense going against Ryan Helsley. JT Realmuto began the ninth-inning rally with a single, and walks for Bryce Harper and Nick Castellanos loaded the bases before the All-Star closer plunked Alec Bohm to score a run.

The Cardinals training staff came out to check on Helsley, who had jammed the middle finger on his pitching hand earlier in the week in Pittsburgh. He tried to throw another warmup pitch but was pulled for Andre Pallante, who gave up Segura’s hit through the right side of the infield that put Philadelphia in front.

Edmundo Sosa added a run when he brazenly scored on Bryson Stott‘s grounder to first base, and Brandon Marsh drove in another run when a tough hop got past Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong.

By the time Kyle Schwarber added a sacrifice fly, Phillies reliever Zach Eflin had plenty of wiggle room in the ninth.

It looked as if Eflin might need it, too, when Nolan Arenado and Dylan Carlson reached base and Nolan Gorman hit a two-out single to right. But Eflin responded by striking Yadier Molina to end the game, leaving Philadelphia a win away from facing NL East champion Atlanta in the divisional round.

There was a sentimental breeze sweeping through Busch Stadium before the game. Ozzie Smith cheerfully walked to the mound to deliver a ceremonial first pitch, and if the flag-waving Cardinals fans packed into every nook and cranny closed their eyes during introductions, they might have thought they were watching a game a generation ago.

After all, some familiar faces were in the lineup from the last time St. Louis and Philadelphia met in the playoffs.

That was 11 years ago to the day Friday, when the Cardinals beat the Phillies in a dramatic pitchers’ duel between Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay in Game 5 of the NL divisional series. Molina and Albert Pujols played for St. Louis that night while erstwhile ace Adam Wainwright, pitching out of the bullpen this series, also was there to celebrate.

Just like that night in Philadelphia, pitching dominated most of Friday’s series opener.

Quintana, who arrived in a deadline trade from Pittsburgh, was masterful for the Cardinals, allowing only a single to Matt Vierling and a double to Bohm while pitching into the sixth. His day was done after fanning Schwarber for the second time on his 75th pitch, handing the game over to a relief corps that had been downright dominant this season.

Zack Wheeler was the equal of Quintana, allowing a leadoff single to Lars Nootbaar and nothing else until Tommy Edman‘s leadoff single in the sixth. Edman was left stranded on third when Paul Goldschmidt grounded out.

Wheeler departed after retiring Arenado to start the seventh. He struck out four and walked one on 96 pitches, his most since Aug. 20, shortly before the right-hander landed on the injured list with forearm tendinitis.

Then it came down to the bullpens, and the Phillies managed to overcome one of the best in the game.

UP NEXT

The Phillies will try for the wild-card sweep on Saturday night when they send right-hander Aaron Nola (11-13, 3.25 ERA) to the mound. He was stellar his last time out against Houston in clinching Philadelphia’s wild-card playoff spot.

The Cardinals will turn to right-hander Miles Mikolas (12-13, 3.29 ERA) to force a decisive Game 3. Mikolas struggled in a tune-up out of the bullpen in Pittsburgh but allowed one earned run over his last two starts.