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.

The Astros continue to refuse to take responsibility for the Taubman Affair

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I’m calling it the “Taubman Affair” because writing “the incident in which a top front office executive — Astros Assistant General Manager Brandon Taubman — taunted a reporter for her past opposition to the team acquiring a domestic abuser, after which the team lied, aggressively about it, accusing another reporter of fabricating a story, then admitted that they lied but made no apology for smearing the reporter” is too unwieldy for a headline.

If you need catching up on it, though, you can read this, this or this.

The latest on it all: yesterday, after walking back their angry denial that the incident ever occurred and admitting that, yes, Taubman did in fact gleefully and profanely target a reporter for taunting, the team basically went silent and let Game 1 unfold.

Today General Manager Jeff Luhnow went on a team-friendly radio station (i.e. the station that broadcasts Astros games). In the entire segment he was asked only one question about it: “Your thoughts on the SI article, Jeff.” Luhnow said that he would withhold comment, but apologized to “everybody involved,” including the fans and the players, saying “this situation should have never happened.” You can listen to the entire segment here.

He did not, however, make any specific mention of what “this situation” was. Nor did he acknowledge that, actually, it’s at least two “situations:” (1) the initial behavior of Taubman; and (2) Monday night’s team-sanctioned attack of Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein, who reported it. Indeed, at no time in the team’s now multiple comments has anyone acknowledged that, as an organization, the Houston Astros’s first impulse in all of this was to attempt to bully and discredit a reporter for what has now been established as a truthful report to which the Astros have admitted. And they certainly have not voiced any specific regret or offered any form of accountability for it.

Major League Baseball is apparently investigating Taubman’s conduct. But it is not, presumably, investigating the Astros’ disingenuous smear of Apstein. A smear that the Astros likely undertook because they figured they could intimidate Apstein and, what may even be worse, because they assumed that the rest of the press — many of whom were witnesses to Taubman’s act — would go along or remain silent. If they did not think that, of course, releasing the statement they did would’ve been nonsensical. It speaks of an organization that believes it can either bully or manipulate the media into doing its bidding or covering for the teams’ transgressions. That part of this has gone wholly uncommented on by the Astros and apparently will for the foreseeable future. No matter how this shakes out for Taubman, if the Astros do not talk about how and why they decided to baselessly attack Apstein on Monday night, nothing they ever say should be trusted again.

More broadly, everything the Astros are doing now is the same as when they traded for Roberto Osuna in the first place.

In 2018 they wanted to do an unpopular thing — arbitrage a player’s domestic violence suspension into the acquisition of cheap relief help — while wanting to appear as though they were good actors who had a “zero tolerance for domestic violence” policy. To solve that problem they shoveled a lot of malarkey about how “zero tolerance” actually includes a fair amount of tolerance and hoped that everyone would go along. When not everyone did — when fans brought signs of protest to the ballpark or expressed their displeasure with Osuna’s presence on the roster — they confiscated them then hoped it’d all blow over and, eventually, via Taubman’s rant on Saturday night, lashed out at their critics.

Here, again, they want to do something unpopular: retain a boorish and insensitive executive in Taubman without him or the team suffering any consequences for it, be they actual consequences or mere P.R. fallout. Again, it’s kind of hard to pull that off, so to do so they falsely accused a reporter of lying and then circled the wagons when they caught heat for it.

I have no idea how long they plan to keep this up. Maybe they are calculating that people will forget and that forgetting is the same as forgiveness. Maybe they simply don’t care. All I do know is that folks will be teaching the Astros’ response to all of this as a counterexample in crisis management courses for years.