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 2015 season. Next up: The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
The Big Question: Is the Angels’ window slamming shut?
It took a long time to pry that window open, actually. There was some serious disappointment in Anaheim after the signings of C.J. Wilson, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton didn’t pay immediate dividends. But, finally, last year the Angels fulfilled their promise and made it into the playoffs. Which is nice, but it still isn’t what Arte Moreno had in mind when he backed up the Brinks truck for those guys. He was likely thinking dynasty, and it’s hard to see how that can happen on the backs of those big money guys.
Albert Pujols is clearly not the MVP-caliber player he used to be. He’s a great second banana to Mike Trout — last year’s 28 homer, 105-RBI performance will certainly play in the middle of anyone’s order — but he’s clearly a player in decline. The Angels can hope it’s a nice slow decline that allows him to be productive for many more years, but the notion that Pujols and Trout would be a latter day Ruth and Gehrig is no longer operative. It’s now more of, I dunno, a DiMaggio/Tommy Henrich. Which, hey, was pretty darn good! But Henrich didn’t cost what Pujols costs and is going to keep Jerry Dipoto from going out and picking up the modern equivalent of Johnny Mize if he needs someone to provide some extra production.
Josh Hamilton’s problems are well-documented of course, so he can’t really be counted on to be, I dunno, Hank Bauer (sorry; the analogy is fraying here). Jered Weaver has declined for three straight seasons. C.J. Wilson is dealing with health problems this spring and is coming off a bad year himself. It’s as if the moment after the Angels finally pushed through and fulfilled their promise you can go up on a steep hill in Los Angeles, look south, and with the right kind of eyes, almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
Or maybe not? I mean, those old expensive guys are varying levels of disappointment, but the best player in baseball still happens to play for the Angels and he’s only 23. Beyond him the lineup was nicely balanced last season with no real weak spots and a nice emergence of Kole Calhoun. Their best pitcher last year, Garrett Richards, is healthy again and should be ready to resume what he was doing last season some point early this season. The rotation doesn’t fall off a cliff after him either, as Matt Shoemaker posted a 120 ERA+ last year and some new arms are now in camp (more on them below). The bullpen, always a weak spot for those earlier underachieving Angels clubs was a strength last year.
Is the window closing? Only if you define that window in terms of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. What the Angels showed last year is that with Mike Trout, all things are possible. And that they don’t need those big money veterans to be the best players on the team in order to compete. If anything, the Angels might have won 98 games as a team in transition last year. And that’s a scary thought for the rest of the A.L. West.
What else is going on?
- While Josh Hamilton’s relapse has been a big story this spring, the biggest loss heading into this year is not Hamilton. He was largely a non-factor last season, actually. No, the biggest loss is Howie Kendrick, whose office is now a few miles north with the Dodgers. Kendrick has been a fixture in the middle infield for the Halos for nearly a decade, hitting .291/.337/.423, for an OPS+ of 116 while averaging 142 games played over the past four seasons. That’s gonna be hard to replace. They’ll be trying to replace that will be some combination of Josh Rutledge, Grant Green and Johnny Giavotella. I’m sure they’re nice fellas, but they ain’t Howie Kendrick.
- David Freese might be the biggest X-factor on offense for the Angels. He was clearly a disappointment last year, but a lot of that was attributable to a horrific first half. He was still uneven in the second half — great July and September, bad August – but his power numbers picked up a bit. If he can improve just a little bit it’ll make the loss of Kendrick and Hamilton less of an issue.
- That whole team-in-transition thing can best be seen in the rotation. Richards is the ace and Weaver and Wilson are still big names there, but the Angels are clearly not blind to the decline of the latter two. That’s a big reason why they traded for Nick Tropeano and Andrew Heaney, two top pitching prospects from the Astros and Marlins organizations, respectively (Heany spent a few hours as a Dodger back in December and was acquired in the Kendrick deal). Obviously both of these guys need some more mileage on their odometer before they can be counted on to do anything, but they’re interesting guys to watch in 2015.
- Huston Street was fantastic after coming up I-5 from San Diego after being traded last year and now the Angels will have him all year. Joe Smith was already one of the more reliable setup men around, but his reduction in walks last season helped him elevate his game. Vinnie Pestano lost it in Cleveland and then found it again in his short stint in Anaheim in 2014. If that is the harbinger of his return to form the bullpen will be a source of strength once again.
Prediction: The Angels have a lot of question marks for a team that won 98 games last year. But they still have an awful lot of talent. It’s not the talent they thought would carry them through this decade, but it’s solid all the same. And of course, they have at least three guys who were supposed to be carrying them through the decade — Pujols, Weaver and Wilson — from whom it wouldn’t be shocking to see a late-career spike season. If that happens with the still-good Pujols, it’d bring a nice overall improvement to the offense. If that happens with the struggling Wilson and Weaver, this team would really be cooking with gas.
The Mariners are improved and nipping at their heels, but by no means juggernauts. The Astros are not going to be doormats forever, but they’re still not contenders either. The A’s are all kinds of different than they used to be and no one knows what to expect from them. The Rangers are broken once again. Against that backdrop, I have no problem picking the Angels to be First Place, AL West.