Sunday, March 8, 2009

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Preview

Overview: The Angels were widely regarded as being the best team in the American League in 2008, yet they were unable to make it past the Boston Red Sox again in a playoff series. The Angels had a tough offseason as well, losing both their best offensive player and closer to the New York teams (Mark Teixeira to the Yankees and Francisco Rodriguez to the Mets). The Angels replaced those two with Bobby Abreu and Brian Fuentes, certainly a downgrade. Also in recent news, Vladimir Guerrero told reporters that he was 34 years old, as opposed to the 33 that he was believed to be. Perhaps that explains his severe decline as he no longer appears to be a major impact hitter at this stage in his career anymore. This does not bode well for the Angels as all of the other three teams in the division made improvements during the offseason. This team is going to live and die by their pitching and ability to play small-ball. A Mike Scoscia team will do all of the right things and play small ball well. They will be in the mix, but their days as the toast of the American League are in the past now.

Starting Pitching: The Angels starting staff features John Lackey, Ervin Santana, Jered Weaver, Joe Saunders and Dustin Moseley. This is going to be one of the strongest starting staffs in Major League Baseball in 2009 with Lackey leading the charge. John Lackey is a seasoned ace now and can be relied upon to win 15-20 games when healthy. Ervin Santana too has shown that he has ace stuff. He also seems to have put his unusual home/away split issue in the past. He struck out 214 batters last season in 219 innings and I feel as though the best is yet to come with him as he is just 26. Like his brother (Jeff), Jered Weaver looks as though he has leveled off after a good start. He was very average last season and I would not expect much more from him until he can get his velocity back. He will keep the Angels in games, but with an offense that appears a lot less powerful this season, he is not going to be winning 15 games, 10 may be a struggle. Joe Saunders looked great last season after getting off to a hot start and then coming back down to earth. He did finish the season with the most wins on the Angels staff and he is a quality left-handed pitcher. He does not have the stuff that Santana has, or the long-term success of Lackey, but Joe Saunders might just be the best pitcher on this staff by the end of the 2009 season though he will not do it with flash. Finally, Dustin Moseley is the current 5th starter on the Angels, but he probably won't finish that way with Kelvim Escobar coming back from injury by mid-season or sooner. Moseley may not even hold this position if another starter in camp outshines him (Nick Adenhardt). Once Escobar returns to the mound, this staff is really going to be one of the top three in baseball. Injury history is the factor with this rotation. Lackey was out last season, Santana just got injured this season, Escobar has not pitched since 2007. Again, the Angels will live and die by their rotation because if a starter is injured, the next best option would be Dustin Moseley, which is not going to be pretty. When healthy, watch out.

Having lost a record-setting closer from last season would be a big deal one would think, but the Angels have signed Brian Fuentes and more importantly have Jose Arredondo, who did nothing but impress in his rookie season (1.62 ERA in 61IP). Fuentes may have the closers job now, but Arredondo should already be putting pressure on him. The Angels also bring back Scot Shields and Darren Oliver to be an excellent L-R duo in the middle to late innings. Shields is no longer the dominant force he once was, but he and Oliver are solid relievers. Justin Speier will also bulk up the middle relief corps for the Angels. The rest of the Angel bullpen is going to be unknowns. Kevin Jesper and Jason Bulger are currently holding onto the last two spots, with a combined 42.1 major league innings combined. The Angels will have great middle relief depth. They have a great young arm in Arredando and could stand to pick up another long relief option. The bullpen looks to be a strength again for a Mike Scoscia team.

At the end of the 2008 season, the Angels had probably the best lineup in baseball. They could do it all and showed incredible depth. Without Mark Teixeira, the entire complexion of their lineup has changed. The Angels are looking like a collection of aging outfielders and exciting and athletic infielders. They probably will not have anyone eclipse 30 home runs in 2009, though they will have plenty of 20 homer guys. The Angels lineup is set up perfectly with contact and speed in Chone Figgins and Howie Kendrick. Figgins has great speed and will get on base and score plenty of runs. Kendrick is a great contact hitter and could very well hit .330 in 2009. What the Angels need to worry about here is how long these two will be healthy. Each have been struck by injuries in the past and it will be crucial for them to stay healthy for the success of this team. After the top two, the Angels have a slew of outfielders that would have been murderer's row in 2002. Torii Hunter, Vladimir Guerrero and Bobby Abreu are slated as being the teams outfield starters. All showed declining numbers in 2008 at the plate with Guerrero and Abreu slowing down in the outfield significantly. These three are no longer top-5 for their position, but they will be able to knock in runs. After those three, Juan Rivera and Mike Napoli will provide power from the DH and Catching positions, but that is about it for them. Kendry Morales takes over at first-base for Mark Teixeira. He will be given his first big chance to secure a starting spot, but so far, his MLB career has been lackluster with a career .249 average in 377 at-bats. Morales is a big guy with power potential, and his development could be what makes or breaks this offense. 25-30 homers could lead to big dividends for this lineup. Finally, the shortstop duty will be given to Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis. These two pesky hitters are the perfect fit in the 9 spot, each plays very solid defense at short as well. Neither are going to be all-stars, but they won't hurt the Angels.
As far as depth, the Angels are well equipped for success. Gary Matthews Jr. is a 40 Million dollar mistake, but he is certainly a good 4th outfielder and Reggie Willits offers incredible speed off the bench and in the outfield. I would have personally liked to have seen Willits in the outfield this season because he does have great speed and was a top rookie of the year candidate in 2007, before losing his job in 2008 to a healthily paid outfield. He has virtually no power, but would be a great #9 hitter for a team in need of some speed because he gets on base (he belongs in Oakland). The Angels also have a talented backup catcher in Jeff Mathis, who would be ready to take some at-bats if Mike Napoli falls off this season. Robb Quinlan has been a mainstay on the bench in Anaheim for years and will probably get some at-bats this season if things do not go well for Kendry Morales. Former top prospect Brandon Wood is hanging around the Four-A level and it is now or never for him. The Angels have great depth, but that will not help an offense that has slowed significantly between years.
I see the Angels being right there again in 2009 for the NL West crown. The problem for the Angels is that their entire divison has improved, so the competition has gotten a lot tighter after seeing the Angels win by 21 games in 2008. This division is going to be a battle, much like the NL West has been for the last few seasons, but because of excellent depth and a solid bullpen, the Angels are in best position to win this division again in 2009 and will win the division finishing with a record that will be around 85-77. Watch out for Kendry Morales on this team, he could be the difference between 80 or 90 wins for this team.

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