Five questions: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

After the “Moneyball” Oakland A’s gave up the grip they held on the American League West at the start of the latest millennium, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim took over, winning five out of six division championships from 2004-2009.

Most recently, however, the Texas Rangers have had control of the division. Despite Texas’ recent success, the Angels have not given up their hold on the division easily. Anaheim’s starting pitching was formidable as the Rangers won their back to back titles, but the Angels’ ability to keep up with the Rangers has been hamstrung by an offense that finished ninth and tenth in the American League in scoring the past two years.

The Angels made efforts to boost their offense before last season began, but their choices were poor, and as a result, there was no improvement in team batting. Their big move was a puzzling trade, one that resulted in the departure of a catcher who would go on to challenge for a Most Valuable Player award for Texas. In exchange, they brought in an extremely expensive outfielder who finished 2011 as one of the worst players in baseball in regards to reaching base safely.

So, this past offseason the Angels had the same goal—fix the troubled offense. Only this time, the owner hired a new general manager, instructed him to spend even more money, and went out and got a player who is one of the best in baseball at reaching base. They didn’t stop with that signing, either.

They tried to right a wrong at the catcher’s spot and also bolstered their pitching. The result was a huge offseason that has the Angels in far better shape to challenge for the division title in 2012. How well they do may come down to how well they can answer the following five questions.

How big of a difference will Pujols make, really?

Many people rightly believe Albert Pujols is the greatest player of this generation. Despite justified concerns about how his expensive contract (240 million dollars) will look in ten years, the addition of Pujols to the Los Angeles lineup in the next couple of seasons could be one of the most beneficial boosts to an offense in recent memory. If Pujols produces as expected, he will obliterate the .261/.299/.479 line that Los Angeles first basemen posted last season. He’s still the type of player who can contend for his league’s Most Valuable Player award, and he has postseason experience.

He may be slowing down a bit, and will almost certainly get slower in the coming years, but he is still considered a good fielder. Playing him at first base will significantly increase the on-base percentage for that position. Pujols should also continue to provide the power the Angels have come to expect from first, where, despite their troubles reaching base, they managed to blast 61 homers the past two seasons. He should also help whoever will be slotted to bat in front of him as they will presumably see better pitches to hit.

Beyond those obvious tried and true benefits, we also have an in depth way to measure a player’s worth to a team with a statistic called WAR. Using the version on Fangraphs, we see that Pujols has spent most of his career performing at a level worth eight to ten wins per season while playing in St. Louis. That is one of the best totals in the game, but unfortunately for Los Angeles, we can’t simply add eight more wins to the record they posted last year and call it a day.

Pujols will be replacing Mark Trumbo at first base. Now, Trumbo is not the player Pujols is, but that’s not a knock—hardly anyone is of Pujols’ worth to a team. But Trumbo, despite his faults, still hit 29 home runs and contributed 2.3 in WAR for the Angels in 2011. So Pujols’ higher WAR value will help, but will only add the difference between that value and what the team would have had if they simply stuck with Trumbo again for 2012.

Another damper on expectations is Albert’s significant drop in WAR last season when he posted 5.1 for the year. Similar numbers in the coming years would translate to less of an upgrade than we’d all presume from Pujols. In short, no matter how good a player is, in baseball it’s very hard for one man to radically improve a team’s performance.

Los Angeles has averaged a lowly .312 On Base Percentage as a team the past two seasons and it would seem reasonable to expect the addition of Pujols to give that a significant bump. But again there are caveats. Last season, Pujols posted a .366 OBP. As good as that number is, it is almost 60 points lower than his career average of .420. If Albert’s BB% and Batting Average jump back up to his career averages, the boost he will add to the Angels’ lineup will be greater. It remains to be seen if last year was a one time slip for Pujols, or the start of a decline.

All that said, he is still Albert Pujols. We can nitpick his last season and can question how good he’ll be in ten years, but barring a sudden decline in his abilities, the addition of Pujols will allow the Angels to plug in a productive hitter at first. A chain reaction after that plug-in could help Anaheim up and down the lineup.

If Trumbo shows that he can handle third base, he could significantly upgrade hitting there since Los Angeles only got seven home runs out of the position last season. If Kendrys Morales, the injured first baseman who hit 34 home runs for the Angels in 2009, can slot in at Designated Hitter, he could upgrade a position that only provided a .702 OPS last season. If all those things break like the Angels hope, the addition of Pujols could drastically improve the offense.

How big of a difference will Wilson make, really?

C.J. Wilson was the other big addition to this Angels team. Whereas adding Pujols addresses a serious weakness for the team, adding Wilson buoys what was already a strength for the Angels, who led the American League last season with a 3.57 ERA. Terrific pitchers like Dan Haren and Jered Weaver return, as well as the solid Ervin Santana. Those three have already combined to form one of the best rotations in baseball and adding Wilson to the mix will obviously make them even deeper. He will also provide the team with with more playoff experience.

Last season, Wilson threw just over 223 innings and struck out 206 batters. He had a 2.94 ERA and a 1.187 WHIP. Taken without context, those are great numbers. When we think about Wilson doing that while making 16 starts in his home ballpark, a park that ESPN ranked as the best ballpark for hitters in baseball last season, we may wonder if he has a chance to pitch even better in coming seasons by making half his starts on his new home field, which ranked as one of the worst for hitters last year.

No, it’s not as simple as looking at his 2.31 ERA on the road last year and projecting that for the whole season. We can’t just assume that since he held batters to 27 points lower hitting on the road last year that he’ll enjoy that type of success throughout 2012. But, we have to like his chances of doing as well, if not a little better than last year, with what should be a more favorable pitching environment during his home games.

THT Forecasts, a projection system developed by this site, predicts a slight regression for Wilson and has him pegged for a 3.48 ERA and to contribute 3.9 in WAR. Even if we consider that to be slightly pessimistic given his great 2011 season, it is still very solid production. Adding that solid production to what we’ve come to expect from Santana, Haren, and Weaver will give the Angels a great chance to repeat as the best pitching team in the American League this season.

It’s not just the regular season they are interested in, though. The Angels’ increase in spending is a signal, like the one made by the Detroit Tigers’ signing of Prince Fielder, that they are not content with just contending for their division title. Adding Pujols can make them a more consistent offensive team, which they desperately need to be. Adding Wilson to their already strong rotation, one that could be a juggernaut in postseason play, suggests that they have their eye on making a run at the World Series for the next few seasons.

How big of a difference will Iannetta make, really?

From 2007-2010, Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis split time as the primary catchers for the Angels. As most of you already know, Napoli can rake, but his defense was often considered sub-par, especially by his manager, Mike Scioscia. Mathis, on the other hand, is regarded as an asset defensively, but can’t hit at all. Scioscia, a former catcher, didn’t seem to trust Napoli’s defense enough to give him the job full-time.

With Napoli in his last year of club control, Anaheim traded the slugging backstop to Toronto before last season started and gave up on any offensive production out of the catcher’s position. One disappointing result from the trade was a pitiful triple slash line of .192/.252/.302., drug down by 93 games of Jeff Mathis hitting .174. Meanwhile, Napoli went on to hit .320 while crushing 30 home runs after the Blue Jays flipped him to Texas.

With that disastrous result following their 2010 offseason, Los Angeles tried to recover from the Napoli/Mathis debacle by sending the latter to Toronto after the 2011 campaign. With Mathis out of the picture, they now turn to Chris Iannetta, acquired via trade from the Colorado Rockies. Iannetta, while not as good of a hitter as Napoli, is of course a far, far better hitter than Mathis. Iannetta should be the new primary catcher, and assuming he’ll get most of the starts, could also help fix the Angels’ offensive problems.

Another question regarding Iannetta is if he can hit away from Coors Field. As we noted, C.J. Wilson may get a boost by switching to Angel Stadium. On the other hand, his battery mate may suffer at his new home. Iannetta has a significant Home/Road split, with a line of .262/.377/.492 in all his games played at Coors. That would be a boon for the Angels.

But it’s that .208/.338/.369 triple slash line in road games that may temper our expectations. That said, even if he’s been a product of the hitter-friendly environment in Colorado and is due to regress a bit, one of his strengths has always been plate discipline and that ability to draw walks is something the Angels sorely need.

Can they stomach it if Vernon Wells posts a sub-.300 OBP for the whole season?

Wells and his ugly contract are the other negative to the Napoli trade mentioned earlier. Los Angeles must have known they were taking a chance on the historically streaky Wells, but they didn’t anticipate the .218/.248/.412 line he posted in 529 plate appearances in 2011.

In 2007 and 2009, while he was still with the Toronto Blue Jays, Wells posted OBPs of .304 and .311, respectively. He bounced back from both those poor seasons to be above average the following years. The Angels will certainly be hoping he will bounce back again, but where he had fallen pretty far before, he had never reached the depths he plummeted to last year.

Always reliant on his batting average to carry his OBP, Wells’ BABIP of .214 last season drug his average down toward the Mendoza line . Whenever we see a lower than average Batting Average On Balls In Play (and Wells’ career number is .282), we rightfully attribute some of the decline to bad luck since BABIP tends to even out over time. We can also rightly expect that luck to even out the year after a particularly poor run of luck and therefore look for the player’s average to go back up to career norms, generally speaking.

But there are other things we can attribute to a decline in BABIP, and one of those is troubling in regards to Wells’ 2011 season. His career LD% is 19 percent, but last season that ratio fell to 12 percent. Line drives have a better chance of falling for hits, and If Wells’ ability to square up the ball is diminishing, he will have a harder time recouping all those points he lost off his batting average last season.

Los Angeles has a young player named Mike Trout, who is regarded as one of the best prospects in baseball. He is a complete player who will help a team with his speed, bat, and outfield defense. THT Forecasts has Trout pegged for a .283/.345/.446 line and right now we’re guessing he will somehow force his way into the lineup enough to rack up 530 plate appearances.

But we all know the reality is that it’s not as easy as penciling Trout into the starting lineup because the Angels owe Wells 63 million dollars over the next three years. Bobby Abreu might even be able to outproduce Wells, but Scioscia doesn’t trust him to play outfield anymore.

Even with better hitting options on their 40 man roster, Los Angeles will probably start the season hoping Wells can get his batting average back up and contribute to the team. However, if Wells starts the season slowly, after a winter of big spending designed to build a team that can win now, they will have to weigh the cost of riding him out versus the cost of paying him to ride the pine.

Can they win the American League West?

Yes.

This will be the last year the West is made up of only four teams and Los Angeles already had more talent and resources than Oakland and Seattle before they went on their spending spree. With the addition of Pujols, Wilson, and to a lesser extent Iannetta, the Angels are now far better equipped to compete with Texas for the division title in what appears to be a two-team race.

The Wilson signing had the added bonus of weakening Texas, and the Rangers responded by signing Japanese star pitcher Yu Darvish. Darvish has dominated his competition, but now must prove himself against the best players in the world. The daunting Texas offense, third in the American League last season in runs scored, has few weak spots. But, Josh Hamilton continues to battle injuries and alcohol addiction, and Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz are no guarantee to play 150 games. If Texas takes even a small step back in 2012, their brief reign at the top of the West will come to an end.

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Comments

  1. Paul Francis Sullivan said...

    I picked the Angels last year…
    I am picking them this year.

    The kiss of death for the Angels

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