Five Questions: Los Angeles Angels

1. Man, what a pitiful excuse for an offense! Is Bill Stoneman as dense as his last name? How come he didn’t do anything to improve the club’s bats?

Whether it’s from newspaper writers (some of them even locals), national writers like Rob Neyer, or even ESPN’s Power Rankings, everybody loves to hate on the Angels, and in particular, Bill Stoneman’s seeming forgetfulness about why this club didn’t make it past the White Sox in the postseason last year. Having let key offensive cog Bengie Molina walk and failing to pick up the only name free agent they pursued, Paul Konerko, the Angels offseason invited charges of failing to fix the team’s obvious problems.

But not everyone gets on the basher’s bandwagon. David Pinto caught what so many others missed: Stoneman’s on a youth kick, and it’s time to let the kids play. Molina’s getting old, and aging badly; Jeff Mathis might not be his equal, but let’s hold off on that for a moment. Steve Finley, traded to San Francisco, is now a problem for them; Darin Erstad now gets his at-bats, which will be a significant improvement. And, next in the chain, Casey Kotchman will be better than Erstad was at first. “Missing out” on Konerko means not having to figure out a trade for Kotchman while taking a big risk on a guy who’s going to be 34 by the time his five-year deal’s up. So that means the Halos improve at first and center field, while declining some at catcher.

And that’s not the best of it. If super-prospect Howie Kendrick tears through Triple-A as he’s done at every other level, there’s the real possibility the team will have a solid designated hitter or second baseman (should Adam Kennedy slump, as if being in a walk year wasn’t enough motivation) lined up ready to go no later than midseason, with thumper Brandon Wood anywhere from two years to a half season behind him.

2. Fine, but what about third base? Isn’t Dallas McPherson a bust? Dude strikes out a ton, hasn’t proven himself on the field and has already spent half a year on the DL. Isn’t he due for a trade or to be let go?

Not hardly. Dallas had a bone spur on his hip removed that may have created the back problems dogging him through his minor league career. Unfortunately, it looks like he’s going to have additional problems getting back to the major league level; with a case of severe dermatitis and a strained oblique later on, McPherson seemed to live down to the skepticism expressed by Mike Scioscia when he said “the jury’s still out” on both him and Kotchman last October.

But I’m still high on McPherson, and for a lot of reasons. Part of the general amnesia about McPherson is the fact that he was such a heralded prospect for so long, that the subsequent fizzle has made him seem like a non-entity compared to the next wave of prospects—who also haven’t proven themselves at the major league level. It didn’t help that not even the most pessimistic of projection systems predicted how poorly he would hit in his abortive season.

But even if—as now seems all but assured—he starts the season in the minors, there’s no reason to think he won’t bust out and demand a job in the majors soon after. He made good progress in 2005 despite his injuries; for one thing, his .244/.295/.449, outside of the average, was right around the .283/.308/.435 line posted by Garret Anderson—and McPherson still has upside, plus he’s playing a tougher defensive position, and doing so adequately (97 Rate2 according to Baseball Prospectus).

As for McPherson’s oft-referred-to high strikeout rate, he’s actually not too far away from the early careers of some good players, including the Angels’ own Tim Salmon and Troy Glaus. What a lot of folks missed is that despite the injuries, McPherson has quietly cut down his strikeouts-per-at-bat rate to those comparable to some other famous sluggers who ended up having solid careers. If McPherson can stay healthy and hit at the major league level, there’s a very good chance he’ll outperform Figgins—and for now, that’s all he needs to do.

3. Okay, but they let Jarrod Washburn and Paul Byrd go. Won’t the rotation be worse off?

Washburn wasn’t going to reproduce that club-leading 3.20 ERA even if he had stayed; his injury history made him a considerable risk. Moreover, no AL pitcher had better luck on balls in play than Washburn, as measured by DIPS. Letting him walk was an easy decision, as was letting Byrd go.

You can think of the Angels’ offseason rotation changes this way:

       2005             2006
==================================
1. Bartolo Colon    Bartolo Colon
2. John Lackey      John Lackey
3. Paul Byrd        Kelvim Escobar
4. Jarrod Washburn  Ervin Santana
5. Ervin Santana    Jeff Weaver

Santana has a decent shot at a 4.30-4.50 ERA, and maybe even better if he can tame the inconsistency demons that seem to plague him every other start; recall that Lackey looked like a journeyman at the start of 2005, but he settled down to become one of the club’s most reliable starters (offer void against the Boston Red Sox). Jeff Weaver, whose weakness against AL West opponents is well known, nonetheless ought to have a low-to-mid-4.00s ERA by the end of the season (or so thinks PECOTA). The rotation should be worse off than last year, but not by too much, and especially considering the fact that Washburn and his 3.20 ERA came in the fewest innings of any Angels pitcher on the staff who started the season in the rotation.

4. Last year you said the Angels would regress significantly in the bullpen, but they only increased from a 3.47 ERA in 2004 to 3.52 ERA—not much of a regression at all. Were you on crack? What do you have to say about the bullpen this year, Mr. Gloomy Gus?

Let me check my bong—nope, no crack there. The Angels’ bullpen held together surprisingly well, though the team looked pretty darn vulnerable in August as the Angels simply exhausted their two star relievers, setup man Scot Shields and newly anointed closer Frankie Rodriguez, partly the consequence of a late-July series with Toronto that wore down the bullpen, a stretch that led to some execrable moments. Kelvim Escobar‘s September return allowed both K-Rod and Shields enough days off that Mike Scioscia wouldn’t have to go to third-stringer Kevin Gregg, rapidly declining Brendan Donnelly, or overpriced mediocrity Esteban Yan.

That scare vividly demonstrated the team’s lack of depth in the bullpen, and it’s questionable whether the Angels’ acquisition of Hector Carrasco really addressed that adequately. Carrasco, who will be 36 next year and is now two years off his 2003 Tommy John surgery, got sucked in to the Angels somewhat meretriciously, as Bill Stoneman seduced him with visions of the starts he’d make, all the while trying to quietly pursue—and hold off from actually signing—Paul Byrd. Whether his two-year, $6.1 million contract will be worth it depends on how well his arm holds up. He looks to me like Esteban Yan II: the kind of flyer a rich club can take but should be smart enough to avoid.

The reasons the Angels shouldn’t have needed Carrasco and Yan in the first place are two guys named Bobby Jenks and Derrick Turnbow, a pair of hard throwers that Bill Stoneman put on waivers, both of whom went on to very good seasons with the White Sox and the Brewers, respectively. The Angels and pitching coach Bud Black, who had a great track record of converting scrap heap guys into useful parts, seemed to lose the knack in the last couple of years. It’s one reason they recently traded some of their front-line depth—Alberto Callaspo—for yet another fireballer with funky motion, Jason Bulger. (Now try to get that codpiece image out of your head. Uh huh, doesn’t work.)

And to wrap all this back into the Angels’ pitching picture, the big question is whether there will be—as seems likely—someone in Salt Lake ready to take the baton when one of the starters goes down. Joe Saunders doesn’t look like he’s ready—if he ever will be—and first he needs a real out pitch; his curveball isn’t all that compelling. Maybe Jered Weaver could get the job done, but he needs to figure out how to keep the ball in the park first. Carrasco could perhaps handle the task, but at the risk of making the bullpen susceptible to another stretch of overuse followed by collapse.

Finally, we still haven’t answered the question of whether the Angels’ bullpen regressed. It’s a toughie, because AL relief corps’ ERAs generally improved at the top last year while the Angels’ remained static. In 2004, the Angels’ 3.47 bullpen ERA was good enough for second place in the AL; in 2005, they slid to fifth place with effectively the same numbers, and as I predicted last year at this time, behind Oakland, not to mention postseason rivals Chicago, Minnesota, and Cleveland, the latter sporting a 2.80 ERA. The cat’s out of the rosin bag about building pitching staffs backwards, and the Angels are now just another club following that prescription.

5. “Have you no fear, English?”

My fear is my own concern, of course. The A’s have improved, as ever, yet they have their flaws. The Rangers are still trying to figure out how to build a rotation. The Mariners look good at times (they swept the Angels in their last three games of the season), but lack the bats and the pitching depth to contend. Yet, because the AL West is the smallest division of any in baseball, that means the Angels have a decent chance to win it again. This is a rebuilding year for the Angels, no doubt about it; the team will rise or fall with its rookies and sophomores. I’m mildly optimistic; in the words of The Who, the kids are all right—though Angels fans may want to watch through their fingers for a while.

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