Five Questions: Los Angeles Angels

1. Is Gary Matthews Jr. the worst signing of all time?

My original question was going to be what are the chances Gary Matthews Jr.’s 2006 season was for real. While the season screams fluke, there have been players in the past who have established themselves as stars in their early 30s after being journeymen, bench players, or even minor leaguers for most of their 20s. Two players who come to mind are Melvin Mora and Luis Gonzalez. Recent news linking Matthews to a pharmacy selling human growth hormone makes me scale the question back towards the pessimistic side.

As of today, Matthews has not offered any explanation or comment on the situation under advice from his lawyers. How much Matthews was helped by HGH is an open question. It was reportedly sent to him in August 2004. So did he let it sit on his shelf for the 2005 season, when he had an OPS+ of 96, saving it all for his contract year of 2006? Or maybe it didn’t have much affect. News updates linking David Bell in the same case make that a distinct possibility. What was this pharmacy doing anyway, giving discounts to sons of former major leaguers? Did Bret Boone and Barry Bonds shop there too?

In his 2006 season Matthews improved his on-base percentage by 51 points over 2005, and his slugging percentage by 59. His batting average improved by 58 points, so it seems that his 2006 season was a run-of-the-mill batting-average-driven fluke year. He just got lucky and had a bunch of extra hits fall in. Matthews will help the Angels if his batting average reverts to the .250-.260 range, and he adds about 15 homers, 50 walks, and strong center field defense. What the HGH situation adds is the potential to become a distraction to both Matthews and the team, and the possibility, though unlikely, of a 50-game suspension by MLB.

I have moved from initially hating this contract, to accepting it, to looking at it as a big mistake. I still would prefer to have Matthews and his contract than Juan Pierre and his, or Carlos Lee and his deal. It is not the worst signing of all time.

2. How good will Jered Weaver be over a full season?

Weaver is currently battling bicep tendinitis, and has not yet been cleared to throw off a mound. He may not be ready to start the major league season. If Weaver missed significant time due to injuries, it sure wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened to an outstanding young pitcher.

I’m not a doctor, and I don’t play one on the internet, but I think Weaver will be fine and the Angels are just being extra careful with such a valuable young player. Weaver will likely face some learning experiences this year. Its too much to expect a 2.56 ERA out of any pitcher not named Johan Santana, but my projection calls for a 3.43 ERA and a strikeout walk ratio of near 3.5 to 1. He is a flyball pitcher and thus will give up his share of homeruns, but by keeping people off base as well as he does, most of those will be solo homeruns. With high strikeouts, low walks, and more homeruns allowed than average, Weaver reminds me statistically of Bert Blyleven. I can’t predict he’ll have Blyleven’s durability over a 20-year period, but if he does then one day we can argue about how he is unfairly kept out of the Hall of Fame.

3. Is Casey Kotchman good enough, healthy enough, and doggone it, will people like him?

After missing almost the entire 2006 season due to mono, Casey Kotchman was able to stay healthy for winter baseball. Playing for Los Lobos de Arecibo, Casey hit .261 in 111 at-bats, with six doubles, three homers, and a 12/12 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He certainly didn’t blow the league away, but it’s a good sign that he was able to stay in the lineup and he’s reportedly back to his normal playing weight of 215 pounds.

If Kotchman is able to hit exactly as well as he did in the winter, he’d be a league average hitter but a below average hitting first baseman. He’s capable of more, but if he can just stay in the lineup and be an improvement over the Angels’ terrible first base situation of last year the fans will take it. A .260 season with 15 homers would be a good starting point for Kotchman to build on. If he can just show the ability to stay in the lineup and not hurt the team in 2007, we can think about a breakout season in 2008.

4. What role, if any, will Juan Rivera play?

Juan Rivera was the Angels’ second best hitter last season, but suffered a broken leg playing winter baseball in Venezuela. He is expected to miss at least half the season, but realistically the Angels cannot count on him for 2007. Even if he is able to take the field, he may not be able to play at 100%. Jermaine Dye is another strong armed, power hitting corner outfielder who suffered a broken leg, and he wasn’t able to play at 100% for two or three 3 seasons after the injury. Rivera’s injury led directly to the signing of Shea Hillenbrand, so the Angels seem to be preparing for a season without Rivera. If he is able to play at all, expect Rivera to be used as a DH late in the year.

5. Will Bill Stoneman still have a job at the end of the season?

The Angels finished the 2006 season strong thanks to contributions from rookies Jered Weaver, Joe Saunders, Howie Kendrick, and Mike Napoli. Their pitching is as good as anyone’s, the farm system is strong, the owner is willing to spend what it takes to win, and their weakness is easily identifiable—hitting. Angel fans – who supported the team by filling over 3.4 million seats last year—expected a big splash in the free agent market. The obvious target was third baseman Aramis Ramirez, but he turned out to be unavailable, resigning with the Cubs almost immediately after exercising his opt out clause.

As spring training starts, the Angels have added only Gary Matthews Jr. and Shea Hillenbrand to improve the offense. Right now it’s questionable if those two players improve the team at all with the Matthews situation described above, and the fact that Shea Hillenbrand hits like Shea Hillenbrand.

The Angels had an opportunity to build a 2007 team that would be an overwhelming favorite for the West, and a legitimate World Series contender. They don’t have that now. They may be favored to win the West, but only because the division is somewhat weak. If the Angels fail to win the division in 2007, there will be pressure to find a new general manager. If Matthews fails in center field, it will be the second time in three years Stoneman signed a disaster at that position, though Steve Finley was nowhere near as expensive a mistake. In both 2005 and 2007 the Angels passed on an outfielder who would be a legitimate middle of the order bat, JD Drew.

In Stoneman’s favor, he does know pitching. He has built perhaps the best pitching staff in the American League. The farm system has been one of the best in baseball during his tenure. The Angels have had more success under Stoneman than during any period in their history. Replacing Stoneman may create more problems than it solves. My prediction is that Stoneman will keep his job whether the Angels finish first as expected, or fall short like last season. It will take a disaster of a season to force a change.

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