Five questions: Los Angeles Angels

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Angels farmhand faces A’s right fielder Travis Buck at Tempe Diablo Stadium in Tempe, Ariz.

Once again, the Angels head into the season as favorites in the American League West Division. Last year they won the division by 21 games, but repeating looks like it may be a bit more of a challenge. The Angels didn’t become stronger in the offseason. Losing Mark Teixiera, Frankie Rodriguez, Jon Garland and Garret Anderson while adding Brian Fuentes and Bobby Abreu can best be described as damage control. Meanwhile, their rivals to the north have added Matt Holliday, Jason Giambi, Orlando Cabrera and Nomar Garciaparra.

I traveled to Arizona in search of the answers to a few questions on the Angels, though my answers probably wouldn’t be any different if I had just watched the games on my computer.

Who will be the Angels’ fifth starter?

They made no effort to re-sign Garland, and did not seek a replacement through the free agent market. The best thing you can say about Garland is that he eats innings. He wasn’t especially good last year, but with a group of unproven pitchers the Angels could be looking at a lot of early deficits in this spot, and if so, Garland’s 200 innings of a 4.90 ERA will look pretty good in comparison.

The front runners are Dustin Moseley, Nick Adenhart and Shane Loux. Their projections don’t inspire a lot of hope.

Moseley has shuttled between Anaheim and Salt Lake City for the last few years, filling in when someone got hurt. His stuff is unimpressive, and he’s coming off a terrible season in which his Triple-A ERA (6.94) was even worse than in the majors (6.79). Adenhart has the best potential of this group, with a mid-90s fastball and good looking curveball, but last year his command was nowhere near ready, and he also struggled in Triple-A. Loux came out of nowhere last year to pitch well in Triple-A and in 16 innings for the Angels. He didn’t pitch in the minors in 2007, and last pitched in the majors in 2003. Stranger things have happened, but he has to be considered a longshot. Loux has the best CHONE ERA projection of the group, a not-too-inspiring 5.10.

There is hope is that Kelvim Escobar can return to form and solve this problem. He has yet to pitch in a game this spring, but has looked good throwing off a mound. He was a great pitcher in 2007, but it’s anybody’s guess how effective he can be returning from injury. Probably, the Angels will have trouble every fifth day, and need a lot of innings from the bullpen.

How badly is Ervin Santana hurt? Do the Angels need to find two starters?

Santana is out with a sprained ligament in his elbow. It is impossible to tell how bad the injury is. Until he tries to rest it and work his way back into pitching form, he and the Angels’ medical staff will not know if he’s a few appearances away from Tommy John surgery or if he’ll pick up where he left off last season.

Even if the Angels know something more certain on his status, we can’t necessarily believe anything they say. There is no obligation in baseball (unlike football) to offer the media full disclosure on injuries. We’ve all seen situations where what the team reports is much less serious than reality. A team may even have incentive not to report the true seriousness of an injury, so as not to appear too desperate if it shops for a replacement. I have no idea if Santana’s season will look like John Lackey last year, or A.J. Burnett 2003. If he is seriously hurt, I don’t think the Angels will have enough pitching to stay on top of the West.

Will Brandon Wood get a chance to play? If so, where?

Wood is having a great spring training. He’s hitting .368 with a .711 slugging percentage, and more importantly, has struck out only four times to go with three walks. Of course, it’s only spring training, but last spring he struck out 22 times with zero walks before striking out 43 times against only four walks in 150 big league at bats. It appears to me that some improvement is real. His problem has been making contact, but when he does make contact good things happen.

His best chance for playing time would be at third base if the Angels decide to deal Chone Figgins for pitching. While he also plays shortstop, Wood’s range is substantially less than that of Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis. The Angels pitchers are probably going to need all the defensive help they can get.

Gary Matthews Jr.: that is one bad contract. Any chance he gets traded?

Matthews is healthy and does not want to accept a part time role as he had last year. At the same time, his performance has not been good enough to warrant more playing time. He’s got the great Vladimir Guerrero, the very good Torii Hunter and Bobby Abreu, and the decent Juan Rivera ahead of him on the outfield/DH depth chart. I’m sure the Angels would be happy giving the fifth outfielder duties to fan favorite Reggie Willits, who has the benefit of sharing a name with former Angels great Reggie Jackson and looks a bit like 2002 hero David Eckstein.

Matthews has a no-trade clause, but if he’s serious about wanting to play every day and the Angels can find a team that would take him, I would be very surprised if he let that stand in his way. The best fit for a trade would be for the Angels to take on another bad contract, preferably a starting pitcher. One possibility is Jose Contreras from the White Sox. Contreras will make $10 million this season, so the Angels would have to kick in some money for Matthews’ 2010 and 2011 seasons. The White Sox could probably use him in center field, and the two teams seem to have a working relationship, as last season they made a mutually beneficial hitter-for-pitcher swap.

Another option is trading him to the Yankees for Kei Igawa. Igawa has three years and $12 million on his contract, so once again the Angels would have to eat some money on the deal. As terrible as Igawa has been in New York, his minor league stats have been pretty good. He’d be a gamble, a lottery ticket for the back end of the rotation, but potentially more useful to the Angels than Matthews. The Yankees might be convinced to do the deal if they are unimpressed with the competition between Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner.

How much of a challenge will the A’s provide?

Last year the A’s pitched incredibly well for the first half but couldn’t score, and in the second half they did nothing. Their offense is vastly improved, since they have added a superstar in Holliday and an old Giambi who still can provide walks and homers. Garciaparra should be an offensive upgrade on Jack Hannahan, assuming he doesn’t join Eric Chavez on the DL, and Cabrera is an upgrade at short.

The Angels will need to be careful when playing against Cabrera, as he probably knows all of Mike Scioscia’s tricks. He’s not going to be caught asleep when the Angels try some super-aggressive baserunning, as just two years ago he was the guy taking those extra bases. Orlando is a very smart player, a guy who I think will wind up managing someday, and when these teams go head to head, expect Orlando to fill his new teammates in on all of the old game plans.

The Angels have five guys who they can feel confident in every time they get the ball. The critical question is just how many starts they can get out of those five, since two (Escobar and Santana) will start the season on the DL. Beyond that, the Angels have no pitchers you really want to give any starts to, in an ideal world. The A’s have a different situation. They have plenty of promising young pitchers who they would like to give chances to, but nobody like John Lackey, nobody you can positively count on.

I’m picking the Angels to finish just ahead of the A’s in another season of close ballgames. Unlike the 2002-2006 seasons, though, there will be a lot more slugfests and fewer pitching duels in the head-to-head matchups.

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