Five questions: Los Angeles Angelsby Sean Smith
March 30, 2010
1. Will Brandon Wood keep the third base job?
Brandon Wood put himself on the top prospect map five years ago, hitting 43 homers in the California League at age 20. It's been a long wait for both him and his fans to see what he can do with regular big league playing time. He's spent most of the past three years at Triple-A and has hit poorly in 236 big league plate appearances. In his defense, his playing time was very sporadic; his typical pattern was to sit for a full week, get one start, sit another week, get an at-bat at the end of the game, etc.
The big hole in his game has always been strikeouts, but he has made tremendous progress in cutting down on those: Over the past four years in the minors his strikeout rate has gone from 33 percent to 27, to 26, and finally to 21 percent of his at-bats last season. Given a full opportunity, I think he has improved to the point where he can keep his batting average above .250. The downside to a shorter swing is that his power slipped a bit last year as well, from 31 homers to 22 in about the same number of Triple-A at-bats. On defense, all reports from Angels camp are good for the former shortstop, and I arrived at a spring training game just in time to watch him record all three outs in an inning.
In another organization, I could see the team telling him not to worry about the strikeouts and just try to crush the ball. In that case, his upside would be similar to Mark Reynolds in Arizona. That is not going to happen with the Angels; manager Mike Scioscia will not tolerate that many strikeouts. A better bet is a career that looks a bit like that of Joe Crede, who also put himself on the prospect map at age 20 before stalling and getting three years of Triple-A. Crede settled in as a .250/.300/.450 hitter before back problems hurt his career. With some luck and better health, Wood can establish himself at that level and develop a bit beyond that: .270/.330/.500 could be his peak ability.
2. Who will lead off?The Angels will miss Chone Figgins, his 101 walks and his 42 steals in the leadoff role. There is nobody who will be as perfect for the leadoff spot on the roster. Erick Aybar will get the first shot at the job. If Aybar can repeat his excellent .312/.353/.423 season from last year, he will be a perfectly acceptable, if not ideal, leadoff hitter. I'd love to see Aybar keep the batting average and take 100 walks too. I'd also love to win the lottery.
I worry about Aybar trying to be Figgins and messing up his game. He's an aggressive hitter, and needs to stay with the approach that got him to the level of a starting major league shortstop. I know small sample size warnings and the meaninglessness of spring training stats, but Aybar so far has taken six walks (against 34 at-bats) and is hitting only .235. I hope he doesn't mess himself up trying to be something he's not.
If Aybar can't handle the leadoff role, the best candidate on the team would be Maicer Izturis, who is very similar to Figgins except he'd steal only a half or a third as many bases. Izturis probably will get a lot of playing time against right handers in any case, with Howie Kendrick and Wood alternating days off. In the No. 2 spot the Angels have an excellent on-base man in Bobby Abreu, so even if leadoff proves problematic, the middle of the order will not starve for RBI opportunities.
|Will the Angels survive without Figgins at the top of the lineup? (Sara Smith)|
3. Will the pitching be good enough to win another division championship?The Angels could have a top starting rotation if Ervin Santana and Scott Kazmir put arm trouble behind them and regain their 2008 forms. Santana struck out 214 against only 47 walks that year, and Kazmir struck out more than a batter per inning each year from 2006 to 2008. Joel Pineiro doesn't strike out anybody, but his groundball tendency will meet 2009's best infield when it came to turning double plays. The Angels just have to hope he doesn't turn into Carlos Silva (whose 2007 season with the Twins looks a lot like the low strikeout/low walk/ground-balling season Pineiro just completed). Jered Weaver's stuff has never suggested dominance, but he strikes out three for every walk and has proven he can handle a major league starter's workload. As such, he projects as one of the 30 best starters in the game. Joe Saunders has not pitched as well as his 48-22 career record suggests but is a solid, dependable pitcher who can keep you in the game.
The upside is two aces, a 15-game winner in Weaver, and two guys at the back of the rotation around .500. But I can't predict pitcher health. Serious injuries could mean subpar performance (like Santana last year up to August) and more starts from Matt Palmer and youngsters Trevor Bell and Sean O'Sullivan. A healthy staff should win the division, an injured one could make 2010 a rebuilding year.
4. Do the Angels have enough depth to survive injuries?They have some depth, but not as much as in years past. Last year, after the starting infield they had Izturis as a super sub, and if more than one replacement was needed Wood and Sean Rodriguez were crushing the ball in Triple-A. This year they can stand one infield injury or major slump without losing too much production, but once Maicer is in the starting lineup, the safety net is not there. Freddy Sandoval might be the next utility infielder; he's a 27-year-old who makes decent contact and plays mostly first and third, with a few games per year as an emergency second baseman.
In the outfield, Reggie Willits brings speed and hustle to the park, but has absolutely no power in his bat. Terry Evans might make the team as a fifth outfielder. He's now 28, has shown some speed and power in Triple-A but has no idea of the strike zone. The Angels don't want either one playing significant time in the outfield, but with the ages of Abreu (36), Torii Hunter (34) and Hideki Matsui (36) they probably will be forced to.
Peter Bourjos could represent the best backup option in the outfield. The 23-year-old is unproven with the bat but has great speed and instincts as a center fielder. If Bourjos develops quickly, he could change the whole makeup of the team, hurting a bit at the plate but greatly improving the outfield defense. I expect Bourjos to battle for a starting big league job in 2011, possibly taking over a corner with Matsui leaving and Abreu sliding into the DH role. (I don't expect him to move Hunter out of center even if he proves to have more range.) Replacing Abreu's glove with that of Bourjos would save the team about 30 runs, and I don't think that is an exaggeration at all.
5. The Angels have beaten preseason projections regularly. Why is that?They have done a few things right recently, and one is to score more runs than you'd expect given their number of hits, walks and extra base hits. The main reason is because they have hit so well with runners in scoring position. I don't expect that to continue to such a degree, because I don't understand why any player would become a better hitter just because of the situation. If you have the ability to hit .320 when it really counts, why hit only .280 when nobody is on base? You should be hitting your best all the time so the guy behind you can hit with runners in scoring position.
Another reason they score a few more runs is aggressive base-running—the Angels were far in the lead when it comes to going first to third or second to home. I don't know if we can expect that to continue, looking at the players. The Angels' best baserunner of the last half decade is now in Seattle. Right now, the Angels have these players on the bases:
- Speedy: Erick Aybar
- Slightly above average: Kendrick, Izturis
- Old guys who are smart baserunners and can pick their spots: Abreu, Hunter
- Average speed: Wood
- Run well (for a catcher): Jeff Mathis, Mike Napoli
- God-awful slow and they know it: Matsui, Kendry Morales
- God-awful slow and runs into way too many outs: Juan Rivera
With that crew, I have a hard time seeing anything more than a slightly above average base-running team. The 2010 Angels do have good power, all the way down to Napoli, Kendrick and Wood in the last three spots, and will probably play more station-to-station ball than Angels fans are used to seeing.
There is the matter of arranging their runs in such a way that they win more games than you expect from runs scored and runs allowed. Some say that a team with a well-leveraged bullpen can pull that off. That describes the 2008 Angels, who lost some real lopsided games, getting terrible mop-up relief. But when the game was close, they could hand the ball to Francisco Rodriguez: He set the single-season save record. Last season, the Angels beat their Pythagorean record from the start of the season to the end, despite having an absolutely horrible bullpen the first two months.
I don't expect some of these trends of the last few seasons to continue. To win the division in 2010, the Angels will need to score about 100 runs more than they allow. Chris Jaffe's recent book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers, measures managers by five categories: individual hitters (do the hitters play better or worse than their projections?), individual pitchers (same, but for pitchers), Pythagenpat difference (winning more games than expected from runs scored and allowed), team offense (getting more runs than expected from a combination of walks, hits, homers, steals, etc.) and team defense (allowing fewer based on those inputs). Believe it or not, Scioscia was about dead average in Pythagenpat (the book used only data through 2006. Scioscia's best rating was individual pitchers, +214 runs or about 30 per season.
I don't know if that trend will continue, but it makes sense. Scioscia may be better than most at getting a pitcher out before he runs out of gas, even if it makes him unpopular (think of John Lackey's final walk from an Angels mound in the ALCS). He never overworks his pitchers, rarely allowing any to throw 120 pitches, and, according to Jaffe, has never had a starting pitcher throw 225 innings.
As a defensive-minded catcher himself, Scioscia is very tough on his catchers, and if they fall into bad habits with their game-calling or receiving he does not hesitate to pull a .500 slugging bat from the lineup and insert a career .200 hitter. I don't know how much of an effect catcher game-calling can have, but I'm willing to consider that Scioscia does.
References: Baseball-reference.com, Evaluating Baseball's Managers