Success has a way of spoiling a person, don’t you think?
You get a little taste of the good times and all of a sudden, when they are taken away from you, even for a little while, you feel worse than you did back before the good times even began.
Take the Angels, for example.
Their first 41 years were marked with equal parts futility and disappointment, with a healthy dose of heartbreak thrown in for good measure. Fans felt the pain for sure, but it was manageable because expectations were low.
But then came 2002 and, with it, a World Series Championship. That title kick-started an eight-year run of success that included five A.L. West titles in six seasons and had every Angels fan beaming with pride while making red the new color of choice in Orange County.
More importantly, it allowed the organization and its fan base to permanently shed whatever negative labels had been previously attached to the franchise while at the same time raising expectation levels across the board.
That is why in Angels Country there is only one word to describe the past two years in which the Angels finished second to the Texas Rangers and missed out on the playoffs: unacceptable.
Fortunately, that feeling permeates throughout the organization, from the players and coaches all the way to the front office and the owner’s box. Everyone is determined to nip this little playoff drought in the bud and help the team reclaim A.L. West supremacy while relegating the Rangers back to the second-place status they occupied so well in the past.
Here are 10 keys to doing just that.
1. A blockbuster sequel to “Kendrys Morales: MVP Candidate”
You remember Morales, don’t you?
C’mon, the guy who hit .306 with 34 home runs, 43 doubles, and 108 RBIs in 2009, at the age of 26, and then was on pace to match those numbers in 2010 before shattering his ankle in May while jumping on home plate after hitting a walk-off grand slam?
Yeah, that guy. Well guess what? He’s baaaaaack.
Lost in the hoopla of the Albert Pujols signing is the quiet return of Morales. The Angels are not saying much publicly, other than there being no specific timetable for his return; but you have to wonder what their internal expectations are for the slugger.
The problem is the nature of the injury and the nearly two-year layoff that accompanied it. There’s really no precedent for it, at least not one I can think of. How it affects him physically remains to be seen. And who knows how Morales will be from a confidence standpoint?
There’s no question if the Angels are going to overtake the Rangers, they need to increase their run production. Having a healthy Morales—still only 28 years old and entering his prime—producing anywhere close to his capabilities for anything close to a full season will go a long way towards helping them do just that.
2. Well, Well, Wells, What do we have here?
I don’t know how much, if anything, Vernon Wells has left. I have to believe he can play better than 2011, his first year with the Angels, when he posted career lows in nearly every offensive category.
Still, he’s only 33, for crying out loud. He appears healthy. Even in the post-steroid era, we’ve seen guys at that age rake all the time. He’s never going to live up to his massive contract, so either he goes into Jerry Dipoto’s office and gives a large portion of that money back or he learns how to better deal with the pressure and expectations that come with it.
Many an athlete has improved from visiting a sports psychologist to work out some kinks in their emotional armor. If Wells’ problems are indeed of the mental variety from pressing too much, he should seriously consider talking to a professional about it.
Otherwise, a trip to the Fountain of Youth would be well advised, because while we can all fantasize about Mike Trout earning a starting outfield spot coming out of spring training and putting up Rookie-of-the-Year-type numbers, the reality is that at this point Wells is the Halos’ best hope for power production from the left field spot. If the Angels are going to keep up with the Rangers, they cannot afford to be giving away outs, particularly from the spot in the lineup that Wells would likely occupy.
If Scioscia can pencil in Wells in left field and have him produce something close to his career averages from the five- or six-hole, especially early in the season so he can build some confidence, they’ll be in great shape to match Texas offensively.
3. He can beat me, but can he beat Yu?
Another key to the Angels being able to reclaim the West is for C.J. Wilson, the Halos’ new pitching acquisition, to outperform Yu Darvish, the Rangers’ shiny new arm.
The Angels’ rotation should once again be dominant in 2012; but the team’s signing of Wilson was supposed to weaken Texas at the same time it was strengthening Los Angeles.
When the Rangers countered by adding Darvish, it potentially negated the impact of Wilson’s departure.
Now the difference between who ends up with the better rotation could come down to who has the better season between Wilson and Darvish. Wilson was 31-15 with a 3.14 ERA in Texas during his two seasons as a starter there. Darvish dominated in Japan, and the Rangers are certainly paying him as if he is going to do the same here.
If Wilson at the very least can hold his own against Darvish, then the rest of the Angels rotation should be able to handle that of the Rangers, giving L.A. one of the keys they will need to win the West.
4. Who’s on first?
Not who’s playing first base on defense but rather who is standing on it when the big man comes up to bat.
Part of the reason the Cardinals were so successful during the Pujols era was they did a great job keeping first base occupied when he was at the plate. As a team last season, they had a .341 OBP, tops in the National League. That meant fewer opportunities to pitch around Pujols and we all know what happens when you have to pitch to him.
The Angels, on the other hand, posted an anemic .313 OBP as a team in 2011, 11th in the 14-team American League. That simply will not cut it in 2012, especially at the top of the order.
Whether it’s Peter Bourjos, Maicer Izturis and/or Howie Kendrick, whomever Scioscia decides to bat in front of Pujols needs to set the table. Their ability to do so at a much-improved rate from last season will be a key to the Angels winning the West.
5. Cut out the B.S.
And by B.S. I mean blown saves, which the team had a staggering amount of last season.
Led by Jordan Walden’s league-leading 10, the Angels had 25 blown saves out of 64 opportunities in 2011, a cringe-worthy 61 percent conversion rate. Only Toronto and Houston were worse.
Contrast that to the likes of the Phillies (85 percent), Tigers (84 percent), Diamondbacks (82 percent), Yankees (75 percent), Rays (73 percent) and Brewers (71 percent). That’s six of the top eight in save percentage last year, and six of the eight playoff teams.
Historically, teams that make the postseason tend to lock down games when they have the lead after eight innings. During most of the Angels’ streak of five division titles in six years and their World Series year, they had either Troy Percival or K-Rod in his prime in the closer role, and they frequently ranked at or near the top in that category. (Brian Fuentes closed in 2009 and was at 90 percent in save conversion percentage.)
That is not a coincidence. In fact, it’s one of the pillars of Angels Baseball.
So whether it’s Walden or someone else, the Angels better make sure they have a closer who can actually close the door on the other team when presented with a ninth-inning lead. Doing so is a key to the Angels being able to leapfrog the Rangers and back into first place.
6. You have to get ahead to stay ahead (in head-to-head.)
If you were running a marathon against your rival, how cool would it be if every so often during the race when you took a step forward, they took a step backward? That’s what it’s like during the lengthy baseball season when you play your division rivals head-to-head.
The easiest way to catch up to and/or pull ahead of a division foe is simply to beat them when you play them. I mean, what good does it do to rip off a nine-game winning streak if your rival goes 8-1 in the process?
I bring up this obvious fact because the Angels and Rangers played each other 19 times last season. The Angels were 7-12 in those games. Flip that around and all of a sudden you have a much closer race.
This year the Angels get five weeks to work off the rust against the rest of the league before they start playing the Rangers in mid-May. If they are able to do to Texas in 2012 what the Rangers did to them in 2011, it could be a key to winning the division.
7. Operation Trumbo Drop.
As in, will Mark Trumbo’s proposed move to third base result in more errors?
I’ve already covered possible trade scenarios for the Angels if they decide to move him—which I am still in favor of, by the way—but certainly not for anybody’s fifth starter.
If they keep him, however, they need to find a regular place in the lineup for him—but not somewhere he becomes a defensive liability.
I’d be great if Trumbo-to-third-base happens; but I also hear suggestions to keep him on the bench as a backup if the transition doesn’t go well. I disagree with that.
Look, this isn’t basketball, where a talented bench player can get quality playing time and help the team on a nightly basis. And it certainly isn’t football, where backups are literally one play away from the starting lineup.
A Kendrys Morales-type injury aside, opportunities for backups to have a meaningful impact in this game are few and far between. It’s a streaky game, and you need to be playing regularly in order to contribute, especially when you get hot.
The typical life of a bench player is a pinch-hit appearance here and there, a spot start to give someone a breather and a whole lot of sunflower seeds and high-fives. That is not what you do with someone who finished second in Rookie of the Year voting last season. Getting Trumbo’s bat in the lineup somewhere, whether at third base or another position he can defend adequately, is a key to the Angels reclaiming the West.
8. Dominate the “Par 5's”.
You can often tell more about a team’s playoff prospects by viewing how they perform against the weak sisters in their league as opposed to how they measure up against other playoff-caliber teams.
It typically takes 95-plus wins to earn a division title, and you’re not going to pile up those wins banging heads with the likes of the Yankees, Red Sox and Tigers of the world. You do that against the Orioles, A’s, Mariners, Royals and whomever else is struggling that particular year.
Last season, the Angels were a pedestrian 45-36 against A.L. teams who finished the year below .500, including an 8-11 mark against the A’s and a 3-6 record against the Royals.
The Rangers, on the other hand, were 55-23 against those same teams, including a 12-6 record against the A’s and a 15-4 record versus the Mariners.
It’s like the par-five holes at Augusta—those are the scoring holes. And if you have designs on winning a green jacket, you need to shoot for eagles when you play them; but make sure at the very least you come away with birdies.
The same mentality applies to those teams that are, ahem, rebuilding. Think of them as baseball’s par-fives. If the Angels can dominate them like Tiger Woods back in the day, it could be a key to another division title.
9. Let’s Make a (Deadline) Deal.
I’m typically not a fan of deadline deals because they tend to not work out for the team acquiring that “final piece” for the stretch run. I would make an exception for a reliever, however, particularly a situational or late-inning setup pitcher.
Importing someone from outside the division whom your rival has not faced much all season is a great way to add another weapon to your bullpen. And I’m not talking about a perennial All-Star, either—just somebody who’s been quietly effective for his team and would come relatively cheap from a trade compensation standpoint.
Pitchers typically have the upper hand the first time they go through a lineup; so imagine if the Angels make a deadline deal for someone like the Astros’ Mark Melancon and the first time the Rangers square off against him is in the seventh or eighth inning of a one-run ballgame sometime in September. That’s the kind of chess move a championship team makes. And if the Angels pull off something like that, it could prove to be a key to reclaiming the West.
10. Mo' Betta' Iannetta.
OK, so newly acquired backstop Chris Iannetta doesn’t exactly knock the cover off the ball, but he’s definitely an improvement over Jeff Mathis, right?
But with Angel castoff Mike Napoli over in Texas doing his best impersonation of Mike Piazza at the dish, it would be nice if Iannetta resembled something more than the automatic out we’ve come to expect from the position lately. That’s not too much to ask, is it?
If the Angels can get enough production out of Iannetta or whoever is behind the plate to turn the catcher spot from a liability to an asset, then they can negate some of the gaping advantage Texas and Napoli are expecting to have over them at that position. Doing so could be a key towards dethroning the two-time defending A.L. West champions.