Mike Scioscia and Arte Moreno
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim come into the 2012 season with so much promise that it is hard to remember a past Angels team offering so much hope to their fans.
Last season’s Angels team suffered from poor hitting at the catcher and outfield positions, poor choices for a fifth starter, a lack of middle relief and an inexperienced closer who looked equally good and bad at times.
In 2012, the Angels have improved at catcher, improved their offense and increased their depth at every position. The names Pujols, Wilson and Iannetta are the root of the team’s improvement and the cause of hope.
This is a position-by-position breakdown of the Angels 2012 squad.
Torii Hunter and Albert Pujols
The Angels will start Vernon Wells in left, Peter Bourjos in center and Torii Hunter in right. Bobby Abreu will be back up at all three positions until Mike Trout is healthy enough to rejoin the team. A virus delayed his spring, so he is doing a minor-league stint.
The Angels are considering keeping Alexi Amarista, a utility infielder who can play six positions, ready to play in the outfield. His production in the spring has earned him a spot despite Abreu’s $8 million salary serving as an obstacle. By the time this article is printed, Angel management will have made a tough decision on whom to keep. My bet is that the Angels are not ready to absorb Abreu’s salary after releasing him.
Wells is near the end of his career, as is Abreu, and it will be interesting to see if they can hold off a young Mike Trout or Alexi Amarista for playing time.
I can also see the Angels grooming Mark Trumbo to play left field to get his bat into the lineup. Although Trumbo is slated to play first and third, there will be little chance of playing much at first with Pujols heading to the Hall of Fame, nor third base, where Alberto Callaspo is an excellent defensive third basemen whose bat has been surprisingly effective.
Angel Middle Infielders
Eric Aybar and Howie Kendrick, an ever-improving set of defenders, are slated to play shortstop and second base. Aybar, a Gold Glove winner, could be joined by Kendrick as a Gold Glover based upon his ongoing defensive improvement at second.
Alexi Amarista and Maicer Izturis could be starters elsewhere and will play plenty of games, providing rest breaks for the starters. Both can hit and run. It will be hard for the Angels to find enough playing time to make them happy.
This is a good defensive infield that can also hit. Aybar and Kendrick’s OBP hitting leadoff and second will be a major factor in Pujols’ offensive statistics this year. No one in baseball wants to pitch to Pujols with runners on base.
Albert Pujols and Alberto Callaspo are slated to start at the corners. The only question for Angel fans is what Pujols’ batting average will be and how many home runs will he hit.
They are both excellent defensive players, with Pujols a Gold Glove winner in the past. Callaspo’s game seems underrated whether on offense or defense.
Mark Trumbo is working out at third base, and Kendrys Morales is available to play first if necessary. So far, third base has been an adventure for Trumbo. But Trumbo proved his worth at first base last year and can play it when Pujols needs a rest. Right now, the Angels would be happy if Morales can just DH without any recurrence of his nagging injuries.
Collectively, with the middle infielders, it will be difficult for the opposition to get on base without cleanly hitting the ball through the infield. The Angels infield defense will be among the best in both leagues.
The corner infielders should produce a high collective batting average, hitting with power and driving in a ton of RBIs. Few teams can rival the depth and offensive output of the Angels corner infielders. It will be one of their strengths.
In 2011, the Angels were burdened by their commitment to poor hitting catcher Jeff Mathis, who singlehandedly cost the Angeles several games last year with his nonexistent hitting. Trading for Chris Iannetta, a career .310 hitter with runners in scoring position, may be the single most important addition to this team. The Black Hole in the lineup left with Mathis.
Bobby Wilson and Hank Conger battled for the backup position, with Wilson getting the edge based upon his defense and throwing ability. But Conger hit well in the spring and will be a starting catcher one day in the league based upon his ability to hit. In the meantime, he was sent to AAA to improve his throwing.
Any production from the catcher position will be an upgrade from Mathis’s sorry statistics. For Angels fans, the pain of watching Mathis try to hit was just too much to bear for another season.
The starting rotation will be Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and C.J. Wilson. It will be a battle between Garrett Richards and Jerome Williams for the fifth starter spot all season. Since injuries are always a factor, it is likely that both will get their opportunities to prove themselves.
It is possible that LaTroy Hawkins will enter the mix and double as a starter and middle reliever. The sky is the limit for this staff, and only injury can derail what many consider to be the best starting rotation in the league. This is where Richards, Williams and Hawkins' health and productivity are so important to the Angels’ success in 2012.
And because the Angels’ lineup looks more like Murderer’s Row than last year’s anemic group, Angels starters may last more innings because of big leads. There is nothing like increased offensive output and big leads to make it easier to manage a pitching staff.
Kevin Jepsen and Hank Conger
This is arguably the most unsettled part of the Angels roster. Last season, the Angels middle relievers were horrific, giving up one lead after another. It must have been painful for Angel starters to see their efforts go for naught.
This year, it remains to be seen whether Kevin Jepsen, Rich Thompson and Scott Downs have improved their pitching. Last season, all three were a disaster from a fan’s point of view.
It is not clear from their spring activities whether Hisanori Takahashi and Michael Kohn will contribute anything. Takahashi will probably work short innings late in games, while Kohn is a true middle reliever looking to be a starter someday.
The Angels’ success may be determined by the effectiveness of their middle relievers in late July and August when the temperature rises, long road trips take their toll and starters seem to tire.
This group is on shaky ground, leaving Angel fans to worry. It will be interesting to see which ones rise to the occasion.
In 2011, the Angels lacked an experienced closer to fill the departed shoes of Frankie Rodriguez and Brian Fuentes. The drop in Angels wins last year was a mixture of poor hitting late in games undermined by poor middle relief and an ineffective closer.
Jordan Walden was good at times and horrible at others. Walden’s 2012 improvement will be essential to Angels in close games. The Angels resurrected Jason Isringhausen from retirement to work with the younger pitchers and hopefully contribute some stability to the staff. Nowhere will his input matter more than with Angel closers.
It is hard to measure what impact Bobby Cassavah will have on the staff until he has returned to form after an injury-delayed spring. His health and productivity will determine whether he is a middle reliever or a closer.
Although we have reviewed the potential bench players individually by position, it is important to look at them as a whole and their effect on the team.
The flexibility of Alexi Amarista and Mark Trumbo will go a long way in giving the Angels’ flexibility in substituting and filling spots in the event of injury. Trumbo can play first, third and the outfield, while Amarista can play all of the infield positions and the outfield.
Morales is available to back up both Pujols and Trumbo at first, if needed. Trumbo can be the DH if Morales’ injury cuts into his playing time. At times, the Angels can rest Pujols by moving him to DH while Trumbo plays in the field. With Pujols, Trumbo and Morales splitting time at first and DH, the Angels are set for some time. For Pujols, who played in the NL all his career, hitting DH on normal rest days will be a dream come true.
I still think either Trumbo or Mike Trout will end up playing left field because of Vernon Wells' poor and undisciplined hitting. If not, the Angels will have two potential starters in Trout and Amarista waiting to contribute. If either Iannetta or Wilson is injured, Hank Conger is just a telephone call away.
The Angels bench ranks among the best in baseball.
Angels 2002 World Series Winner
Pennants are not won on paper. They are won on the field. The Angels have all the ingredients to have a memorable season despite being in the same division as the two-time pennant winning Texas Rangers.
But each player must play up to their ability and hopefully improve their career stats. It will also be interesting to see how Mike Scioscia uses the pieces available to him while maintaining a happy bench.
The Angels’ fate will turn on the health and effectiveness of their starters and whether their middle relievers rise to the occasion and perform far better than last season. The same applies to closers. It will be a roller-coaster ride for most Angel fans until someone in the bullpen inspires confidence in their manager, their team and the fans.
Until that time, the Angels will look good only on paper. The old adage that the proof is in the pudding applies more to baseball than any other sport. The grind of 162 games on the arms of pitching staffs is never easy to predict.
The pudding starts baking against the Kansas City Royals on Friday, April 6, 2012.