The Angels have Josh Hamilton. Now what?
The Los Angeles Angels will head into the 2013 season with sky-high expectations. At the back of their minds will be the knowledge of what happened the last time they entered a season with a sky-high expectations.
That would be the 2012 campaign. It was preceded by the signings of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, and the end result was a mere 89 wins, a third-place finish in the AL West and no postseason berth. And there was no joy in Mud...er, Anaheim.
If you're the optimistic sort, you're thinking that the Angels are due for better luck in 2013. Certainly the acquisition of Josh Hamilton will help them avoid further bad fortune, anyway.
If you're the pessimistic sort, you're thinking that there's a lot more that can go wrong with this team than can go right.
You're both right. There's a best- and worst-case scenario for the Angels in 2013, just as there is for every team across Major League Baseball.
Assuming the Angels are done adding impact players to their roster, here's a comprehensive (or "long") look at what their best- and worst-case scenarios look like right now.
The Angels were a good team to begin with, but they tossed themselves into the World Series favorites discussion the minute they signed Hamilton.
The idea is to get a couple MVP-caliber seasons out of Hamilton, like the one he had in 2010 and the one he was on his way to having in 2012 before he went into a funk.
That funk is the elephant in the room. It's possible that Hamilton is already done as an elite player, and that his showing down the stretch in 2012 was his death rattle.
Instead of giving the Angels an OPS in the neighborhood of 1.000 and 35-40 home runs, Hamilton could pick up where he left off in 2012. He had a 1.321 OPS and 18 home runs on May 13, but proceeded to post just an .816 OPS and hit 25 home runs the rest of the way.
This will happen if Hamilton struggles with the same kind of nagging injuries he dealt with down the stretch and if his plate discipline continues to be a mess. The Angels will know they're in trouble if Hamilton leads the league in swinging-strike percentage again (see FanGraphs).
Albert Pujols may prove incapable of picking up the slack. It's unlikely that he'll be as helpless as he was in the first six weeks of 2012, but he may not be able to put up better numbers than the .859 OPS and 30 homers he managed in the end. His career is certainly headed in that direction, as his OPS and power production have dropped each of the last four seasons.
Mark Trumbo may also fail to provide relief. He was one of the best hitters in the majors in the first half of the 2012 season, but then managed just a .630 OPS and 10 home runs in the second half.
Trumbo may be just the latest victim of the Home Run Derby curse, but his decline could have also been a case of him simply reverting to his true self. He has power, but his breakout first half in 2012 came after he managed a mere .768 OPS in 2011. That might be who he really is.
Meanwhile at the top of the lineup, Mike Trout could plummet back to earth far worse than he did in August and September in 2012, when he hit .287 with an .883 OPS after ending July with a .353 average and a 1.019 OPS.
There's still room for Trout to keep going down. Pitchers could rattle his impressive eye by pitching him differently than they did in 2012, and a decreased BABIP could further damage his on-base prowess.
Trout's glove should still be elite no matter what happens at the plate, and so should Peter Bourjos' glove in center field. Where things are more iffy is whether Bourjos will be able to hit well enough to hold on to his starting job. He hit well when he had a full-time job in 2011, but pitchers could exploit his lack of patience (5.6 career BB%) better in 2013 than they did then.
If these potential pitfalls become a reality in 2013, then the Angels' offense won't be the explosive unit it's expected to be. It will be a middle-of-the-road offense, or worse.
Unfortunately, things could be even worse for the team's pitching staff.
The Angels have one of baseball's elite pitchers in right-handed ace Jered Weaver, who is coming off a 20-win season that saw him finish with a 2.81 ERA and an AL-best 1.02 WHIP. However, he was limited to only 30 starts by back and arm problems.
What if these nagging injuries give way to something worse? What if Weaver suffers a more serious injury that will take him out of the starting rotation for an extended period of time?
If that happens, it will be up to C.J. Wilson, Jason Vargas, Tommy Hanson and Joe Blanton to pick up the slack, and all four of them have question marks of their own.
Wilson is a solid innings-eater, but the Angels should fear the return of his post-All-Star break self. In 16 starts, he had an ERA over 5.00 and was knocked around to the tune of an .807 OPS.
As for Vargas, the Angels are trusting that he'll pitch just as well at Angel Stadium of Anaheim as he did at Safeco Field, where he had a 2.74 ERA in 2012. The concern with him is that his numbers away from Safeco were terrible, as he had a 4.78 ERA and surrendered 26 home runs on the road.
The Angels are trusting that Hanson will be able to return to where he was before the All-Star break in 2011, when he had a 10-4 record and a 2.44 ERA. He hasn't been the same since then, as shoulder trouble in 2011 gave way to a poor 2012 season that saw Hanson post a 4.48 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP.
Then there's Blanton, and the fear with him is that he'll be himself. He has a 4.79 ERA over the last three seasons, in part because opponents have slugged .461 against him.
The Angels' bullpen could prove to be just as shaky as their starting rotation. It's been rebuilt this offseason, but it's still not without question marks.
For starters, who knows if Ryan Madson is going to pan out as the team's closer after missing 2012 recovering from Tommy John surgery? It takes time for pitchers to shake off the rust after undergoing TJ surgery, and the Angels won't be able to live with Madson as their closer if he proves incapable of shaking off rust in the ninth inning.
The bullpen around Madson could prove to be just as problematic as the bullpen that was a source of much frustration for the Angels in 2012. In particular, the bullpen's worst fears could be realized if it's tasked with handling too many innings thanks to lackluster work from the starting rotation.
That...that about does it.
Now, the worst-case scenario for the Angels doesn't involve all of these things happening in tandem. That would be a recipe for the end of Angels baseball as we know it, not a simple poor season.
The worst-case scenario involves just several of these things happening in tandem for a prolonged period of time. If that happens, the Angels will have a much harder time getting off the ground and realizing their potential than they did in 2012.
Worst-Case Record: 72-90
Take every single one of those bad scenarios, ball them up and put them in your mind.
Now picture the exact opposite happening.
The concerns over Hamilton's health and plate discipline are real, but there's plenty of room for optimism. If he corrects the problems he had at the plate and stays healthy enough to play in 140 or so games, he's going to give the Angels the 35-40 homers and 1.000 OPS they're looking for.
Playing Hamilton in either left or right field instead of center field on a regular basis can only help. The less he has to wear himself out in the field, the better.
The concerns about Pujols are just as real as the concerns about Hamilton, but he clearly figured something out in the middle of May. He posted a .959 OPS and hit 29 homers over his final 118 games. If he does that again over a full season, he'll hit 40 home runs.
There's admittedly less room for optimism where Trumbo is concerned because of the exploitable holes in his swing, but the Angels will gladly take whatever power they can get from him. No matter what his other numbers look like, that's likely to be around 30 home runs.
Also, the Angels finally won't have to worry about Trumbo's defense, as he's currently penciled in as their full-time DH. Having him DH makes the Angels' overall defense better, so they'll be OK even if he never recovers from his second-half slump.
As for Trout, there's a limit to how much one can be concerned about him, as he was still an elite player even after he started "slumping" in August and September. He'll be fine if he maintains his patience at the plate, and his BABIP can only go so low because of his speed.
And though it's highly unlikely, maybe Trout's 2012 production will be the norm for him. He might just be that good.
My concerns about Bourjos' bat stand, but he has All-Star potential if he improves his patience at the plate. He has 20-20 potential, and he'll be a shoo-in for a Gold Glove if he stays healthy.
Major injury concerns were the best I could come up with for Weaver. He's been one of the most durable pitchers in the league over the last four seasons, and there are few pitchers who have more perfectly adapted their styles to fit the team they play on.
As for Wilson, he clearly overachieved in the first half of 2012, but he's not as bad as he showed after the All-Star break. His control got away from him, to be sure, but his struggles also had to do with a huge BABIP spike. Things should level out for him in 2013.
The move from Seattle to Anaheim for Vargas, meanwhile, may actually work in his favor. Angel Stadium of Anaheim was almost as tough on hitters in 2012 as Safeco Field, and it may be even more tough on hitters in 2013 with the fences moving in up in Seattle.
In addition, Vargas' fly-ball style should play very well on the Angels so long as he has Trout, Bourjos and Hamilton playing behind him on a regular basis. Those three should catch everything.
The same goes for Hanson and Blanton, who both had fly-ball percentages over 32 percent in 2012 (see FanGraphs). They won't contend for the AL Cy Young, but they will be capable starters if they pitch to their defense.
Moving to the bullpen, the Angels can be excused for hoping for the best from Madson. He was a tremendous reliever when he was last healthy, and he's had a fair amount of time to recover seeing as how he underwent surgery before the start of 2012. He may not have that much rust to shake off.
If Madson pans out, the Angels will have a true shutdown closer. If he doesn't, they can put Ernesto Frieri back in the ninth inning, where he excelled in 2012. He totaled 23 saves and compiled a 2.32 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP in 56 appearances as an Angel.
The addition of Sean Burnett gives the Angels two very good lefties in him and Scott Downs, and Kevin Jepsen quietly posted a 1.67 ERA in 40 appearances after returning from a stint in the minors in 2012.
Thus, the Angels have the pieces for at least a respectable bullpen that could potentially become an elite bullpen.
There's no such thing as a flawless season in baseball. Even if things go well for the Angels, they will still experience injuries, slumps and other things that we tend to happen over a 162-game season.
Even with these things factored in, however, the Angels are going to be a very, very good team if their pieces fit together and their players live up to their talent.
Best-Case Record: 103-59
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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