With roughly one-sixth of the 2009 regular season in the books, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim—widely considered the favorites to win a mediocre AL West—sit in third place, a game and a half behind the division leading Texas Rangers.
The Halos' 13-14 ledger is unimpressive on paper, but because it masks the effects of a vicious injury bug, it also means that Mike Scioscia's squad is poised to surge into the playoffs.
Thus far, the Angels' Achilles heel has been their pitching staff, which ranks 23rd in the majors with a bloated 5.01 aggregate ERA.
However, it's important to note that the top-three starters in Anaheim's rotation—John Lackey, Ervin Santana, and Kelvim Escobar—haven't made a single start this season. With a combined $22.3 million in salary commited to that disabled trio for 2009, GM Tony Reagins was forced to scramble to reassemble his rotation, leading his manager to hand the ball to the likes of Matt Palmer, Anthony Ortega, and Shane Loux every fifth day.
Joe Saunders and Jered Weaver have done their best to compensate for the makeshift staff, amassing a 7-2 record with ERAs of 3.29 and 2.66, respectively, but can't possibly carry the team by themselves.
Fortunately for the Halos, help is on the way. John Lackey and Ervin Santana are just one minor league rehab start from rejoining the rotation, and Kelvim Escobar should be ready to contribute at some point in June. Of course, they can only solve half of the team's pitching woes.
Perhaps even more-so than the rotation, the Angels' bullpen has been a glaring weakness this season.
Scioscia's relief corps has been saddled with a whopping eight losses already, and is dead-last in the majors with an abhorrent 7.52 ERA. Walking 45 batters in 79 innings while allowing opposing hitters to bat .311 is a recipe for disaster—and a disaster it has been.
Lefty Brian Fuentes—signed by the Angels to a two-year, $17.5 million contract this winter to replace the departed Francisco Rodriguez as the closer—has struggled mightily, converting only seven of his nine save opportunities, and already sporting a pair of losses on his record.
Fuentes has been tagged for 13 hits and four walks in 9.2 innings on the mound, looking like a shadow of the pitcher the Halos expected for their money.
Scot Shields and Justin Speier have also struggled to earn their paychecks, which total a pricey $9.75 million for the 2009 season. Anaheim's primary right-handed setup men have allowed 37 baserunners in 20.2 innings, providing about as much relief to the team as the Santa Ana winds to the wildfire burning 100 miles north.
Middle-relievers Kevin Jepsen and Jason Bulger have also been awful, the former sitting on an absolutely putrid 19.29 ERA, and the latter surrendering a run per inning. Young righty Jose Arredondo—viewed as a potential alternative to Fuentes in the ninth-inning —has struck-out 18 batters in 12.2 innings, but has also been charged with a run in five of his fourteen appearances.
Only the left-handed specialist, veteran Darren Oliver, has done his job, posting a 2.08 ERA in 8.2 innings of outstanding work.
At the plate, the Angels have been hindered by the absence of Vladimir Guerrero, who has been shelved since mid-April with a torn pectoral muscle. Free agent addition Bobby Abreu—viewed as one of the offseason's best bargains at $5 million for one year—is batting .330 and has already stolen twelve bases, but has yet to hit a homerun this season.
Torii Hunter, signed the previous winter to a far less lauded five-year, $90 million deal, has been on a .313 AVG/.375 OBP/.626 SLG tear with eight dingers in 99 at-bats, but his mediocre .799 career OPS suggests that a major regression is in store.
Unfortunately, unless Abreu starts clearing the fences and Hunter avoids the inevitable slide back down to earth, the Halos will need far more offensive contributions from their other players than they've gotten so far.
Young first-baseman Kendry Morales has out-hit his predecessor, Mark Teixeira, to this point in the season, but his .317 on-base percentage leaves much to be desired, and he won't come close to making up for the loss of Teixeira by the time the season is over.
Meanwhile, Gary Matthews Jr., getting the increased playing time he had clamored for while Guerrero is sidelined, is doing little to justify his $10 million 2009 salary with a .270/.314/.349 line at the plate.
The Angels' middle-infielders—Howie Kendrick and Scioscia favorites Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis—have all been atrocious so far. Kendrick has hit three homers, but nothing in his track record suggests that the power is real, so he must improve on his mediocre .245 average.
Aybar and Izturis, who have OPSs of .674 and .627, respectively, should not be anywhere near a big league starting lineup. And while impending free agent Chone Figgins is the prototypical leadoff man, his utter lack of power makes him a less than ideal third-baseman.
Put all of that together, and you have a .481 winning percentage—an unacceptable mark for the seventh-highest paid team in baseball at roughly $116.8 million. Of course, owner Arte Moreno isn't fretting too much, because the Angels have two things working in their favor.
Clearly, the return of their top-three starting pitchers—and the subsequent subtraction of their current scrub starters—will benefit the pitching staff, perhaps even spawning a ripple effect that will lead to the improvement of the bullpen. And adding Vladimir Guerrero's bat to any lineup figures to help run production.
The Angels can also take solace in the fact that they've managed to stay within 1.5 games of the division lead without their top players, because their competition this year is once again decidedly mediocre.
The Rangers might have the best lineup in the league, but are still shamefully shallow on the mound. The Mariners got off to a hot start, but are expectedly fading due to a lack of depth.
And the A's newly-formed lineup has yet to develop the chemistry it will need to make up for their extremely youthful starting rotation.
The 2009 Angels are certainly not the best team money can buy. But in the American League West, they just might be good enough.