Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Los Angeles Angels' 2009 Slightly Premature Season Preview

For the last preview in the American League West, I saved the favorites heading into 2009: the Los Angeles Angels. I say 'favorite,' but never has an incumbent—fresh off a 21-game coast to the division flag—worn the mantle while being supported by wobblier legs.

Consider the five player transactions from this winter that figure to make the biggest impact on the new Major League Baseball season:

1. CC Sabathia inks with the New York Yankees.
2. Mark Teixeira inks with the Yankees.
3. The Oakland Athletics trade for Matt Holliday.
4. Manny Ramirez re-signs with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
5. Francisco Rodriguez signs with the New York Mets.

Anything jump out at you?

Numbers 2-4 all directly weaken the Angels. Teixeira and K-Rod obviously hurt because they were significant pieces to the team in '08. Holliday stings because that's a big bat going to a division rival. And Manny makes the crosstown (it's a big town) rival an even sexier draw—thus giving back a significant bit of whatever marketshare the Halos had managed to wrestle away from the Bums.

Okay, Manny's a stretch—work with me, folks.

Despite all that carnage, the Junior Circuit club from LA is still the top dog heading into the '09 campaign. But Oakland, the Seattle Mariners, and the Texas Rangers have all gotten stronger while the Angels were getting weaker so don't be surprised if there's a new hound at the top of the heap when the dust settles.

Here is Los Angeles' roster:

Projected starting lineup

Catcher—Mike Napoli
First base—Kendry Morales
Second base—Howie Kendrick
Third base—Chone Figgins
Shortstop—Erick Aybar
Left field—Bobby Abreu
Center field—Torii Hunter
Right field—Vladimir Guerrero
Designated hitter—Juan Rivera

Gary Matthews Jr. will see time in the outfield as well as designated hitter. Other than that, the lineup appears to be set. Maicer Izturis has a slick glove so he can fill in when the inevitable injury strikes one of the fragile guys up the middle. Former uber-prospect Brandon Wood is also in the mix for third base and/or short, but he hasn't hit enough at the pro level to warrant a starting gig at this point (although he's currently scalding exhibition pitching).

Freddy Sandoval is in camp and I've never heard much about the 26-year-old third sacker, but he sure looked good for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic. If the Angels can somehow figure to convince the guy he's facing South Africa every night, they might have a permanent answer at the hot corner.

Jeff Mathis and Reggie Willits should round out the bench.

Starting rotation

Ace—John Lackey (R)
Second spot—Jered Weaver (R)
Third spot—Joe Saunders (L)
Fourth spot—Dustin Moseley (R)
Fifth spot—Nick Adenhart (R)

The news that Ervin Santana will open the season on the shelf is tough. With him occupying the second spot in the rotation, the entire picture looks a lot tidier. Even with him down, though, this ain't too ugly. And Kelvim Escobar is slowly working his way back from shoulder surgery that cost the 2007 18-game winner all of 2008.

If he can regain that form when he's slated to rejoin the rotation (May), that would be about the same time the Halos expect Santana to take the bump. Getting those two guys back would make the rotation all the more formidable.

In the meantime, Los Angeles needs to keep the duct tape at the ready.

Saunders is not gonna win 17 games again this year and the lefty's apparently experiencing discomfort in his left shoulder. Moseley is trouble if they need him for more than a month and Adenhart—though the Angels' top prospect and only 23 in August—got shelled in his audition last season.

To that end, LA has top prospects Jordan Walden (21), Sean O'Sullivan (21), Anthony Ortega (24 in August), and Kevin Jepsen (25 in July) in camp although I can't find any record of Ortega making a spring appearance and Jepsen seems to be getting a trial in the bullpen.


Closer—Brian Fuentes (L)
Set-up—Scot Shields (R)
Set-up—Jose Arredondo (R)
Set-up—Justin Speier (R)
Set-up—Francisco Rodriguez (R)

Can you believe that? The Angels trade one Francisco Rodriguez and have another waiting to take his spot. That spot in the 'pen probably won't be his and lefty Darren Oliver should be up there, but I had to include the faux K-Rod.

As I said at the outset, Los Angeles lost a lot of talent in the offseason. What I didn't say, or maybe glossed over, is that they still have a ton of it left.

On offense, Mike Napoli is a force of nature that nature forced down in 2008. Despite injury problems limiting him to only 227 at-bats, he hit .273 with nine doubles, 20 home runs, 39 runs scored, 49 runs batted in, a .374 on-base percentage, and a .960 OPS. He even threw in seven stolen bases for good measure.

Incidentally, the Angels run a lot.

All of baseball was once high on Kendry Morales, but some of the bloom is off the rose heading into '09. The kid will turn 26 in June and has yet to take a full run at the starting job so that might be a little unfair. But, still, skepticism abounds.

Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, and Chone Figgins might as well be the same person.

Figgins represents one end of that player's spectrum—he's the oldest, the best base stealer, and most versatile. Kendrick represents the other—he's the frailest, the best hitter, and has youth on his side (although Aybar is actually several months younger). Aybar falls somewhere in the middle, but the point is these guys give you average and speed to varying degrees.

That's it.

To be honest, Bobby Abreu and Vladimir Guerrero are pretty similar as well—Abreu's a poor man's version of Bad Vlad except he's older and more expensive.

In the Yankees' order last year, Abreu hit .296 with 39 doubles, 20 HRs, 100 runs, 100 RBI, 22 swipes, a .371 OBP, and an .843 OPS. Those numbers are all pretty dead on his career averages so, at 35 (happy birthday Bobby), he's showing no signs of slowing down.

Vlad put up a .303 average with 21 doubles, 27 bombs, 85 runs, 91 RBI, a .365 OBP, and an .886 OPS in 2008. Those numbers are a bit off Guerrero's averages and he also announced he's a year older than previously believed so a couple small caution flares were sent up.

Still, those are impressive stats and eclipse those put up by most players so no sweat.

Torii Hunter rounds out the relevant starters although Juan Rivera provides significant upside if he can find his 2007 stroke (he showed signs of doing so towards the end of '08).

Hunter had another fine year in '08 and played his usual stellar defense in center field. He hit .278 with 37 doubles, 21 bombs, 85 runs scored, 78 RBI, 19 SBs, a .344 OBP, and an .810 OPS. Solid work all around and pretty consistent with his resume so advancing age doesn't seem to be slowing Torii, either.

The Angels have to feel pretty comfortable about the situation in the batter's box and out in the field. The same could've been said about the starting rotation until the MASH unit showed up.

I covered it pretty thoroughly above so I'll just toss in the names Shane Loux and Matt Palmer.

Both guys are journeymen getting a look due to the ailing starters and, although Loux's off to a good start in Spring Training, neither shakes out as a long-term solution. Palmer got chewed up and spit out by our San Francisco Giant system—that rarely bodes well.

The bullpen never seems to be a problem for Mike Scioscia and 2009 doesn't look to be any different.

Even after suffering the loss of the real Francisco Rodriguez, the Angels should be in business any time they have to go to the relievers. Brian Fuentes has always looked filthy to me, but a lot of reasonable Colorado Rockie fans weren't too sad to see him go. That's enough to give you pause.

However, Los Angeles is more than a one-trick pony. Should Fuentes flounder in the new digs, the Angels can turn to closer-in-waiting Jose Arredondo. That kid is gnarly and probably the real reason LA let K-Rod walk. Unfortunately, he heard a pop in his hip recently.

That means LA could potentially be relying heavily on Scot Shields, Justin Speier, and Darren Oliver with a dash of the kid (Kevin Jepsen). There aren't too many teams in baseball that could contemplate the absence of two crucial relievers without losing much sleep.

Suffice it to say the Angels have the back of games covered.

After putting all the pieces together, the Los Angeles Angels have no reason to panic despite a number of adversarial developments since the finish of 2008. They have a solid nucleus in all three important facets of the game and shiny youth in reserve for depth/stop-gap maneuvers.

And, yet, all three division rivals have gotten considerably more dangerous while the Angels have not. They're still the favorite, but they have to be glancing over their collective shoulder.

With a couple bad breaks here and an injury or two there, the sky could cave in on Los Angeles and that Halo might become a headband.

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