The news this spring from the AL West has been interesting to say the least. While nobody should ever discount the Athletics again, the Rangers have three starters with various ailments and question marks behind them. The Mariners got Cano, who now wants the general manager's job, but have Iwakuma and Walker hurting. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the state of California on the West Coast of the USA in North America on Planet Earth just might be able to do some business here.
That opinion might sound a bit whacked for a team that just finished a miserable season at 78-84 with a -4 run differential. Their pitching was abysmal and two big splash free agents, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton were invisible. But even ZiPS has the team winning 85 games in 2014, good enough for a first place finish in the division. Is that realistic?
There are three keys to the Angels being able to rebound in 2014. The first is what contributions the team gets from the aforementioned Pujols and Hamilton. The second is if the starting rotation can be better. And the third is the bullpen. Let's take a look at each one of these keys individually.
Pujols and Hamilton
Things have not started well for Josh Hamilton as he cannot even get out of the gate in Spring Training with a calf issue. You never like to see a player not be able to start his preparatory part of the season behind. But a calf is not the most serious of injuries and eventually, Hamilton should get his season underway. But what kind of season will it be?
ZiPS has him at 2.3 WAR with only 6 runs above average on offense. Other projections systems have anywhere from a win and a half to 2.7. Those pessimistic numbers are understandable with the season Hamilton had in 2013 that lead to a career low, 1.9 fWAR.
But there are two things to consider. First, Hamilton was much better in the second half with a .344 wOBA compared to .302 in the first half. While that second half wOBA is not where his career has been, it is higher than any of the projection systems predict for him. I do not expect a return to his glory days in Texas, but a .350 wOBA is not out of the question.
Then there is Albert Pujols. How soon we forget that Pujols was the best player on the planet during his first ten years. While regression is natural, his fall off in production the last two to three years seems unnatural. His wheels were never right since 2011 and without a solid base beneath a batter, the batter cannot do what he once did.
Pujols stubbornly played through the pain until reason finally prevailed and he was shut down after just a partial season a year ago. All indications are that he is healthy. I think he has one more great year in him. I have already mentioned in another post that in Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections, Albert Pujols was projected to have the highest offensive score.
They are alone in that assessment, however. Other projection systems range from 1.5 WAR (no way) to 3.8. His wOBA projections go from .336 to .366. His career average is .420. Woof. I will go out on a limb here and predict a .380 wOBA for Pujols in 2014.
If Pujols and Hamilton play even close to what I have predicted, they will make that lineup more dynamic and make Mike Trout even better.
In the last four years, only 22 pitchers have started more than 120 games and compiled over ten WAR. The Angels have two of them in Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. That said, Weaver scored 5.7 fWAR in each of 2010 and 2011 and did not equal that total for his last two seasons combined. His strikeout rate has come down and he has lost three MPH on his fastball.
All that said, there is just something about Jered Weaver to believe that he will find a way. The projection systems agree (mostly) and have him in the mid-threes range. That seems reasonable and solid to me.
I have to admit that I was surprised by C.J. Wilson's season a year ago. He was really good for the Angels and was one of the most pleasant stories of their lost season. He cut down on his walk rate, kept the ball in the park better and his 3.51 FIP was quite impressive. It changed my opinion of him and my worries about his durability since changing from a closer to a starter have been unfounded. He has been as durable as they come. He should be in the ballpark of where he was a year ago.
The rest of the rotation last year was putrid. Williams, Blanton and Hanson stunk up the joint. Only Blanton of those three remain and if he makes the rotation, nobody will be more surprised than me. The depth charts show a rotation of Weaver, Wilson, Garrett Richards, Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago. On paper, that is a much more solid rotation than last year.
Skaggs and Santiago were obtained in a big three-team trade that cost them Mark Trumbo and a minor league pitcher. That is a great deal for the Angels. Pujols will make up for Trumbo's offense and Skaggs and Santiago have to be better than Blanton and Hanson.
Tyler Skaggs never really got going with the Diamondbacks, but that is a tough place to pitch. He had success in the minors that even the projection systems believe will translate to the Angels.
Hector Santiago had a 3.51 ERA as a starter last year for the lousy White Sox team. It should have been better, but it looks like he ran out of gas towards the end of the season and got roughed up a bit in the second half. The experience should put him in good stead for this year and at the very least, should make him one of the better fifth starters in the AL West. Anything would be an improvement over Blanton. Geez.
All in all, the rotation is in much better shape in my opinion. Richards can take the next step and Skaggs and Santiago should be better than what was around last year following a very good 1-2 combo.
This bullpen still worries me. I am not a big fan of Ernesto Friari. His tendency to give up the long ball is frightening. But his strikeout rate is among the best and if he can do better at not delivering the soul-sucking homers, he could be very good.
The rest of the cast looks just so-so. But I do not worry much about bullpens, especially this time of year. A struggling bullpen is the easiest thing to fix during a season and if the Angels are not comfortable with what they have, lots of cuts by other teams could give them some options at the end of Spring Training.
If the Angels have weaknesses other than what we talked about, it would be at the catcher position and I think Raul Ibanez was a stretch as is the pick up of Carlos Pena. The depth is not there and if bodies go down, the Angels could struggle again.
But all things being equal and somewhat healthy, is this team eight wins better than last year? I think so. Is that enough to beat the Athletics? I'm not so sure. I do believe Angel fans will have a lot more fun this summer.