2006 W-L: 89-73 (2nd place)
2006 Pythag: 84-78
Gary Matthews Jr., Shea Hillenbrand, Justin Speier, Darren Oliver, Phil Seibel, Chris Resop
Adam Kennedy, Tim Salmon, Darin Erstad, J.C. Romero, Brendan Donnelly, Kevin Gregg
The Angels In a Nutshell:
The Angels are a team desperate for more power. Six of nine defensive positions finished the year with slugging percentages under .420, leaving most of the responsibility in Vlad Guerrero's hands. Fortunately, that's the only glaring weakness: the pitching staff consists of several strong starters and a respectable bullpen. Best of all, the flow of minor league talent is likely to end the power outage at a couple of the problematic positions.
It's a good thing that the Angels have some quality youngsters filling gaps, because when Bill Stoneman shops on the free-agent market, he seems prone to spending all of his money on mediocrity. I'm much more optimistic about the Angels chances for improvement at first and second base (Casey Kotchman/Kendry Morales and Howie Kendrick) than I am at DH and center field (Shea Hillenbrand and Gary Matthews Jr.).
I'm not going to belabor the obvious with GMJ, nor do I give a hoot about the current scandal. Whether his breakout season was natural or chemically enhanced, it's unlikely he'll repeat it in '07 or '08. (To say nothing of how bad a contract that might be around 2010.) He may not fall all the way back to his career averages of .263/.336/.419, but as a point of reference, ZiPS projects Matthews to out-OPS Maicer Izturis by a mere 40 points.
Hillenbrand is equally uninspiring. Fortunately, if Kotchman and Morales both meet expectations, Hillenbrand will be back in a part-time role; when Juan Rivera is healthy again, there'll be still more competition for at-bats. The potential for average or worse production at DH is even worse than in center field, since that was a strong point (largely due to Rivera's 310/362/525 output) in 2006.
The upside, however, is more dramatic. Howie Kendrick was roughly Adam Kennedy's equal in the majors last year, but should take a step forward. ZiPS, for instance, has him moving up to a .458 slugging percentage. After disappointing seasons from both Kotchman and Morales, it's tough to get too excited about first base, but the simple number of options suggests that Mike Scioscia ought to be able to come up with something to top last year's aggregate 255/297/367. (For the sake of all that's holy, let us hope so.)
Better still, of course, is the possible emergence of Brandon Wood. Wood will almost surely begin the season in Salt Lake City, but if he OPS's 900 for a month or two, Scioscia will have to be mighty tempted to make him the starting third baseman. It might be until 2008 that Wood's arrival is fully felt, but if the alternative is Chone Figgins or Maicer Izturis against righties, the difference could be evident immediately.
Another place where improvement seems likely is behind the plate. Mike Napoli didn't hit for average last year, striking out in more than one third of his at-bats, but he did get on base 36% of the time and slugged over 450. Replacing Jeff Mathis's efforts and some of Jose Molina's playing time with Napoli's bat ought to be worth several runs for the Angels.
Taken together, the Angels ought to score more runs than they did last year. Just how many depends largely on what Scioscia can coax out of 1B and DH, and exactly how much Matthews tanks after his career year. Last year they scored 766 runs; they ought to top 780 this time around, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the total exceeding 800.
If one player was responsible for keeping the Angels from the playoffs last year, it was Bartolo Colon. To follow his (admittedly, undeserved) Cy Young Award in 2005, he was only healthy enough to make 10 starts. In those outings, he did almost everything badly: only his walk rate was comparable to his career norms.
Once again, the Angels playoff hopes will depend on Colon. The rotation is strong, but the difference between faux-CYA Bartolo and Joe Saunders could easily be the difference between first and second place. Without any knowledge of Colon's injury or recovery from it, ZiPS puts him back at 180 innings of league-average performance; that would certainly be a step in the right direction, though almost exactly the same as what ZiPS expects from Saunders.
Of course, as the Angels discovered last year, you don't want to make too many plans for your sixth starter, because an occasion will arise for that guy whether you expect it or not. There's no obvious candidate among this year's starting five to pull a Jeff Weaver, but between Colon, Ervin Santana, and Kelvim Escobar, the chances that Saunders will be called upon for a dozen starts simply because of injury are pretty high.
(By the way, I'm not saying that Escobar or Santana are particularly high injury risks: I don't think they are. But Santana is still young, and has only thrown 200 innings once. And Escobar was hurt for much of the 2005 season. It seems reasonable to expect that at least of these three pitchers won't make 30 starts in 2007.)
The other big question mark is Jered Weaver. He seems like a good bet to be a solid mid-rotation starter, but with so little statistical evidence to go on, it's easy to see him going in any number of directions. His PECOTA comp list is interesting in this regard, listing such luminaries as Dennis Eckersley, Jim Palmer, and Barry Zito, against forgettable names such as Scott Elarton and Willie Adams.
If Weaver does anything like what he did in '06 for the entire season, the A's and Rangers might as well pack up and go home; replacing Jeff Weaver's half-season with the equivalent of Jered's, the Angels get another three wins or more over their 2006 record, independent of any other changes. Then again, if he did that, he'd be the best pitcher in baseball, so it stretches credulity to expect anything of the sort.
Finally, we get to the part of the team where Stoneman's mild offseason spending spree ought to seriously pay off. Last year's relief corps had most of the same names as the stellar bullpens of years past, but it didn't quite hold up statistically. There's no question that Francisco Rodriguez and Scot Shields are among the best in the league at what they do, but it's gotten harder and harder to find nice things to say about Brendan Donnelly and, especially, J.C. Romero.
What fascinates me about this unit is the innings potential of the top five guys. K-Rod isn't much different than your typical 3-out closer, and newcomer Justin Speier is about the same way, but beyond that, Mike Scioscia has himself a lot of options. The next three guys on the depth chart--Shields, Hector Carrasco, and Darren Oliver--can start if necessary. Certainly they can go two innings, maybe even three if Scioscia wants to get crazy.
Now, none of those three guys consititutes much in the way of rotation depth; if the Angels get a dozen starts from that trio, something will have gone horribly wrong. But it's a rare bullpen that is built around so many swingmen, and good ones at that.
Between the flexibility in the middle and the power arms at the end, it doesn't really matter who fills out the rest of the group. Really, Scioscia could go with five relievers and be just fine. He won't, of course, since he would be struck down by the 21st-century baseball gods for thinking such a thing, but if he manages anywhere close to optimally, the sixth guy in the pen won't get any innings that matter to anyone but him and his agent.
People have been raving about the incredible Angels bullpen since the World Championship season in 2002. For the first time since '04, Stoneman's relievers ought to deserve it.
All Together Now
It's a familiar refrain: the fate of the season rests on the starting pitching. I'd be more optimistic if their baseline was 89 wins instead of the 84 that their runs scored and runs allowed suggests it should be. From 89, it's easy to see the incremental improvements at center field, second base, and bullpen as enough to push the Angels over the top. From 84, you have to be rooting lustily for Bartolo Colon.
(I promise, I'll never use the words "lustily" and "Bartolo Colon" in the same sentence ever again.)
As it stands, the best-case scenario for the Angels would be for a few things to go right, and for the Rangers and A's to settle into the 85-win range. All of those things seem possible, but the point is that this team isn't going to win enough games to put the division out of reach; they need some help from their opponents.