Los Angeles Angels Preview

The last two seasons have seen the Los Angeles Angels transform from a fundamentally sound baseball team that often overachieved under manager Mike Scoscia, to one that has become the poster child for big spending gone amok. The Angels have spent big on Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, yet have failed to make the playoffs since 2009, even with the benefit of a second wild-card the last two years.

Scoscia has the security of a long-term contract and gets the opportunity to correct the mistakes. Can he succeed? The Notebook Nine offers nine talking points for the Angels this season…

*The smart money hasn’t soured on the Angels, though Las Vegas is a bit more cautious with the team this time around. The Over/Under on the win props is a modest 86, although given the Detroit Tigers were the only American League team with a number of 90 or higher, the Angels are still getting respect. Los Angeles’ betting odds are 10-1 to win the American League and 18-1 to win the World Series, the latter a figure that reflects a little more respect than the San Francisco Giants (20-1) who also had a disappointing 2013, but at least have a demonstrated ability to win a World Series, having done so twice since LAA’s last playoff appearance.

*It starts with big acquisitions of the last two years. That’s where the money is tied up in and if Pujols and Hamilton can’t revive their careers, Scoscia is going to be swimming upstream. Pujols has seen his OBP decline every year since 2008 and his slugging percentage go down each since 2009. The peak numbers were .462 and .658, so that does require some perspective, but the pattern is evident and deep. You can say that Hamilton just had one bad year, but his last half-season in Texas was also awful. He hasn’t been productive since the All-Star break of 2012.

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*Los Angeles made one of the big trades of the offseason, acquiring David Freese from St. Louis. A cynic might say they’ve just added another corner infielder from the 2011 Cardinal team that won the World Series, and who’s coming off a bad year. In this case though, Freese just saw his power disappear last season and it’s not part of a long trend. Freese joins DH Raul Ibanez, who’s hit 68 home runs the last three years, as the ones who must provide support and take the pressure off of Pujols and Hamilton.

*Mike Trout showed his dynamic rookie year was no fluke, with a stat line of .432 on-base percentage/.557 slugging percentage. Trout has hit over .320 each of the last two years and has hit 57 home runs in that timeframe. A potential storyline to keep an eye on is the effort to sign him to a long-term contract, a conversation Trout said he doesn’t mind having during the season—the translation of which is that the man wants to get paid.

*The star power continues in the rotation with Jered Weaver, who was limited to 21 starts due to an injury, but there’s nothing in Weaver’s history to suggest he won’t make a full 30-32 start run this year. Weaver has spent seven years in the majors, all of them productive, and the previous four (2009-12) at the level of a true ace.

*For all the correct focus that this organization’s failed spending binge has gotten, we should talk about one free agent signing that worked. C.J. Wilson was pilfered from Texas prior to the 2012 season and Wilson has shown himself good for 30-plus starts, 200-plus innings, ERAs in the 3s and about 15 wins. The combination of taking him from the Rangers, and the Angels’ own dysfunction has worked to hand the AL West to the Oakland A’s each of the last two years.

*Two outfielders and three starting pitchers are the foundation of any effort to remake this team. Kole Calhoun posted a .347/.462 stat line in 195 at-bats last year and gets first chance at the rightfield job. J.B. Schuck had a .331 on-base percentage in over 400 at-bats and will get significant playing time. The young pitching trio of Garrett Richards, Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs are all under 25, all have potential and are perfect for a former catcher like Scoscia to work with.

*The bullpen isn’t deep, but it has the potential to turn it okay. Ernesto Frieri has stabilized the closer role, going 60/67 on save chances over the last two seasons. Los Angeles signed setup man Joe Smith away from Cleveland, and Smith has spent a quiet three years as one of the American League’s better setup men. Dane De La Rosa had a 2.86 ERA in over seventy innings last season and Michael Kohn was respectable. The concern? There’s not a lot in the way of quantity. If all of these pitchers perform as advertised, it won’t matter, but how often do you see that happen in a relief corps?

*As you can probably tell, I remain a big Scoscia fan, in spite of the disaster of the last two years. But can we remove him from all blame for what happened to the organization? I would say this—to whatever extent he was responsible for the decision to go after big money free agents, rather than keeping with the focus on being a fundamentally sound team that ran the bases well and augmented with the occasional big-ticket free agent, that’s the extent he is responsible. But once you’re in the dugout, this is a roster poorly constructed. I hope the manager can turn it around, but I wonder if he might not be better off starting over somewhere else.

I think the betting numbers on LAA are about right—especially the win prop. The 86 figure looks to be a good medium between .500 and 90 wins, which is probably about the range the Angels end up in. After two seasons of mistakenly buying on this team, I have to sell this time around and go Under.