MLB March Report: Los Angeles Angels

The Los Angeles Angels (LAA) have missed the playoffs two straight years after being the standard bearer in the AL West from 2007-09, along with division titles in 2004-05, and most importantly, their World Series championship run as a wild-card in 2002. So with the Texas Rangers threatening to put a stranglehold on the division, Angels’ owner Artie Moreno upped the ante and got the biggest prize on the free agent market since…well, probably just about ever. Albert Pujols is now in SoCal. And though he might not have done a nationwide plane tour like Peyton Manning, or a TV show like LeBron James, the man who took his talents to Hollywood is as consequential a signing there is, and has put the Angels at the forefront of the preseason conversation. TheSportsNotebook jumps in, evaluating LAA on the basis of their ability to get on base, hit for power, starting pitching and relief pitching.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: Mike Scoscia loves to keep the base paths active, and he’s got plenty of hitters who know how to get themselves aboard. Peter Bourjos, the 24-year-old centerfielder who broke in last year has great speed and had respectable OBP numbers that should improve quickly with experience. Alberto Callaspo, who may play third base (more on that the next section down) is a solid OBP man with a  .366 number last year. Designated hitter Bobby Abreu may have finally lost his power at age 38, but the batting eye is still sharp and he’s on base often enough to be an asset to this lineup. Maicer Itzuris is not officially a starter, but given that he literally plays everywhere on the diamond, he’ll get starters’ at-bats and is good for an OBP of .330 to .350. An underrated factor will be new catcher Chris Ianetta. When he got regular playing time in Colorado he put up high OBP numbers. He’ll get that time with the Angels. And the X-factor is shortstop Erick Aybar, who was excellent in 2009, lousy in 2010 and somewhere in between last season. Note that this is a nice package of offensive talent and we haven’t even mentioned a certain high-priced free agent yet.

POWER:  Now let’s talk about Albert, and all I’m going to do is cite last season’s numbers. His slugging percentage was .541 and in spite of a broken wrist sidelining him for several weeks in the first half, he hit 37 home runs (to go along with a .299 batting average and .366 OBP to help the area just above). Why do I choose these numbers? Because those are the worst of his big-league career. Wow. The former first baseman is Mark Trumbo, who popped 29 home runs in first full season in the majors last year. The Angels are looking at converting to Trumbo to third base, where he could nudge Callaspo out of a job, into the outfield or out of town. Trumbo does have a  lot of work to do on his plate discipline, but I’m not sure the Angels want to compete for a World Series title without a power hitter and a corner position like this. Either Trumbo or Callaspo could also move to left field, where Vernon Wells has to be under the gun. The former star in Toronto hit 25 home runs a year ago, but this is another case—similar to Alfonso Soriano with the Cubs or Mark Reynolds with the Orioles—where every other facet of production is so bad, that the smattering of at-bats where Wells’ goes deep are his only productive moments of the year. Tori Hunter’s numbers are in decline over the last two years in right, but as a defensive player and leader, he offers intangible value to a team, and he also closed strong in 2011. Howie Kendrick at second base showed respectable pop last year, hitting 18 home runs and can be that dangerous hitter that pitchers overlook with the other big guns in the lineup. And one man who used to be a big gun, but has spent most of the last two years on the DL is Kendry Morales. If Morales can step up, he could nudge Abreu out of the DH job or add further pressure on the front office to eat Wells’ contract.

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STARTING PITCHING: TheSportsNotebook has covered 18 pitching staffs in the spring training tour, coming into today and this top four as is good as anyone’s. Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, C.J. Wilson and Ervin Santana have one important thing in common—they take the ball every fifth day. Each one has chewed up 200-plus IP a year. For Wilson, the caveat is he’s only been a starter for two seasons, while the others have been doing it for several years. The other caveat about Wilson is that he was the team’s second big free-agent splurge, stealing him away from Texas in a double-whammy move. Weaver is the ace of the staff, coming off an 18-win season with a 2.41 ERA. If he doesn’t touch those numbers, both he and Haren give a 1-2 punch that can stop losing streaks over the long haul and win playoff series’ in the short haul. The fifth starter looks likely to be Jerome Williams, who went 4-0 with a 3.68 ERA in six starts last year. The problem is, he’s 30 years old. So is this a case of talent not being given a chance, or someone who’s going to fade? I’d really like to believe it’s the former, but the percentages require me to suspect it’s the latter. If Williams’ doesn’t pan out, young kids Garrett Richards and Trevor Bell will get a chance.

RELIEF PITCHING: Scoscia handed the closer’s job to 24-year-old Jordan Walden last season and the kid rewarded the skipper with a 32-save performance and 2.98 ERA. Not all is perfect—Walden blew ten, an unacceptably high number if you want to win a World Series—and if you want to beat out a team like Texas in the AL West and avoid the one-game wild-card shootout that’s now in place for the 2012 season.  Scoscia, as good as any manager at handling a bullpen, will have a lot of choices in front of Walden and it starts with Scott Downs. If setup men got their just due in a sport that’s increasingly reliant on them, we would call the 36-year-old Downs an elite arm. His 1.34 ERA last year might have been a career high and almost impossible to repeat, but over the years he’s consistently posted ERAs in the 2s and 3s in a role where consistency has been an elusive quality. Latroy Hawkins isn’t elite, but at 39 years old he has been consistent throughout his career. Hisanori Takahashi joins the group of veterans. At age 36 he’s only pitched in the States for two years, but his ERA over that timeframe is 3.55. Right off the bat, the Angels are going to be extremely tough to beat from the seventh inning on, but you can throw in the possibility that Jason Isringhausen might come back healthy, Bobby Cassevah is a 26-year-old with promise, though he needs to get his shoulder healthy. And if Bell, with a 3.41 ERA last year will start the season in the pen as he aims for the rotation.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN TOTAL: 92.5—Are you kidding me? I don’t know if I’ll pick the Angels to win the World Series when TheSportsNotebook releases its complete predictions nine day s from now, but I’d without question bet them to win 95 games—and with this number I even get a couple wins cushion.