It wasn't a very long time ago that you could sit there on March 31 and just pencil the Angels in for the AL West division title. But they've taken a step back over the last year or so, while at least two of their division-mates have taken large steps forward. This winter, they seem to have taken the "wait and see wait and wait and wait" approach to improving the ballclub. What will it mean for 2011?
1. What on earth are they doing?
Well, I suppose "nothing" is the answer, but the question is: why? Coming into this offseason, the Angels were fringe contenders in a very winnable division who appeared to have the most resources in the division. They were favorites to land Carl Crawford, then Adrian Beltre, and have been linked now and again to a number of other big names. But as The Common Man noted in ranking their offseason 30th out of 30, none of that happened. They've added nothing at all except two relief pitchers (only one of them any good) who aren't likely to have a whole lot of leads to protect. They do presumably get Kendry Morales back for a full season, and that's good, but that's it. In the end, Arte Moreno, once one of the fan favorites among owners (not that that's saying a lot), and Tony Reagins and company end up looking like overconfident tightwards who were way, way behind the curve of the new, apparently post-recession baseball economy.
This is a team that wasn't as good as the A's or Rangers last year, and that sat back and simply got older while those two teams got better. This is a team of guys in their late twenties to mid thirties that, if there's a reason for its being constructed this way at all, was built to win now, not to wait for Mike Trout to come around a year or two or three down the line. And they're just not very well set up to do that.
2. What does a clearly superior catcher have to do to get PT around here?
Mike Scioscia is often mentioned in discussions of the best managers in the game today, very recently placing #2 on the MLB Network's list. But, I'm sorry, I can't buy it. The manager's most important job, and arguably the easiest, is to put his team's best lineup on the field as much as possible, and Scioscia routinely, and one has to assume kind of knowingly, does this.
I admit that I haven't really researched why Scioscia prefers Jeff Mathis to Mike Napoli. I assume it has something to do with defense -- although they've thrown out an almost identical percentage of potential base stealers, and Napoli has actually done a better job of preventing passed balls -- and that vague idea that Mathis calls a game better (and he does have a considerably better career "catcher ERA," but there are a lot of reasons not to put a lock of stock in that). Maybe something to do with Napoli striking out too much. But the simple truth is that Mathis is a very bad major league baseball player, while Napoli is at least an average one. Mathis is a .199/.265/.311 hitter who dropped all the way to .195/.219/.278 (36 OPS+); Napoli has been an above-league-average hitter every year of his career and has a .251/.346/.485 career line. Unless you're absolutely, 100% sure that Mathis actually prevents runs much better than Napoli (and their career run average as catchers -- ERA but including unearned runs -- is 4.83 for Napoli, 4.23 for Mathis), Napoli really, really has to be your starting catcher. And if he's not your starting catcher, he needs to be somebody's starting catcher. There aren't enough catchers who can hit out there to justify not trading Napoli to somebody if you're not going to use him yourself.
Last year, both Napoli and Mathis got some playing time, but mostly because of the injury to Morales, Napoli playing first base. This year, both are back and sharing the same one position, and Napoli is set up to be the game's most underutilized player once again.
3. Defense? What defense?
Not so long ago, the Angels were known as a scrappy team that relied on speed, defense, relief pitching, and mostly singles (with very few walks) to win. They still won't draw many walks, outside of Bobby Abreu, but otherwise, pretty much everything has changed. They hit for low averages and don't steal a lot of bases, relying a lot on power (which they frankly don't have that much of, and what they have aside from Morales is getting old. But the most worrying thing about them, to me, is the defense.
Torii Hunter kept winning Gold Gloves right up until last year, when he and the team finally recognized what the managers and coaches who voted on the award weren't willing to and moved him to a corner spot. Peter Bourjos, who takes his place in center, has a great glove, but might not have the bat to play every day. Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar are just OK up the middle, and the rest of the lineup is mostly DH types who will be forced to wear a glove -- Alberto Callaspo at third, Morales at first, and Hunter, Juan Rivera, and Bobby Abreu rotating among the corner outfield spots and the actual DH slot, and, yeah, probably Napoli at catcher. It's not good.
They've got two excellent pitchers at the top of the rotation, in Dan Haren and Jered Weaver, who strike out enough guys to slightly mitigate the effect of that terrible D. It's most concerning, though, for Joel Pineiro, who has become almost strictly a sinkerball pitcher who gets very few strikeouts and relies on control and ground balls. He could put up very solid numbers on a lot of teams, but this one probably isn't one of them.