Friday, May 18, 2007

Team Shouldn’t be Desperate for “Big Bat”
By Adam Dodge and Victor Varadi

On May 22nd, 2006 the Los Angeles Angels lost a tough one-run game, 3-2 at the hands of the Texas Rangers dropping their record to 17-28, a season worst 11 games under .500. Since that day almost one year ago exactly the Angels are 96-63, one of the very best records in all of baseball.

Despite this, fans and media consistently express displeasure with the Angels, Arte Moreno and Bill Stoneman, for not acquiring another power hitter or two. For many, the lack of power within the Angels line-up, a concern since the beginning of 2005, will ultimately be blamed for the team’s “certain demise” in 2007.

While the intent of this article is not to defend, nor endorse Stoneman, who has been less than creative in his attempts at landing a legitimate power hitter to compliment Vladimir Guerrero, the concern that outsiders have expressed has been overstated.

The Angels have won, are winning, will continue to win, and are good enough to win a World Series as currently constructed. It is however, ridiculous to argue that the Angels could not improve their chances for success by acquiring a “big bat.” But, the pursuit of that “bat” should not be carried out with the desperation, which continues to be suggested by the majority of those that follow the team. Such an acquisition should be viewed as a luxury, rather than a necessity.

The Angels have more leverage than what was expected before the season, and more than the most would currently acknowledge. They currently lead their division by 3 games, with Oakland, likely their only challenger, hamstrung by injuries. The A’s best starter, Rich Harden and reliever, Huston Street are both on the DL. Mike Piazza and Mark Kotsay are currently on the DL, and the A’s roster is loaded with guys who have difficulty staying healthy. Not to mention, this team just isn’t as good as it was a year ago after losing Barry Zito and Frank Thomas to free agency. And, neither Seattle nor Texas are worthy of being mentioned as possible contenders without making wholesale changes.

The Angels offense would be improved by acquiring another bat, but they should not make a trade this early in the season unless overwhelmed by value. Committing one of the five starters currently in the rotation, and a top prospect for a bat right now would not be wise unless that player is Alex Rodriguez. The Angels are the chasees not the chasers, and should act as such for the time being. A better approach would be to wait for the trade deadline as player values adjust based on the position of teams in the standings. In other words, the Angels may be able to get the bat they covet, while giving up less, or may decide that a bat is not necessary at all should say…Casey Kotchman emerge as a legitimate homerun threat.

There are several reasons why the Angels can win as constructed, and why patience would serve the Angels best when looking to deal. The following are the top five.

1. Pitching

The Angels do not have a good pitching staff. They have a great one. The starting staff is currently second in the American League in ERA, and first in both strikeouts and innings pitched. John Lackey was outstanding last year, and is unbelievably even better this year. Bartolo Colon has returned, completely unexpectedly, to Cy Young form. Kelvim Escobar has been brilliant. Jered Weaver is as talented and polished as anyone could expect a second year player to be and Ervin Santana, the weak link, is potentially the best number five in all of baseball, and flat out doesn’t lose at home. Only the Red Sox can compete with the Angels in the starting rotation, and theirs is an aging one, which will require a lot of luck to stay healthy and productive through the grind of the long season. Most would agree that pitching wins championships. The Angels’ stacks up favorably to anyone.

2. Gary Matthews Jr.

It’s time to admit that the Matthews Jr. signing was a good one, and could prove to be great if he continues to produce at his current pace. Despite a couple of careless errors, Matthews has played a remarkable centerfield, robbing opposing hitters of extra bases on what seems like a daily basis. Offensively, he works counts, gets on base, drives the baseball, and has executed Scioscia ball beautifully with runners in scoring position. He has been the bat the Angels had been missing. We can complain about the amount and length of his contract all we want. The fact remains that through 42 games, he has proved more valuable than the off-season’s biggest free agent, Alfonso Soriano. For now, Matthews has even made believers of the “unfaithful.”

3. Youth Served

Dallas McPherson.

“Who Howie Kendrick and Reggie Willits are not, Alex?” That’s right. This group of young Angels, which should also include Erick Aybar, has delivered the goods – something the highly touted McPherson could not do. Kendrick looked like a five time all-star before breaking his hand, and will return to the starting line-up within a week. He has already shown himself to be a top tier major league hitter, and has played solid in the field. Reggie Willits, thrust into a starting role after the injury to Garret Anderson leads American League rookies in batting, and is constantly on base. With Willits’ production at the top of the line-up, Mike Scioscia is allowed to hit Matthews, a capable run producer, behind Vladimir Guerrero, and in front of the second half of the line-up, which will soon include Kendrick and Anderson. This provides a significant balance, which has been absent the last two seasons. Willits will not continue to hit at a .360+ pace, but can be expected to continue to be patient at the plate and get on base, which will force Scioscia to leave him in the line-up, despite the fears of some that he will be benched upon Anderson’s return.

4. The AL “Worst”

Unlike the Yankees, Orioles, Blue Jays and everyone in the AL Central, the Angels are fortunate to play in a bad division. They should be right at the top of their division for the entire season and could quite possibly pull away from the pack early. They are currently head and shoulders above every other team in the division and should remain superior provided they stay healthy. Getting into the post-season is half the battle and the Angels are headed that way. While contenders in other divisions look to improve their club in hopes of just competing in their division, to do so, they will likely be pressured to give up more. The Angels, on the other hand, can take their time pursuing a bat and do not have to rush to fill a need.

5. Juan Rivera

Perhaps the greatest leverage the Angels enjoy is Juan Rivera who should return to the Angels by the All-Star break according to early reports out of Tempe, where he is rehabbing his broken leg. Rivera had a career year in 2006 and could provide the Angels with another power threat down the stretch. It’s possible that come the trade deadline no one on the market will be of Rivera’s caliber. Rivera hit .310 with 25 homeruns and 85 RBI in just 124 games last season. If nothing else, having Rivera’s bat in his back pocket is a plus for Stoneman when negotiating with other clubs. It provides the Angels and Stoneman a rebuttal to GMs trying to get over on the Angels in any potential deal.

Things are going relatively smoothly for the Angels through the first two months of the season. They’re pitching brilliantly, playing good defense and scoring runs. The Angels are fourth in the AL in hitting and sixth in runs scored. The team is where they need to be and are headed in the right direction. They have enough weapons to compete with anyone in baseball now and in the post-season.

In fact, one could argue that only upgrade that would make an immediate impact is at 3rd base, where Chone Figgins has struggled since returning the disabled list. And this is where Stoneman should focus his attention if a deal is indeed being sought. However, any talk of Santana for Crede/Endsburg should be nixed. Giving up a starter at this stage in the season without getting better value is return is too risky to the present state of the team and to the future of the franchise.

Victor’s Commentary

I think that we as fans tend to border on the obsessive. We complain non-stop about our lack of a power hitter to protect Vlad, yet the team continues to win. When is winning enough? And is winning enough? Or do we collectively spend our time waiting for the wheels to fall of and when they don’t, we simply shift our energies to critiquing the manner in which we win? Nick Hornby, author-extraordinaire and obsessed Arsenal fan, wrote a book called “Fever Pitch” in which he explored the inner workings of his own sick and twisted obsession with a London soccer club. Never able to enjoy the team when they were losers and never able to enjoy the team when they were winning, Hornby described how even when the team was winning and one of the best in the league (sound familiar?) he still found reason to sulk and abhor bad management decisions. If the team won 3-1, it was a victory marred by poor officiating or chippy play, bad coaching decisions or un-spectacular goals. It wasn’t about the wins anymore; it was about how they won. In 15 plus years of rooting for his beloved Arsenal, Hornby could only point out two such occasions that he would label as “perfect victories.” And most of the requisites for such a victory had little to do with play on the field.

The obsessed fan had to get on the right train, preferably get a seat for the short ride to the stadium, and then find his way with plenty of time to spare to the fish and chips shop. Once there he would order a bag of chips (fries to us Americans). And he had to have a seat in order to enjoy his short meal before a brisk walk to the stadium would find him in his spot in the North stands. Oh yeah, almost forgot. The team had to win 2-0. Not by 2 goals, they had to win by a score of 2-nil. And the goals had to be “good goals.” Magnificent displays of skill and finesse that were ultimately followed by a finish never to be seen again. “You had to be there” was how those goals would forever be described. If all of those things didn’t happen, he would spend the week bemoaning how being in first place was merely a prelude to finishing short of the ultimate prize. Are we as Angels fan headed down this dark road? I hope not. But we seem to be there now. This is a very good team with some weaknesses that are more than made up for by our overwhelming strengths. There is no such thing as perfect balance in baseball. There was that 97-99 Yankees team, but we may never see a team like that again. Enjoy the ride. Enjoy first place. It’s not so much how we get there as long as we get there.
Love to hear what you think!


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