Monday, July 9, 2007

Angels Look Towards Playoffs, Beyond in Second Half
By Adam Dodge

Aside from the team’s first road trip, a lackluster 1-7 performance and a 4-8 stretch to heading into the All-Star break, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim played outstanding baseball in the first half. At 53-35, the team sits atop the American League Western Division 2.5 games ahead of the surprising Seattle Mariners.

In a bit of a role reversal from the last few years, it was the Angels’ offense which has carried them to the second best record in the American League. Strong first half performances from Orlando Cabrera, Vladimir Guerrero, Reggie Willits, Chone Figgins and solid contributions from Casey Kotchman, Howie Kendrick and Gary Matthews Jr. have the Angels near the top of the league in batting average and runs scored.

For the Angels to hold off the surging Mariners, the offense will need to continue to shine. No one expects the Angels’ top hitters to hit at their current pace. Reggie Willits has cooled of late and Orlando Cabrera has not produced as well over his past few weeks. Likewise, Chone Figgins set an impossible pace by hitting better than .460 in June. The Angel bats will collectively cool off a bit in the second half. But that does not mean the production has to. Expect big halves from MVP candidate, Guerrero and hard hitting second baseman, Kendrick who is rounding into shape. Guerrero had a good first half by his standards, hitting over .320 and driving in more than 70. But consider that he only hit 14 homeruns, a number he is certain to surpass in the second half. Kendrick suffered a couple of injuries in the first half, but has been swinging a hot bat of late and looks primed to take off down the stretch.

Gary Matthews Jr. has been consistently productive for the Angels, but has lacked RBI production since mid-June. After starting the season in the lead-off spot, Mike Scioscia has primarily used Matthews in the 4 and 5 spot since May. Expect more tinkering, especially if Willits continues to struggle. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Matthews finds himself in one of the top three spots as the season progresses.

What is noticeably certain is that Scioscia has to adjust his current line-up, which has Guerrero hitting clean-up, rather than third. A healthy and productive Garret Anderson (no pun intended) could go a long way in helping Scioscia with that decision. Any thought of the Angels’ all-time hits and RBI leader as a legitimate clean-up man has evaporated more quickly than an Al Gore III doobie. But if Anderson can produce in 2007’s second half the way he did in 2006, or even in the last week, the Angels could hit him 5th or 6th, allowing Kendrick to possibly move up in the line-up as well.

The Angels have enough good players to absorb slumps from a few provided the team stays relatively healthy.

Juan Rivera may also return in the second half and could play a huge role protecting Vlad down the stretch. Rivera, a proverbial long shot at this point due to his slow recovery, is nonetheless yet another quality bat Scioscia can use as the Angels reach the pennant race.

Assuming that the Oakland A’s are unable to overcome their early season hole and injuries, a big assumption based on their performance in the second half in recent years, which has been the best in baseball, the Seattle Mariners will be the Angels’ sole hurdle to another AL West championship. From the Angels’ “been there, done that” perspective, only with a World Series Championship will the 2007 season be a success.

So, how do they get there?

While the offense has been for the most part outstanding, and should function well in the second half, the Angels must pitch their way to another ring. Expected to be the strength of the team entering the season, the pitching has underachieved.

Sure, John Lackey, an All-Star and Kelvim Esocbar, an All-Star snub are having career years, but the rest of the rotation has not pitched as advertised. Jered Weaver has been good, not great but appears to be hitting a stride at the right time. Expect a very good final 15 or so starts from Weaver who missed a lot of spring training and has looked really good of late.

The problem with the Angels’ pitching lay in the four and five spots in the rotation. The Angels are above .500 when Bartolo Colon pitches, but hardly due to the stocky right-hander’s efficiency. Colon got off to a good start but has been lunch meat on the mound for the last 5-6 weeks as fans have seen his ERA rise to the mid 6.00’s. It seems unfathomable that Colon will continue to pitch as poorly as he has and improvement can be expected. Colon’s first half in 2007 is reminiscent of his 2004 first half – bad! Let’s hope he replicates his second half from that season. With the All-Star break, and the second half rotation set, Colon will receive nine days off before his next start, which could be key to his ability to get off to a good start in the second half.

Most alarming has been the performance of Ervin Santana, who was off to great start to his career, posting 28 wins in less than two years of service. Santana has been awful on the road and just adequate at home. There’s no doubt that Santana has Major League stuff, but the fire he showed in big games in his first two seasons has been non-existent in 2007. His face has exuded defeat from the very first pitch of most all of his starts. If he’s unable to get on track immediately after the break, expect Santana to be sent down or to the pen and replaced by Joe Saunders, who has pitched well and with grit and determination is his handful of spot starts this season.

If the Angels are to win the West and go deep into post-season, they will not only need the starting staff to improve, but also the bullpen. Only Scot Shields and Frankie Rodriguez have excelled. Middle relief has been a huge problem for the club and must get better. Dustin Moseley has been good, but can’t be expected to continue to consistently pitch as well as he has. A 4.00+ ERA in the minors suggests that Major League hitters will catch up to the right hander, something that has already begun recently. It seems that hitters have already figured Chris Bootcheck out, as he has been shelled in his most recent outings. The Angels have already designated an ineffective Hector Carrasco for assignment. Darren Oliver has been better of late, but will need to continue to improve in the second half if he is to be counted upon to get left-handers out late in games.

The good news is Justin Speier appears to be on the verge of returning to the Angels in the second half. Speier was lights out before a viral infection sidelined him early in the season. Speier, along with an improving Oliver may or may not be enough to solidify the bullpen.

Bill Stoneman has been ridiculed for his stubborn attitude towards trades since he took over GM duties. With the Angels’ offense performing consistently well, it’s the pitching that can use an upgrade in 2007. As Stoneman is a pitching first general manager, he may be motivated to move pieces to gain an arm, specifically for the bullpen.

The Mariners may not go away. Regardless, the Angels have enough to get by them and capture another Division title. The Mariners have played beyond their ability and should be taken seriously. However, their bullpen cannot be expected to pitch as effectively in the second half as it has in the first based on past performance and their rotation has over achieved. Offensively, they are good, but lack consistent production in the middle of the line-up as Richie Sexon and Adrian Beltre are prone to long hitting slumps. Losing Hargrove and his leadership is huge. Ichiro Suzuki’s contract situation and the always volatile Jose Guillen are potential distractions down the stretch. Look for the M’s to fade around mid-August.

Once in the playoffs, Mike Scioscia can shorten the rotation. Lackey, Escobar and Weaver are as formidable a trio as any in the American League. But against patient hitting teams like Boston, Detroit and Cleveland, the Angels will be hard pressed to get their starting pitchers through seven innings. The bullpen will be a huge factor in determining whether or not the Angels can get past those teams. Another quality arm in the bullpen might make the difference between winning a World Series or being knocked out in the first round, even more so than the elusive “big bat,” which does not appear to be available, and unlikely to be acquired even if it was.

We can analyze and speculate all we want, but in the end, as with every season it will come down to the games played on the field. The Angels, to reach their ultimate goal will need to beat the Mariners (and A’s for that matter) head to head. With ten games remaining against Seattle the opportunity is there for either team to seize control of the division.

How will it turn out?

You just never know.
Love to hear what you think!


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