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By Jock Thompson - Angelswin.com Columnist
After winning 100 games for the first time in franchise history, the 2008 Angels missed their best opportunity to bring home a World Championship since 2002. Even after securing home-field advantage, the Angels were unable to take even one of their first two games at Angel Stadium. Post-ALDS player comments left no doubt as to how Angel players felt about the superiority of this team, and few in baseball believe that the Red Sox were that much better than the Angels, if at all. But Boston is advancing in the post-season, largely due to the following:
1) John Lester. John Lackey pitched well, but the Red Sox had the best pitcher in the series, a lefthander with a terrific arsenal and great location movement and who maintains his stuff well into the late innings. Boston manager Terry Francona made a huge mistake in removing him after the 7th inning in Game Four, but the Angels were unable to seal the deal.
2) Angel fundamentals. Let’s face it, aside from the starting pitching, the Angels played poorly for most of the series. They made some key base-running mistakes, played shaky defense, and most important, their plate approach with runners in scoring position was terrible, something that plagued the Angels all season and remains an ongoing organizational weakness. Consider the following series numbers: In 20 ABs with runners in scoring position, Angel hitters offered at 15 first pitches and five second pitches prior to seeing strike one. They came up empty in all 20 swings while recording 10 outs, a sac fly by Teixeira being the only RBI.
3) Poor individual Angel performances: Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar were a combined 4-for-35 without a walk, and neither were particularly solid defensively. Kendrick struck out seven times while stranding 13 baserunners. Frankie Rodriguez did nothing to impress would-be suitors in his two appearances; he and Ervin Santana – who had a two-out-none-on four run first inning meltdown – share much of the burden for the Game Two loss. Garrett Anderson completely disappeared after Game One. And in spite of Torii Hunter’s 5-for-11 with runners in scoring position, he was guilty of more first-pitch hacking than any other Angel hitter, resulting in 12 runners left on base.
4) The botched squeeze: A lot of second-guessing on this one, but even those who agreed with Scioscia’s call here have to admit that it was a huge high-stakes gamble. Erick Aybar isn’t exactly the steadiest player on which to lay this burden, Delcarmen throws nasty moving stuff and hadn’t been particularly close to the plate with his first two pitches, and Willits was committed. Keeping these factors in mind along with Willits’s speed, a safety squeeze – as opposed to a suicide squeeze – might have been the better call. Allowing Aybar – a fine contact hitter – to continue his AB with a 2-0 count and the infield drawn in might have been the best call.
The Bottom Line: This was destined to be a close series, and in spite of the Angels’ occasionally poor play, it was. All four games could have gone either way, the Angels coming back several times to keep them close. Other than playing better – and adopting better plate discipline with runners on base – the Angels couldn’t have done too many things differently. This divisional series defeat can hardly be compared to the futility of, say, the Cubs vs. the Dodgers
So what’s ahead for 2009? There are free agents, extensions and player options to consider, along with promising newcomers who need playing time. Most of the off-season moves will depend on owner Arte Moreno’s purse-strings and perhaps a tightening budget in a down economy that threatens revenues. Spending in one area will adversely impact another, and bang-for-the-buck should always be a consideration. But here are one fanalyst’s ten recommendations, in priority sequence:
1) Address the team’s offensive weaknesses – notably plate discipline, ability / willingness to take walks and power – without overpaying. The first priority is obvious: Sign Mark Teixeira, if possible. If not, consider free agents like Pat Burrell, Adam Dunn and even Manny Ramirez.
2) Gauge the interest of CC Sabathia in coming to SoCal at a discount to what the Yankees will offer, something that has been long rumored among his friends and in the press. Particularly if Teixeira can’t be signed, the Angels may need to build 2009 around starting pitching again. A front five of Sabathia, Lackey, Santana, Saunders and Weaver is almost a 2009 post-season guarantee - health permitting, of course.
3) Pick up Guerrero’s and Lackey’s options; explore extensions with both of them. Prior to any contract discussions, persuade Guerrero to have his knee surgically repaired.
4) Find playing time for both Kendry Morales – either at 1B if Teixeira walks, or DH/OF - and Brandon Wood, either at 3B or SS. Both bats should improve Angel HR power going forward.
5) Find a place for Maicer Izturis in the lineup, whether it be at SS, 3B or as a utility / DH. Work him into the DH mix in an effort to keep him healthy.
6) Gauge Chone Figgins’ ability / interest in playing LF, in what is likely his final season as an Angel. If either or both is lacking, explore his trade value.
7) If Figgins isn’t going to be the LF, consider re-signing Juan Rivera.
8) Allow Jon Garland, Garrett Anderson, and Rob Quinlan to walk. Thanks for the memories, guys.
9) Re-sign KRod only at a hometown discount. If this isn’t possible, the bullpen could be a true committee, with Shields and Arredondo alternating sharing two-inning saves, supplemented by Jepson and Escobar, the latter by mid-season.
10) Explore Aybar’s trade value, but don’t just give him away. If he stays, he comes off the bench and / or shares time until he improves offensively.
And finally, expand front office efforts in identifying “free talent” being disposed of by other clubs. GM Tony Reagins had a good first year, landing Torii Hunter at the last minute – even if the Angels slightly overpaid for his services – and scooping up Teixeira for Casey Kotchman at the deadline. But in recent years, the Angels have had little if any success in identifying either talent that other organizations are willing to move for little in return, or inexpensive free agents with good upside.
For example, Carlos Quentin might have filled Angel power / OBP needs for years to come, and he was sent to the White Sox for nothing. Aubrey Huff could have filled LH power needs, and now in retrospect, he would have been a bargain at the three-year $20m deal price for which he signed with the Orioles.
Even with the encroaching talent of TEX and OAK, the AL West remains the Angels’ for the taking in 2009. The Angels off-season moves need to keep the post-season – and what it will take to win there – in mind. The lessons of 2008 should prove instructive.