Friday, July 31, 2009

By Geoff Bilau, Senior Editor

The 2009 trade deadline has passed, with the Angels electing to stand pat as they move into the final 62 games of the season. The good news is they're 20 games over .500, lead the American League West by three games over Texas and have scored more runs per game than any team in the Major Leagues. But there's plenty of bad news, too; among the Angels top-4 starting pitchers, only John Lackey looked good in July, the bullpen has shown flashes, but remains erratic and generally untrustworthy in front of Brian Fuentes (who himself got hammered in his past two outings) and the schedule for next 12 games (at Minnesota, at Chicago, Texas and Tampa Bay) ratchets up a notch from the previous two weeks.

Looking ahead to the final two months of the regular season, the following are the five biggest questions facing the Angels in the stretch and beyond in 2009:

1) Will an eighth-inning set up-man emerge from within?

There are plenty of candidates from whom manager Mike Scioscia can choose, but not one that has shown the kind of consistency necessary to earn the ball each time the Angels hold a close lead late. Darren Oliver (4-0, 2.62) has been the most solid, earning 12 holds so far this season, but his success is more often the product of favorable match ups and he's not really a strikeout pitcher. After dismal starts to the season, Jason Bulger (4-1, 3.88) and Kevin Jepsen (2-2, 7.04) have both rebounded well, but still have their share of hiccups. Veteran Justin Speier strings a few great appearances together and then erases all the progress with a complete meltdown. Jose Arredondo (10-2 with 16 holds and a 1.62 ERA last season) could be the answer, but he's rehabbing an injury and still struggling to dominate AAA hitters.

2) Will Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana regain their 2008 All-Star form?

With General Manager Tony Reagins unable to consummate a deal for another starting pitcher, the Angels are going to ride the struggling All-Stars as long as they can in the hope they'll rediscover what made them a combined 33-14 last season. Santana's troubles are somewhat explainable by the forearm injury that delayed his season into mid-May, but he is supposedly healthy and throwing pain free, so his inconsistency seems more mental than physical. Saunders, on the other hand, started the season very strong, going 5-1 with a 2.66 ERA through his first seven starts. In 14 starts since then, however, Saunders is 3-5 with a 5.51 ERA, and his 22 home runs allowed are one fewer than league leader Jeremy Guthrie of Baltimore.

When the offense inevitably cools down, the success or failure of these two starters will dictate a great deal about the Angels record in the final 62 games considering they're likely to start around 24 of them.

3) Will the Angels figure out how to beat the Rangers?

The Angels and Rangers have met nine times this season, with Texas already having won seven games. With 10 more games head-to-head, including seven of the season's final 16 games, the Rangers will have ample opportunity to shave games from any Angels lead -- if they've got one.

4) Will Torii Hunter pick up where he left off?

While the Angels offense has actually been better since the first-half MVP (.305, 17 HR, 65 RBI) went on the disabled list on July 10 (123 runs in 17 games, 7.24 per game), the team will likely need a quick return to form from their gold glove center fielder if they're going to continue to dominate offensively. Hunter, tentatively expected back during the next home stand, will return to the heart of the order and a slow start upon his return could quickly derail the offensive continuity that developed during his absence.

5) Does Vladimir Guerrero have anything left to give?

Placed on the disabled list the same day as Hunter, Guerrero was not producing anywhere near his typical All-Star levels, batting .290 but with only four home runs and 21 RBI after already missing 35 games in April and May. With his injuries mounting and skills seemingly eroding quickly, the future Hall-of-Famer's status for 2010 is certainly in doubt, but so is his effectiveness in 2009. A huge second half, however, would not be unprecedented. Guerrero batted .330 and slugged .580 in the second half last year after going .286 and .483 in the first half, but he's at least two years older now (thanks to a birth certificate disclosure) and has barely shown glimpses of his MVP form so far this season.

When he returns, Hunter will take at-bats from Gary Matthews Jr. It's not so clear, however, where Guerrero will get his; likely at DH and from Mike Napoli, Howie Kendrick and Maicer Izturis, all three of whom have excelled during Guerrero's absence. Scioscia is certain to give Guerrero some leash to get things turned around; the question will be how much.
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