Monday, September 13, 2010

2010-2011 Hot Stove League Preview 
(Part one of a three part series)

By Brent Hubbard - Senior Columnist

I love fall. The colors of the leaves on the trees change, the weather cools off, and we have Los Angeles Angels playoff baseball to look forward too. And when that is over, I’ll usually begin writing my off-season preview. I love the Hot Stove league.

This year however, is a bit different from the norm. Summer is not truly over yet, but the baseball season in Los Angeles is -- for all intents and purposes anyway, with twenty or so games to go, staring at a 10+ game deficit, the wildcard nowhere in sight.

This year, there will be no playoff baseball in Los Angeles -- neither in Anaheim, nor in Chavez Ravine. Both of the LA teams represented their leagues in their respective Championship Series last year. This is a big disappointment to baseball fans across the Southland for sure. The only way for me to get over this, and millions of fans like me, is to look at next year, and the first step is the Hot Stove League. It is with that in mind that I present my three-part Hot Stove League preview.

Today’s article will examine the 2010 season, what went wrong, and why it went wrong. Tomorrow’s article will take a look at the organization with help from the prospects hot list. The third article will look at improving the club via free agency and will look at the trade market, proposing several ways the club can make itself better via trade.

PART ONE: What Went Wrong?

What went wrong? It’s easy for this writer to look at the 2010 Angels and see the obvious weakness. Not scoring enough runs.

The batting averages are down across the board. At one point last year, all nine hitters in the lineup boasted .300 averages. This season, Torii Hunter leads the club with a .293 average. Then Howie Kendrick checks in next about twenty points lower at .274.

Batting Averages are down across the board. Every single Angels projected regular has underachieved in the batting average department save again Torii Hunter. The newfound ability of the Angels to take a pitch, after years of being aggressive, helped by Bobby Abreu’s acquisition in 2009, has not worked in 2010. Several regulars have On Base Percentages lower than .300. A team cannot score runs if it cannot get on base.

In the power department, the team has become a collection of slap hitters, with only four hitters having more than 15 HR, with an outside chance at five. Last season they had six.
Morales’ injury certainly has hurt, but the rest of the Angels have slipped too. Last season, the Angels slugging percentage was .441, this season it’s slipped to .397.

And it’s not just the HR that has vanished. Doubles are down, as well. We had 293 last year, just 245 this year so far.

Stolen bases are down, after the departure of Chone Figgins last off-season. Last season we had 148, this season just 87 so far.

On the pitching side, the bullpen has been bad, lacking a true leader. It has been a mix of inexperience and underperforming veterans. Fuentes seemed to get back on track after starting the season poorly, but he was then traded for a 7-foot tall pitching prospect from the Twins at the end of April.

The starting rotation has been really quite good. Santana has had a bounce-back season, 15 wins so far with a 4.02 ERA and some really stellar games. Joel Pinero has been good at 4.18 ERA, despite an injury that cost him a few starts; he has been what most expected he would be. New acquisition Dan Haren has been excellent since being acquired from the Diamondbacks for Joe Saunders, yet a 3.39 ERA has been mostly wasted, Haren is just 2-4 with the Angels. Scott Kazmir has been below average, but Weaver has been excellent with a 3.14 ERA while leading the majors in strikeouts.

The problem then, lies in the offense. Why this is perplexing is because the same basic team led the majors in runs scored and batting average the year before.

There are a few Angels who are crucified in the media for the underperformance, but there is one name that escapes most media criticism. And I believe the problems clearly start at the top of the order with him.

Erick Aybar. At the beginning of the season, he was proclaimed to be the leadoff man of the future, able to pick up right where Figgins left off, yet Aybar’s season has been downright horrible. I do realize that demoting Erick as the leadoff hitter certainly hasn't helped as of late; the Angels have scored just 22 runs over the past 11 games, while facing teams at the bottom of the AL standings.

Aybar has hit just .212 since the All-Star Break. He has a .257 OBP and a .288 SLG Pct. That is a major funk, and even his fielding has been affected. While I also believe that his fielding hasn’t been as spectacular as people think so far in his career, this season, he was supposed to take a step forward in the batting and fielding departments, but he hasn’t been able to. The brilliant plays have been there, true, but the dependability the Angels had with Orlando Cabrera, Gary Disarcina, and even David Eckstein has not been there. Aybar has more errors in his three years as the regular shortstop than any other regular Angel shortstop over a similar period. It can be said that he gets an error occasionally by getting to a ball that others cannot, and attempting to make a play that no one else attempts. I understand that argument, but I do not agree that all of Aybar’s mistakes can be attributed to this. If he isn’t contributing offensively, his defense does not make up the difference.

Searching Google for leadoff hitters, I came across an article on about how to be a good leadoff hitter. Most of us know what it takes, but it succinctly and clearly defined what makes a good leadoff hitter. After reading the five steps, I cannot see Aybar ever becoming an effective one. It’s clear to this writer that the Angels need to find a new one for 2011.

The first step listed in the article was that being a good leadoff hitter means being good at getting on base. Bunting, hitting, walks, whatever it takes to get to first. Aybar has a .312 OBP this season, down from .353 last season. He is not going to give you a OBP near .400 like Bobby Abreu, but Figgins only did that in 2009, so I can give Aybar a pass here as he has shown the ability to be a mid-.300 OBP.

The second step was to try to see as many pitches as possible. Aybar is clearly not good at this, making an effort to take more pitches while he was the leadoff hitter clearly hurt his hitting. He is a slasher, a mini-Vlad Guerrero. Third was being a great base runner. I don’t think of Aybar in this sense, save only his speed. He has 19 SB this season, up from 14, but not nearly in the 40’s and 50’s Figgins had when he led off. Fourth is being a great bunter. I can only think of bunting mistakes when I think of Aybar and bunt in the same category. Is he a good bunter? I don’t even know. Fifth is to be a pest, something Figgins did quite well. I don't think Aybar has managed to master this yet, but we’ll see.

I just don’t see him as a leadoff hitter, and frankly, because of the crowded middle infield, I’d look to trade him in the off-season. He does have talent, and is under arbitration for two more seasons. His defense can improve and is occasionally brilliant, but he is just not what the Angels need at the position. He could get better or at least back to 2009 form offensively, but he is not going to develop into Jose Reyes-lite.

Moving down to the middle of the order, it’s obvious that most of the hitters are having clearly disappointing seasons. Juan Rivera has had the worst season of his career, hitting .245 with 12 HR and a .299 Batting Average.

Bobby Abreu hasn’t been much better, hitting just .251 after a season in which he hit .293 and really impacted the offense.

Hideki Matsui, last season’s World Series MVP was brought in to replace fan favorite Vladimir Guerrero, has been great lately, but was terrible in the first half of the season. Matsui though has had a strong second half, posting a .954 OPS since the all star break. Given the age of the outfield, I doubt Matsui returns, as his contract is up after this year.

Howie Kendrick’s numbers are down, and it has been speculated much in the media that he may never develop into the player the Angels thought he would be, the batting title winning 2nd baseman.

Mike Napoli has filled in admirably at 1st base, after Morales injury, and leads the team in HR, but his defense behind the plate is frequently admonished in the media. Scioscia doesn’t trust him back there for some reason, which we are not privy to. Will this season be his last in Anaheim?

Izturis has had a bad season, but not too bad I suppose. He is hitting below .250 along with most of the team, and was hit with the injury bug again. If he could stay healthy, he could be a starter on this team rather than a fill-in, or part-time guy.

The bottom of the order has been bad as well, including Jeff Mathis, who started the season on fire, but never seemed to regain that focus at the plate after being freakily injured behind the dish after 10 games. Brandon Wood seemed to always be pressing too much, making silly defensive mistakes along with batting below the .200 mark. Can he take a step forward in 2010? Will he do that in Anaheim?

Other players have had good seasons in limited action. Mid-season addition Alberto Callaspo has been a decent addition, but they add him to a crowded middle infield (including third base), so where he fits in the future remains to be seen. Willits has had a great year as a back-up in the OF, where his fresh legs were sorely needed. Waiver wire addition Kevin Frandsen has a good year sharing time with Callaspo and Wood at 3rd. And of course, new Center Fielder Peter Bourjos has been spectacular defensively, but has not exactly taken off with a bang offensively.

I honestly believe the media when they say we miss Chone Figgins, but I believe we miss Guerrero more. That loss, compounded with Morales’ freak injury and the failure to sign Teixeira after the 2008 season, left the Angels without a true threat in the middle of the order. They did not have a superstar bat in the mold of Garrett Anderson, Tim Salmon, or Jim Edmonds. Vladimir Guerrero can take a pitch that bounces and hit it over the wall. Minus this threat, and yes the pest that Figgins is on the basepaths, the Angels were a team incomplete, a team that wasn’t exciting offensively, that didn’t threaten and that scored less than two runs nearly 50 times this season. No amount of superior pitching is going to get you wins in that many low scoring games.

It’s obvious that multiple changes need to be made on the offensive side of the ball. Which ones? I’ll examine those next in part two and three which will be posted later this week.
Love to hear what you think!

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