Monday, October 25, 2010

By Jonathan Northrop - Contributor

The 2000s were quite a decade for the Angels, from the World Series championship of 2002 to five division winners in the next seven years; they have been by far the dominant team in the AL West and one of the most successful franchises in baseball. But in 2010 the Rangers surprised them and took the division quite handily, finishing 10 games ahead of the struggling Angels who, at 80-82, finished with their worst record since 2003.

Obviously a lot went wrong for the Angels in 2010: from the early season injury of Kendry Morales, to the absolute disasters that were Brandon Wood, Jeff Mathis, and Scott Kazmir, to the stagnation and/or decline of Juan Rivera, Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, and Mike Napoli, to the slow first halves of Hideki Matsui and Bobby Abreu, to the disappointing trade acquisition in Alberto Callaspo, to the unstable bullpen, and so on.

In short, it was not a good year for the Angels. But more than simply numerous players having off years, 2010 revealed some major holes in the Angels team: an offense that returned to anemic levels after a franchise-best 883 runs scored in 2009. How bad was the 2010 offense? With 681 total runs the Angels scored 4.2 per game, their lowest rate since 1992. Players that should be in their primes have shown signs of decline: 28-year old Mike Napoli’s Adjusted OPS declined for the second year in a row, and 26-year old Howie Kendrick’s batting average went down for the third year in a row. Erick Aybar not only declined from his supposed breakthrough in 2009, but outright collapsed. The combined performances of Brandon Wood and Jeff Mathis yielded 461 plate appearances of a morbid .169/.196/.241 line with 12 walks and 130 strikeouts.

The lone bright spot for the team was the starting pitching, with Jered Weaver breaking out as a legitimate staff ace, his 13-12 record not adequately representing his 3.01 ERA in 224.1 innings, with only 54 walks and a major league leading 233 strikeouts. Ervin Santana did not quite return to his ace status of 2008, but he had the second best season of his career: a 17-10 record with a 3.92 ERA and 169 strikeouts in 222.1 innings. Joel Pineiro was solid and exactly what the Angels had hoped for; but perhaps the brightest moment of the season was when the Angels traded Joe Saunders and a few prospects for Dan Haren, one of the best pitchers in the National League.

The bullpen was improved in 2010 from 2009, yet it was still erratic and without any true stoppers. Kevin Jepsen was inconsistent and both Brian Fuentes and Fernando Rodney showed themselves for the solid middle relievers that they are, but not elite closers. Jason Bulger was injured early on and Scot Shields seemed to have lost all command, probably due to retire this offseason. There were glimpses of a future stellar bullpen led by Jepsen, Jordan Walden, Michael Kohn and perhaps Rich Thompson, with Walden being dominant in limited appearances, but the bullpen never truly gelled.

Taken as a whole there is a very strong rotation, a solid and improving bullpen, but an offense that is average at best. It still remains to be seen if Kendry Morales can return to his star level of 2009; even if he does that gives the Angels only one true star-caliber hitter, supported by a group of mediocre, average, and one or two above average hitters (even Torii Hunter’s .819 OPS looks less impressive as a rightfielder than a centerfielder).

The biggest holes are obvious: 3B, C, and LF. The Angels might look to sign Adrian Beltre at 3B until Luis Jimenez, or even Kaleb Cowart, is ready in a few years; they will also make a run at either Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth to play LF, with Mike Trout at least a year away. They will also look for left-handed bullpen help. Help may come through trade as well as free agency, with Mike Napoli, Juan Rivera, and maybe Fernando Rodney likely to be shopped.

But let’s be honest, and I’m going to be very blunt: Not only aren’t the Rangers going to fade away, but they are a better ball club than the Angels, who are no longer the team to beat in the AL West. 2010 was not an aberration, not merely a glitch in continued Angels dominance, but a shift in the balance of power.

The Rangers are, for the first time in their franchise history, a team without major weaknesses. Given a healthy Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, and Josh Hamilton, their offense is one of the best in baseball. Their bullpen is excellent, Neftali Feliz leading a strong supporting relief corps; and, most surprisingly of all, they actually have a good rotation: Cliff Lee, CJ Wilson, and Colby Lewis form a strong front three, with young starts Tommy Hunter and Derek Holland on the rise. Scott Feldman is a decent back-end starter, although Rich Harden—who was once one of the most talented starters in baseball who just couldn’t stay healthy—now just looks like a mediocre pitcher who can’t stay healthy.

The point being, the Rangers aren’t just good, they’re very good and may even be better next year. Their 90-72 record was marred by late season injuries to key players, and their pitching staff is filled with young starters just coming into their own.

What are the Angels to do? They have two choices, really, or three if you combine the first two. They can either try to patch their holes with free agents and trades and hope for the Rangers to hit bumps in the road and sneak by them for a division, or they can re-build and focus on the future. The third option would be more of a middle ground, a re-tooling if you will; free agent acquisitions and trades that serve both the near and long-term, without sacrificing (or blocking) the farm.

The Angels have a trio of excellent young starters in Trevor Reckling, Tyler Chatwood, and Garret Richards that are all 1-2 years away, maybe 2-3 years from being above average major league starters. They have a few other, younger pitchers, who are a year or two behind them. They have some good young players ready for the major leagues now in Peter Bourjos, Hank Conger, and maybe Mark Trumbo, who will all need time to adjust and develop and may be a year or two away from making strong contributions. They have a group of young position players prospects in Luis Jimenez, Alexei Amarista, Jean Segura, Randal Grichuk, and maybe Jeremy Moore that all have a chance of being above average major leaguers. And then they have what they have never really had: An outfielder that is as sure a thing to be a star as one can imagine in Mike Trout.

The question Tony Reagins and Arte Moreno have to ask themselves is this: Given how good the Rangers are and will be 2011, do the Angels have enough pieces to make contention next year a matter of merely plugging a few holes? Or would it be better to build for 2012 or 2013 and beyond? There is no way that the Angels will or should throw in the towel for 2011, but it is a matter of to what degree they will focus on winning in 2011, and where in the timeline they will put their focus. They can build for the near future while still strengthening the team for next year. For example, trading Mike Napoli, Maicer Izturis, Juan Rivera, and Fernando Rodney for young players and/or prospects would not weaken the team substantially in 2011, while it could strengthen it in the future.

I would argue that the most important free agent this offseason is Cliff Lee. If the Rangers are able to sign him then they are set for dominance for at least the next few years. Lee anchors a young rotation with a true staff ace and mentor, not to mention one of the greatest postseason pitchers in baseball history. If the Yankees outbid everyone then the Rangers will still be very good, but they drop a notch and are within striking distance of a significantly re-tooled—and resurgent—Angels team. I would even argue that if nothing else changes, the difference between the 2011 with Cliff Lee vs without is the difference between a 95+ win team and an 88-92-win team. A 88-92-win team can be caught by an improved Angels team if everything breaks right for the Angels; a 95+ win Rangers team would likely be out of range of the Angels no matter who they sign, barring Beltre and Crawford and Werth or Dunn, which won’t happen. At most the Angels will sign two of the above, more likely one or even none. And one of the above will not make the difference, especially if Lee is back in Texas.

Now if the Angels swooped in and offered Lee a contract that he couldn’t refuse—my guess is that Lee ends up getting something like 6 years/$140MM—they would both improve their team by effectively replacing their worst starter (Kazmir/Bell) with one of the best in baseball that would give them the best starting three maybe since Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz, and by taking away Texas’ best pitcher. Signing Lee would, if not return the Angels to dominance in the division, at least bring them back into the conversation. If the Angels added Crawford or Werth, then we’re talking about a very interesting season next year.

Does this sort of approach sound familiar? Well, it is the approach that the Yankees and Red Sox take in their ongoing perennial war: they sign big free agents not only for the talent they bring to their own club but to keep them away from their arch-rival. So while I think Lee will end up back in Texas or with the Yankees, it is not out of the question that the Angels go after him, especially because where he goes will play a huge role in deciding the AL West. And, I would argue, it is Cliff Lee—and not Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth—that is the key to Angels’ hopes next year.

Nothing is for certain. What we do know is that the Rangers are not going away and they are, for the time being, the team to beat in the AL West and may continue to be so for the foreseeable future. There are a lot of paths that can unfold this offseason; it should be an interesting—and eventful—one!
Love to hear what you think!

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