Monday, January 17, 2011

Jonathan Nothrop - Columnist

As I have hopefully shown in my previous article, the Angels may be better than many think and, if not the dominant team that they’ve been for most of the last decade, should at least be a good to very good 85+ win team with a chance to win in the AL West.

As with every season, the Angels enter 2011 with questions, but it seems that there are more and bigger questions this year than in most years of the recent past. Let’s go through some of the key questions of 2011, with my attempt at answering them – or at least framing them, in no particular order of importance:

In no area did the Angels decline more in 2010 than at third base, from Chone Figgins’ career year in which he was 4th in the AL with a 6.9 WAR (according to to the combined effort of Alberto Callaspo, Brandon Wood, Kevin Frandsen, and Maicer Izturis, which produced an abyssmal stat line of .223/.266/.307 at third base and a WAR of approximately -1.7. In other words, the Angels went from a near-MVP performance to one that was significantly below even replacement level – the equivalent of a drop of almost nine wins.

Each of the three candidates for third are big question marks going into 2011: Can Callaspo come close to repeating his 2009 performance in which he hit .300/.356/.457? Can Brandon Wood breakout and be at least a decent major league hitter? Can Maicer Izturis stay healthy?

If the answer is “Yes” to any of those questions than the Angels should be significantly better in 2011; remember, a replacement level player (0 WAR) is a significantly below average player – so if one or a combination of the three can perform at or close to a league average level (about a 2 WAR), the team will improve by 3-4 wins. It can’t be worse than it was in 2010 and the Angels should get at least replacement level performance from Callaspo, almost certainly better.

The other major position question is catcher, with the Angels entering 2011 with four candidates: Mike Napoli, Jeff Mathis, Bobby Wilson, and Hank Conger. Despite fans clamouring for the offense-oriented Napoli, Mike Scioscia has no confidence in his defensive and presumably pitch-calling abilities. It is an odd thing because if you watch the two Mathis and Napoli play, or if you look at various defensive statistics, there is very little difference between the two. This leads me to the conclusion that A) Mathis may be better at things that aren’t readily visually apparent, like pitch-calling and rapport with the pitchers, and B) Scioscia thinks that he could still fulfill some of his potential.

But the question that fans have been asking, how much better can Mathis possibly be at pitch calling when he is such a terrible hitter? And at what point do you stop thinking what a player could be and look at what they are? Mathis turns 28 in March and now has a career line of .199/.265/.311 in 333 games. I’m sure there are some but I can’t think of a single active player with 300+ games and that bad of a career line.

The difference between a lineup with Rivera, Abreu and Napoli vs. Abreu, Napoli and Mathis is enormous. Putting Mathis in the lineup effectively replaces a .750-.800 OPS hitter (Rivera) or worse, an .800-.850 hitter (Napoli) with a .600 OPS hitter (Mathis).

It may be that Bobby Wilson is a decent middle ground between the two, a better hitter than Mathis and a better defender than Napoli. But we haven’t seen enough yet to know. Wilson will be in the mix in 2011 but third on the depth chart.

Finally we come to Hank Conger. Perhaps the biggest question at catcher is whether Conger will develop good enough catching skills to convince Scioscia to let him play in the majors. Conger’s bat is ready – he absolutely destroyed AAA pitching in the final two months of 2010 – but evidently his glove isn’t, at least to Scioscia’s liking. But Conger only turns 23 this month and it is likely that the Angels bring him along slowly; he may not be a full-time catcher in the majors for another year or two.

Unless the Angels sign a veteran leftfielder like Scott Podsednik or Johnny Damon, Bobby Abreu will be getting plenty of starts in the outfield, which means Napoli will get time at DH. Chances are that to start 2011, Mathis and Napoli will platoon at catcher, with Mathis getting a few more starts and Napoli getting a large share of the DH at-bats, and Wilson getting maybe a start a week and some late innings work. Conger will likely start the year in AAA Salt Lake to work on his defense and polish up his hitting. He will be up at some point in 2011, but a lot depends upon how well Napoli, Mathis and Wilson are doing, how well the Angels are doing, and what the trade market looks like. As with third base, it may come down to he who plays best, plays most.

First, is he healthy? Second, is he going to return to – and even build upon - his 2009 near-superstar level, or will he perform closer to his more moderate, but still good, 2010 level? Another way of framing it is this: Will Morales be a borderline star and hit around .290 with 25-30 HR and an .850 OPS, or will he be a legitimate star and hit .300+ with 30+ HR and a .900+ OPS?

If Morales isn’t healthy or gets injured then Mark Trumbo will get his chance and, in truth, this possibility may be the only reason that Trumbo hasn’t been packaged in a trade yet. If he is healthy, we don’t really know how good he’ll be, but how good he will be will set the tone for the rest of the offense.

It is unlikely that a player who hits .306/.355/.569 with 34 HR in his first full season at age 26 will not at least be a borderline star, but it is not unheard of. While Angels fans would like to assume that they have a perennial .900 OPS hitter at first base, we just don’t know yet at this point whether or not 2009 was a career year for Morales.

The greatest strength of the 2011 Angels is the starting rotation, featuring one of the best foursomes in baseball in Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana, and Joel Pineiro. There are minor questions about each of the four – whether Weaver can sustain his new level of performance, which Santana will show up, and how many innings Pineiro can pitch – but by and large there aren’t any major concerns.

Scott Kazmir is the wildcard: If he continues to struggle the rotation will still be good, even very good, but will have a major flaw: either an erratic Kazmir or a mediocre Trevor Bell or Matt Palmer as its fifth starter, or maybe even an ongoing try-out for prospects Tyler Chatwood, Garret Richards, and Trevor Reckling in the second half. If Kazmir finds himself this offseason he could conceivably be the All-Star caliber pitcher he was from 2005-08 and vie with Ervin Santana for third best starter on the staff, giving the Angels a rotation that could be behind only the Phillies for best in the majors.

An Angels staff with a resurgent Kazmir will compete pretty much no matter how bad the offense is; so while the rotation will be the greatest strength of the team with or without a resurgent Kazmir, it is Kazmir’s performance in 2011 that could most impact the team as a whole.

In March of 2005 Baseball America rated the Angels farm system as the best in baseball, largely on account of their “polished, premium bats.” Two of these bats—the most polished at the time, Dallas McPherson and Casey Kotchman—have since departed and have had disappointing careers, to say the least. Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, Jeff Mathis, Mike Napoli, and Brandon Wood are now all on the big league roster, but none have become stars and all—except for Napoli—have been disappointing to some degree or another.

So the question is, will any of the crop of no-longer-that-young players breakthrough? Not just Kendrick, Aybar, Mathis, and Wood, but the Angels have a new generation of prospects coming up in Peter Bourjos, Hank Conger, Mark Trumbo, and Alexi Amarista all likely to see major league action in 2011, with super-prospect Mike Trout not far behind. The law of averages would hold that given their ages, at least Kendrick and Aybar should rebound somewhat after career-worst percentile numbers in 2010. Mathis and Wood certainly can’t be worse and still have some breakout potential, and we can hope that Napoli’s plate discipline returns (he had a career worst 8.2% walk rate in 2010, the first time it has been below the MLB average of 8.6%; the good news is that it was a bit better in the 2nd half – 9.2%, although still below his career number of 11.1%).

Player Focus: The Perennial Tease that is Howie Kendrick
Let’s look at one player in more depth, as he is exemplary of this phenomena of recent Angels position players not fulfilling their perceived potential. Fans and professional analysts alike have been expecting a breakthrough from Howie Kendrick for a few years now; after 2007, when he hit .322/.347/.450 at age 23, it looked like stardom was imminent. When he had a .500/.526/.694 stat line through his first two weeks of 2008 it looked like stardom had arrived with a bang. Then he got injured and was out for a month and a half. When he returned his numbers plummeted and then fluctuated, finally tapering away to a modest but respectable .306/.333/.421.

Angels fans had high hopes that 2009 would be the year that Howie would put it all together – both in terms of health and performance. After a very cold start his numbers stood at .231/.281/.355 on June 11th, leading to a demotion to AAA for a few weeks. He quickly found his stroke and returned to Anaheim on July 4th and proceeded to tear the cover off of the ball for the rest of the year, although played in only 54 of the remaining 83 games, losing at-bats to Maicer Izturis, who was also hot-hitting. Kendrick hit .351/.387/.532 in those 54 games to finish with a .291/.334/.444 line.

Going into 2010, there was nothing holding Kendrick back. He had finally been healthy in 2009 and, while having a terrible first half, seemed to finally find himself for a sustained period of time during the second half. I predicted that his last 54 games was not a fluke and that Kendrick would breakthrough by hitting .328/.367/.502, certainly optimistic but hardly unreasonable considering his 2nd half performance in 2009 that seemed the fulfillment of his gaudy minor league career numbers (.360/.403/.569), numbers that were consistent at every level. Yet Howie never seemed to catch fire, at least not consistently; he would get hot and string together a few multi-hit games, then go hitless for a few games. He ended his first full season with his worst percentile numbers: .279/.313/.407. Yet a career-worst BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of .313 (compared to his career of .339) matched an impression that those who saw him play witnessed: He just seemed unlucky, with numerous line-drive outs, many of which, on a better day and a better season for the Angels, might have found holes and driven his numbers up substantially.

So what went wrong with Howie Kendrick? How could a player hit .360/.403/.569 in the minor leagues, show flashes of brilliance in the big leagues—including a .358/.391/.558 second half in 2009 (in 48 games), and compile a pedestrian .295/.327/.425 in his first 515 major league games? Kendrick is hardly old, but with 2011 being his age-27 year he is no longer young. What can be expect going forward? Well, given that the age-27 season is the most common year that a player has a career year and/or breaks out to their peak level of performance, and add that to his uncharacteristically low BABIP in 2010, it is reasonable to assume a performance spike. But to what level? Can Howie still hit .330+ yearly with multiple batting titles to his name? Given the evidence so far, probably not.

It is probably time to accept Howie for what he is—a quality major league second baseman, both with the bat and glove, but not a star—and hope that he can take it up a notch in 2011 and beyond. But we should leave aside expectations of .330/.370/.500; given that batting averages fluctuate, he could still win a title at some point in his career, but it may be that .300/.340/.450 is is a more possible expectation for Kendrick, and that is still pretty good. With his hand-eye coordination and the fickle nature of batting averages, don’t be surprised to see a few .320+ seasons sprinkled in, with the unfortunate correlation of another .280 season or two possible. But, in the end, it would be very surprising if a player with Kendrick’s talents does not hit around .300 for the bulk of his peak. Not the second coming of Rod Carew, but still a pretty good player.

The above five are he biggest questions that the Angels face going into 2011, although with numerous other smaller questions; I will briefly outline two that, while not as important as the Big Five, may still have substantial impact:

Bonus Question 1: Who Will Be Closing in September?
Angels fans breathed a collective sigh of relief when Brian Fuentes was traded last year, yet seemingly without realizing that it was out of the frying pan (Fuentes) and into the fire (Fernando Rodney). The Angels enter 2011 with Rodney as the default closer, but with fireballer Jordan Walden waiting in the wings. Scioscia may want to see how Walden settles into the majors for more than just a few weeks, or he may go with a closer-by-committee until someone (likely Walden) emerges as the best stopper. I wouldn’t be surprised if at the end of the year no single Angel has more than 20 saves, and a few have 10 or more. But Scioscia will want to go into the stretch run with someone firmly ensconced in the role, so expect a singular closer to emerge in August at the latest.

Bonus Question 2: Who is Leading Off?
In my opinion, the answer is obvious: Bobby Abreu has the best on-base skills, which is the most important capacity of a leadoff hitter. All of this changes if the Angels sign Scott Podsednik or Johnny Damon; 35-year old Podsednik has a decent but unremarkable OBP (.342 and .353 the last two years), still can steal 30+ SB and is an average leftfielder; 37-year old Damon has a better OBP (.355 and .365 the last two years), but has lost his power (.401 SLG last year compared to .489 the year before), steals about 10 bases a year now, and is a terrible defender. Neither are great choices, but both can benefit the team and be affordable (although this depends on whether or not Damon’s ego has shrunk to be commensurate with his current abilities).

The Angels may be best served by leading off with Abreu and signing Manny Ramirez to a one-year contract in that hopes that he can stay healthy enough to play 120+ games.

The Angels will be a good team in 2011, although just how good depends upon how these questions end up being answered. If they are, as a whole, answered in the negative then the Angels will struggle to reach .500 for a second year in a row; if they are a mixed bag, as seems most likely, they will win around 85 games and be in contention deep into the season; if the questions are answered overall positively, this could be a very good, 90+ win team.

As always, it will be an interesting ride; the least we can say is that—and for you newcomers to Angels fandom, this is something that wasn’t always the case—Angels baseball is always interesting, with there always being a chance of making the postseason, and the pain of being less than excellent is due to a strong track record of winning ballclubs over the last nine years that we can hope will continue into the future.

Love to hear what you think!

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