Wednesday, January 12, 2011

By Jonathan Northrop - Columnist

Step back with me for a moment to early November. The World Series was finished and the offseason newly begun, with a sense of hope among Angels fans and a near-assumption that Carl Crawford, the top free agent position player and a quintessential Scioscia-style Angels player, would be patrolling left field next year. Everyone knew he would be expensive, with general consensus speculation being that he would require more than Torii Hunter money (5/$90M) but less than Matt Holliday money (7/$120M). Arte Moreno even infamously said that the Angels were going to make a “big splash” and that he would do whatever needed to be done to improve the team.

Fast-forward to December 5th and the fit hits the shan. The Nationals signed the late-blooming Jayson Werth – a 31-year old outfielder with a .272/.367/.481 line in 775 games – to a monstrous 7-year, $126M contract. If you remember, the talk in November was that Werth would get four, maybe five years for around $15 million per year, not seven years at $18 million per year. Werth is known for his postseason heroics and has been a very good player for four years, but is really not one of the elite players in baseball. 

You know the rest: Carl Crawford eventually signed with the Red Sox for 7/$142 million and Adrian “Plan B” Beltre signed with the Rangers for a guaranteed 5/$80 million (plus a possible sixth year for $16 million). The Angels are now left considering a bunch of lesser and/or aging options for left field and third base, with has-been stars and mediocre regulars like Johnny Damon and Scott Podsednik being mentioned as possibilities for LF, some combination of Alberto Callaspo, Brandon Wood, and Maicer Izturis for 3B. The offseason has been called a disappointment at best, a disaster at worst.

But has it been disastrous? And how do the Angels look going into 2011? I would argue that—and I won’t mince words—Angels fans need to get a grip and not only take another look at the team as-is, but the longer range plan, as well as the overall picture of the last decade. In this article we will look both at the prospects of the team next year and over the mid-to-long term (say, the next 3-5 years).

Part I: Why the 2011 Angels Might Be Better Than You Think

There are plenty of reasons to expect the Angels to be better in 2011 than they were in 2010. First, let’s compare the last two seasons:

2009: 97-65, 883 runs scored (102 better than league average), 761 (10 better than league average) = 112 runs better than league average.

2010: 80-82, 681 runs scored (50 worse), 702 allowed (14 better) = 36 runs worse than league average

In both years the Angels pitching was slightly better than league average – by 10 runs in 2009, 14 runs in 2010. To break it down a bit further, here are the starters and relievers for both years by ERA, with AL averages in parentheses:

2009: Starters – 4.44 (4.62); Relievers - 4.49 (4.17)
2010: Starters – 4.05 (4.26); Relievers – 4.03 (3.89)

The above shows that in both years, the starting pitching was better than average, but the relief pitching worse than average – although improved in 2010. We’ll get back to the pitching in a moment.

The hitting was vastly different – the Angels were well above average in 2009, with the second most runs scored in the AL and the most in franchise history, while in 2010 they were solidly (but not hugely) below average, ninth out of fourteen teams. To put it more extremely, the Angels scored 202 runs less in 2010 than in 2009; now this number is exagerrated because the league average went down from 771 to 721. But if you acount for it as a percentile, the 2009 squad was 14.5% above average, and the 2010 squad 5.5% below. To put it another way, the 2009 had a run percentage of 114.5%, the 2010 team 94.4% (with 100% being the AL average).

Can the 2011 team score more runs? The main differences in the 2009 and 2010 teams was replacing 154 starts of Chone Figgins at third base with a platoon Brandon Wood (46), Alberto Callaspo (52), Kevin Frandsen (38) and Maicer Izturis (26), and replacing Vladimir Guerrero with Hideki Matsui at DH. Matsui’s 2010 performance was actually significantly better than Guerrero’s 2009, but the difference between Figgins in ’09 and 2010 platoon cannot be overstated. Some comparisons, using’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement metric; for reference, a 0-2 WAR is a sub, 2+ a regular, 5+ an All-Star, 8+ an MVP equivalent).

Figgins 6.9
Guerrero 0.3

Callaspo/Wood/Frandsen/Izturis* -1.7
Matsui 2.0

*Note: Given that Izturis played a bit more than half of his games at other positions, I’ve only included a little less than than half of his WAR of 1.1 (0.5).

To put it another way, while Matsui was a net gain of 1.7 WAR, the difference between Figgins and the 2010 platoon was a massive 8.6 WAR, or the difference between an MVP-caliber player. To put it another way, with everything else remaining the same, Figgins staying with the Angels and repeating his 2009 performance would have changed them from an 80-82 team to an 89-73 team.

But it wasn’t just the loss of Figgins; numerous players through the lineup had worse seasons. Overall the 2010 position players had a 10.8 WAR (including a -2.8 defensive modifier) while the 2010 had a 30.4 WAR (with exactly average defense) – meaning the 2009 position players were almost twenty wins better (and Figgins alone accounted for almost half of that).

If you add up Aybar, Kendrick, Hunter, Abreu, Napoli, Rivera, Morales, and Izturis, the 2009 group had a total WAR of 25; the same group in 2010 had a WAR of 11.6. What’s more is that every single player without exception of the eight mentioned had a lower WAR in 2010 than in 2009.

Need I go on? The purpose of all these arcane numbers is two-fold: One, to give another angle on just how much worse the offense was in 2010 than in 2009, and two to show how it was so across-the-board, so unanimous and uniform that it simply cannot be repeated next year. Furthermore, all of the eight mentioned players except for Hunter performed below previously established career norms in terms of BA, OBP, and SLG.

To quote an unnamed philosopher, “No one is smart enough to be wrong all of the time.” No lineup is bad enough to get worse in all aspects for a second year in a row, or for all players not to revert back to the mean to some degree. Certainly some of those players may not improve, but some will. If nothing else, whoever plays 3B can’t be worse than last year(Angels third basemen cumulatively hit .223/.266/.307), and simply by playing at a replacement level will add a couple wins. If some combination of Callaspo, Wood, and Izturis can provide league average performance at 3B, the difference will be more like four wins – and that is from third base alone. If there is small to moderate improvement across the board – and from at least a few of the eight players mentioned above – then the same team just from an 80-win team to an 85-90 win team. 

In other words, if last year’s team won 80 games with the eight mentioned players providing a WAR of 11.6, and if you even go just a third of the way back towards their 2009 performance to 16 WAR, and then you add in 2-3 WAR improvement at third base, you have a 5-6 win improvement from the offense – and that is without any major breakout players or even returning close to 2009 production.

What about the pitching? As previously mentioned, in both of the last two years the pitching staff has been a bit above average, with the relief pitching slightly improved in 2010. But there are a couple of significant changes in store for 2011: One, the Angels are replacing approximately 20 starts of Joe Saunders with 20 starts of Dan Haren; two, they are replacing Scot Shields and Brian Fuentes with Scott Downs and Hisanori Takahashi. There are other areas for mild to moderate optimism: In the bullpen, Kevin Jepsen has one more year of experience under his belt, Rich Thompson looks to have found himself, Jordan Walden and Michael Kohn are two young flame-throwers that showed great promise in short stints last year. In other words, the bullpen should be at least a little better, maybe substantially so.

As for the rotation, assuming health we can expect similar performances from Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana, and Joel Pineiro – an excellent starting four. The real wildcard is Scott Kazmir, who could be anything from terrible (as he was last year) to very good (2005-2008). We shouldn’t be too quick to write Kazmir off as a lost cause as it would seem his problem is a combination of psychology and mechanics, both of which can be fixed. But even without a resurgent Kazmir, the starting rotation is very good, definitely top ten, maybe top five; if Kazmir comes anywhere close to his early level of performance, it could arguably be the second best rotation in baseball after the Phillies.

A lot can go wrong. Injuries can and will happen. But the same is true for every other team in baseball, including the Rangers. Despite our mental scarring and experience of numerous disappointments, we shouldn’t forget that. Just as players can have disappointing seasons, so too can they have breakouts. We can’t expect the lineup to return to its 2009 production, but we can expect it to return to at least league average, and maybe more. An average offense improves the team by 4-6 wins; coupled with a little improvement from the bullpen (say 1-2 wins) and starting pitching (1-2 wins), we’re looking at a 6-10 win improvement, or 86-90 wins total. And again, that is assuming no major breakthroughs or team-wide improvement – just some players reverting to the mean, some players improving. With a little luck, a breakthrough or two, and a touch of Scioscia magic, this team could win 90+ games and take the division.

Part II: The AL West Is Not the Best
Let’s be honest: as it stands now, the Rangers are the team to beat in 2011. Furthermore, the Athletics are improved from last year and should, at least, compile another winning season. Gone are the days when it wasn’t a matter of whether the Angels would win the division, but by how much; from 2007-09 they won the division by a total of 37 games, including 21 in their 100-win 2008 season. 

In the process of six playoff appearances between 2002 and 2009, Angels fans have not only come to expect excellence, they (we) have become a bit spoiled. Compare the period from 1987 to 2001, a fifteen year span without a single playoff berth and only five seasons above .500 and only one 90+ win season. This does not mean we should accept the inevitability of the Angels returning to being a lousy team, but that we should appreciate how far they’ve come as a franchise, largely due to the leadership of Mike Scioscia and the ownership of Arte Moreno.

But the Rangers are hardly an unbeatable team and the level of competition in the AL West is far from, say, the AL East, where the fourth best team won 85 games last year. I will not go into detail about the Rangers, but they lost their staff ace in Cliff Lee and their rotation, while potentially good, is comprised of players without a long history of success (CJ Wilson, Colby Lewis, Scott Feldman), young and relatively unproven players (Tommy Hunter and Derek Holland), and the question mark that is Brandon Webb. Their bullpen remains stellar and their lineup formidable, not to mention a greatly improved defense with Adrian Beltre in the fold, but their three biggest stars—Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, and Ian Kinsler—are all known for being injury-prone; the three combined for 344 games last year. Of course it could be argued that if the Rangers were the AL Champions with only 344 games from their three best players, how many games will they win in 2011 if the three are healthy?

My point is not that the Rangers have big problems but that, like the Angels, there is a wide range of possible performance and they are not a lock to dominate, or even win, the division. They are still favored above the Angels, but not so much so that we should not have hope or that the season won’t be interesting.
The Athletics, despite some offseason moves, are still probably a less-than-90-win team and will battle it out with the Angels for second place. The Mariners…well, their problems run deep and will almost certainly be the AL West basement dwellers once more in 2011.

The bottom line is that the Rangers are a very good team but not a great one, which means that if they suffer some bad luck and the Angels some good luck, then the division can be won. I know, this is not much consolation for a now-spoiled Angels fan base, but it does mean that there will probably be meaningful Angels baseball games in September.

Part III: This is the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius
Aquarius…water…fish…Trout…Get it?

Thanks for humoring me. OK, the good news: Mike Trout. In fact, he’s the best news the Angels have had in years, and may be the best Angels prospect ever. Think Darin Erstad plus lightning speed plus plate discipline plus baseball acumen (sorry, Darin, your “tinkering” approach with the bat kept you from being a star). Or think of, as Baseball Prospectus prospect guru Kevin Goldstein does, a better-hitting Grady Sizemore.Yes, that Grady Sizemore – one of the most electrifying players in baseball from 2005 to 2008 until injuries derailed his career. The sky is the limit for Trout; a low-end projection is that he is a perennial .300 hitter with enough walks to get on base at a .370+ clip and enough gap power to slug .450+, and the speed to steal 30+ bases and be an above average center fielder or excellent left fielder. A higher projection is as a potential batting champion with an OPS over .900, 40+ SB, and Gold Glove defense. Regardless of how good he’ll be, he’ll almost certainly be a very good, very exciting player.

Now think of a farm system that went from being one of the best in baseball six or seven years ago with an ultimately disappointing output of prospects to one of the worst in baseball two or three years ago, and now possibly being in the top ten again and rising. We all know about the many disappointments of that once-great system—Dallas McPherson, Casey Kotchman, Brandon Wood, and Jeff Mathis have especially performed well below expectations—but there is no doubting the fact that the farm system was good enough to support six postseason appearances in eight years. 

Goldstein recently remarked that he was surprised at how deep the Angels system is—with solid prospects at just about every position and every level, from a handful of quality starting pitchers who will be ready in the next year or two (Tyler Chatwood, Garret Richards, Trevor Reckling, and Fabio Martinez Mesa) to a group of strong relief prospects (Jeremy Berg, Tillman, Steven Geltz, and Eddie McKiernan), to a group of good outfield prospects (Jeremy Moore, Randal Grichuk, Andrew Heid, Travis Witherspoon), to a group high draft position players in the low minors (Kaleb Cowart, Chevez Clarke, Ryan Bolden, Taylor Lindsey), to a pair of quality middle infield prospects (Alexi Amarista and Jean Segura), the latter of which Goldstein ranked as a five-star prospect along with Trout.

To put it another way, the Angels farm system is stacked and, with another year or two of overall positive development, on the verge of overflowing with talent. Best of all, the last year or two has seen division rivals drop in prospect rankings.

It should also be mentioned that the Angels have a group of young position players that can help this year, most especially in Victor Martinez-clone Hank Conger and a Gold Glove-capable center fielder in Peter Bourjos (who had a whopping 1.7 defensive last year in 51 games alone) who could be an above average hitter with a bit more plate discipline. The Angels also have power-hitting Mark Trumbo and potential .300-hitting second baseman Alexi Amarista.

The current major league team still has many young players that are either in their primes or just entering them: Kendry Morales, Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, and Mike Napoli are all in the 27-29 range next year and should still be strong contributors for years to come. Some of us have even not fully given up on Brandon Wood (yet!).

Part IV: Retool or Rebuild?
So the question is, with a potentially 85-90 win team that plays second fiddle to the AL Champion Texas Rangers for at least the next year, should the Angels rebuild, retool, or simply bide their time and wait for the Trout era? Should they trade Napoli, Hunter, and even one or two of Weaver, Haren, and Santana for prospects and build for the next rush of prospects that will be flooding the majors in 2013-15?

It may be that the Angels are neither good enough to be only one or two pieces away from assured excellence or bad enough to trade away players in a restocking of an already deep farm system. They may add a left fielder and leadoff man in Scott Podsednik or Johnny Damon, or a big bat among one of the old but still effective DHs available in Jim Thome, Vlad Guerrero, Manny Ramirez, or Jim Edmonds. But one of those six—and it will be one, not two, given Bobby Abreu’s presence—will not be enough to put the Angels over the top. But it would help.

The answer to the question of whether to rebuild/re-tool, or to what degree, is not an easy one. I would advocate that the Angels do no more than add one of the above players in the offseason and then see how the team plays out over the first couple months. Whether or not the Rangers pull far ahead early on, it may behoove the Angels to trade a Mike Napoli (with Conger knocking at the door) and, if possible, extraneous players like Fernando Rodney, Juan Rivera, and Mike Trumbo for either prospects or missing pieces. 

To put it another way, the Angels don’t need to rebuild and, at this point, re-tooling may be a bit too soon, but a re-tuning over the next year or two in preparation for the next wave of homegrown prospects may be what is in order. The Angels will not dominate the division in 2011 or 2012 and probably not 2013; but they should still be competitive during that time at the same time as preparing the ground for the next great Angels team in 2013-14 and beyond.

A final note to my fellow Angels fans: Do not despair! As much as Carl Crawford or Adrian Beltre would have helped in the near term, we may be happy that they signed elsewhere in 3-4 years when their numbers are declining and the Angels have young outfielders like Randal Grichuk, Chevez Clarke, and Ryan Bolden or third basemen Luis Jimenez and Kaleb Cowart on their way up. In the world of baseball there is no such thing as a sure-thing, but that not only goes for prospects but also aging veterans. Paying Crawford $20 million a year may not be so attractive once he gets into his mid-30s. 

We must also not forget that Adrian Beltre has only really had two great seasons out of thirteen; his norm has been somewhere in the average to good range. This is not to say that both will not be very good over the next few years, but that not only are neither true franchise players that we will regret not signing in the coming years, but not signing them opens up interesting options from within.

Furthermore, it must be remembered that all great franchises have their ups and downs. Baseball is a game in which if you fail getting a hit two-thirds of the time you are one of the best hitters in the game. The Red Sox were probably the best franchise of the last decade, yet they “only” won the World Series twice. The Angels have had a good, no a great run over the last nine years, but as I hope the above will convince you, it isn’t over! We are just in a slight lull. Next year the team will almost certainly be back over .500 and, with a little luck, may even contend for the division title or at least make it interesting late into the season.

I will end with two words that I think we fickle and jaded Angels fans have forgotten: patience and faith. This is the same owner who has exhibited a willingness to build a strong team from within and acquire and trade as possible and necessary and without glutting the farm, and it is the same manager that has led the team to winning season after winning season and almost always surpassed expectations. The Golden Age of Angels baseball is not over, just entering a new phase. With an excellent rotation, a strong and improving bullpen, some core key position players, and a top-notch farm system, the future looks as bright as ever.
Love to hear what you think!

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