Saturday, October 22, 2011
By Jonathan Northrop - Columnist

While an exciting World Series is underway (I admit to enjoying seeing Albert Pujols pummel the Rangers tonight with three homers and six RBI), we Angels fans face a long and uncertain offseason. With the Rangers looking like the cream of the crop in the AL West, and the Angels not making the postseason two years in a row for the first time in a decade, Arte Moreno is making swift changes--axing General Manager Tony Reagins and various other brass in the front office. Will this mean radical change on the roster? Will the Angels be big spenders this offseason in an attempt to keep pace with the Rangers? Or will they bide their time and build a team around the remarkable Mike Trout?

These are questions that I cannot answer, nor will I try to in this series of articles. What I will try to do is provide an overview of the team, position by position, looking at where the team is today, how it got there over the last few years, what we might expect (or hope for) for next year, and what kind of help might be on its way up through the farm system. Consider this both a "state of the nation" and an offseason primer. 

Seven parts, you say? I will be splitting the series up as follows: Catcher, First Base/DH, Middle Infield, Third Base, the Outfield, the Rotation, and the Bullpen, in that order.

Statistical Disclaimer: I will try to stick to "normal" statistics like the triple-slash line (Batting Average, On-Base Percentage, and Slugging Percentage), but will occasionally resort to advanced metrics such as WAR, wOBA, Fielding Runs, etc - all courtesy of that haven of Statnerdom, Fangraphs. If you're unfamiliar with these numbers, WAR (or Wins Above Replacement) is meant to be a catch-all statistic including batting, baserunning, and defense (for hitters) in the form of a number that represents how much better that player is than your garden variety "Replacement Player" which is a fancy--and nicer--way of saying scrub (think Matt Palmer or Paul McAnulty). As a general rule, 0-2 WAR performers are bench players and marginal regulars; 2-3 are quality regulars; 3-5 are borderline stars; 5-7 are stars; 7+ are superstars and MVP-caliber performances, and a WAR of 10 or higher is an all-time great year (pitchers tend to range a bit lower, maybe 1 WAR less as a general rule). Your typical Albert Pujols season is 8 or 9 WAR (his best was 10.1 in 2003). wOBA, on the other hand, is a metric used to represent a player's offensive value in a range equivalent to On-base percentage. WAR is a good metric to determine overall value, while wOBA is good at determining pure hitting.

By way of example, last year Howie Kendrick had a solid but unspectacular .349 wOBA (hitting .285/.338/.464) but an excellent 5.8 WAR, 19th in the major leagues. Prince Fielder, on the other hand, had a .408 wOBA (he hit .299/.415/.566) but a lesser WAR than Howie, at 5.5. The difference? Kendrick was a good baserunner (3.2 BsR, or Baserunning Runs) and an excellent defender (16.7 Fld, or Fielding Runs), while Fielder was a terrible baserunner (-5.4BsR) and poor, ahem, fielder (-5.1 Fld). WAR, in other words, places a significant amount of value on defense and, to a lesser degree, baserunning, and therefore gives a bigger--but less specific--picture than wOBA or more conventional stats like OBP.

If you found the above to be slightly nauseating, don't worry! I won't be using WAR etc all that much, and mainly when more conventional statistics won't suffice, but I just wanted to make sure that everyone reading was on the same page and had a general understanding of the numbers.

Now on to the Angels... 


A Sordid Recent Past
If there is a single position around which the most controversy and grief has accumulated in recent years, it is catcher (with third base being a close second). If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you either haven't been paying attention, are stuck in the Reagan years ("There's nothing sordid about Bob Boone, youngster!"), or a voyeuristic Rangers fan looking for a cheap thrill. But to refresh a bad memory, let us go back a few years. From 2000 to 2005, the Angels had a solid performer in Bengie Molina behind the plate. Bengie wasn’t a great hitter—he alternated OK years with bad ones—but he was a good defender and, overall, provided the Angels with a stable presence behind the plate for more than half a decade. But after the Amateur Draft in 2001, his clock began ticking: with the 33rd pick of that draft, the Angels chose a promising high school player who started making top prospects lists a couple years later in 2003 and was ranked as high as #22 overall by Baseball America in 2004 after he hit .315/.380/.493 in A+ and AA in 2003 as a 20-year old. This player was even compared not-unfavorably to Joe Mauer by one perhaps now-sheepish analyst who I won’t name (although whose surname rhymes with “pickles”).

Who am I talking about? None other than Jeff Mathis, also known as the The Other Catching JM. After his promising 2003, Mathis struggled in 2004 in AA Arkansas, but bounced back the following year in AAA Salt Lake, where he hit .278/.342/.502, giving the Angels the confidence in their decision to send Bengie Molina out to pasture, another former World Series hero that was supposed to be replaced by a younger, better (and cheaper) player, but led to a veritable maelstrom of problems (see "Glaus, Troy").

Mathis, if you remember, was one of a group of very talented position player prospects that came up through the system in the early-to-mid Aughties, a group that turned out to be rather ill-fated (for the most part). Who can forget salivating over this “Infield of the Future?”:
  • C – Jeff Mathis
  • 1B – Casey Kotchman
  • 2B – Howie Kendrick
  • SS – Erick Aybar
  • 3B – Dallas McPherson
  • UT – Sean Rodriguez
All at one time showed signs of minor league dominance and potential stardom, yet only half currently play with the Angels, and only one (Kendrick) has come close to stardom, and even he is considered a disappointment by those who once dreamed of batting titles.

Anyhow, Mathis got his chance in 2006 but flopped in April, producing a .529 OPS in 23 games. But it was not as much his poor performance that sent him back to AAA as it was the emergence of the relatively unknown Mike Napoli, who was about as far from your quintessential Angels prospect as you could get: He was slow, didn’t hit for much average, was a mediocre defender at best, but could hit the ball a mile--he hit a combined 60 HR in 2004-05 in A+ and AA—and he had one skill that the Angels almost seemed to shy away from: He could take a walk.

After Mathis produced a .103/.205/.205 line through May 2 of 2006, Mike Napoli was called up and stayed up for the rest of the year. Napoli, if you remember, absolutely raked for his first couple months in the majors, with an OPS over 1.000 as late as July 15. But he cooled off in the second half, slumping terribly to bring his year-end stats down to a still respectable .228/.360/.455, looking like the Angels' solution to Mickey Tettleton.

One would think that Napoli would have the starting gig wrapped up, but it wasn't to be. For the next few years—from 2007 to 2010—Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis formed a controversial tandem behind the plate, controversial because fan opinion was strongly for Napoli because of his far superior bat that they (and many analysts) felt outweighed Mathis’ edge behind the plate. Yet no matter how superior Napoli’s bat was, Mike Scioscia insisted on giving Mathis a greater and greater portion of starts at catcher, perhaps largely because of his game-calling abilities that Angels pitchers seemed to prefer. In 2007, Napoli started 66 games at catcher, Mathis 42 (and Jose Molina 32); in 2008, Mathis started 80 and Napoli 61, despite Napoli having an OPS 367 points higher (.960 to .593); in 2009, Napoli started 82 and Mathis 57; and in 2010 Mathis started 62 and Napoli 59.

Now to be fair, in 2008 Mike Napoli lost about a month to injury, which impacted their game starts, and in 2010 Napoli started 54 games in place of the injured Kendrys Morales, but there are few—if any—managers in baseball that wouldn’t play Napoli the vast majority of time over the anemic bat of Jeff Mathis. Scioscia’s stubbornness has baffled analysts and frustrated fans and, eventually, Mike Napoli himself; rumors swirled that their relationship was strained at best. Given the development of Hank Conger, the Angels felt justified in sending Napoli to Toronto (but we’ll hold off on discussing that trade until we get to the outfield). 

Which brings us to the present, or at least 2011. Hank Conger’s AAA performance in 2010 (.300/.385/.463) earned him a September call-up. The Angels apparently liked what they saw enough to send Napoli off in January of 2011, and Conger was set to platoon with Mathis to start the year. Conger started off strong and was hitting .300/.354/.500 on May 8 when he entered a long slump which he never was able to dig himself out of. This, coupled with his erratic defense, sent him back to AAA for about a month in late July and most of August. It was clear from that point on that Scioscia was not impressed and had such little faith in Conger’s defense that he continued to play Jeff Mathis despite the latter’s inability to hit about .180.

Meanwhile, as we all know, Mike Napoli had a career year in Texas, producing a 1.046 OPS and 30 HR in 113 games, with solid defense behind the plate, and proving pivotal in the Rangers’ playoff run. The Vernon Wells trade had gone from bad to worse to catastrophic, and the Angels ended the year with the catching position being more of a question mark than it had been in years.

2012 Outlook

Where does that leave the Angels in 2012 at the catcher position? Who knows? But they are likely to go one of two routes: Either they give Conger another shot and back him up with Bobby Wilson or (gasp) Jeff Mathis, or they sign a free agent like Ramon Hernandez and make Conger earn his at-bats. The Angels could also try a more creative approach and sign Ivan Rodriguez to a one year deal and platoon him with Hank Conger. “Pudge” is one of the greatest defensive catchers in major league history and knows a thing or two about playing behind the plate. He hasn’t been a decent hitter since 2008 and not a good one since 2004, but he’d be a great mentor for Conger and, if Hank doesn’t show improvement, the Angels can always go with Bobby Wilson and hope that Carlos Ramirez is ready by 2013.

That said, we shouldn't write Hank Conger off yet—he has only played 72 major league games. But the Angels realize that he may not be the long-term solution behind the plate. At the least he might take a couple years to really settle in, and still may end up playing somewhere else. But Conger won’t hit enough to play first base or DH, and probably can’t convert to third or the outfield. But he could end up being an above average hitter who can play catcher or first base or fill-in at DH...hmmm, that sounds familiar.

Given the uncertainty above, I wish I could say that help is on the way from the farm. I can, but it won’t be for at least another year and probably two. Carlos Ramirez has turned into a pretty decent prospect, a sleeper to make a(nother) big step forward in 2012. Ramirez was a re-draft by the Angels in 2009 when they picked him in the 8th round (they had drafted him in the 34th round in 2007 but he didn’t sign). That year he absolutely raked in Rookie-level Orem, hitting .376/.500/.638 in 42 games, but then struggled in 2010 in A-level Cedar Rapids, hitting .226/.337/.381 in 77 games. He started slow again in 2011, hitting .259/.367/.370 in 31 Cedar Rapids games, but fared much better in A+ Inland Empire, where he hit .348/.403/.530 in 52 games, even earning a few games in AA Arkansas. Ramirez isn’t young—he’ll be 24 next year—but catchers often take a bit longer to learn the game, and Ramirez is now on the fast track: he’ll start 2012 in AA and, depending upon how he does and how Conger looks—may be accelerated, even getting a taste of the big leagues in September. Ramirez probably won’t be a star but he projects to be a solid all-around catcher; at best, an above average hitter and defender, at worst a solid platoon player.

Beyond Ramirez, the Angels don’t have much, although Abel Baker put up good numbers in Orem, hitting .306/.406/.471 in 48 games including 27 walks. Let’s see how he does in a full season before getting too excited; we can hope, though, that Baker develops into a nice back-up for Hank Conger and/or Carlos Ramirez in a few years.
Love to hear what you think!

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