Wednesday, November 16, 2011

By Jonathan Northrop - Columnist
This is the fifth part in a series that looks at the Angels team--where it is today, how it got there, and where it might be going. The four previous parts can be found here, with further parts listed:

Oh Those Sweet 90s
When you think of the “90s,” what pops into your mind? I’m not talking about Ethan Hawke and Nirvana and Starbucks coffee – this is a baseball blog, after all. I’m talking Angels baseball, and for long-time fans of the club the 90s were anything but sweet. It was a very bad decade for the Angels, but also a transitional one. But let’s back up for a moment before I get to the sweet part.

For those new to Angels fandom, the first couple decades of the franchise—the 60s and 70s—were the definition of mediocrity. The team didn’t make the postseason until 1979 and they didn’t win more than 88 games in a season until 1982 (strangely enough, the Angels are a franchise that has never lost more than 95 games).

From the late 70s into the early 90s, the Gene Autry-owned Angels followed a consistent formula: Focus on free agents and use the farm system primarily as a source of trade fodder. This approach led to three division winners in ’79, ’82, and ’86, but no championships. While the Angels of the late 80s combined aging has-been stars with solid farm-raised talent that included Wally Joyner, Devon White, and Chuck Finley, it wasn’t until the early 90s that the team really shifted its philosophy and focused on developing a homegrown core. The watershed moment may have been in 1993 when a 24-year old outfielder by the name of Tim Salmon won the AL Rookie of the Year (you may have heard of him). Salmon was merely one of a talented young group to come up between ’92 and ’95 that included outfielders Chad Curtis, Garret Anderson, and Jim Edmonds (and, in ’96, Darin Erstad), infielders Gary DiSarcina, Damion Easley, JT Snow, and Eduardo Perez.

This potential-filled squad came into their own in 1995, a year that will forever live in franchise infamy. For those that remember, feel free to skip ahead a couple paragraphs; for the younger crowd, read on and know one of the reasons why the last ten years has been so magical for long-time fans. On August 15 the Angels were 64-38 and 10.5 games ahead in first place with a largely homegrown team firing on all cylinders. It was an exciting moment to be an Angels fan: after decades of mediocrity, and only a few winning seasons fueled by free agents that felt more like mercenary rentals, this was finally our team: a young and talented core that promised to be good for the next decade.

What then happened was one of the worst collapses in baseball history. The Angels won only 14 of their last 43 games, eventually losing a one-game playoff to Randy Johnson in his first Cy Young season and his Seattle Mariners. The team didn’t come close to the playoffs again until 2002, which ended this franchise’s curse.

Why do I delve into this painful element of Angels history? Well, that 1995 team was centered on what was perhaps the greatest Angels outfield to date: Garret Anderson in left, Jim Edmonds in center, and Tim Salmon in right, a trio that produced a 14.3 WAR. The trio remained good—although collectively not as good—for the next few years, with Darin Erstad joining the mix as a 1B/OF in 1996 and then Edmonds departing via trade in March of 2000.

An Aging Outfield
From 1995 to 2003, the Angels outfield was manned almost entirely by four players: Salmon, Anderson, Edmonds, and Erstad. As mentioned, Edmonds left before the 2000 season and Erstad, after a career year that season, declined rapidly with the bat, while still earning his job with superb center field defense. Salmon started showing signs of age and Anderson developed arthritis in his back, his numbers dropping precipitously from 2003 to 2004, never recovering his peak form. Then, in 2004, the Angels signed Vladimir Guerrero to a six-year contract. Vlad replaced Salmon, and the era that started in 1993 ended (although the Greatest Angel wasn’t to retire until after the 2006 season).

Over the next few years, Guerrero played the outfield with a variety of characters including Anderson, Steve Finley, Jose Guillen, Reggie Willits, and the dubious parting gift of Bill Stoneman, Gary Matthews Jr and his five-year, $50 million contract. After Matthews unsurprisingly disappointed in 2007, new General Manager Tony Reagins out-bid everyone by an alleged couple million a year to get the 32-year old Torii Hunter for a cool five-year, $90 million. Hunter was (and is) over-rated, but he has given the Angels a big personality and team leadership that they’ve been lacking. He did not, however, change the trend of an aging outfield.

One of Tony Reagins’ brighter moments was signing Bobby Abreu to a one-year deal for $5 million. Abreu rewarded him by hitting .293 with a .390 OBP and 103 RBI for the hot hitting 2009 squad, and was in turn rewarded with an ill-advised two year contract with an easy third year vesting option (which vested), for a total of 3/$27 million for Abreu’s declining age 36-38 years.

2009 was also Vlad Guerrero’s last year as an Angel; the former star’s bat was no longer as formidable as it had been during his prime, and his inability to play a decent right field led the Angels to not pick up his 2010 option.

Abreu’s first of the three year extension was disappointing as he hit a decent but rather bland .255/.352/.435 with 20 HR and terrible defense. The Angels ended the 2010 with their first losing season since 2003, largely due to a huge offensive decline of 192 runs. Tony Reagins’ main offseason priority was to improve the offense, probably through an upgrade at third base and left field. At one point it seemed that Carl Crawford and Adrian Beltre were all but locks to sign with the Angels but, for better (Crawford) or worse (Beltre) they went elsewhere. Which led the Angels to one of the worst moments in franchise history…

In January of 2011, when rumors of a Napoli trade with Toronto started flying, I remember Angels fans speculating about who was coming to Anaheim. Was it Jose Bautista and his perhaps fluky 54 HR? Was it Adam Lind and his disappointing follow-up to his breakout 2009 campaign? And then the name surfaced and my heart sank: Vernon Wells, he of the four years left on a back-loaded 7/$126 million contract. Surely, we Angels fan thought, the Blue Jays must be packaged some hot commodity with Wells, perhaps top pitching prospect Kyle Drabek. And it went without saying that the Blue Jays would be paying a huge percentage of that contract; $30 million seemed to be least they could throw in to off-set one of the most ill-advised mega-deals in history. When the news came that the trade was Juan Rivera and Mike Napoli for Vernon Wells and only $5 million, I was shocked—and so was the baseball world. Tony Reagins and the Angels became the laughingstock of the offseason: Not only did they miss out on Beltre and Crawford, but they tried to make up for it by trading for one of the worst contracts in baseball history, an albatross that was deemed untradeable. But it wasn’t.

What made matters worse was when the Blue Jays turned Napoli over to the Texas Rangers for Frank Francisco. The rest, as they say, is history. Vernon Wells had an absolutely atrocious season, hitting .218/.248/.412 for the Angels, that .248 OBP being one of the worst in major league history. Napoli, on the other hand, was second in the majors among players with at least 400 plate appearances with a 1.046 OBP, hitting .320/.414/.631 with 30 HR en route to a Rangers AL Championship. To put it in terms of WAR, Napoli clocked in at 5.6 and Wells 0.3, and Wells made almost four times as much.
Water under the bridge, right? Well, it ain’t over. The trade is compounded by the fact that Angels uber-prospect Mike Trout tore up the minors, hitting .326/.414/.544 for AA Arkansas. Although Trout only produced a .672 OPS in 40 major league games, he showed flashes of the talent that will make him the heart of the Angels team for the next decade and beyond. The problem? With the $63 million man in LF, Peter Bourjos in CF, and Torii Hunter in RF, the Angels have no place to play Trout…not yet, anyhow.

2011: A Tale of Three Old Guys
But let’s step back for a moment. Not only did Wells flop, but Torii Hunter had his worst season as an Angel. The one bright spot in the Angels outfield in 2011 was the emergence of Peter Bourjos, who hit a respectable .271/.327/.438 while flashing excellent defense on his way to a 4.3 WAR.

Bobby Abreu’s defense has declined to the point that Mike Scioscia will rarely play him in the outfield. 2011 was also his worst year of his career with the bat: while his average departed in 2010, his power followed in 2011—he hit .253/.353/.365, although he still managed to walk 78 times and steal his typical 21 bases.

No need to belabor the point with Wells any further: he had a terrible year. The one saving grace is that his defense looked better in left than it had for years in center.

On a bright note, for a short time we did get to see Mike Trout and Peter Bourjos play the outfield together. As excellent as the Big Three starting pitchers are for the Angels, there is nothing quite as exciting as these two young players: they are just fun to watch, from Bourjos’ ridiculous speed and defense to Trout’s all-around talent and verve. We’re going to really enjoy watching these two young men play Angels baseball for the next decade or so.

The Trout Era
While Trout is likely to start the year in AAA Salt Lake, it is hard to consider him a prospect anymore but, given only 131 major league plate appearances (although withou rookie status due to a quirk in the rules), a prospect he remains. There’s very little to say about Mike Trout that hasn’t already been said, but Angels fans have a lot to look forward to. We may look back and dub 2012 not as much the end of the Mayan Calendar as the beginning of the Trout Era.

Make no mistake: Mike Trout is a special player. A pessimistic outlook would have him being a borderline star along the lines of Shane Victorino; a more moderate outlook has him as a .300 hitting Grady Sizemore (before his injury); a more optimistic outlook…well, the sky’s the limit. But imagine multiple seasons of something akin to what Jacoby Ellsbury did this year—that’s the sort of player that Trout can be. Trout has even been compared to Mickey Mantle; one scout pondered, “I wonder if this is what Mantle looked like when he was 19?”

But let’s not get too greedy. At the least, in Trout the Angels have a player who will hit around .300 with plenty of extra-base hits, 20+ HR, 30+ SB, and Gold Glove caliber defense. The fact that Trout is now seen as the left fielder of the future speaks more of Bourjos’ excellence in center than it does of any lack on Trout’s part; Trout projects as a plus center fielder, which means he’ll be extraordinary in left.

Other Fish on the Farm

After Trout, the Angels have some interesting outfield prospects. In AAA, they’ll have a second year of Jeremy Moore, a talented by flawed “toolsy” outfielder. Moore hit .298/.331/.545 last year at age 24 in AAA Salt Lake, but with a very ugly 21 to 114 walk to strikeout rate. Unless he improves his plate discipline Moore is slated to be a 4th outfielder, albeit a useful one with some power, speed, and the ability to play the entire outfield.

After Trout and Moore, the next serious candidate for a future major league job is Kole Calhoun, who put together an excellent season in A+ Inland Empire hitting .324/.410/.547 with 22 HR and 20 SB. He won’t be young next year at 24 in AA, but we should remember that Calhoun has only been a professional for two years and has improved in each year; a strong performance in the first half of 2012 could put him on the fast track for a major league job. While Calhoun will likely either be a quality regular or strong platoon player, he’s a darkhorse candidate to become a borderline star due to his all-around solid skill set somewhat reminiscent of Brian Giles.

Two other outfield prospects with major league potential are Randal Grichuk and Travis Witherspoon. Grichuk is best known for being chosen right before Mike Trout in the 2009 Amateur Draft; he possesses excellent power, could hit for a decent average and be a solid outfielder with average speed. Grichuk has two obstacles keeping him from stardom: terrible plate discipline and a penchant for injury. If he can get those under control he could be something akin to a Poor Man’s Juan Gonzalez.

Witherspoon is in the Jeremy Moore school of players, although hopefully with better plate discipline. While he had a somewhat disappointing year, he still projects as a future 4th outfielder but, like Moore, could surprise—he’s got plenty of tools.

The Angels have a bunch of fringe outfield prospects in Tyson Auer, Angel Castillo, Michael Wing, Matt Long, Clay Fuller, Andrew Heid, Terrell Alliman, Ryan Jones, Gary Mitchell, and Drew Martinez, none of whom project as major league regulars but all of whom could end up as bench players. It looks like Chris Pettit’s day as a prospect has passed.

I would be remiss not to mention Chevez Clarke and Ryan Bolden, two supplemental draft picks in 2010, both of whom spent their second year in a row in the Arizona Instructional League. Both look as raw as sushi but Clarke put together one or two hot streaks to give some semblance of hope that he might at least progress beyond the AZL. Keep an eye on both of them next year, although they’re going to need to start showing something in order to earn their keep.

With $63 million still owed to Vernon Wells, it is highly unlikely that he won’t be penciled in as the Opening Day left fielder. But unless he recovers his 2010 form, Wells won’t stop Mike Trout, so it is only a matter of time before he moves over to fight Torii Hunter for at-bats in right. Expect the year to start with Wells, Bourjos and Hunter in the outfield, with Abreu either traded or benched, and Trout chomping at the bit for a chance. Any injury or serious slump by Wells and Trout will be up; even if Wells holds his own, we should expect Trout to get a few hundred plate appearances this year. If Wells somehow manages to revive his career, Trout might have to wait until 2013; however, I think it very unlikely that Trout doesn’t get 300 or so PA, maybe much more.

In 2013 and beyond, LF and CF belong to Trout and Bourjos. RF will either be Wells or some combination of Jeremy Moore and Kole Calhoun. Further ahead and Grichuk and maybe Witherspoon enter the mix. If Kendrys Morales is healthy and CJ Cron advances quickly, don’t be surprised to see Mark Trumbo shag some balls in RF. To put it another way, barring something unforeseen or a trade of Bourjos for David Wright, LF and CF are locked up for the next decade, with RF being a question mark, albeit with some interesting possibilities. While the Aughties were a problematic let-down from the talent of the late 90s, the Teens might prove to be the best Angels crop of outfielders in franchise history.
Love to hear what you think!

Listen to "A Fish Like This" Tribute song to Mike Trout's Greatness

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