Saturday, August 31, 2013

By Jonathan Northrop, Columnist - 

OK, “easy” is an exaggeration and the type of thing a na├»ve armchair GM would say, but what I really mean is do-able. It is my belief that the team isn’t that far from being a contending 90+ win team in 2014, and for a few years to come.

Given the utter disappointment that is 2013, it is easy to think that the team needs a complete rebuild. But for two reasons I think a “re-tool” is all that is required for the Angels to contend for the next few years while the farm is re-stocked.

1) The Angels have a lot of money tied up into four players, two of whom are signed through 2016 (Wilson and Weaver), one through 2017 (Hamilton), and one for the rest of eternity (Pujols). They cannot justify a complete franchise re-build while all four are present; at the least, they need to keep trying to contend for the next few years, although I suppose both Wilson and Weaver could be traded next year if the team tanks again.

2) The team is actually pretty good, or could be good with just a few changes, which is the focus of this piece.

Before going to the changes, let’s look at the offense. Through August 30 the Angels have scored 4.46 runs per game, which is 7th in the American League and slightly above the AL average of 4.36. Furthermore, that 4.46 is closer to 3rd (Baltimore at 4.76) than it is to 10th (Kansas City at 4.05). Now while that doesn’t scream “powerhouse” there are two reasons to think it will improve next year: Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. Even if they only have modest rebounds, the team should score more runs. We might also see small improvements in other areas, so that next year the team should be in the upper third of AL team offenses.

Dipoto still has to figure out what to do at third base. One would think that if the team was considering Grant Green at the hot corner he’d be getting innings now. Its hard to imagine the job being handed to Chris Nelson or Luis Jimenez, but the Angels might figure that if Hamilton and Pujols improve, the offense might be able to carry the slick-fielding but weak bat of Jimenez, at least until he is able to hold his own with the bat. But there are workable parts here – the Angels have Nelson, Jimenez, Field, and Green as options.

Third base is more of a queston mark long-term than it was before the year began. Top prospect Kaleb Cowart was (and still is) considered the future, but with his terrible performance in AA they question is no longer “Who holds down third base until Kaleb is ready?” but “When will Kaleb actually be ready and should we start having a contingency plan?” But even the most optimistic scenario saw Cowart taking over in 2015, so he doesn’t figure into 2014 so much.

Defense has also been a problem this year, with the Angels tied for second in the AL with 92 errors – well above the AL average of 72. While errors aren’t everything, they do matter. Anyone who has watched a few games this year has seen a team defense that looks, at best, mediocre, but occasionally brings back memories of the Bad News Bears.

A healthy year from Peter Bourjos – or even Kole Calhoun, if Bourjos is traded – will greatly improve the outfield defense. Shuck has only committed two errors, but he is not a good defender and often looks clueless out there. Third base is a question mark, but Jimenez will greatly improve the defense there if he’s given a shot. One concern is if Howie Kendrick is traded for pitching help (more on that in a moment), Green is first in line and preliminary findings have not been positive about his second base defense.

I’m of the opinion that defense—even more than hitting and pitching—is reliant upon the overall team psychology, and that the team defense can best be improved by both drilling fundamentals in spring training and doing well in other facets of the game. The team could be an average defensive team, if they’re in a healthy mind-space and doing well in other areas, particularly pitching. 

Which brings us to the big area of concern: the pitching staff. First, let’s look at some numbers. The Angels are 12th in the AL (of 15 teams) in both ERA (4.35) and runs allowed per game (4.66). The AL average has been 4.01 and 4.31 respectively, so they’re pretty far off.

Despite what one might think, the Angels have actually been above average in terms of save pecentage – saving 70% of chances, which is just a hair above the AL average of 69%. Their 14 blown saves are 4th fewest in the AL. That said, the bullpen has not been as good about keeping inherited runners from scoring – their 32% is below the AL average of 30%.

Overall the bullpen has been worse relative to league average ; Angels starters have a 4.37 ERA relative to 4.19 AL average, while Angels relievers have a 4.32 ERA relative to the 3.67 AL average.

Both the starting rotation and bullpen need radical improvement. Let’s look at both in turn.

The rotation is relatively straight forward in that the team already has 3-4 solid to strong building blocks. Weaver and Wilson, while hardly Johnson and Schilling, give the Angels two legitimate “sub-aces” – pitchers that, while not Cy Young contenders, championship teams are happy to have in their first three slots. After those two, the questions begin. Jason Vargas has been good when healthy, and seems to be either a passable #3 starter or a very good #4. Garret Richards seems to be finally coming into his own. His second half ERA, which includes 7 starts, is 3.15 compared to 4.87 in the first half. He looks to be, at the least, a solid #4-5 pitcher, and he may actually be on the cusp of fulfilling his potential as a legitimate #3 starter.

After that the starting pitching has been disastrous. Tommy Hanson, Joe Blanton, and Jerome Williams have all been terrible and have been responsible for 52 of the team’s 133 starts, or almost 40%. In those 52 starts they have collectively pitched 287.1 innings of 5.54 ERA ball. Even with a great offense and strong bullpen, no team can overcome such a large percentage of starts being so terrible.

With Weaver, Wilson, and Richards in fold for rotation spots next year, the Angels need to acquire two starting pitchers – one of whom could be Jason Vargas. If they get Vargas, though, I would think the other starter would need to be better, either a top pitching prospect who is ready to contribute, or an established #2-3 type. Easier said than done, of course, but its rather clear and straightfoward.

Where more work is required is the bullpen. Looking at the relievers there’s no single pitcher who shouts “we must keep this guy no matter what, he’s a building block for next year and beyond.” The best of the group – Frieri, De La Rosa, and Kohn – all have problems, and none even looks like a quality set-up man, more of “bullpen filler.” Roth and Maronde don’t look ready, and the jury is out on Cory Rasmus.  We can hope that Sean Burnett comes back healthy and is for the Angels next year what Scott Downs was the last few.

The cheap route to “fixing” the bullpen would be to throw all of the current parts, plus Jeremy Berg and Jerome Williams, who has actually done very well as a reliever, and see how they shake out in spring training. But that doesn’t encourage a lot of confidence. The bullpen needs at least two strong relievers: a real closer and a strong set-up man. 

So let’s get back to improving the team in a few easy steps:
1. Hope that Hamilton and Pujols improve
2. Re-sign Jason Vargas
3. Sign or trade for a #2-3 starter
4. Re-make the bullpen, acquiring at least two very good relievers

A fifth, but optional step, would be to trade for or sign a third baseman. Given his poor year, Chase Headley might have slipped into the affordable range.

So what are the options? has a group of nifty “Free Agent Leaderboards”, using There are too many to name, but you can view them here.

The tricky part with regards to the rotation is not as much finding a decent mid-rotation starter (in addition to Vargas), but having depth. If the Angels sign Tim Lincecum or Matt Garza or, better yet, James Shields, and if they re-up Jason Vargas, then their Opening Day rotation looks pretty good. But what about injury? Blanton is untradeable with his contract so might be kept around as the mop-up man, and Williams has done well in relief. I suppose the Angels could try to re-build Tommy Hanson in the minors, although even despite a crappy 2013 he’ll likely receive two or three million in arbitration, which makes him an expensive “project.” 

Here’s the problem: if one of the starters goes down, do we really want to see one of the Three Amigos starting a game again? The Angels have no starting pitching prospects that are anywhere close to being major league ready, at least as not more than a spot starter. I suppose if all goes well, Mark Sappington could be ready late in the year, but there’s going to be a learning curve.

As far as the bullpen goes, if one of Maronde or Roth pans out, they can complement Burnett as a lefty in the bullpen and the Angels can focus on acquiring right-handed relievers, which are more plentiful. Jesse Crain is particularly appealing, and there are a few others worth checking out. The Angels also have a few prospects that might make it to the majors in 2014, including RJ Alvarez and Mike Morin (Cam Bedrosian is at least a year away).

So there are some pieces. Not a lot, but they’re there. What remains to be seen is if Jerry Dipoto can do this offseason what he couldn’t do last: make the right choices with the limited moves he’s got. The Angels need at least four pitchers, two starters and two relievers. Make your choices count, Jerry.
Love to hear what you think!

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