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Regression in LA?

A year ago, the Angels won 97 games and ran away with the AL West, once again defying critics who expected a downturn in performance. For most of the decade, the Angels maintained their excellence despite yearly forecasts that this was the year they were in trouble. It’s a credit to their organization that they have been able to continually plug holes from within, often even upgrading when an established veteran leaves.

This winter, they’ve watched John Lackey, Chone Figgins, and Vladimir Guerrero head elsewhere. All three are big names who have had substantial hands in helping the Angels win, but Los Angeles is confident they can replace those three with Scott Kazmir, Brandon Wood, and Hideki Matsui. And, there’s a pretty decent chance that they’re right about that.

However, it may be that the players the Angels should worry about are the ones that are still in LA. Based on the projections for 2010, it’s the holdovers who may be the problem this year.

Let’s look at Torii Hunter, Kendry Morales, Juan Rivera, and Erick Aybar. A year ago, those four combined for +15.2 wins, one of the main reasons the Angels were able to surge ahead of the rest of the division. These four outperformed every expectation, and created a strong nucleus of talent for an offense that racked up runs in bunches.

The CHONE projections don’t think they can do it again, or even really come close. Here’s their 2009 WAR and 2010 projected WAR by CHONE side by side.

Aybar: +3.8, +1.5
Hunter: +3.8, +2.4
Rivera: +3.4, +1.1
Morales: +4.2, +1.7

Total: +15.2, +6.7

CHONE is projecting an 8.5 win drop-off from just those four players. That’s rough. Part of that is playing time, as both Morales and Aybar have lower projected PA totals due to their inconsistent usage before 2009, so you can bump their totals up by half a win or so if you think they’re going to play everyday. But even still, with that adjustment, the regression is huge.

If this is finally the year that the Angels struggle, playing to their projection rather than beating it by 10 games or more, you will hear a lot of stories about how they miss the spark of Figgins at the top of the order, Lackey’s presence in the rotation, or Vlad’s intimidation of opposing pitchers. In reality, though, what they may actually miss the most are the career years of the guys who stuck around.

The threat to the Angels’ dominance isn’t the guys they lost – it’s the guys they kept. Mike Scioscia better be hoping that those breakouts were real and sustainable, or else there’s going to be some problems in Disneyland this year.