It was a disappointing 2010 season for Anaheim. They finished in third place in the AL West and with a below .500 record for the first time since 2003. With lots of money to spend and a natural motive to improve, most people figured the Angels would be big players in all the major free agents this winter. Instead, they struck out on nearly every target. Rightly or wrongly, a hard line stance on contract offers to the likes of Carl Crawford and Adrian Beltre resulted in those players signing elsewhere and leaving the Angels with no big move to hang their hat on. Perhaps out of desperation came the trade for Vernon Wells and the assumption of his entire contract. How does that impact the starting lineup?
THE STARTING NINE
A lot of bad has been said about Vernon Wells and his contract justifies that talk, but don’t forget that while he is owed a mammoth amount of money, he is not a complete drag in the field and getting Bobby Abreu away from a glove is a big help to the Angels’ outfield defense.
Who catches is a big question for the Angels run scoring ability. Jeff Mathis may be a wonderful defensive catcher whom pitchers love to throw to, but he couldn’t hit his way out of the Texas League, much less the American League. Bobby Wilson and Hank Conger are getting looks too, but Mathis has long been a favorite of manager Mike Scioscia’s and if refused to play the supremely better hitter in Mike Napoli over Mathis, then playing Wilson or Conger above Mathis seems unlikely at this point.
The bench is rather thin with bats as well. There is plenty of defensive coverage and some speed as well, but not being able to land Adrian Beltre hurt the Angels here. Being able to keep one of Izturis or Aybar as an infield backup instead of starter would have improved things.
Scott Kazmir looks all but finished and Ervin Santana looks further and further removed from ever repeating his 2008 season again, but the other three starters provide the Angels with an overall above average rotation.
THEY KEY PLAYER
Dan Haren begins his first full season with the Angels. Did you know that Haren has reached at least 4 WAR in each of the previous six seasons? During that period, he has made between 33 and 35 starts and pitched between 216 and 235 innings each time. Haren has been a standard of durability and consistent, reliable performance.
He may have flown under the radar for a couple reasons. He has not pitched in the playoffs since 2006 and he has never eclipsed more than 16 wins in a season. Haren has made just three All Star teams and the only time he placed in the Cy Young voting was 2009 when he was fifth with a single vote. Haren fell even further off the star circle thanks to his 4.60 ERA with Arizona in the first half of 2010 before being sent to the Angels in an incredibly lopsided deal in Anaheim’s favor.
Haren did not so much rebound once back in the American League as he did regress. As could have been expected, his strikeout rate dropped and walk rate rose in the junior circuit, but his out of line home run rate crashed back to Earth and then some. Consider that while Haren’s ERA went from 4.60 to 2.87 after the move, his xFIP rose from 3.36 to 4.13.
It is not so much that Haren’s production level in 2011 is in much doubt. Fans are probably over-projecting his strikeouts now that he doesn’t get to face an opposing pitcher once every couple innings, but he should remain a highly productive pitcher into this season. What makes Haren key to the Angels however is that he’s sort of the anti-Vernon Wells. Underappreciated and acquired for less than he should have cost, Haren gives the Angels a big insurance blanket in their rotation. He allows them not to have to rely on the likes of Scott Kazmir.
Did the Angels get a lot better this winter? I don’t really see it. Getting healthy is supposed to help, but there’s not much high reward growth to be hoped for amongst the players already on the roster. Even getting healthy does not look like that big of a boon.
Many people have claimed that having Kendry(s) Morales for an entire season in 2011 will provide a big upgrade for the Angels. It is easy to see why. Morales was a 4.5 WAR player in 2009 and was on pace to reach about that level in 2010 as well. However, the Angels did not fill in for Morales with replacement players. Morales for a full 2010 season at the pace he was on would have garnered about three more WAR, but the prime fill-in for Kendrys after his injury was Mike Napoli.
Isolating Napoli’s performance at first base from catcher is a bit tricky but looks to have been worth about one win above replacement. The rest of the players were around replacement level so the Angels got 2-2.5 WAR out of first base in 2010. Morales’ projection for 2011 with a full slate of at bats has him worth 3-3.5 WAR. I think that’s a fair projection and I don’t see how he’s going to single-handedly recover the Angels’ offense by providing them with an additional one win. It would be different if by staying healthy, Morales freed up Mike Napoli to play catcher and thus begin a cascading effect that upped the team’s WAR. Alas, Napoli is now with division-mate Texas.
I still see the Angels as a good team, one that could challenge for the AL West. They are just clearly behind Texas right now and sort of in line with Oakland, much the way they finished the 2010 season. Expectations for this season might come down to how much faith one has in Mike Scioscia’s ability to coax extra wins out of the team. There is a sharp divide between those who believe he has been the key to the team overreaching their Pythagorean record and those that chalk it up more to randomness.