As the summer turned into the stretch run in 2012, the Los Angeles Angels were one of the most dangerous teams in baseball. Albert Pujols had shaken off his early-season troubles, Mike Trout had replaced Vernon Wells to establish himself as a legitimate superstar, and midseason acquisition Zack Greinke had joined Dan Haren, Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson to form one of the more intimidating rotation quartets in baseball. From the time the Boston Red Sox came to town Aug. 28 through the end of the season, the Angels won 22 of their final 33 games, the second-highest winning percentage in the big leagues.
Never one to sit still, owner Arte Moreno opened his wallet over the winter to once again add the best hitter available on the market, enriching outfielder Josh Hamilton by $133 million. Hamilton joined an offense that already had the third-highest team weighted on-base average in baseball last year without him. Considering the two teams ahead of the Angels on that list, the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers, each suffered serious departures this winter, the Angels could have entered the season rightfully expecting one of the most potent offenses in baseball.
But despite the embarrassment of riches both on offense and in the checkbook, 2013 couldn’t have started off worse for the club in almost every way. The Angels might be rich, and they might be talented, but no amount of payroll hides the fact that this team is facing some serious trouble.
Hamilton spent most of his first week embroiled in off-field controversy surrounding his return to Texas; on the field, coming off the highest seasonal swinging-strike percentage since the stat was first tracked in 2002, he struck out in 10 of his first 20 plate appearances and still had just four hits through Tuesday. Pujols has at least shown power with two home runs, but he has admitted to being somewhat limited by ongoing issues with plantar fasciitis.
It gets worse on the mound. Weaver is now out for at least a month with a fractured left elbow, and there were serious concerns about his performance even before that. Wilson, the club’s other big-ticket addition along with Pujols prior to 2012, went from a .200/.297/.275 (BA/OBP/SLG) line against in the first half of his debut season as an Angel to .275/.351/.456 in the second half before having offseason elbow surgery. Thus far, he has done little to calm the team’s fears, allowing 15 baserunners in 11 innings. Behind them, Greinke, Haren and Ervin Santana have moved on, leaving the new-look rotation a patchwork affair.
Now, if you’re thinking the second week of April is far too soon to write off a team, you’re absolutely right. Hamilton long has been known to be a streaky hitter who will get his numbers in bunches, and opposing pitchers will tremble all season at a quartet of Hamilton, Pujols, Trout and Mark Trumbo. No matter what else happens, the offense alone ought to keep the Angels competitive.
The pitching, however, is problematic, and what was a tenuous situation even before Weaver was injured has gone downhill quickly. No Angels starter pitched more than six innings in the team’s first seven games, and now they have to get by with Garrett Richards rather than Weaver, who is arguably one of the most irreplaceable starters in the game simply because of the fact that the rest of the rotation is hardly what it once was.
In place of Haren, who had a 3.58 ERA in 13 second-half starts, there’s former Mariner Jason Vargas, who has a career 3.38 ERA in Safeco Field and a 5.12 mark everywhere else. He gave up five runs in 5 2/3 innings against the A’s in Thursday’s loss.
Rather than Greinke, there’s Tommy Hanson, undeniably talented but with an extensive recent history of arm trouble. Losing the declining Santana is less of a concern, but Joe Blanton in his spot is hardly anyone’s idea of a difference-maker.
It’s of course the issues with Weaver that are the most troubling, because it’s actually his right arm that might be more concerning than his fractured left one. Weaver’s fastball velocity has been declining since the middle of last season, and it bottomed out at 85 mph in his last start before he got hurt. It’s not unrelated that his first-half ERA of 2.97 last year increased to a lousy 4.56 in the second half; in 11 innings so far in 2013, Weaver had walked and struck out an even six apiece, neither of which should provide Angels fans with much confidence.
Unfortunately for general manager Jerry Dipoto, the options available to him to improve his roster are limited. In years past, the Angels had no problem going after the big arm they needed during the season, adding Haren in 2010 and Greinke in 2012. But after years of moves like that — those two trades alone cost them quality prospects Patrick Corbin, Jean Segura and Tyler Skaggs — and losing draft picks for signing high-profile free agents, the farm system is barren, ranking dead last in Keith Law’s organizational rankings. Only one of Law’s top seven Angels prospects is a pitcher, and Nick Maronde might need more seasoning after spending much of last season in the high Class A California League.
There’s plenty of time left in the season, and a team with this offensive core won’t go quietly. But in a division with contending teams in Oakland and Texas, along with the improving Seattle Mariners, this club should know the danger of a slow start more than most — last year’s 6-14 start put the Angels in a hole they never could recover from, no matter how well they played at the end.
That’s a problem given that both the Athletics and Rangers have won six of their first eight, and the Angels can’t count on a new Trout arriving to save the day this season. For an expensive team with high expectations, the Angels have put themselves in a spot that might be difficult to come back from.
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