2014 Preview: Los Angeles Angels

Who can the Angels rely on in the back of the rotation?

The strength of the 2014 Angels will be their offense, but the team does have a lot of money and development invested in their rotation and they need to get good outings out of that rotation to support the offense and win games. Jered Weaver has been injured throughout the past few years, but it usually solid when he is in the rotation and is a quality start machine. CJ Wilson may not be perceived as an elite pitcher but since moving into the rotation for the Rangers in 2010, he averages 15 wins a season with a 3.37 ERA and 210 innings pitched. Both Weaver and Wilson could be major factors in a playoff run and would be relatively comparable to the top two pitchers for most AL playoff competitors. Behind Wilson and Weaver in the rotation, though, are young unproven pitchers that really need to grow up very quickly if the team wants to make noise in 2014.

Garrett Richards already has 230 innings of big league experience coming into 2014 and the 26 year old former top 100 prospect has shown some progress in his major league tenure. He has seen his ERA, WHIP, and walk rate lower since 2011 as his strikeout rate rose. That being said, Richards did have low expectations set in 2011 and 2012 where he had a 1.57 WHIP and a 1.37 K: BB rate; Richards needs to harness his fastball and play off of his three off-speed pitches. He has a lot of good tools, with a fastball in the mid-90s and a very solid slider and curveball. His changeup is not advanced, but it is a work in progress and Richards uses it very sparingly for good reason.

Richards must also work ahead in the count more; his first pitch strike percentage was only 53.6% in 2013 and if that rises, Richards will continue to clean up his control issues. His walk percentage returned to the 7.1% that was only matched when he was in the lower levels of the minor leagues and the same goes for his 16.3% strikeout percentage. Richards might be the wildcard of the Angels rotation; he could be the third strong pitcher in the rotation and could be struggling to maintain a spot in the rotation. He needs to continue to develop his curveball and let his 94 mph fastball play off of those two solid breaking balls and, if he does, it would not be crazy to see Richards get 150-175 strikeouts in a full season.

Hector Santiago was acquired with Tyler Skaggs by the Angels in the three team trade that sent Mark Trumbo to Arizona. This was after two solid seasons with the White Sox that gave the Angels a good view into how the 26 year old could contribute. A crafty lefty with a bit of an unorthodox delivery, Santiago is a true throwback pitcher in that he will beat you with variety rather than one or two strong pitches. According to pitch data accumulated by Pitch FX, Santiago threw five pitches at least 5% of the time (four seam fastball, cutter, sinker, changeup, curveball) and also worked in a screwball and slider. Although he still threw mostly fastballs and changeups, he threw three different types of fastballs and his varying arm angles tended to confuse batters.

These different offerings do have a bit of a drawback; the fact that Santiago rarely dominates with one pitch leads to a walk rate of 11.5% for his career; he does strikeout 22.2% of batters with a 1.93 K:BB ratio for his career, but the Angels have to hope that can be a bit better as he progresses. Since the variety of offerings has led to success in the big leagues, he has a 3.41 ERA in 222 2/3 innings split between the bullpen and the rotation, Santiago needs to find a way to keep his pitches strong. When looking at the pitch trends, Santiago has varied what pitches he throws quite frequently, as there is not really a good method of predicting his trends for the future. This creates a tough situation for batters, but sometimes it could create an even tougher situation for Santiago; if his pitches are not sharp over a long stretch, he may really struggle since he never specifically works on a solitary pitch in an outing.

Tyler Skaggs may even be more volatile than Richards in regards to his position with the 2014 Angels; his spot is the least stable in the rotation and he only has 68 very shaky innings pitched in his young MLB career. That being said, Skaggs is the top prospect for the Angels and will be a big part of the future of the Angels. A former first round pick by the Angels, Skaggs was traded to Arizona for Dan Haren and then traded back to Los Angeles in the aforementioned Mark Trumbo trade. While in Arizona, Skaggs developed a reputation as an elite minor league pitcher with bad major league results; a lot of those bad results derive from the fact that Skaggs is a soft throwing pitcher that has yet to really master what will be an incredible curveball.

Between the latter part of 2010 and the end of the 2012 season, Skaggs posted a 2.85 ERA with a 1.15 WHIP and a 3.7 K: BB ratio between low-A and Triple-A. He did have a rough patch in Triple-A this year, but maintained a similar K: BB ratio from Triple-A in 2012; he allowed more hits in 2013 but also struck out more batters. Essentially, the Diamondbacks look at Skaggs as someone that could develop into Cole Hamels, just with the curveball being the dominant pitch for Skaggs. As seen with Hamels, having velocity in the high-80s or low-90s can work if you have great off-speed pitches and Skaggs needs to develop his changeup along with making his curveball take that next level to being one of the premier pitches in baseball. He has the potential to be a top of the rotation pitcher and the Angels were wise to re-acquire him from Arizona.

A team like the Angels that is trying to compete for the playoffs would be fine if one of these pitchers were trying to get their footing in the majors, but the fact that all three are trying to get acclimated to a playoff competitor may be what does the Angels in during the 2014 season.  There is a lot of upside with Richards and Skaggs, though, so if they turn into the middle to top rotation pitchers that scouts see them as, the Angels may indeed be a 90 win team on the way to the playoffs.

When will the Angels try to rebuild their farm system?

A tough thing to do is to rebuild a farm system when the top prospect in baseball was once a part of that farm system. Mike Trout is arguably the best player in baseball but the Angels could have never expected him to be this good this quickly; for this reason, the rest of the Angels minor league talent looks underwhelming compared to the 22 year old superstar. There is a chance, and this is pure conjecture, that Randall Grichuk may have been a part of the trade that brought David Freese to Los Angeles so that he did not have to be known as the “other” Angels first round pick from 2009. As with anything, the Angels need to rebuild this system so that the team continues to be strong into the future.

Kaleb Cowart was the top prospect in the Angels organization after Trout graduated but a weak 2013 season in Double-A Arkansas gives people reason to worry about the future of the third baseman; in fact, the Angels were so cautious about Cowart’s future that they acquired David Freese this offseason. A tall and lanky first round pick out of high school in Georgia, Cowart had a very strong 2012 between Low-A Cedar Rapids and High-A Inland Empire, even going over 100 RBI (103) for the season. His defense was outstanding between the two leagues and his plate discipline improved with the jump to High-A. The move to Double-A was rough for Cowart; his fielding took a step back, his power disappeared, and his OPS was .580. As with any prospect, the Angels will continue to give him opportunity, but the 22 year old Cowart is not in a position considering that he has only mustered one single in seven spring training at bats. Cowart needs to show that he can hit or he will be a career minor leaguer and a first round pick bust.

CJ Cron is the opposite of Cowart; he is big and bulky and hits like he is big and bulky. The first baseman is basically a clone of Mark Trumbo; they both are 6’4, 235 pounds and hit a ton of home runs with very little plate discipline. Considering that the Angels traded Trumbo this offseason and have spent years waiting on him to develop, the Angels may not be too excited for the prospect of a Trumbo clone. The main difference between the two is that Cron is a bit better of an athlete and fielder; this may not be a factor with the team considering him as a designated hitter option, but he has worked on his fielding to become a serviceable first baseman if the team sees him as a fit at first. Cron also struggled at Double-A Arkansas this year, with his OPS dropping nearly 100 points to .743 and going from 27 home runs in Inland Empire to only 14 in Arkansas. Cron maintained his doubles power with 36 and there is every reason to believe that he becomes a 25 home run hitter in the majors. Cron is very durable and finds ways to get on base even with a low walk rate, two traits that should never be ignored in evaluating the viability of a prospect. There is a very good chance that Cron gets a spell in the majors by 2015 or, if his spring training success continues, even 2014 if he continues to develop.

Taylor Lindsay was the lone prospect of the three examined that did not seen his success considerably regress in Arkansas. In fact, Lindsay saw his walk rate rise and posted 17 home runs which is quite impressive from a 6 foot, 195 lb second baseman. A near sure thing to begin the season in Salt Lake, Lindsay is an injury or Howie Kendrick trade away from being the starting second baseman for the Angels. That being said, he is not a finished product. Many pundits like the 45 extra base hits and continued progress in his approach at the plate, but Lindsay still made a few too many errors for a second baseman, does not have great range, and is a non-factor on the bases. Those are things that must be worked on in Triple-A before he makes the leap to the majors. His offensive output from 2013 should not be seen as a fluke and Lindsay can hit enough to be a decent major leaguer. There is a lot to like from Lindsay and the Angels may even give him an opportunity to play a bit in the majors if he makes strides in Triple-A.

Los Angeles has done a very good job of developing big league talent and these three players may very soon be a part of this development. Fortunately the Angels have enough talent on the major league roster for these players to be given enough time to properly develop, but, especially in Lindsay’s case, these players could be a productive part of the Angels roster in 2014.

How will the change of scenery affect David Freese?

David Freese was a product of the St. Louis Cardinals fantastic development but a rough 2013 season made him expendable; the Angels had a very weak situation at third base and an extra outfielder, so Freese was traded to Los Angeles for Peter Bourjos. Freese is seen by some as a product of his environment in St. Louis and that his bad 2013 and move to Los Angeles will depress his talent. The Angels hope that these people are wrong and a new team is a new opportunity for Freese.

Freese was an early round pick by the Padres out of community college and Freese produced right away with the Padres’ minor league affiliates and was a major part of the 2007 offseason trade that sent Jim Edmonds to San Diego from the Cardinals. After solid seasons in 2008 and the beginning of 2009, Freese was up in St. Louis with the major league team. After he broke his ankle in both 2009 and 2010, Freese broke out with the 2011 Cardinals and was the MVP of the 2011 World Series. In 2012, Freese again was solid as he had an OPS of .839, turned had a career high in HR/FB percentage, and played a very solid defensive third base. Defense and inconsistency led to a poor 2013 for Freese, the worst of his entire professional career, and the Cardinals decided that prospect Kolten Wong at second base and Matt Carpenter at third was a better direction for the team. The Angels are relying on Freese returning to his past offensive output to strengthen their team.

Before we look forward to 2014, a deconstruction of Freese’s worst season must be done to see how he can fix the issues that arose. He did post a solid strikeout and walk percentage in 2013, in fact striking out at the lowest rate of his MLB career. His BABIP was 30 points lower than it had been in any other season, a huge indicator that 2013 may be an outlier. Although the BABIP may be attributed to luck, the 55 point drop in isolated power shows that Freese did not hit the ball with the authority of 2012. The contention that Freese was not as potent is only further supported by the fact that his line drive rate was down and his ground ball percentage was up. A lot of Freese’s other advanced statistics show that he was swinging at good pitches and actually made more contact in 2013 than 2012.

The fact that Freese had weak contact is what hurt him; this could have been because of injury and the Angels have to hope that his Isolated Power returns back to the mid-.100s rather than the low-.100s of 2013. Freese was also a strong fielder prior to 2013 and injuries may he also been the reason that he fell off a bit last year; his range was limited and was a negative factor for the Cardinals at third. A healthy Freese in a strong offensive lineup should be close to 15-20 home runs and 80-85 RBI, as well as returning to being a solid defensive player.

What do the Angels need to do for Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols to get on the right track?

Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton are both former MVPs and, in Pujols’ case, legends of the game. The 2013 season was a lost one for both players and the Angels could have never expected that these two great players would be such liabilities for the team. There are big issues for each player and their careers are really at a crossroads; both may need to change their approach at the plate to achieve their past successes.

Josh Hamilton was a safe bet for nearly 30 home runs and 100 RBI while in Texas; albeit with injury issues, Hamilton was one of the better sluggers in baseball. The issue with Hamilton was that he got hurt too much and tailed off a bit at the end of the season; there were very few issues about Hamilton’s production over a full season and coming to Los Angeles where there were established superstars in Mike Trout and Albert Pujols should have created a situation where Hamilton could be a 125 RBI producer. In 2013, Hamilton stayed healthy but was one of the biggest disappointments of the season. The former MVP only posted a .307 OBP and had 21 home runs and 79 RBI in the 151 games he played; his 151 game averages for his career are a .363 OBP with 33 home runs and 113 RBI.

There have been peaks and valleys in Hamilton’s career, but the valleys have not been this low statistically in a full season. This is a bit surprising for Hamilton because 2012 was the best year of his career and, had Oakland not caught Texas to win the division, Hamilton would have been just as good of an MVP candidate as Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout. He may have struck out at a career high percentage in 2012, but he also had the highest walk rate, isolated power, and hit a ton of fly balls (41.1%) that lead to home runs (25.6 % HR/FB). Further analysis paints an odd picture for Hamilton and might be the reason that he rebounds in 2014. Hamilton was unsuccessful on balls outside of the zone during 2012 and in 2013, Hamilton swung at less pitches outside of the zone and was more successful on those swings.

As a hitter with a swing that lends to contact on pitches outside of the zone, it would be good for Hamilton to continue to be more selective and work on regaining good contact on bad pitches. Although he was successful with poor contact rates in 2012, Hamilton needs to get back to mid-70% contact rates that he had in the 2007-2011 seasons; he was at a 70.3% in 2013, a jump from 64.7% in 2012. Hamilton should be able to regain 30 home run production by working more on the above mentioned issues and the Angels will be glad to have a strong force in the middle of their lineup.

Albert Pujols might have had the best 11 season start to a career in St. Louis; he averaged 40 home runs per season with 121 RBI and a ridiculous 1.037 OPS. The Angels jumped at Pujols when he was a free agent in the 2011 offseason and gave him $250 million to bring that kind of production to Los Angeles: this has not been the case and Pujols looked very weak in 2013. The writing has been on the wall a bit for Pujols to regress, even if it is rough to think that such a talented player would become only a role player. Pujols has seen a decrease in OPS in every season since 2008 and has not hit .300 since 2010. It is a bit unfair to criticize a .331 hitter for lowering his career average to .321 as he has gotten older, but the fact remains that Pujols will never be the player he once was.

What made Pujols so great was that he was able to combine a high lofty swing that led to home runs with fantastic plate disciple and pitch selection. Pujols’ bat has slowed down rapidly and pitchers have not only made Pujols swing more, but make sure that that these swings were on pitches outside of the strike zone that he misses; Pujols has seen his swinging strike rate double from 3.8% in 2008 to 7.6% in 2013. Pitchers still cannot beat Pujols on pitches that are in the strike zone (91.1% Z-Contact) but his overall contact rate has slipped from 90.1% in 2008 to 82.9% in 2013. Pujols is an all-time great and frequently greats are able to reinvent themselves so there is still a chance for a solid season out of Pujols. Even in a relatively weak 2012 season, Pujols had 105 RBI and 50 doubles. Pujols needs to be more patient and not chase the poor pitches like he did in 2013. If Pujols is able to raise his BABIP with better swings and pitch selection, an average in the .280-.290 range with 55 2B+HR and nearly 100 RBI is quite attainable.

There is a better chance that Hamilton regains his 2008-2012 form than that of Pujols’ prime, but his strikeout and free swinging problems will continue to linger unless he changes his approach. The bar was set so high for Pujols and he will never get back to that level, but he could still be a productive player for the Angels and an example for the younger players.

Why are the Angels going to win 85 games?

The Angels are in a spot very similar to the Rangers, hence the prediction that leads to them being equal in win total. There is a lot of offensive talent on this team but the pitching is just not strong enough to weather the storm in a loaded American League. CJ Wilson and Jered Weaver should each be solid at the top of the rotation and Tyler Skaggs will be solid someday, but unless the Angels make a move to improve on the 2014 staff, the team is not playoff bound. Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton may never regain their MVP pasts, but each should rebound from the rough 2013 seasons. Mike Trout will continue his MVP pace and the team will stay in the wild card race most of the season.

 

5 You Know:

1. Mike Trout

2. Albert Pujols

3. Jered Weaver

4. CJ Wilson

5. Josh Hamilton

 

5 You Will Know:

1. CJ Cron

2. Cam Bedrosian

3. Kaleb Cowart

4. RJ Alvarez

5. Taylor Lindsay

 

5 You Should Remember:

1. Hunter Green

2. Ricardo Sanchez

3. Mark Sappington

4. Jose Rondon

5. Alex Yarborough



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