2011 Record: 86-76, 2nd AL West
2011 Prediction: 83-79, 3rd AL West
Impact Player: 1B Albert Pujols
Impact Pitcher: RHP Dan Haren
Best Reliever: RHP Jordan Walden
Top Prospect: OF Mike Trout
After a season in which the Angels managed to peripherally contend in spite of some atrocious front office decisions, ownership decided to change directions and fire GM Tony Reagins. As his replacement, former Diamondbacks assistant GM Jerry DiPoto was brought in and immediately endeared himself to Angels fans by inking first baseman Albert Pujols to a ten-year, $240-million contract.
On the field last year, the Angels won 86 games mostly on the strength of their terrific starting pitching. They finished second in the AL behind the Rays in runs allowed and their starters finished second to the Rays in innings pitched and were third in fWAR. Their offense, however, held them back, finishing 10th in the AL in runs scored. Vernon Wells, acquired from the Blue Jays heading into the year in the trade that likely sealed Reagins’ fate, was miserable while Bobby Abreu and Torii Hunter both continued to decline rapidly.
With the addition of left-hander C.J. Wilson to an already great rotation, the Angels are poised to prevent runs with the very best in the league. Dan Haren, Jered Weaver, Wilson and Ervin Santana were four of the top ten in the American League in innings pitched and Haren, Weaver and Wilson were three of the top five in fWAR.
The best of the bunch is undoubtedly Haren, who doesn’t seem to get the attention of his golden-haired rotation mate Weaver, but only Roy Halladay and C.C. Sabathia have accumulated a higher fWAR than Haren since 2005 and he was also more valuable than Weaver in 2011 by every measure. Weaver, for his part, was excellent last year finishing with a 5.6 fWAR and a 2.41 ERA. He’s also due for some regression after a .250 batted-ball average which should normalize by 25 points or so, lifting his ERA right along with it.
Wilson finished fourth, just behind Haren in fWAR and has now had two very good seasons as a starter after spending several years in the bullpen. It’s getting harder and harder to doubt Wilson’s staying power; he’s had two straight durable years and was significantly better in 2011 than he was in his breakout 2010 campaign. Solid strikeout rates coupled with better-than-average groundball rates and a move away from homer-friendly Arlington to homer-killing Anaheim should ensure that he pitches well again this season.
Santana is the overlooked pitcher of the bunch, but he might be the best number four starter in baseball. He increased his groundball rate dramatically in 2011 due in large part to greater downward movement on his slider. If it’s sustainable, it’s conceivable that he could continue to outpitch his peripherals.
The fifth spot in the rotation is expected to go to Jerome Williams. The one-time top prospect in the Giants system looked good in a 44-inning cameo last season. He probably won’t have an ERA under 4.00 again, but if he can pitch more than 150 innings, he’ll give the Angels what they need and more. If he turns back into a pumpkin, the Halos could turn to Trevor Bell, Garrett Richards or ex-Jay Brad Mills.
The only AL team with a better bullpen ERA than the Angels in 2011 were the Yankees, but they appeared to outpitch their peripherals as a group. Young closer Jordan Walden had a 3.33 xFIP and a team-best 1.7 fWAR which was sixth in the AL among relievers while veteran lefty Scott Downs had another great year finishing with a 1.34, but a sharp drop-off in his strikeout rate suggests that he could be in decline and shouldn’t be expected to replicate his 2011 numbers.
Veteran righthanders LaTroy Hawkins and Jason Isringhausen were signed as free agents from Milwaukee and the Mets respectively. Hawkins’ excellent command and superior groundball skills have kept him effective well into his late-30s. Isringhausen pitched decently in a comeback with the Mets last year but shouldn’t be expected to duplicate that performance.
Veteran lefty Hisanori Takashi and righthanders Rich Thompson and Bobby Cassevah are back and should nail down the last three spots with decent springs. Kevin Jepsen, Michael Kohn, Francisco Rodriguez (no, not that one), Loek van Mil, and Matt Meyer will provide depth.
The Angels offense should be better in 2012 than it was in 2011, mostly because of the acquisition of Pujols. A ten-year deal is certainly ill-advised, but Pujols should still be one of the best hitters in the league for at least a couple seasons. With the Cardinals in 2011, Pujols had a .299/.366/.541 slash line with 37 home runs and a 5.1 fWAR, but the “32-year-old” was back to his old self in the last two months of the year and into the playoffs, hitting 24 home runs in his last 87 games, playoffs combined. The one concerning thing about Pujols’ game is the sharp decrease in his walk-rate which fell to just 9.4%.
Outside of Pujols, things look pretty bleak for the Angels’ offense. It’s not that any of their players were bad (except of course for Wells, but we’ll get to that), but none of them outside of second baseman Howie Kendrick were much above average in 2011. Hunter in rightfielder and Abreu who is the projected DH will likely continue to get worse and players like third baseman Alberto Callaspo and centerfielder Peter Bourjos are valuable players, but mostly because of their gloves. Bourjos did surprise with a wRC+ of 111, but a high BABIP suggests he could regress dramatically with the stick. The aforementioned Kendrick, meanwhile, had a .349 wOBA and 18 homeruns while providing excellent defense at second.
Shortstop Erick Aybar and catcher Chris Iannetta are both solid players. Aybar accumulated a 4.0 fWAR and was one of just six qualified AL shortstops who had an above-average offensive season. Iannetta, meanwhile, was acquired from the Rockies for fringy starter Tyler Chatwood. He’s an immediate offensive boost over human OBP-suckhole Jeff Mathis and is no worse defensively.
Finally, Wells is back in leftfield this season after his worst year as a professional in 2011. He’s still owed a comical $63-million over the next three years and although he shouldn’t be as bad as he was last year, at 33, he’ll never be worth that money. His .248 on-base percentage was the sixth worst mark in the last 44 years of Major League Baseball.
If the Angels decide to platoon Wells, Hunter and Abreu at DH and in rightfield, they could make room for phenom outfielder Mike Trout who many consider to be the top prospect in all of baseball. Trout struggled as a 19-year-old last season but should blossom into a superstar. Since the old front office regime is no longer in charge, sitting one of those three veterans on occasion might be plausible, immediately making the Angels better.
The backup catcher job will go to either Bobby Wilson or 24-year-old Hank Conger. If Conger makes the team out of Spring Training he should split time with Iannetta given his rather lofty ceiling. First baseman Mark Trumbo finished second in AL Rookie of the Year voting based almost entirely on his home run and RBI totals and very much in spite of his on-base percentage. With Pujols in town, Trumbo will be fighting for playing time at third base with Callaspo despite having never played there professionally. The Angels might do well to trade him. Utility infielder Maicer Izturis is still kicking around and should get quite a bit of playing time around the infield. If Trout doesn’t make the team out of Spring Training, Ryan Langerhans, Jeremy Moore and Drew Macias could be in the mix for the 25th spot.
The Angels won 86 games last season despite their woeful offense which has improved slightly with the removal of Mathis and the addition of Iannetta and Pujols. The starting rotation will again be one of the best in the league with their own version of the three aces, but the continued decline of Hunter and Abreu along with a seemingly stubborn refusal to play Trout regularly will keep them a below average offensive team. They simply aren’t as talented as the Rangers. They should, however, still contend with the AL East teams for one of the wild card spots.
2012 Prediction: 91-71, 2nd AL West