Bauman: Don't expect Halos to fall off
Tougher AL West awaits, but Angels are class of division
TEMPE, Ariz. -- There is no question that the opposition has improved. But this does not mean that the Los Angeles Angels have automatically become something less.
The Angels have won five American League West titles in the past six years, but their status is larger than even that record suggests. They were utilizing an aggressive, relentless offense well before that style of play came back into fashion. They built up a strong organizational foundation of talent and have added to it when necessary with astute acquisitions.
The only persistent blot on their recent record was some postseason difficulty with the Boston Red Sox. The Angels cleared that up last October with a Division Series sweep of Boston. True, the Angels were stopped in the AL Championship Series by the Yankees, but given the kind of season the Yankees produced, a postseason loss to them was disappointing, but hardly damning.
Next up for 2010, here is the immediate opposition, the remainder of the AL West, upping the ante, lifting the level of competition, making no concessions to the Angels. The Texas Rangers were second in the AL West last year, and they have an impressive store of young talent. They should be better. The Oakland Athletics were fourth, but they had a core of young pitching talent. To that they have added Ben Sheets, an expensive purchase and perhaps a chancy one given his injury history. But when he was last healthy he was the NL starting pitcher in the 2008 All-Star Game.
And that brings us to the Seattle Mariners, who had the best offseason in baseball, gathering left-handed ace Cliff Lee; an extremely talented, if temperamental hitter, Milton Bradley; other useful veteran players; and, closest to the point of this discussion, third baseman and offensive catalyst Chone Figgins. This was the daily double acquisition for the Mariners, helping themselves, simultaneously hurting the Angels, their primary division opposition.
Figgins' combination of speed, versatility and acquired patience at the plate makes him semi-irreplaceable. In the 2010 Angels lineup, the preferred replacement for him is Brandon Wood. Wood, 25, has put up otherworldly run-production numbers in the Minors, but has yet to hit his stride in stints with the Angels over portions of the past three seasons. Now, he gets his best and most important shot. The Angels have other third-base options if Wood does not come through, but their depth and their power will both be better if Wood seizes this job and plays up to his potential.
"He's a guy who we would like to take the position," manager Mike Scioscia said Monday at Tempe Diablo Stadium. "Obviously, we have a lot of depth if he does. He's got to go out there and show that he's ready. I would say right now that we're looking for him to get the first opportunity there, with Izzy [Maicer Izturis] really helping out with the versatility that he brings, playing second, short and third.
"We know what Brandon is going to do on the defensive end. And hopefully, on the offensive end he'll get into a comfort level. This kid has a lot of talent and a lot of potential."
So far, the potential has not turned into production. Wood is hitting .250 this spring, with only one extra-base hit, a home run, in 28 at-bats. But he did have two hits Monday in a 4-0 loss to the Dodgers.
"He's definitely getting a little bit of timing at the plate," Scioscia said. "He had some really good swings this afternoon."
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Elsewhere, at designated hitter, Vladimir Guerrero has gone to the Rangers and Hideki Matsui has arrived from the Yankees. Based on a comparison of the two careers, well, not many hitters can match Guerrero's body of work. But, based on the seasons these two had in 2009, the Angels are better off with Matsui, who put an exclamation point on his 2009 work by being the MVP of the World Series.
In the starting rotation, the Angels have lost John Lackey and added Joel Pineiro. This is not a net gain, given Lackey's intangible, bulldog quality, the tenacity that sets him apart from other pitchers. But this is also not an immense net loss, because Lackey made only 51 starts over the past two years. Pineiro turned his career around with St. Louis last season. If he continues to be that pitcher, as opposed to the one he was over the previous five years, the Angels will be fine with this trade-off, as well.
The idea that the Angels have no true rotation ace has been advanced. But if you add up the victories from the best seasons of the five projected Angels starters you get 78 victories. This rotation may be a very large collection of No. 2 starters. Ace or not, most teams would look at this group only with envy.
In the bullpen the Angels have lost Darren Oliver, who also went to Texas. He was highly effective over the past two years as a lefty who could get right-handed hitters out. The Angels have added hard-throwing right-hander Fernando Rodney, who emerged as a closer with Detroit last season and converted 37 of 38 save opportunities. Plus the Angels will welcome the return of Scot Shields from knee surgery. Shields was a tireless, effective staple of the Angels' bullpen, leading the Majors in relief innings pitched from 2004-08.
The somewhat new Angels are winless in their past seven exhibition games. But this may mean only that they are in no danger of peaking too early.
"We're moving forward in some important areas," Scioscia said.
He was including the first and healthy appearances of Scott Kazmir, Shields, Rodney and reliever Kevin Jepsen within a matter of days.
One of the keys to the Angels' success is that they sometimes move forward when the popular perception is that they must be headed in the opposite direction. The 2010 season could be another example of that phenomenon.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.