Angels ready to take on task of rebounding
Scioscia believes club can return to form in strong AL West
When the 2010 season ended, Angels owner Arte Moreno made it clear that the American League West had not become a new order, that 2010 was a temporary overthrow that his market, location and organization would right. Oh, the Angels finished two games below .500, 10 games behind the Rangers and had a minus-21 run differential, but it was a combination of bugs that a healthy Kendry Morales and a few signings would cure.
But after Carl Crawford went to Boston and Adrian Beltre, who lives 20 minutes from the Anaheim ballpark, signed with Texas, the Angels have been left pondering how they can climb back over the Rangers and Oakland. It's not as if they pocketed profits; their $135 million payroll is at the top of the division. But as scientific yet uncertain as projections in January can be, two such attempts have the 2011 Angels about the same as the 80-82 2010 club, behind both the Rangers and Athletics.
There is no question that Mike Scioscia hoped the Angels would sign first Crawford, then Beltre. But most important for Moreno, the manager who changed this franchise is preparing for Spring Training maintaining a positive, optimistic stance.
"We're going to be a team built around pitching," said Scioscia, who before last year last had a sub-.500 season in 2003. "I think we can patch together a decent offense, especially with Kendry back. But we also have to get back to doing what we are supposed to do best -- play defense and be aggressive on the basepaths. We got away from what we're supposed to do last year."
The two offseason additions thus far have been veteran left-handed relievers Scott Downs from the Blue Jays and Hisanori Takahashi from the Mets. The Angels will still add a role bat -- likely either Johnny Damon or Scott Podsednik -- but the improvements will have to come from within. That's because even without Cliff Lee, Texas is going to be very good and has the creativity and farm system to add pitching before the end of July, and Oakland has the pitching depth, defense and baserunning to be serious contenders.
Scioscia starts 2011 with a rotation that begins with Jered Weaver, a top six pitcher last year, along with Danny Haren and Ervin Santana.
"We'll put them up against anyone," said the manager.
Then there's Joel Pineiro, who was 10-7 with a 3.84 ERA but had a 6.31 road ERA. And Scott Kazmir.
"He is a big key for us," said Scioscia. "He's working hard this winter to get back to where he once was, especially finding his slider. He's still young [27 next week] and capable of being pretty good."
The 5.94 ERA last season upped Kazmir's three-year aggregate to 4.76.
Even with Kazmir mired in a 9-14, 5.94 season, the Angels did get 93 quality starts, 10 fewer than the Athletics. The Angels starters' 62-63, 4.05 mark was, by their standards, less than ordinary.
If they can get their rotation back to being four deep, then the bullpen figures to be a major part of their equation. Fernando Rodney is the de facto closer, but Downs can close. Scioscia also has two power arms setting up with Kevin Jepsen and Jordan Walden, and then Downs and Takahashi from the left side.
Defense will be the focus of Spring Training work, with Alberto Callaspo at third, Erick Aybar at short, Howie Kendrick at second and left field to be determined among a Damon/Podsednik addition, Bobby Abreu and Juan Rivera. The Angels are very happy with Peter Bourjos in center, Torii Hunter in right and Morales at first.
How they will find enough offense is also to be determined. Los Angeles finished ninth in the AL in runs, scoring 103 fewer than Texas. The Halos' .702 team OPS was better than Cleveland and Seattle, period. They were 12th in the league in walks. Their 67 percent stolen-base rate was the worst in the AL.
"We have," said Scioscia, "a lot of ways we can improve."
In time, phenom outfielder Mike Trout and catcher Hank Conger could be party to the improvements, but neither is likely to open the season in Anaheim.
Meanwhile, Texas proved to be a legitimate power in the game's fourth-biggest market last year. Some of its pitching is very young, but with the potential of seven left-handed pitchers contributing during the season -- not to mention the ground balls Brandon Webb can generate if he comes back -- the Beltre-Elvis Andrus left side of the infield becomes a significant strength. The other AL West general managers are very happy that Jim Thome chose Minnesota instead of Texas.
Then there are the Athletics. Their young starters -- Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez, Dallas Braden -- led the league in quality starts and in starters' ERA. General manager Billy Beane has taken on a couple of rehab chances in Rich Harden and Brandon McCarthy who could start, relieve or have further physical issues.
But by jumping in and signing Grant Balfour and now Brian Fuentes, Oakland has one of the deepest bullpens in the league, one that should allow manager Bob Geren to limit the starters' innings in July and August. Andrew Bailey can close. So can Fuentes. Balfour has big-time stuff. Craig Breslow had a 71-29 strikeout-walk ratio in 74 2/3 innings. Michael Wuertz, Brad Ziegler and Jeremy Blevins are solid, and if Joey Devine is healthy, he is a closing option.
Every time one mentions that the A's are dangerous, tweets or e-mails come pouring in dismissing them because Kurt Suzuki may bat cleanup. But Beane's emphasis on defense produced an infield that protected his young starting pitching; Cliff Pennington, for instance, was a find at shortstop, and Daric Barton easily could have won the Gold Glove at first base. Beane added Hideki Matsui's DH bat as well as corner outfielders Josh Willingham and David DeJesus to bookend Coco Crisp, with Ryan Sweeney and Conor Jackson for depth and slugger Chris Carter possible in a number of roles.
"We may not have great players," said Beane. "But all our players are good, or pretty good."
He couldn't have said that at times last season.
Fangraphs last week showed that the Athletics lost 40.4 percent of their payroll to the disabled list in 2010, far outdistancing runners-up Minnesota (28.8 percent) and Colorado (20.4 percent).
"We've tried to acquire the depth to withstand injuries this time around," said Beane.
The depth in the bullpen and outfield gives Beane some trade options come June, when teams are looking to re-cobble 'pens whose plans have come undone. Until and if the Athletics move to San Jose, they will always be a work in progress, but don't think for a second that the eyes of Arlington and Anaheim aren't upon them.
Scioscia is most often right, and he believes the Angels will come back into the race in 2011. Even so, there does appear to be a new order in the American League West, one that will make the return of the grievous Angels all the more difficult.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.