Angels owner Arte Moreno may not have pockets as deep as the Dodgers ownership the Guggenheim Management — who does — but that doesn’t mean he’s cheap. Anaheim had the sixth highest payroll in the majors last season at nearly $155 million. And the Angels — who open the 2015 season in Seattle on April 6— aren’t afraid to take a chance on a “name” player like Albert Pujols or Josh Hamilton, or lock up a young superstar like Mike Trout.
But many key pieces of the Angels have, in baseball terms, become old or are on the verge. While veteran experience is great, the trade offs are often injuries or a decline in production. Even if lot of things go right, as they did in 2014, it doesn’t take much to go wrong.
General manager Jerry Dipoto certainly believes the team has enough to compete for a title. But he has also started remaking the team to grow up alongside Trout.
The pitching is where Dipoto took his first, hard look. Staff ace Jared Weaver (18-9, 3.59) was one of three pitchers to lead the the American League in wins, but his velocity continues to decline and soon batters will only look for his off-speed stuff and adjust to the fastball. C.J. Wilson (13-10, 4.51) continually got himself into high pitch counts and couldn’t throw deep into games. Rising star Garrett Richards (13-4, 2.61) is coming off knee surgery and won’t be off the disabled list until mid-April. Matt Shoemaker had an excellent rookie season (14-3, 2.89 in 20 starts), but only faced 11 teams. There is film on him now for other teams to study and dissect; the sophomore year could be more revealing.
Dipoto traded for two potential starters in Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano; neither had an eye-opening spring and both will probably begin in Triple-A. That moves Hector Santiago (6-9, 3.75) back into starting rotation for now. Several additions Dipoto brought to the bullpen last year — closer Huston Street, Joe Smith, Cory Rasmus — are back and entrenched. Also hoping to make an impact in relief are Jose Alvarez, coming off elbow surgery, and Drew Rucinski.
Dipoto had to give up second baseman Howie Kendricks in trading for Heaney, and his sure-handedness on defense and reliable bat (career .292 average) will be missed. Johnny Giavotella, who is batting .349 in the spring, appears to have beaten out three other contenders for the starting job at second but will have to keep proving his worth throughout the season.
Trout won his first MVP award on the strength of 36 homers, 111 RBIs, and 115 runs scored. But his average was only .287 and he struck out 184 times — 104 times in the second half as opposing hurlers zeroed in on Trout’s penchant to chase high fastballs. But Dude is only 23; he’ll close loopholes like that as he approaches his prime years.
The veteran support around Trout has questions. Pujols has looked healthy all spring, and is still capable of driving in 100 runs, but even his bat may be slowing at age 34. David Freese returns to third base but is striking out more and hitting for power less. Shortstop Eric Aybar’s career highs in hits (164) and RBIs (68) were a nice surprise, but there’s no telling if that output continues. Outfielder/designated hitter Matt Joyce can hit right-handers, but is a sub-.200 career hitter against lefties.
So the younger guys need to step up. Kole Calhoun (17 home runs) is not a prototype leadoff hitter, but he did score 90 runs in 127 games and is a solid defensive outfielder. Potential reserves C.J. Cron, Collin Cowgill, Taylor Featherston, Grant Green and Josh Rutledge will have to make use of whatever opportunities they get.
A couple key scenarios hang over the Halos.
Richards was on his way to being an elite pitcher before he tore a patellar tendon in his left knee last August. If he returns to form when he returns, the starting rotation more than respectable. If he struggles, the rotation is shaky. That’s not good in an era where pitching has become dominant again.
The other is Hamilton. At times he looked like a shell of himself on the field (especially going 0-for-13 against Kansas City in the playoffs). Surgery had already delayed his start to spring training, and now he faces discipline from Major League Baseball after admitting to another relapse with drugs. If he does play at all in 2015, what does that do to an Angels team that may be better without him, but is contractually obligated to Hamilton (at about $25 million a year) through 2017. Not even Moreno wants to eat the remainder of that deal.
A window is still open for this group to reach the Fall Classic, but it is definitely closing.
Just how fast a closure is what the Angels will learn in 2015.