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March 1, 2002

The Daily Prospectus

Angelic

by Joe Sheehan

Well, whaddaya know? There are Angels fans.

Before Tuesday, I thought they were a myth, some kind of Disney creation that didn't really exist. Turns out, there are actually people who care about this team, and they have some pretty strong feelings about their chances this year.

They're wrong, but they're devoted. Not unlike Scientologists.

Anyway, since I left the Halos out of my discussion of the great race brewing in the AL West this year, I figured I'd take one whole column to examine whether they have any real chance of running with the divisional big dogs to the north. I didn't believe so earlier this week, but so many people responded that it's worth taking a closer look.

The Angels were a playoff contender last year in an NFL way, hanging around .500 into September and staying within shouting distance of the good teams in the league. They collapsed in the season's last month, going 6-21 as a pitching staff that had carried the team all season posted a 5.44 ERA. Their offense was just lousy: 12th in the AL in runs scored in 2001, tenth in OBP, and 11th in Equivalent average.

The single biggest reason to dismiss the Angels coming into the season is that they didn't improve their offense. In fact, they jettisoned the one player who might have been expected to upgrade it, Mo Vaughn. Vaughn missed all of the 2001 season with a biceps injury, during which time the Angels got a 755 OPS from their first basemen and a 549 OPS from their DHs. That's brutal. Vaughn is projected for an 823 OPS with the Mets this season, although the error bars on that number are pretty wide.

The point is not that Vaughn will bounce back to be the hitter he once was. The point is that trading from weakness--run scoring--to shore up a strength--run prevention--is a lousy way to improve.

Here's the Angels' projected lineup, along with their Wiltons from Baseball Prospectus 2002:


Player            AVG   OBP     SLG    EqA   EqR
David Eckstein   .282   .355   .383   .257    62
Darin Erstad     .288   .354   .432   .270    79
Troy Glaus       .294   .404   .585   .322   114
Garret Anderson  .300   .340   .493   .276    84
Tim Salmon       .253   .384   .410   .272    70
Brad Fullmer     .291   .344   .506   .282    72
Scott Spiezio    .274   .345   .465   .272    60
Adam Kennedy     .283   .326   .417   .251    63
Ben Molina       .276   .322   .419   .249    45

Shawn Wooten     .291   .340   .477   .273    63

Brad Fullmer will probably platoon with Shawn Wooten at DH and first base. Wooten was one of last year's pleasant surprises, posting a .277 EqA while sharing time at first base, DH, and catcher.

That's a lineup that can be expected to create about 700 runs. Add in some contributions from the bench, and you're looking at a team scoring 750 runs, give or take 30. That's right around the bare minimum for contention in the American League these days. The Twins scored 772 last season in chasing the Indians into September. No AL team has reached the playoffs while scoring fewer than 800 runs in a full season since the White Sox scored 776 in winning the American League West in 1993.

Angels fans are pinning their hopes hard on full returns by Darin Erstad and Tim Salmon, both of whom fell off a cliff following excellent 2000 campaigns. Erstad has been all over the map his entire career--his last three EqAs are .235, .317, and .250--and he's never really come close to the above projection in any one season. I said last week that I'm done projecting Darin Erstad, and I am. I do think he can out-hit that line, especially at full health and left alone to play center field. Salmon probably isn't getting back to his established level, though; while the shape of his performance will probably be a bit different that that projection--a little more power, a few less walks--the value should be the same.

For the Angels to have a championship-caliber offense, they'll need to get some accidental performances from guys like Fullmer and Adam Kennedy. Keep in mind that even in having a lousy offense last year, the team was pleasantly surprised by Wooten, David Eckstein, and Benji Gil. Garret Anderson had as good a year as he can have; if he hits .270 with even a bit less power--and that's perfectly likely--he's a disaster in left field.

Most of the optimism about the Angels is centered on their pitching staff, which was pretty good in 2001: fourth in the AL in runs allowed, fifth in ERA, fifth in SNVA, sixth in Adjusted Runs Prevented. The Angels added Kevin Appier and Aaron Sele, a couple of workhorse #3 starters, to their rotation over the winter, so the expectation is that the Halos will be even better on the mound.

Of course, neither Appier nor Sele is a sure thing. While both have overall numbers that look impressive, both pitched in great environments for pitchers last year, two of the best pitchers' parks in baseball (Shea Stadium and Safeco Field, respectively). Sele's peripherals have been declining for years, and without the great Mariners' defense behind him, his ERA could jump by at least a full run. Appier's 2001 sticks out like a sore thumb in evaluating his recent career, and the risks associated with him, including the $25 million and three years left on his contract, are significant.

Even if you take it as an article of faith that the Angels did well to upgrade their pitching, they really didn't need to add 400 mid-rotation innings with little upside at a cost of $14 million. They already have a bunch of good mid-rotation guys in Ramon Ortiz, Jarrod Washburn and Scott Schoeneweis, and they had some reasonable candidates to win jobs in Matt Wise and Scot Shields and John Lackey. Adding Appier and Sele to the rotation probably makes it a more reliable and more consistent part of the team, but it doesn't necessarily make the Angels better.

The $14 million being handed to Appier and Sele would have been much better spent in simply retaining Vaughn. Having the Hit Dog around would have upgraded the DH slot and allowed Shawn Wooten to steal some extra time at catcher from Ben Molina; those two things alone might have pushed the Angels to 800 runs.

Additionally, expecting the Angels' bullpen to turn in the same performance next year is optimistic. Prior to 2001, Troy Percival's last ERA under 3.00 had come in 1996. The team will miss specialist Mike Holtz and set-up man Shigetoshi Hasegawa, both of whom were lost to divisional rivals. As good as Ben Weber and Al Levine were last year, it's difficult to project them as a strength in 2002; neither is a strikeout pitcher, and neither has an extended record of success. Given the strong bullpens in Oakland, Seattle, and Arlington, this is an area where the Angels are giving, not making up, ground.

What they Angels need, and have needed for some time, is top-tier talent. They have one legitimate star in Troy Glaus; no one else on the team can be considered one of the best players in the game at their position, save perhaps Percival. They have a couple of holes in Molina and the first-base platoon, and other than that, a roster full of what Bill Simmons would call, "That Guys."

If the Angels were in a weak division, they'd be a serious contender based on their pitching and the idea that things could break right offensively. Unfortunately, they're in deepest, nastiest division in baseball, fighting three of the top six or seven teams in the American League. Coming in with an 81-win team and hoping for the best works in the NL East. In the AL West, it's just not enough.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  Angels,  Darin Erstad,  Halos,  Aaron Sele,  Al Levine

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