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August 23, 2009
On the Beat
Their top three starting pitchers have spent time on the Disabled List. Their primary set-up reliever is out for the season after their record-setting closer left as a free agent in the winter. Their hard-hitting designated hitter has been plagued by injuries all season, and their center fielder missed more than a month; these injuries befell a lineup that lost its power-hitting first baseman to free agency in the offseason.
All the injuries and defections would seemingly be enough to sabotage any team's hopes of being a contender. Yet the Angels are 74-47 and hold a 6˝ -game lead over the Rangers in the American League West. So how have the Angels, after losing closer Francisco Rodriguez and first baseman Mark Teixeira in the offseason, withstood injuries to left-hander Joe Saunders, right-handers John Lackey and Ervin Santana, set-up man Scot Shields, center fielder Torii Hunter, and designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero to put themselves in position to win their fifth division title in the last six years?
Manager Mike Scioscia has two answers: Resiliency and depth. "Every team goes through injuries or players not playing up to their potential every season," Scioscia said. "It's part of the game and you have to get through it. We have the type of players here who don't get down when they things aren't going well. And you need depth to overcome the inevitable injuries that come each season. For that, you can give the credit to (general manager) Tony Reagins. He did an outstanding of constructive a very deep roster that has allowed us to lose guys and not miss a beat, especially on the offensive end of things."
Depth did indeed get the Angels through some rough stretches, particularly when Guerrero sat out a combined 61 days with a strained right pectoral muscle and a strained left knee, and Hunter missed 37 days with a strained adductor muscle in his groin. The Angels also were able to get by when second baseman Howie Kendrick slumped so badly that he was sent to Triple-A Salt Lake to get his swing back. Maicer Izturis has recently supplanted Kendrick as the primary second baseman, while the Angels were able to fill with Gary Matthews Jr. in center field while rotating several players through the DH slow. Yet the Angels lead the major leagues in scoring with an average of 5.7 runs a game, and rank third in the AL with a team-wide .269 Equivalent Average. Not surprisingly, they have nine players with an EqA of .273 or better, topped by Hunter's .309. He is followed closely by catcher Mike Napoli (.301), first baseman Kendry Morales (.300) and right fielder Bobby Abreu (.300), a late free-agent signing after he spent the winter drawing minimal interest at 35. Third baseman Chone Figgins (.292), Rivera (.285), Guerrero (.280), Izturis (.276), and shortstop Erick Aybar (.273) are also doing their fair share.
The biggest reasons for the Angels' offensive success, in Scioscia's mind, are the addition of Abreu and the insertion of Morales at first base for Mark Teixeira. "Bobby Abreu gives you a professional at bat every time he steps up to the plate," Scioscia said. "He'll take pitches and wait a pitcher out and I think all of our guys have learned by watching him the value of that approach."
The Angels have had high hopes for Morales since signing him in 2005 after he defected from Cuba. He is reaching those expectations this season after bouncing back and forth between the majors and minors the last three seasons. "A lot of people seemed surprised by what Kendry has done, but nobody in this organization is surprised," Scioscia said. "You could always see the talent, the ability to hit the ball hard. He had some learning to do when he got to this country but he reached that stage this year where he was ready to blossom and he has."
The Angels' offensive explosion has helped compensate for a team that is 11th in the league with an average of 5.1 runs allowed a game. Injuries have wrecked the staff as Lackey and Santana began the season on the DL, and Saunders is currently shelved with tightness in his throwing shoulder (although he is tentatively scheduled to come off the disabled list Wednesday and start against the Tigers that afternoon). The Angels have already used 13 starting pitchers this season after employing just seven a year ago. Over in the pen, closer Brian Fuentes and fellow left-hander Darren Oliver are the only two relievers who have spent an entire season in the major leagues. Jered Weaver (4.2 SNLVAR) has stepped up to lead the rotation through its turbulent times while Fuentes (2.234 WXRL) and Oliver (2.155) have been stabilizers in the bullpen.
"We've been able to get by with our pitching because of the contributions of a lot of different people, including a bunch of kids who have come up from the minor leagues, showed good poise and been able to get the job done for us when we've really needed them," Scioscia said.
However, the Angels' success has as much to do with organizational philosophy. Figgins knows that is a constant with the Angels as he broke into the major leagues with the 2002 team that won the franchise's only World Series title. "Management does a great job of finding the right players for this organization, whether it's by drafting them as amateurs or trading for them or singing them as free agents," Figgins said. "The mindset here is a little bit different than it is in a lot of organizations. It's always about the team first. It's about doing things like moving the runner over and getting him in. Some people call it small ball but I call it playing the game the right way. I really believe we play the game the right way every single day. The most important part is everyone buys into it. Some players don't want to hit .290 instead .300 even if it helps the team win because it could ultimately hurt their salary and chances of finding work. However, guys on this team don't worry about stats. Other clubs see how we play the game. Even though our guys never have the best stats in the league, they also never have a hard time finding another job when it's time to leave here."
The Angels' resiliency this season also comes from their most significant loss of all, one that transcends any roster move. That was when right-hander Nick Adenhart was killed in an automobile accident on April 8, just hours after making his first start of the season. He was only 22. The Angels struggled to cope with his passing initially, and were 29-29 on June 11. They have the best record in baseball since, having gone 45-18 since.
"It really hung over all of us for a couple of months before we could really accept it," Figgins said. "It's something we're never going to forget. We lost a teammate and a friend who hadn't even reached the prime of his life and his family lost a son, which is devastating. However, I think Nick's death put things in perspective for us all. You can have a thousand guys on the disabled list and it means nothing compared to having someone lose their life, especially someone as young and full of life as Nick. When you lose someone like Nick, it makes other bad things that might happen over the course of a baseball season seem insignificant."
Those close to the Nationals' situation always felt assistant GM Mike Rizzo would eventually be promoted to the job on a full-time basis after doing yeoman's work as the fill-in GM following the resignation of Jim Bowden on March 1 in the wake of a bonus skimming scandal in the Dominican Republic. Sure enough, it was Rizzo and not Diamondbacks vice president of player personnel Jerry DiPoto who got the job this past Thursday.
Nationals president Stan Kasten said he considered 15 people for the job then reduced his list to six finalists a month ago. DiPoto was pegged as the likely choice by various media outlets and also in scouting circles. However, Rizzo emerged as the best man for the job by making a series of successful moves that have included remaking the bullpen, acquiring center fielder Nyjer Morgan and left-handed reliever Sean Burnett from the Pirates in a trade, firing manager Manny Acta and replacing him with bench coach Jim Riggleman, and signing San Diego State right-hander Steven Strasburg, the first overall pick in this year's first-year player draft. "Having gone through all that, we felt that with Mike here, with what he did, this was the best fit," Kasten said. "For this situation here, Mike was the best fit, in fact, the perfect fit for here, for now."
Rizzo, 48, has spent 26 years in professional baseball, primarily on the scouting side. "I took the long road and learned my craft," Rizzo said.
The Nationals have the worst record in the major leagues at 43-80 but Rizzo believes they are not as far away from being contenders as it would seem. "We know we have a lot of work to do," Rizzo said. "We are, I think, really on the threshold of putting things in the right order, and being able to become a competitive ballclub in the very, very near future."
Rays manager Joe Maddon's distinctive silver locks were turned to dark black this past week in an effort to loosen up his team. Maddon decided to go to the black look in order to mimic Johnny Cash in preparation for next week's road trip to face the Blue Jays and Tigers, which he has termed the 'Ring of Fire' trip. Everyone in the Rays' traveling party will dress in black.
"Very Joan Jett-ish," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said of Maddon's new look. "Kinda goth," Rays left-hander Scott Kazmir observed.
Maddon decided on the dye job for two reasons. One was for luck because the last time he did it was in 2002 as the Angels' bench coach, and they won the World Series. Secondly, he is trying to relax his team, which has been feeling the heat this season in their effort of trying to repeat their surprise AL pennant of a year ago. "I just think we've been applying way too much pressure to ourselves and we've been way too uptight," Maddon said. "Winning games was almost a relief, and losing was very painful. And that's not us. I don't want that to be us. Win or lose, I want it to be about 30 minutes and move on. I've been thinking about it a lot. We've been grinding very hard. I love our effort. I love how much we care. But let's just be a little bit more pragmatic about it and understand what's going on. And let's start processing it in a better way that I think is going to lead us back to the promised land. It's not too late to do that."
The difference in clubhouse atmosphere has been obvious from last year's group that had nothing to lose after the Rays had lost at least 91 games in each of their first 10 seasons of existence. Maddon finally admitted the need to recapture the spirit of 2008, so he had his wife, Jaye, do the dye job. "We got to the World Series last year by being kind of free-spirited about the whole thing and permitting ourselves to go out there and play openly with risk-taking and not worrying and all that kind of stuff," Maddon said. "The black hair is symbolic of all those different items and hopefully we'll get the message."
Jaywalking might not be strictly enforced in Chicago, but baseball management types from the Windy City are getting busted for it seemingly every week. San Diego police stopped Cubs manager Lou Piniella on Tuesday before his team played the Padres, but he was able to talk his way out of a ticket. He said he was talking to his son on his cell phone when he heard a police siren, stopped to see what was going on and found out it was for him.
That came a week after White Sox general manager Ken Williams got a ticket for crossing in the middle of a street outside Safeco Field in Seattle. "Kenny can afford it more than me," Piniella said, jokingly.
Piniella's brush with the law provided a bit of comic relief in what is becoming more of a lost season for the Cubs with each passing day. The two-time defending National League Central champions are eight games behind the Cardinals in the division race and seven games behind the leading Rockies in the wild-card standings. "What we need to do is win some baseball games and we need to put a streak together," Piniella said. "We haven't had one in a long, long time. Are we capable of it? Yeah, but we just can't continue to lose some of these games that are seemingly won. We'll see what happens."
"We just haven't played up to our capabilities," GM Jim Hendry said. "It's kind of a mystery to all of us."
Rumors and Rumblings: Look for the Mariners to consider trying to sign Red Sox left fielder Jason Bay as a free agent in the offseason, as his wife is from Seattle and he lives there in the offseason. While the Mariners may not exercise shortstop Jack Wilson's $8.4 million club option for next season, they are amenable to working out a multi-year deal with him. And the Mariners will also probably try to re-sign left-hander Erik Bedard to a one-year contract that has a low base salary and would be heavy with performance bonuses. … The Padres will almost certainly trade first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and closer Heath Bell in the offseason, as they feel that is the best way and the best time to restock an organization short on talent. … Though the Red Sox still have time to work out a trade for left-handed reliever Billy Wagner, who they claimed off waivers, don't look for the Mets to just give him away, since he has an affordable $8 million club option for next season that makes him more than a one-month rental. … Abreu and the Angels have had preliminary discussions on a contract extension, and he would prefer to re-sign than test the free-agent market.
Three series to watch this week with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):