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September 26, 2013

Painting the Black

The Angels' Demons

by R.J. Anderson

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When the Angels and Reds opened the season, many wondered if the matchup was a World Series preview. The teams possessed the parts necessary for an enticing showdown, including multiple superstars, very visible managers, and talented supporting casts. Most everyone expected the clubs to reach the postseason, and how far they would go from there was anyone's guess. But by the time the Reds clinched a playoff berth on Monday night, the Angels had been eliminated from postseason contention for two days.

These are uncertain times for the Angels. Reported tension between Mike Scioscia and Jerry Dipoto could fuel a dismissal, though who and when remain unclear. A common belief that the Angels are screwed adds to the cheerless state. The club's recent free-agent splurges netted them Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson, Josh Hamilton, and nearly $107 million in 2016 guarantees; the average team is closer to $40 million. They have not drafted higher than 59th since 2011—a consequence of those free-agent signings—and have starved a farm system in need of quality talent. Topping it off is the lackluster production from the trio, as they combined this season for seven Wins Above Replacement Player.

Is there hope for an Angels turnaround, or are they damned to mediocrity? The enviable core remains in place. Pujols, Hamilton and Mike Trout formed arguably the best position-player threesome in the game entering the season; however, a lot has changed in six months.

Pujols failed to play in 140 or more games for the first time in his career. While betting on a soon-to-be 34-year-old regaining his past durability is a losing proposition, there is reason for optimism. Pujols had dealt with plantar fasciitis for nine years when he tore his plantar fascia. The injury ended his season, though it may have helped his long-term outlook; the tear has the same affect as the surgery, and the nagging pain should subside. That alone does not guarantee Pujols a clean bill of health—remember, he missed time in spring rehabbing from knee surgery—but it should improve his mobility.

What then should we expect from Pujols next season? It's a credit to his past that a .285 True Average is viewed with disappointment; his performance ranks 14th among first basemen with 300 or more plate appearances, tying him with Mike Napoli and Chris Carter. His days as the elite player are over, but perhaps he can regain some of his past offensive form. Whether his play merits the paycheck is irrelevant at this point, provided he can help the Angels win.

The same notion applies to Hamilton, who tallied consecutive 600-plate appearance seasons for the first time in his career. From a health perspective, Hamilton exceeded expectations in his L.A. debut. Unfortunately, his production underwhelmed for much of the year. Whenever Hamilton slumps the explanations lean toward his personal life, although another common theory blames his swing-happy tendencies—as though he could wake tomorrow and decide to swing less. Alas, it's not that simple. Hamilton gripped it and ripped it in the past, and his recent success has stemmed from the same approach. His inability to hit left-handed pitching is a concern, but year one could have been worse.

Pujols and Hamilton might be expensive and unpredictable, but the Angels still entered the season's final days tied for second in team True Average—admittedly in large part thanks to Trout, who serves as the team's best player and bargain. The fatal flaw was the pitching staff. Both the rotation and bullpen ranked in the bottom eight league-wide in ERA and FIP.

Dipoto gambled with his rotation additions by trading for Jason Vargas and Tommy Hanson, and signing Joe Blanton. Vargas missed time but otherwise pitched as well as expected. Hanson and Blanton, conversely, were disasters. The good news is the Angels can nearly wipe the slate clean if they let Vargas walk in free agency and non-tender Hanson. The bad news is Blanton has another year on his contract—which, it should be noted, carried the third-lowest total value among multi-year deals for starting pitchers last winter—and should be viewed as a sunk cost. Garrett Richards has pitched decently in 16 starts, and has earned a crack at a rotation spot entering next season. Perhaps Dipoto should have stuck to one-year deals, but for every Francisco Liriano there is a Shaun Marcum.

In the bullpen, Dipoto added Sean Burnett and Mark Lowe, though they combined for just 24 appearances. Another pair of Dipoto additions had mixed seasons. Ernesto Frieri's home run, walk, and strikeout rates remained close to static, but his hit rate increased. The Angels secured Dane De La Rosa in an uncelebrated preseason trade, and saw him pitch beyond his up-and-down label. Due to injuries and poor performances the Angels dug deep, using the likes of Buddy Boshers, Michael Roth, and Robert Coello for more than 50 combined appearances.

The fallout makes one thing clear: Acquiring reliable pitching means paying big bucks or surrendering top prospects. The Angels lack the minor-league assets to pull off a James Shields-style addition this winter, and that means Dipoto (or his replacement) will need to get creative. Whether that means finding a gem on a one-year deal, or trading a big-league asset for an arm is to be determined. The wild card here is Angels owner Arte Moreno. Moreno has proven territorial in the past, and could open his wallet to prevent the Dodgers from gaining back the ground he worked hard to overtake.

This winter's free-agent class lacks a standout starter in the Zack Greinke mold, meaning the Angels could pursue a mid-tier arm or two. It's possible the Angels pursue another proven closer, too. If Dipoto can pair those marquee additions with a few low-key finds, it's not difficult to envision the Angels regaining their old lust heading into next spring. As farfetched as it seems, things have changed a lot over the past six months; why wouldn't they change more in the next six?

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

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