Simply put, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim just don’t have the appeal of the American League’s other top teams. The Boston Red Sox are the defending World Series champions. The Cleveland Indians are the scrappy team that pushed the champs to the brink last season before losing in seven games in the American League Championship Series. The Yankees have a modern-day murderer’s row in their lineup, while the Tigers have one to match after trading for Miguel Cabrera in the offseason.
And then there are the Angels, a solid team who won the AL West last year then got swept by the Red Sox in the American League Division Series. They have the game’s great low-profile superstar in Vladimir Guerrero, the game’s most underappreciated manager in Mike Scioscia, and a group of blue-collar players who defy SoCal convention by having more substance than style. But while the Angels may be the AL’s least-known best team, they also are the heaviest of the three division favorites. They should seemingly waltz to the West title in a division in which PECOTA pegs Seattle as the league’s most overrated team, Oakland is in the beginning stages of a massive rebuilding, and Texas still doesn’t have enough pitching to contend.
What the Angels lack in wow factor they make up for in pitching. That is why Scioscia is confident the Angels can compete with the Red Sox, Indians, Yankees, Tigers, and anyone else in the AL. “The good offensive teams like Boston, New York, Detroit, and Cleveland can pressure you in a lot of ways,” Scioscia said. “You have to have good pitchers who can make good pitches if you’re going to give yourself a chance to win. We have a strong pitching staff. If you get into your game plan and play good defense, that’s going to give you the chance to beat the deep offensive clubs. I feel we can do that and compete with the best teams in the league.”
That philosophy explains why the Angels’ two biggest moves of the offseason were trading shortstop Orlando Cabrera to the White Sox for right-hander Jon Garland, and signing center fielder Torii Hunter as a free agent to a five-year, $90 million contract. While the Angels are giving up some defense at shortstop in trading the Gold Glove-winning Cabrera and opting to either go with talented Erick Aybar or steady Maicer Izturis at shortstop, they felt it was necessary to add another innings-eating pitcher to the starting rotation.
That move looks even more prudent in light of the fact right-hander Kelvim Escobar (6.3 SNLVAR last season) will miss at the least the first month of the season because of shoulder problems. Garland ranked 26th in the AL with a SNLVAR of 4.3 last season, but Scioscia especially likes the fact that he’s pitched at least 200 innings each of the last four seasons and least 190 innings each of the last six seasons for the White Sox. He joins a rotation that includes John Lackey, who led the AL in SNLVAR with 6.9 in 2007, Jered Weaver (4.1), left-hander Joe Saunders (1.7), and Ervin Santana (1.3). “I think if you look at our pitching from probably through the last four to six weeks of last season, some guys got worn down a little,” Scioscia observed. “The depth in the rotation is going to help us. I think it has a chance to make a big difference.”
The Angels feel like they will offset the loss of Cabrera to the defense with the addition of Hunter, who won seven Gold Gloves playing center field for the Twins. The Angels are paying Hunter to be a difference-maker. Skeptics would say they are overpaying the 32-year-old, but his 39.2 VORP last season ranked 19th in the AL, and Guerrero (62.6) was the only Angels player who had a higher figure.
Speaking of overpaying, the Angels and Gary Matthews Jr. are only in the second season of a five-year, $50 million deal. The addition of Hunter will push Matthews from center field to a corner, most likely left field, as veteran Garret Anderson seems ready to become more of a designated hitter. It will also knock Matthews out of the middle of the batting order. “Torii gives us another legitimate middle-of-the-order bat to go with Vlad and Garret, and that is going to help our offense,” Scioscia said. “We don’t have the type of offense where one guy is going to carry us for an extended period. We need to have our production spread out up and down the order and Torii definitely makes our lineup deeper.”
Angels owner Arte Moreno is always looking to add big names to compete with the Dodgers for attention and fans in the nation’s second-biggest media market. Hunter’s outgoing personality and megawatt smile should help in that regard. Though Scioscia is more of an old-school manager, he realizes Hunter brings more than just his glove, speed and some pop in his bat. “There’s always been a presence in our clubhouse, always been good chemistry, and Torii will bring another piece of that puzzle,” Scioscia said. “He’s more than just an outstanding ballplayer, he’s a terrific person. I think if you spend any time around Torii, you can see that right away. He has a great passion for this game. He loves people and he’s going to be a great addition to our club.”
When Ichiro Suzuki, the face of the Mariners’ franchise, arrived in spring last year he broadly hinted that he was looking forward to exploring free agency at the end of the season, in part because he felt ownership was unwilling to put a contender on the field after three straight last-place finishes in the AL West. This spring, Ichiro is still a Mariner after signing a four-year contract extension last season, and his tone was quite different when he arrived in Arizona earlier this week. He believes in ownership’s commitment to winning after the Mariners finished second last season, then bolstered their starting rotation in the offseason by trading with Baltimore for left-hander Erik Bedard and signing right-hander Carlos Silva to a four-year, $48 million contract as a free agent.
“We made a big trade, something that is the biggest of my career with the Seattle Mariners,” Ichiro said through interpreter Ken Baron to the Seattle Times. “What I mean by that is, it was a trade in which we didn’t try to avoid risk. To gain power, sometimes you have to take a big risk. And I think the Mariners showed that by making that move.”
Suzuki also sees the most cohesiveness in the organization since his first season in America in 2001 when the Mariners tied the major league record with 116 regular-season wins. “By ‘coming together’ I don’t mean that strictly by the coaches and the players, but just the whole organization coming together,” he said. “I’m not saying that just because of the moves we made, but the feelings that were behind the moves, the motivations behind the moves.”
Josh Byrnes has established himself as one of the best general managers in the game. In three years, he has rebuilt the Diamondbacks, fielding a team that won more games than any in the National League last season with 90 victories before being swept by Colorado in the National League Championship Series. Byrnes was rewarded for his work this past week by receiving as much job security as any executive in the game. Byrnes got an eight-year contract extension that takes him through the 2015 season. Club President Derrick Hall also received the same deal. Byrnes reportedly will make $1 million a year, matching the salary of Oakland GM Billy Beane, who is signed through 2014. Florida President Larry Beinfest signed an extension last September that also takes him through the 2015 season.
In his three years, Byrnes has overhauled the roster and brought in such players as second baseman Orlando Hudson, left fielder Eric Byrnes, center fielder Chris B. Young, left-handers Randy Johnson and Doug Davis, and right-hander Dan Haren despite working on a tight budget. The Diamondbacks’ payroll was $52 million last season, which ranked 26th in the major leagues, ahead of only Pittsburgh, Washington, Florida, and Tampa Bay. While the payroll is expected to rise to $69 million this year, it will still be below average.
In talking about the organization’s investment in Byrnes, Diamondbacks President Jeff Moorad told the East Valley Tribune, “”I don’t think there was a better-prepared individual in the game when we hired Josh. At this point, with a couple of years under his belt, I think he is becoming a standard in and of himself. He’s bright. He’s tireless. He’s as thorough as anyone in the world. And he’s committed to winning.”
Byrnes was approached by representatives of an unnamed team about its GM job at the end of last season. However, Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick quickly moved to keep Byrnes, and the framework of the deal was completed late last year before finally getting finished on the first day of full-squad workouts.
Mets owner Fred Wilpon watched his team suffer an incredible late-season collapse in 2007 as they blew a seven-game lead to Philadelphia in the NL East in the final 17 days. He has much different and higher expectations for 2008. “It’s a championship season,” Wilpon told the Newark Star-Ledger. “We expect to be in the playoffs, and deep into the playoffs. That’s our expectation. That’s everyone around here, players, manager, Jeff, myself, and everyone that’s around the club.”
Mets Chief Operating Officer Jeff Wilpon immediately tempered the atmosphere by pointing out that that those are the club’s expectations every year. That is why the Wilpons insist manager Willie Randolph‘s job security will not necessarily be tenuous if the Mets miss the playoffs again. “We’re all accountable,” Fred Wilpon said. “But no, I don’t think people’s jobs are on the line. I think that we’re going to assess, with them, at the end of the year, ‘How did we do? How did we perform?’ They can’t perform for the players.”
Randolph isn’t fazed by much of anything, and Fred Wilpon’s proclamation did not bother him. “So what? It’s the way it is, the way it should be,” Randolph said. “I’d rather have it this way than the other way around, in an environment where you don’t have a chance to win.”
Mets closer Billy Wagner was happy to hear Wilpon talking big. “I think that’s fantastic. I think it’s good to hear an owner say he has expectations for us, not just to play to win but to play to win a championship,” he said. “I love it. That man has been fantastic to me and my family and there’d be no greater honor than to give that man a championship.”
NL Rumors and Rumblings: Free agent right-hander Freddy Garcia met with the Mets this past week, but likely won’t sign until after the season starts, as he is not expected to be ready to pitch until July after undergoing shoulder surgery last year. … Despite long being the target of boo birds in Philadelphia, left fielder Pat Burrell says he would like to remain with the Phillies after his contract runs out at the end of this season. … Atlanta manager Bobby Cox hinted last spring that 2008 might be his last season, but now says he has no idea when he might retire. … First baseman Mark Teixeira, eligible for free agency at the end of the season, said he would be willing to listen to contract extension offers, but shot down a report that he is building a home in Atlanta, which had given Braves fans hopes he would stay beyond 2008. … Florida doesn’t plan to increase its payroll until its proposed new ballpark opens in 2011, which means shortstop Hanley Ramirez will likely be gone after the 2009 season, when he becomes eligible for salary arbitration. … Nationals skipper Manny Acta says Dmitri Young will be his starting first baseman, and that Nick Johnson, who missed last season with a broken leg, will come off the bench. … The Nationals are considering keeping left-hander Ross Detwiler, their first-round draft pick last year, on the major league roster as a reliever to start the season.
The Cardinals have been in contact with free agent hurlers Bartolo Colon, Jeff Weaver, because right-hander Matt Clement is unlikely to be ready to pitch at the start of the season after already missing all of last season with Boston while recovering from shoulder surgery. … Cincinnati is still considering signing Kenny Lofton or Corey Patterson as a free agent pickup to play center field. … Houston plans on stealing more bases this season, as new baserunning instructor Gary Redus has been working individually with catcher J.R. Towles, second baseman Kaz Matsui, third baseman Ty Wigginton, shortstop Miguel Tejada, center fielder Michael Bourn, and right fielder Hunter Pence this spring. … Cubs manager Lou Piniella says Felix Pie is only slightly ahead of Sam Fuld in the competition to be the starting center fielder.
Padres shortstop Khalil Greene says that GM Kevin Towers’ assertion that he wants to play for an East Coast team once he becomes eligible for free agency after the 2009 was off the mark, because he wants to play his entire career in San Diego. … Rookie Chase Headley, who is making the conversion from third base to the outfield this spring, is the front runner to be San Diego’s Opening Day left fielder. … Outfielder Trot Nixon signed a minor league contract with Arizona as a free agent this week, but he can opt out if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster. … Those around the Dodgers believe that Juan Pierre will be the everyday left fielder to begin the season, while Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp platoon in right. … There also seems to be at least a 50-50 chance that rookie Andy LaRoche will win the Dodgers’ starting third baseman’s job, with Nomar Garciaparra moving into a super-utility role.
AL Rumors and Rumblings: Boston manager Terry Francona says it is premature to think rookie Jacoby Ellsbury will be the starting center fielder, because veteran incumbent Coco Crisp will be given an equal chance to keep his job this spring. … Francona’s contract expires at the end of this season, and he and the Red Sox have not been able to come to an agreement on an extension, as he wants three years and the club is offering only two. … Boston left fielder Manny Ramirez has switched agents (from Greg Genske to Scott Boras), and says he would prefer that the Red Sox exercise the $20 million club option on his contract for 2009 rather than test free agency. … The Red Sox have explored the idea of offering a long-term contract to closer Jonathan Papelbon, who is not eligible for free agency until the 2001 season. … The health of left-hander B.J. Ryan, who had reconstructive elbow surgery last season, will impact both Toronto’s bullpen and rotation. If Ryan is healthy at the start of the season, he will return as the Blue Jays‘ closer, with Jeremy Accardo shifting back to a set-up role and Casey Janssen, last year’s set-up man, becoming the fifth starter. … Blue Jays manager John Gibbons insists that Gregg Zaun will be the starting catcher despite the late-winter signing of Rod Barajas as a free agent. … Baltimore would love to unload designated hitter Jay Gibbons, who has two years and $11.9 million left on his contract. … Yankees captain Derek Jeter says he has no plans to move from shortstop before his contract expires after the 2010 season, though seemingly every fielding metric rates him as below average at the position.
White Sox third baseman Joe Crede says he is completely recovered from last year’s back surgery, but chances are growing that he will be traded this spring, as manager Ozzie Guillen says Josh Fields will be his starter at hot corner. … Minnesota is expected to make a big pitch to sign closer Joe Nathan to a contract extension before the end of spring training, as the closer is eligible for free agency at the end of the season. … Kansas City’s Mark Teahen will be on the move again, shifting from right field to left this spring to make way for Jose Guillen, signed as a free agent in the offseason. Last spring, Teahen made the conversion from third to right to open a lineup spot for Alex Gordon. … Royals officials shot down the rumor that Kansas City would be moving to the NL, with Milwaukee shifting back to the AL. … Texas is in the market for a left-handed reliever after John Rheinecker needed surgery this past week to have a rib removed because of thoracic outlet syndrome. … Despite going to a salary arbitration hearing with him, Angeles owner Arte Moreno wants to sign closer Francisco Rodriguez to a long-term contract extension before he become eligible for free agency at the end of the season.