This is a reprint of an analysis originally posted on FutureAngels.com on October 2, 2006.
|Angels General Manager Bill Stoneman needs to tweak the Angels’ roster over the winter, not blow it up.|
The Angels finished 2006 with an 89-73 record, four games behind the 93-69 Oakland A’s.
Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times summed it up best:
The Angels closed the 2006 season Sunday with baseball’s best record (54-29) since July 1 and an overall mark (89-73) that is better than three of the four National League playoff teams, including the Dodgers.
But when the playoffs begin Tuesday, the Angels will be spectators with the rest of baseball’s also-rans, the disappointment of their second-place finish in the American League West overshadowing any sense of second-half achievement …
A shocker, this wasn’t. Despite a $104-million payroll, this was a flawed team that was a big bat or two away from being dangerous on offense, that leaned too heavily on too many untested rookies and got only one win from injured ace Bartolo Colon, the 2005 AL Cy Young Award winner.
What was surprising, though, was the depth and duration of their early struggles on offense and long season-long ineptitude on defense that left them dumbfounded at times.
The Angels hit .245 and had a sub-.300 on-base percentage for the first seven weeks, leaving them with a 17-28 record and 6 1/2 -game division deficit May 22.
One of baseball’s best defensive teams in 2005, the Angels made a league-high 124 errors — 35 more than last season — and gave up 80 unearned runs, second most in the major leagues, after giving up 45 in 2005.
Left unsaid was that the Angels didn’t set out to “lean too heavily on too many untested rookies.”
Casey Kotchman earned the first base job after a strong audition in late 2005 and a solid spring training. But no one foresaw the effects of the mononucleosis robbing him of his strength.
Casey’s absence forced the Angels to promote Kendry Morales before he was ready, less than one year after his first professional game at Rancho Cucamonga.
Dallas McPherson’s back remained problematic. Surgery one year ago removed a bone spur from his hip, leaving him in a wheelchair for a month and a long winter of rehab. But the procedure didn’t help his herniated disk, which continues to be capricious.
Dallas’ injury forced the Angels to start Chone Figgins at third base, a loss of both power and defense.
Figgins shifted to center field when Darin Erstad was disabled by bone chips in his right knee. Although Figgins had shown promise in recent years as a center fielder, this year he seemed lost at times. Chone committed 16 errors this year — ten at third base, five in the outfield, and one at second base.
The Angels relied upon Figgins to be the offensive catalyst at the top of the lineup, but his numbers were career lows, posting an AVG/OBP/SLG of .267/.336/.376 in 2006 compared to .290/.352/.397 in 2005. Chone actually improved his walk rate slightly, from one pass every 10.5 plate appearances compared to 11.2 in 2005, but his overall drop in productivity both offensively and defensively suggests he’s better suited to a “super-sub” role than that of an every day player.
Figgins wasn’t the only disappointment defensively. The defensive meltdown was a team effort.
The total number of errors by position, with 2005 in parentheses:
Catcher: 19 (7)
First Base: 10 (4)
Second Base: 10 (10)
Shortstop: 21 (9)
Third Base: 27 (23)
Outfield: 23 (16)
Pitcher: 14 (15)
The losses of Kotchman and Erstad were key to the defensive collapse, but often overlooked is the departure of Bengie Molina via free agency. Bengie’s brother Jose stepped up to a full-time role when Jeff Mathis failed his first audition in April; Mike Napoli came up and hit well enough to keep the job for a couple months, but collectively the defense suffered from Bengie’s absence.
More glaring, though, were the occasional vapor locks by Orlando Cabrera and Vlad Guerrero, normally two of the more reliable defenders on the field. Cabrera committed 16 errors, and Guerrero 11.
Due to injuries, by season’s end the Angels had two young players out of position — Howie Kendrick platooning at first base, and Maicer Izturis playing every day at third base.
The free agent route didn’t help much. Last winter, the Angels signed Hector Carrasco and Jeff Weaver. Signed to a one-year $8 million deal, Jeff turned out to be a bust and was traded mid-season to St. Louis for minor league outfielder Terry Evans. Originally promised a shot at the starting rotation, Carrasco did a better job in relief (3.02 ERA, 1.16 WHIP) than as a spot starter (5.79 ERA, 1.43 WHIP in three starts) and was better in the second half (2.93 ERA post-All Star Game, 1.17 WHIP) than the first (3.81 ERA pre-All Star, 1.21 WHIP).
Of course, the one that got away was Paul Konerko, who chose to return to Chicago although he got a better offer from the Angels last winter. Had Konerko signed, it probably would have resulted in Casey Kotchman being traded — perhaps for a starting pitcher. The Angels wouldn’t have signed Jeff Weaver and he would have flopped for someone else.
So now the pundits begin to tell GM Bill Stoneman what he should do this winter. We might as well join in.
The offense will probably see a significant overhaul. Erstad and Adam Kennedy are free agents. Erstad may return in spring training with a minor-league contract to show whether off-season surgery repairs his knee; if so, he could be the feel-good story of 2007, a sequel to Tim Salmon’s victory lap in 2006.
But the Angels can’t count on Erstad, nor can they count on Figgins in center field.
So the main pursuit this winter should be a full-time center fielder. Among the names frequently mentioned are the Twins’ Torii Hunter, and the Blue Jays’ Vernon Wells. The Rangers’ Gary Matthews Jr. had a career year (.313/.371/.495) and is a free agent if he doesn’t re-sign, but at age 32 those numbers have to be considered an anomaly. Another possibility is potential free agent Juan Pierre, who is a full-time experienced CF although offensively he’s a Figgins clone.
Some fans want to see Jim Edmonds, another free agent, return but he’ll be 37 in June and saw a significant decline in his numbers this year due to injury. One possible option might be to sign Edmonds to a one-year deal while Erick Aybar plays CF full-time in Triple-A next year to learn the position.
Whatever the fix, should the Angels go the trade route they’ll have to cough up top prospects, something they’ve never done under Stoneman. To give up someone the caliber of Joe Saunders, Nick Adenhart or Brandon Wood, the Angels will have to get a player in his prime who has three years left on his contract. Stoneman has never believed in “rent-a-vet” and shouldn’t start now.
The Angels should be patient with Casey Kotchman. Although his career to date has been frequently marred by freak injuries and the mononucleosis, the fact of the matter is none of those incidents can be blamed on anything basically wrong with his physique. He remains one of the top young hitting prospects in the game.
The same can’t be said of Dallas McPherson. The herniated disk will always be a problem, and if press reports are accurate there’s no medical consensus how to fix it. The Angels need a reliable full-time third baseman; Dallas has loads of power and potential, but the Angels have waited two years now and still can’t rely on Dallas to give them 150 games in 2007. With his health uncertain, the Angels won’t get much in trade either. The Angels let Troy Glaus leave via free agency in favor of Dallas, but they can’t wait any longer. Brandon Wood may be the eventual solution, but he’s probably two years away from a full-time job in Anaheim.
Howie Kendrick will succeed Kennedy at second base. That’s all but given. He struggled at times in his first big-league season. As we’ve talked about here in the past, Howie never drew many walks in the minors. He didn’t have to, because he could hit pretty much everything he saw. That’s no longer true in the big leagues, because he’s seeing for the first time pitching he can’t hit. Major league pitchers quickly found his limitations, pounding him with breaking stuff away and off-speed pitches that disrupted his timing. His main challenge in 2007 is to be more selective. He can still be aggressive at the plate, but he has to work counts so that pitchers are forced into throwing pitches he can drive.
The Angels can probably get away with returning the same catching corps for 2007. Jose Molina has one year left on his contract, and is one of the best defensive catchers in baseball when it comes to throwing out runners. Mathis still has the potential to exceed Napoli, but so far it’s still just potential. The Angels can accept mediocre offense from the catching position if the defensive side can return to the standard set by Bengie Molina.
The health of two veteran outfielders should be a concern. Vlad Guerrero’s knees bothered him so much at season’s end that he finished the year on the bench, once the Angels were eliminated. He’ll turn 31 next February, a bit young for the DH role, but all those years on the Montreal carpet have taken their toll. Garret Anderson suffered all year from plantar fascitis, a problem correctable by surgery, but he’ll be 35 next June and it’s logical for him to ease into the DH role, especially with the emergence of Juan Rivera. Garret’s a 10-5 man, so for the knee-jerk crowd who want him traded, it’s not going to happen as he can reject a trade.
We haven’t talked much about the pitching. Even with Jeff Weaver’s failure and Bartolo Colon’s injury, the starting rotation remains one of the best in the majors. Jeff’s brother Jered and lefty Joe Saunders stepped out mid-season and did great. Assuming Colon is healthy, the Angels may dangle a starting pitcher in trade talks. Weaver, Saunders and Ervin Santana will be the names other teams bring up, along with top minor-league prospect Nick Adenhart.
For the first time in several years, the Angels will need to give more attention to the bullpen. They traded minor league infielder Alexi Casilla to the Twins for J.C. Romero, who was generally a flop when facing anyone batting from the right side. His left-right splits in 2006 are shocking: 2.49 ERA and 1.22 WHIP against lefties, 11.35 ERA and 2.35 WHIP against righties. Either way, his control was abysmal, with a 13:13 SO:BB ratio against lefties, and a 18:15 ratio against righties. When critics complained in past years that the Angels didn’t have a southpaw in the bullpen, Stoneman and Scioscia pointed out it didn’t matter which arm you throw with if you get them out, and that’s what their bullpen did. Stoneman finally got a lefty last winter, but Romero was awful. So let’s not worry so much about what arm a guy throws with, and look more at results.
The back end of the bullpen needs more help than just replacing Romero. Brendan Donnelly struggled at times, saw a chiropractor, and had a better second half (3.52 ERA post-All Star) but still isn’t as dominant as he once was. Donnelly turns 36 next July. Kevin Gregg inherited the Esteban Yan mopup role but was mediocre at best.
The Angels traded infield prospect Alberto Callaspo in spring training to Arizona for relief prospect Jason Bulger, but he wound up with significant shoulder problems that shelved him for much of 2006.
So in addition to the center fielder and third baseman, add a bullpen guy to the shopping list.
The Angels still aren’t that far away from a World Series. Pitching dominates playoffs, so barring catastrophic injuries (which no one can control) they’re still poised to challenge in 2007. Some of the offense solutions could still come internally, if Casey Kotchman and Dallas McPherson return healthy, but at this point the Angels can’t continue to wait for both of them. A full-time center fielder will help settle down the defense, and will be all the more important with the corner outfielders’ range declining due to age and injury.
Whatever the combination, it’s important to remember that the Angels’ failure in 2006 wasn’t because of the supposedly impotent offense. It was the team collapse in the first two months of the season, and in particular the failure of the defense to support the pitching staff. Injuries contributed, as they always do with the Angels, and their incredible depth in the farm system helped to survive that. But this is not a team that needs to be blown up. It just needs a couple of tweaks.