If you read some fan boards, most notoriously the MLB.com Angels board, it’s the same old tired refrain. Everything is awful, everything is terrible, Angels GM Bill Stoneman should be fired because he doesn’t convince other teams to give us their best players for a couple of our marginal players, Angels manager Mike Scioscia should be fired because he doesn’t win 162 games a year, blah blah blah, ad nauseum.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, the fact of the matter is that Stoneman is the most successful GM in the organization’s history, and Scioscia the winningest manager. Not only have the Angels been competitive for most seasons since the duo took over prior to the 2000 season, but Stoneman has built a deep and talented farm system that will continue to make the Angels competitive through the end of the decade.
And if one sits back to look at where things stand for 2007, there’s every reason to think the Angels will be in the mix for the pennant chase.
Was the 89-73 record a disappointment? Well, that’s a matter of personal opinion.
The world champion St. Louis Cardinals were 83-78 during the regular season. So by that standard, the Angels had a better year than the world champions. In an era of multi-tier playoffs, divisional play and wild-card contenders, you can be a pretty mediocre team, slip in the back door, and if you get on a hot run for a couple weeks you can win the World Series.
If your standard is whether the Angels reached the playoffs, then 2006 was a disappointment. But divisional play robs any sense of fairness from the system. Let’s face it, an 83-78 team has no business in the post-season. Neither does an 89-73 team, frankly. In 2001, the Seattle Mariners were 116-46, but lost the ALCS to the 95-65 Yankees, four games to one.
Speaking of 95 … If the Angels had only one game each month go differently this year, reversing the decisions of just six games in total, they would have been 95-67. And would have won the AL West.
So sometimes disappointment really is a matter of perception.
Despite the claims by some, both on fan boards and the media, that the offense was to blame, in the real world it was the defense.
In 2005, the Angels finished 2nd in the majors in fielding percentage, having committed 87 errors out of 6,001 total chances.
This year, the Angels finished 27th in the majors in fielding percentage, having committed 124 errors out of 6,027 total chances.
The result? The Angels pitching staff in 2005 allowed only 45 unearned runs. In 2006, it was 80 unearned runs. An increase of 35 unearned runs.
And for all the blather about the supposed ineptitude of the Angels’ offense in 2006, guess what? The numbers in 2006 were better than in 2005, when the Angels went to the ALCS.
The AVG/OBP/SLG in 2005 were .270/.325/.409 (.729 OPS) with 761 runs scored. In 2006, the numbers were .274/.334/.425 (.759 OPS) with 766 runs scored.
The .759 OPS in 2006 was #18 overall in the majors, not great, but better than the division-winning Oakland A’s who were #21 at .752.
So if the defense didn’t sag and allow those 35 unearned runs, could the Angels have won those six additional games? Swung one game a month?
The offense could have been much better if not for unforeseen ailments that robbed the Angels of two top prospects for most of the year.
Let’s have a show of hands from all those whiners on the Angels board who successfully predicted a year ago that Casey Kotchman would miss most of the 2006 season with mononucleosis. (Dramatic pause for cricket-chirping sound effect.)
Kotchman was 22 1/2 years old when he returned to Anaheim for good in August 2005. He posted an AVG/OBP/SLG of .302/.369/.526 (.895 OPS) in 116 AB during the final two months of the 2005 season. At age 23 in 2006, there was every reason to expect him to blossom as predicted by pretty much everyone knowledgeable about baseball.
Casey’s career has been marked by a number of freak injuries, nearly all of which were one-time incidents beyond his control. He’s not “injury-prone” as some claim. Prone means the same injury keeps happening. That’s not true with Kotchman. He’s been unlucky, freakishly so. Mononucleosis?! That was the weirdest one of all.
In any case, Kotchman is playing winter ball in Puerto Rico, and by all accounts is totally healthy. Winter ball stats are meaningless, but he’s doing pretty well and there’s no sign of fatigue.
Casey’s name has been mentioned in trade rumors this winter for Atlanta’s Adam LaRoche and Colorado’s Todd Helton, but so far they’ve been nothing but rumors. Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times wrote two articles this month insisting that the Angels were trying to package Kotchman in a deal for Helton, but Denver papers in response quoted the Rockies front office as saying the Times stories were untrue. In fact, with the second story, the Rockies’ GM said he hadn’t even talked to Stoneman in weeks.
Kotchman will be 24 in February. Most hitters don’t hit their prime until their late 20s. If Casey can stay healthy all of 2007 and post that .900 OPS over the entire season, then a major bat has been added to the lineup without a trade or an expensive free agent like Alfonso Soriano.
Dallas McPherson was the other loss. Dallas suffered a herniated disc in his lower back in spring training 2003. Since then, it’s been an intermittent problem. The injury was exacerbated by the discovery of a bone spur on his hip that was tearing at his muscles. McPherson had surgery in September 2005 and, according to media reports, was in a wheelchair for a month before he could even walk. He continued to struggle in 2006 with the lower back problem, locking up at unpredictable moments, and seems unsure how to resolve the problem. Surgery? Therapy? Yoga? There’s no consensus.
It’s foolhardy to judge a player’s performance when his back is locking up on him, so to dismiss McPherson as a bust is unwise. There remains the question, however, of how long the Angels can be patient with him.
I wrote on FutureAngels.com after the season ended the Angels’ targets this off-season would be strengthening the bullpen, upgrading the defense in center field, and resolving the third base situation.
The bullpen went through an overhaul, adding free-agent relievers Justin Speier and Darren Oliver, trading Kevin Gregg for Florida Marlins prospect Chris Resop, and trading Brendan Donnelly for Boston Red Sox prospect Phil Seibel. J.C. Romero was let go. So it looks like the bullpen will be stronger, with Joe Saunders and Chris Bootcheck other possibilities should Bartolo Colon’s return push Saunders out of the rotation.
The Angels signed Gary Matthews, Jr. to a five-year deal to play center field full-time. Some fans blasted the deal, but in comparison to other free-agent contracts signed so far this winter it was actually fairly reasonable. Matthews is unlikely to repeat his anomalous 2006 offense (.313/.371/.495), but he’s also likely to be better than Chone Figgins (.267/.336/.376) or Darin Erstad (.221/.279/.326) at the plate and at least as good as Figgins in CF, with many more years of outfield experience.
So that leaves third base. If McPherson can’t make it, then Figgins probably plays 3B.
My guess is the Angels would still love to have Miguel Tejada at third base, but when dealing with Baltimore there’s always owner Peter Angelos’ flakiness, and Tejada has stated publicly he won’t play 3B.
Let’s not overlook Howie Kendrick replacing Adam Kennedy at second base. Kennedy was arguably the best defensive 2B in the league. Kendrick is probably major-league average defensively right now, but he’ll be in the lineup for his bat. In his rookie year, Howie’s .284/.314/.416 (.730 OPS) were better than A.K.’s .273/.334/.384 (.718 OPS). Kendrick’s career minor league line was .361/.405/.570 (.975 OPS), so it’s pretty reasonable to assume he can post at least a .800 OPS over a full 2007.
So let’s see … A healthy Kotchman, a full year of Kendrick, a decent year from Matthews and the offense is looking pretty good, at least good enough to significantly improve over the last two years.
Losing Juan Rivera last week to injury last week in Venezuela was significant, but not as much as some might suspect. In his career, Rivera has always been a second-half hitter, and he didn’t contribute much in the first-half this year due to injury. The Angels signed free-agent Shea Hillenbrand as insurance, not just as a temporary replacement for Rivera in the lineup but also as "Plan B" for 1B or 3B in case Kotchman or McPherson fall again. Hillenbrand isn’t Rivera, but he should be good enough in combination with Kotchman, Kendrick and perhaps McPherson to generate the offense the pitching staff needs to win.
So the next time you read a fan screed or a beat writer allege that Stoneman has "done nothing" this winter, keep the above facts in mind. Much of what he needed to do, he did a long time ago. He knows what kept his team from winning more games this year. It wasn’t the offense, it was the defense and the stress that put on his pitching staff. The bullpen has been upgraded, Stoneman protected his deep starting rotation, he protected his young hitting prospects, and he added a couple veteran bats in Matthews and Hillenbrand.
Can the Angels reverse that one game a month? You bet.
This article is copyright © 2006 Wordsmith Resources and FutureAngels.com. It may not be used elsewhere without the prior expressed written permission of the author.