The Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox are playing Game #6 of the American League Championship Series as I write.
Too many self-declared experts on fan sites and sports pages told us that if the Angels would only hock their future for a “big bat,” I’d now be watching the Angels in the ALCS en route to their certain victory in the World Series.
So much for that “guarantee.”
The Angels will enter the off-season with more question marks than they’ve had in many years — not because the team is bad, but because expectations are so high that anything else than a world championship is labelled a failure by people who probably couldn’t hit a Jamie Moyer fastball.
None of the Angels’ divisional rivals appear likely to challenge them for the 2009 A.L. West title, so the question becomes how to get back to the World Series that’s eluded them since 2002.
First, a dose of reality … There’s no such thing as a guarantee. The multi-tiered playoff structure creates more opportunities for one-year wonders who happen to get hot for a couple weeks. The only team to show any resilience is the Boston Red Sox. Nobody thought back in March that the Rays would be one game from the World Series. Nobody thought in March 2007 that the Colorado Rockies would win the N.L. pennant.
I wrote in my October 7 blog that I think the Angels are missing a certain “grit” the Red Sox have now, and the Angels had in 2002. There’s no Darin Erstad, no Troy Percival, no David Eckstein to inspire or enforce. The Red Sox have guys like Jason Varitek, Josh Beckett, Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz who bring a certain gravitas to the field and the clubhouse. And heaven forbid anyone try to win a stare contest with Jonathan Papelbon.
The Angels’ team personality is one of untempered exuberance. Exuberance is great, but there comes a time when it has to be replaced by determination. That’s why the Red Sox arose from the dead to win ALCS Game #5.
Even if the Angels sign Mark Teixeira — more on that in a moment — he doesn’t seem to have that “grit” factor. Adding Teixeira might work in fantasy leagues or video games, but in the real world the Angels need someone who grabs the opponent by the huevos and doesn’t let go until they surrender.
So with that thought in mind, let’s take a look at the Angels’ roster as it is now and what I think they need to do for 2009.
The Riverside Press-Enterprise published on October 8 an excellent review of the contract status for each player on the roster. So I’ll use that as the foundation for this article.
FIRST BASE — Until July 29, this wasn’t an issue. It was assumed that young star Casey Kotchman would have the job until he retires in another 15 years or so. Yes, Teixeira hit far better in his 54 games under the halo than Kotchman would have. But the only justification for such a short-sighted move was that Teixeira would get the Angels to the World Series. He didn’t.
If Teixeira returns, it will be for an obscene contract. Obscene contracts tend to suck the life blood out of organizations, because that money could have gone to develop a lot of young talent. And when you invest so much money in one player, if he gets hurt or flops then you have far less flexibility — or wind up blowing the budget, which again sucks money out of player development.
If Teixeira doesn’t return, then the Angels either look elsewhere or stage an open internal competition. Kendry Morales would seem to be the #1 candidate, but he’s a big step down from Teixeira and has yet to hit at Kotchman’s level. Morales is only four months younger than Kotchman.
Dark horse candidates include Robb Quinlan, Matt Brown and Freddy Sandoval, although the latter two are third basemen who got limited exposure this year at Triple-A to first base.
SECOND BASE — Howie Kendrick had a mental meltdown in the playoffs, but he’s the second baseman of the future. Health remains his concern, as his hamstring was a problem throughout the season. Trainers and coaches have told me that hamstring injuries often happen due to dehydration. Like Kotchman, Kendrick is a young star. Let’s hope that, unlike Kotchman, he isn’t traded.
SHORTSTOP — Maicer Izturis and Erick Aybar took turns at shortstop this year, depending on who was healthy, but in my opinion it’s time to turn over the job to Brandon Wood. Only 23, he struggled in his previous limited opportunities, but in September he hit four homers and improved his strikeout rate. Wood spent most of 2008 changing his hitting mechanics, lowering his hands to bring his bat longer through the hitting zone. Pitch recognition is another bugaboo; he loves to fish after two-strike breaking balls down and away. In any case, the Angels need to find a place for his power bat in the lineup, especially if they lose Teixeira.
THIRD BASE — Chone Figgins had a career year in 2007 but reverted to a more typical season in 2008. A year ago, I suggested the Angels might think about moving him last winter to take advantage of his enhanced value, and replace him with Wood. Well, it turned out that Brandon wasn’t ready, but it also turned out that Figgins wasn’t the player we saw in 2007. Chone will be 31 in January, and can take his free agency after the 2009 season. This might be another winter to consider moving him; the Angels can turn over third base to Wood or Matt Brown or even give Freddy Sandoval a shot.
The downside of moving Figgins is that his departure would fundamentally alter the Angels’ offense. Manager Mike Scioscia relies on Figgins to be a disruptive factor on the basepaths, but his total stolen bases have gone down each year since his high of 62 in 2005. Injuries have had something to do with that, but in any case he’s not as “disruptive” as he used to be. Figgins’ departure would require the Angels to find a new leadoff hitter (assuming they didn’t get one in trade).
And while it doesn’t really mean much for 2009, I’m told that minor league outfielders Peter Bourjos and Jeremy Moore might be faster than Figgins.
OUTFIELD — Veteran Garret Anderson has the most uncertain status. The Angels have an option to bring him back for 2009, but if they do they have to pay him $14 million. If they let him go, they have to pay him $3 million. At age 36, Garret’s best years are behind him, but he can still hit. I’d love to keep him around, but baseball is a business and it doesn’t make sense to make a long-term investment in him.
Complicating that issue is Vlad Guerrero’s status. Vlad’s knees are shot yet so far he refuses to undergo corrective surgery. Guerrero, 33 next February, has a club option on his contract — the Angels pay him $15 million for 2009 or let him go for $3 million. It seems likely they’ll keep him for 2009, but he’s destined for the designated hitter role, which is where Anderson would play more as he ages.
Torii Hunter returns to center field.
Juan Rivera could start for most teams, and he’s a free agent. It seems likely that he would return only if guaranteed a starting job, which means adios to Anderson. Juan missed most of 2007 due to a broken leg and the injury bugged him through part of 2008, although as typical throughout his career he had a better second half than in the first.
Gary Matthews, Jr. and Reggie Willits also return. A dark horse is Terry Evans, who missed much of 2008 at Triple-A Salt Lake after injuring his right shoulder in May. If Teixeira returns, Morales might get a shot at a corner outfield job.
CATCHER — I’ve been writing for years that Jeff Mathis would exceed Mike Napoli and eventually become the Angels’ #1 catcher, but at this point I have to concede that Napster has won the competition. There’s no argument that Matty is the naturally gifted athlete, but Nap worked himself into the starting catcher job and has become a power hitter too. Mike was a 17th round pick in the 2000 draft, and never really viewed as more than a second-string catcher. But after surgery in 2003 to repair a torn labrum, Napoli returned in 2004, physically in shape and ready to take a starting catcher role.
Mathis is still a very gifted catcher, but the bat has yet to mature and he’s shown a tendency to lapse into bad throwing mechanics, a problem he had at times in the minors. Napoli and Mathis may evolve into the modern equivalent of the Dodgers’ Joe Ferguson / Steve Yeager combo in the 1970s.
On deck is Bobby Wilson, who made a token big league appearance in April then returned in September when the roster expanded. He projects in my mind as a Bengie Molina-type catcher.
STARTING PITCHING — Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders evolved into star pitchers. I predicted last winter that Saunders might become the next Tom Glavine, and he certainly showed progress in that direction. Joe also increased his velocity, touching mid-90s at times. Santana was trashed by the instant gratification crowd, but the Angels wisely ignored their opinion and let Ervin evolve into one of the most dominant young pitchers in the majors.
John Lackey remains the rotation’s stalwart, but showed signs of mortality as he missed the first six weeks of the season with a strained triceps. He can be a free agent after 2009; extending his contract should be a top priority this winter, as he’s one of the few “grit” players on the roster.
Jered Weaver shows signs of evolving into a #3 or #4 pitcher. The potential is there, but it seems at times that the focus is not.
That leaves open one starting pitcher job. Jon Garland is a free agent, but his 4.90 ERA isn’t likely to bring him a megabuck free agent contract. There’s no likely internal candidate, with Nick Adenhart another year or two away, and Nick Green needing more work. Most of the Angels’ starting pitcher prospects are in the lower minors.
Lefty workhorse C.C. Sabathia will be the big catch in this winter’s free agent market, but will come at a huge price and there’s some concern his girth might turn him into another Bartolo Colon. Still, there’s an enormous appeal to the notion of Sabathia and Lackey at the top of the rotation, followed by Santana and Saunders.
Another option might be a trade for Padres’ ace Jake Peavy, who according to recent press reports might be available. What the Pads would want in return is anyone’s guess, but it’s reasonable to assume that Adenhart would be in the package along with most of the Angels’ near future.
BULLPEN — It’s reasonable to assume Francisco Rodriguez will be elsewhere in 2009, and that’s fine by me. I’ve written for years that his violent mechanics would catch up with him one day, and despite the saves record (a fluke of so many close games) his walk rate increased to 4.5 per 9 IP. It’s pretty clear he expects an obscene contract; personally, I can’t see $15 million per year over five years for a guy who pitches about 75 innings in a season. Is Frankie really worth $200,000 per inning?!
So it’s time to move on.
Plenty of internal candidates, with the most likely being Jose Arredondo. Jason Bulger had a monster season at Salt Lake — 0.63 ERA in 37 relief appearances, a 75:22 SO:BB ratio in 43.0 IP — but he just can’t seem to bring his mental game to the big-league level. A dark horse is Kevin Jepsen, who actually beat out veteran Justin Speier for a post-season roster spot.
Scot Shields returns, as does Speier who had a disappointing year. LHP Darren Oliver is a free agent. Nick Green and Anthony Ortega are dark horse candidates, and if you want a real dark horse, consider lefty Daniel Davidson, who finally returned from injury to help pitch the Double-A Arkansas Travelers to the Texas League pennant. Davidson turns 28 in January and can be a minor league free agent, but I thought I’d toss out the name and we’ll see what happens next spring.
A wildcard is Kelvim Escobar, who’s recovering from labrum surgery. His projected return is somewhere around mid-2009, making it more likely he’ll be in the bullpen than the starting rotation, but who knows at this point.