For the second season in a row, the Los Angeles Angels dug themselves an early hole with an awful April. Unlike 2012 -- in which they were able to rebound from an 8-15 start to finish 89-73 -- the Angels fell seven games out of first place by May 1st and never got any closer. They finished the 2013 season with a 78-84 record, underperforming their 81-81 pythagorean expected record by a few games. Heading into year three of Mike Trout's reign over baseball, the Angels still have some glaring holes. Combine those with a heavy influx of talent elsewhere in the division and you get the strong possibility of another disappointing season in Anaheim.
Manager: Mike Scioscia (15th year)
2013 record: 78-84, 3rd in AL West
SB Nation blog: Halos Heaven
First series vs. Tigers: April 18-20 @ Comerica Park
The Angels made a couple of moves this offseason to shore up some holes on their roster, but trading Mark Trumbo and Peter Bourjos leaves the team without much depth in their lineup. Kole Calhoun will be a full-time starter after breaking onto the scene with a .282/.347/.462 effort in 222 plate appearances last season. The Arizona State product was never on any national top prospect lists, but he has done nothing but hit since being drafted in 2010. On the other side of the outfield, Josh Hamilton will try to replicate his second half production. After an abysmal .675 OPS through June, Hamilton hit .287/.341/.460 after the All-Star break. He is already a bit behind schedule after a calf strain sidelined him for a few weeks. J.B. Shuck will be the team's fourth outfielder, and some guy named Mike Trout will look to continue putting up Ty Cobb WAR totals in center field. It was Shuck who made the best defensive play of the year for the Angels in 2013, however.
Behind the plate, Hank Conger and Chris Iannetta were a surprisingly effective offensive tandem. The twosome combined to start all 162 games while ranking in the top 10 among all MLB teams in wOBA and wRC+ from the catcher position. Iannetta was an on-base machine, drawing walks in 17% of his plate appearances. Conger was more of a slugger, amassing 21 extra base hits in just 255 plate appearances. Neither is particularly adept defensively -- the tandem ranked 23rd among all MLB teams according to Fangraphs' defensive rating -- and both were below league average when attempting to throw out base stealers.
In the infield, the Angels are putting a lot of faith in the health of Albert Pujols and David Freese. Pujols' highly publicized battle with plantar fasciitis significantly limited his production. His .767 OPS was by far the worst mark of his career, and his ISO has dropped in each of the past five seasons. We should see him return to his 2012 form this season, but the days of wRC+ totals in the 170s or higher look to be over. Meanwhile, Pujols' former teammate was a replacement level third baseman in 2013 largely thanks to an abysmal season defensively. His .957 fielding percentage was a career best, but his -22.7 UZR/150 was worse than Miguel Cabrera's -19.9.
Up the middle, the Angels sacrificed some depth when they traded Andrew Romine to the Tigers, but John McDonald is a capable utility infielder who will sit behind shortstop Erick Aybar and second baseman Howie Kendrick. Aybar had a putrid 3.9% walk rate in 2013, resulting in his worst offensive season since 2010. His 12 stolen bases were a career low in a full-time role, and he also posted replacement level defensive numbers. Kendrick was also a replacement level defender, but a .336 wOBA and 116 wRC+ resulted in a solid 2.7 fWAR season in 2013. He is also not one to take many walks, but a career .292 batting average has helped mitigate the lack of production. If Kendrick falters or is traded, Grant Green will be waiting in the wings. Green hit .280/.336/.384 in 137 plate appearances for the Angels last year after coming over in a intra-divisional trade with the Oakland Athletics.
The Angels' pitching staff posted a 4.24 ERA last season, fifth-worst in the American League. This poor showing was no fault of staff ace Jered Weaver, who put up a 3.27 ERA to lead the rotation. Unfortunately, he also spent time on the disabled list and failed to total 200 innings for the second consecutive year. His peripherals have historically been fairly lackluster, so his 3.82 FIP and 4.30 xFIP in 2013 probably are not a concern. The forearm tightness that plagued him last September has not been an issue so far this spring, but it may be something to keep an eye on going forward, as the Angels' pitching staff will only go as far as Weaver and C.J. Wilson take them.
Speaking of Wilson, the lefty put together his fourth consecutive 200 inning season since becoming a full-time starter before the 2010 season. He was hit in the head during batting practice earlier this spring, but has shown no ill effects of the incident so far. Wilson is the only recent marquee free agent acquisition that has panned out for the Angels so far, and there is no reason to think he will start slowing down in 2014. Right-hander Garrett Richards will slot into the rotation behind Weaver and Wilson after a solid audition to end the 2013 season. In 13 starts down the stretch, Richards allowed a 3.72 ERA with 53 strikeouts in 77 1/3 innings. His strikeout totals have been surprisingly low for someone whose fastball sits in the mid-90s, but a big improvement in command from 2012 to 2013 is a good sign.
Rounding out the rotation will be a pair of left-handers acquired in the Mark Trumbo trade this offseason. Tyler Skaggs was once an Angels prospect, but the Arizona Diamondbacks soured on the 22 year old after he put up a 5.43 ERA in 13 big league starts over the past two years. The Diamondbacks reportedly tweaked Skaggs' delivery during his 3 1/2 years in the organization, but a return to his old ways has everyone singing his praises this spring despite some subpar numbers. Hector Santiago posted a 3.56 ERA in 149 innings for the Chicago White Sox last season, his second as a full-time starter. The Sox may have sold high on Santiago, who has dealt with control problems throughout his career. Santiago's high fly ball rate will play well in Anaheim Stadium's suffocating conditions, but he will need to decrease his walk rate to be effective.
Acquiring Ernesto Frieri has been one of the better moves Jerry DiPoto has made as the Angels' general manager. His 3.80 ERA in 2013 was much higher than 2012, but a 2.63 SIERA suggests that Frieri was largely the same pitcher. He has 60 saves in 65 chances as the Angels' closer with a 3.18 strikeout-to-walk ratio. New setup man Joe Smith has three consecutive seasons with 60+ innings pitched and a sub-3.00 ERA, all with the Cleveland Indians. This production earned him a $15.75 million contract, well above what most teams would give to a sidearm pitcher with some serious platoon splits. Dane De La Rosa saw more late inning work towards the end of the 2013 season, allowing a 0.41 ERA in August and September. Left-handers Sean Burnett and Brian Moran will both start the season on the disabled list, opening the door for Nick Maronde and (possibly) Jose Alvarez to see some innings.
Player to watch: Mike Trout
Enough is enough, Tigers fans. It is time to bury the "old school vs. new school" hatchet that has dominated the AL MVP debate for the past two years and recognize what is in front of us: Mike Trout is the best all-around player in baseball. After putting up an unprecedented rookie season in 2012, Trout actually improved in some facets in 2013. He upped his walk rate by nearly five (!) percent, cut his strikeout rate by 2.8%, and posted a higher wOBA and wRC+ en route to his second 10 WAR season in as many years. He "only" stole 33 bases and hit 27 home runs last year, but that's like saying Miguel Cabrera "only" hit a baseball 420 feet. Trout is a special talent, and it's anyone's guess as to how high his ceiling truly goes.
The Angels have a decent amount of talent on their roster, but it will take a near-impeccable bill of health for this team to contend with deeper outfits elsewhere in the AL West. There is a serious lack of insurance policies on both sides of the ball -- Joe Blanton is their sixth starter, FYI -- and another injury-plagued season from a star could spell trouble. The A's and Rangers have issues of their own, but balance and a deeper farm system has each team in a better spot than the Angels heading into Opening Day. Even with Mike Trout doing everything possible to pull the Angels into contention, it looks like their flimsy roster construction could be their downfall in 2014.