For two years, fans of the Los Angeles Angels watched their team struggle despite the Herculean efforts of Mike Trout. The two-time AL MVP runner-up put up 20.8 WAR in 2012 and 2013, but the Angels finished in third place in both seasons, denying baseball's best young player a chance at postseason glory.
That all changed in 2014. Trout put up another superhuman season, and finally took home the MVP award. The supporting cast came up big, as the Angels led the league in runs scored. The big difference, however, was the pitching staff. The Angels lowered their team ERA by over half a run from 2013, giving the offense enough breathing room to lift them to a 98-win season. They would not add to that total in the playoffs, though. The offense sputtered in the ALDS against the Kansas City Royals, and the Angels were bounced in three short games.
Once again, the Angels start the season with largely the same roster that finished the previous season. Potential fifth starter Andrew Heaney was the biggest addition of the offseason, a move partly necessitated by the team's constrained payroll. Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton are a year older, and the latter is in hot water with a drug suspension looming. The pitching staff has plenty of question marks, including top starters Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. Their bullpen is solid, but lacks any reliable names behind Huston Street and Joe Smith.
Still, the Angels had baseball's best record last season and the best player in baseball is comfortably locked up for the next six years. The offense is among the league's best and the pitching staff's 2014 performance was relatively sustainable. Teams that win 98 games don't normally fall off a cliff the next year, and the Angels should be in the playoff hunt again.
Mike Trout finally got over the MVP hump in 2014, winning his first award despite a career-high strikeout total and his worst offensive season to date. Of course, Trout also hit 36 home runs, led the American League with 111 RBI, and finished second to Andrew McCutchen among all hitters with a 167 wRC+. What can't the 23-year-old superstar do? Renting a car is the only thing that comes to mind. Rightfielder Kole Calhoun proved that his 2013 success was no fluke with a 3.7 WAR season in 2014. As the team's primary leadoff hitter, Calhoun hit .272/.325/.450 with 90 runs scored in 537 plate appearances. Josh Hamilton will miss an undisclosed amount of time due to shoulder surgery and a pending suspension for his recent drug relapse. The surgery, which took place in early February, was expected to keep him out of action for two months, while the suspension has yet to be decided. Until his return, Matt Joyce and lefty-masher Collin Cowgill will split at-bats, though Mike Scioscia has hinted at giving Joyce playing time against left-handed pitchers.
When Hamilton returns, Joyce should see a fair number of at-bats as the team's designated hitter. Right-hander C.J. Cron had fairly even platoon splits in a small sample of plate appearances during his rookie season last year, but hit .313/.360/.528 against lefties in four minor league seasons. Albert Pujols will get the occasional "day off" as the DH, but should get the majority of playing time at first base. He's not as solid as he used to be defensively, but his real decline has been at the plate. In three seasons, Pujols has hit just .273/.332/.478. He hit 28 home runs and drove in 105 RBI last season, but is far from the tour de force he was with the Cardinals. Former Cards teammate David Freese hit .260/.321/.383 in his first season with the Angels, and was solid enough defensively to be worth 2.1 WAR.
Shortstop Erick Aybar made the first All-Star team of his career in 2014, hitting .283/.320/.411 with 50 RBI and 11 stolen bases in the first half. His power fell off after the break, but he got on base at a slightly higher rate. He also played solid defense up the middle, resulting in a career-high 4.3 WAR. With longtime double play partner Howie Kendrick now playing across town, Aybar will be paired with one of several players who have yet to distance themselves from one another in camp. Former Rockies utility infielder Josh Rutledge was the favorite to win the job in early March, though he is hitting just .186 with a .239 on-base percentage this spring. Former A's prospect Grant Green has yet to translate his Triple-A production to the majors, and at 27, he's running out of chances. Ditto former Royals prospect Johnny Giavotella, who is now viewed as the current favorite to win the starting role. Rule 5 pick Taylor Featherston, also a Rockies draftee, will likely fill a utility role.
Catcher Chris Iannetta isn't the plus defender that the Angels have preferred to have behind the plate in Scioscia's tenure (Mike Napoli years aside). However, Iannetta hit .252/.373/.392 in 373 plate appearances last year, and led all AL catchers with a 126 wRC+. Despite his defensive shortcomings -- he's one of the worst pitch framers in baseball and has only thrown out 25 percent of base stealers in his career -- he ranked third in the AL with 3.0 WAR last season. Butera, an excellent defender, is essentially the mirror opposite of Iannetta. He hit .188/.267/.288 in 192 plate appearances with the Los Angeles Dodgers last year.
Jered Weaver is only 32 years old, but his time as an ace appears to be over. The righthander won 18 games last year, but allowed a 3.59 ERA and 4.19 FIP in 213 1/3 innings. His fastball velocity can now be described as "mid-80s," but that doesn't mean he's totally washed up. He was still able to strike out 19 percent of the batters he faced in 2014, and his 1.21 WHIP was better than Rick Porcello's. A couple things to watch for: Weaver's walk and home run rates jumped by a significant margin last year. Righthander Garrett Richards took Weaver's place atop the Angels' rotation, allowing a 2.61 ERA and 2.60 FIP in 168 2/3 innings before tearing his patellar tendon at Fenway Park in August. Richards missed the rest of the season and is still on the road to recovery this spring. He threw five scoreless innings in a minor league game on Saturday, but is still a few weeks away (at least) from rejoining the rotation.
I have never liked C.J. Wilson as a pitcher, and 2014 further vindicated my suspicions. Wilson led the American League with 85 walks in 175 2/3 innings, resulting in a paltry 1.78 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He allowed a 4.51 ERA, a 4.31 FIP, and a 1.45 WHIP in 31 starts. With two more years of team control remaining, the Angels are hoping that Wilson can get back to being effectively wild instead of just plain wild. Matt Shoemaker was one of the surprises of the 2014 season, winning 16 games with a 3.04 ERA and 3.26 FIP. He would have won the AL Rookie of the Year award if not for Jose Abreu, but that's another debate entirely. The question with Shoemaker is whether he can replicate that success in 2015. He was an unheralded prospect who went undrafted and his minor league track record is somewhat iffy, but he commands his pitches and has a nasty splitter that helped him whiff 124 batters in 136 innings last year. Lefthander Hector Santiago will get starts, but is probably better served in a swingman role, while Tyler Skaggs may make a late season return after having Tommy John surgery last August.
Despite a top-50 prospect pedigree, lefthander Andrew Heaney is in a dogfight with righthander Nick Tropeano for the fifth starter's role until Richards returns. Both players were in other organizations in 2014 -- Heaney was with the Marlins, while Tropeano was in Houston -- and were acquired for pieces that were vital to the Angels' success last season. Heaney allowed a 5.83 ERA and 5.45 FIP in 29 1/3 MLB innings last year, but was much more efficient in the minors with a 3.97 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Tropeano's 4.57 ERA in 21 2/3 innings with the Astros wasn't much better, but he had solid numbers (3.03 ERA, 0.99 WHIP) in the unforgiving Pacific Coast League. My personal preference would be to see Heaney get the role, if only because of his dedication to an organization that owned him for no more than a few hours.
Despite owning the second-best record in baseball in late July, the Angels were still looking up at the Oakland A's in their own division as the trade deadline approached. They made one of the more aggressive moves of the month, trading four prospects to the San Diego Padres for Huston Street. That, along with the shot-in-the-dark move that brought Jason Grilli to Los Angeles, helped bolster an Angels bullpen that allowed a 3.12 ERA and 2.82 FIP in the second half. Grilli is gone, but Street is still around for one more year. He and setup man Joe Smith will form one of the better back-end tandems in baseball. Smith's 1.81 ERA and 0.80 WHIP seem unsustainable on the surface, but he has been one of the stingiest relievers in the game over the past four years. Righthanders Cory Rasmus and Mike Morin are also coming off solid seasons. If they can get anything out of former Indians setup man Vinnie Pestano, this could be a deep unit.
Down on the farm
The Angels acquired Heaney, Tropeano, and Kyle Kubitza this offseason without dipping into their own minor league coffers, and their system still ranks as one of the worst in baseball. Granted, Tropeano and Kubitza don't have lofty ceilings, but Heaney is regarded as a potential mid-rotation starter who is ready for big league action right now. After years of forking over their first round picks because of signing high-priced free agents, the Angels were finally able to replenish their farm system somewhat in the 2014 draft. Top picks Sean Newcomb, Joe Gatto, and Chris Ellis automatically jumped to the top of the system rankings, but none will be major league contributors for the next couple years.
Player to watch: Matt Shoemaker
Not only is he a native of Trenton, Michigan, Shoemaker also offers a decent parallel to Tigers starter Shane Greene. Neither pitcher showed up on any top prospect lists during their minor league careers, and the results were often spotty at best. However, both have figured things out at the big league level in limited samples, in large part thanks to good command and underrated offspeed offerings. Greene likes to pound the bottom of the strike zone, while Shoemaker wasn't afraid to take his low-90s fastball upstairs, especially with two strikes. He also features a splitter that induced whiffs 22 percent of the time in 2014, which paired well with his penchant for getting ahead of hitters with strike one. If Shoemaker can continue his success in 2015, the Angels could be one of baseball's best teams.
The biggest worry that I and many others have about the Angels is that their highest-paid players are hardly providing any value (let alone enough to justify their large contracts). Pujols, Hamilton, Weaver, and Wilson were paid a combined $72 million, but only contributed 6.8 of the 48.1 wins above replacement the Angels accumulated last season. With Hamilton on the shelf and the others rapidly declining, that discrepancy could grow even larger in 2015. This is a huge onus to put on the young players of this roster, especially when some of the more deserving ones will be benched in favor of the costly veterans.
Luckily, the Angels possess some promising young talent, led by Trout and Richards. It's hard to ignore just how easily this team steamrolled its way to baseball's best record last season. Even with questions surrounding the pitching staff, second base, and the high-priced veteran talent, the Angels should be contenders again in 2015. They may not win their division, but maybe that's not such a bad thing; last time they were the AL Wild Card, they won the 2002 World Series.