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Oakland (Lucas Harrell) @ Chicago (Brett Anderson)

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Texas 7, Oakland 4

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

DTGG Season Preview: The Angels, or More Jeff Mathis, Please

The Angels are going for their 4th straight AL West title and sixth in the past seven years.  Last year's team had the second best offense in the AL, scoring 883 runs, 100 more than the league average.  Their pitching/defense was average, allowing 761 runs, good for 7th out of 14 AL teams. 

Anaheim had a very interesting offseason, re-signing Bobby Abreu, but letting Vladimir Guerrero, Chone Figgins, and John Lackey go via free agency.  According to Fangraphs, Guerrero, Figgins, and Lackey combined to add about 11 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) to last year's team.  The Halo's signed Hideki Matsui and Joel Pineiro to replace Vlad and Lackey and turned to Brandon Wood to replace Figgins.  The team's acquisition of Scott Kazmir late last August and their replacing of Darren Oliver with Fernando Rodney give this year's Angels team a somewhat different look from the 2009 version.

Will the Angels new faces, plus healthy seasons from Ervin Santana and Torii Hunter be enough to offset the losses of Vlad, Chone, and Lackey?

The 2010 Angels have the potential to have another strong offense, though having the second best offense in the league may be a bit out of reach.  Whereas the Mariners and A's have holes up and down their lineups, the Angels have a nearly league average option at every position (whether Mike Scioscia chooses to use that option remains to be seen in the case of Jeff Mathis v. Mike Napoli).  Not only do they lack automatic outs in the lineup, Bobby Abreu, Torii Hunter, Hideki Matsui, and Kendry Morales form a strong middle of the order.

Its clear that the Angels offense is good, but exactly how good is it?  They'll be hard pressed to score the 883 runs they plated last year.  The Abreu, Hunter, Matsui, Morales heart of the order is made up of two 36-year-olds (Abreu and Matsui), a 34-year-old (Hunter), and a guy whose 2009 SLG was 90 points higher than his previous career high (Morales).  Furthermore, the lineup lacks real upside.  There's a small chance that either Brandon Wood or Howie Kendrick (or both) live up to the expectations that many people had for them based on stellar minor league performances.  Instead of stars, however, they look more like league average hitters.  Perhaps Morales, at 27, could build on his breakout 2009 campaign, but regression is more likely given how far out of line his season was compared to his past performances.

All that being said, though, a team sporting league average or better hitters at each spot in the lineup will produce an above average number of runs.  Barring a disastrous injury or two to Anaheim's Big 4, I'd expect an offense that ends up well above average, but probably not one of the top in the league.  This spells a 4th or 5th ranked offense and probably around 825 runs scored.

The Angels have a pair of clear-cut problems that prevent them from being clear favorites in the AL West.  The first is their rotation.  The Angels really only have one reliably good and reliably healthy starter in Jered Weaver.  What's the difference, then, between them and the A's who also only have one reliably good and reliably healthy starter (Brett Anderson)?  It's starters 2-7.

Joe Saunders started the Angels' second game last night.  He may be reliably healthy, but he's also reliably mediocre.  Even though he's won 33 games over the past two seasons his FIPs have been underwhelming - 4.36 in 2008 and 5.17 last year.  Do not expect improvement from him either, Saunders' age, his stuff, and his track record portend a decline.

Ervin Santana will start today for the Angels and he has the most upside of the Angels' starters.  He was one of the league's top 5 pitchers in 2008.  He struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness last season, starting only 23 games and posting a FIP over 5.00.  It's anyone's guess how he'll pitch this year.  Scott Kazmir is similarly enigmatic.  He's only started 30 games in two of his five big league seasons and though he's pitched well when healthy, he hasn't been as dominating as the Rays would have hoped.  When healthy, he's absolutely a solid pitcher, but he's not likely to pitch a full season, and he's a notch or two below "ace" quality.  (He's already hurt, but he's only likely to miss a start or two...for now).

Joel Pineiro is also a question mark.  While he's been relatively healthy for most of his career, he's only had two good seasons - 2003 and 2009.  He completely transformed himself as a pitcher last year, developing a fantastic sinker and becoming an extreme groundball/control pitcher.  I'd imagine he's due to regress a bit - I think he'll maintain most of his ability to induce daisy cutters, but I'm not so sure about his control.  CHONE projects a 4.19 FIP in 168 innings, which feels about right.  I think, however, this projection understates the risk that he turns back into a pumpkin.

As you can see the Angels do have five good options for their rotation.  If they all stay healthy and if they all pitch as well as they have in the past then it would probably be a top five rotation.  The problem is not only that its unlikely that all these pitchers stay healthy and pitch to their potential, its that their fallback options are quite weak.  Anaheim will have to throw some combination of Matt Palmer, Trevor Bell, Sean O'Sullivan, or others out there for a not insignificant number of starts, and those starts are probably going to go poorly.

The Angels suffer a similar problem with their hitters.  Though they have a quality backup infielder in Maicier Izturis, the age and health status of all three of their starting outfielders and Hideki Matsui indicate that Terry Evans or Reggie Willits will probably see a solid number of plate appearances.  While the Angels offense can probably withstand losing an outfielder for brief periods, any extended absence of one or more of these guys and the Angels will have to look outside of their organization for help.

The Angels will be less capable of withstanding an injury to Abreu, Hunter, or Rivera should Jeff Mathis continue to start over Mike Napoli.  Catchers' defense is one of the areas where quantitative analysis is most lacking, but Mike Napoli's a very good hitter (career .256/.358/.493).  Jeff Mathis is a very bad hitter (.201/.277/.324), not withstanding 12 ALCS at bats last year.  The difference between them offensively is about 3 wins and its hard to imagine Mathis' defense making up that gap.

The Angels are a lot like the Rangers (minus the strong bullpen).  If everything breaks right for them they could have one of the best offenses in the league, a reasonably strong rotation, and win 90+ games.  But like the Rangers they have a fair amount of risk built in and have even less upside.  Their top prospects are farther from contributing - should a couple Angels get bitten by the injury bug they'll have to scramble to avoid putting replacement level talent (or worse) onto the field.

The Angels have outperformed my expectations a bunch of times over the past decade, but this team looks to be on the verge of an age/injury induced decline that it appears ill equipped to deal with.  Whether or not it happens this year, I can't tell.

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