The Los Angeles Angels have won seven in a row coming into Wednesday’s games. The Halos are now at 40-43, and though that’s still 8 ½ games off the pace in the American League West, there’s still a half a season to play and a lot of talent in Anaheim. Let’s take a closer look at the Angels and see if this is the start of them making a definitive move in this division.
THREE STRUGGLING STARS
Any conversation about the Angels’ struggles to date, or their prospects going forward clearly have to start with the struggling stars. Albert Pujols is having a rough year, with a stat line of .322 on-base percentage/.425 slugging percentage. That’s mediocre by generic standards, and by the standards of Albert and his big contact, it’s positively pathetic.
But even more pathetic is the play of Josh Hamilton, whose stat line is .282/.390. At least Pujols likely has an injury excuse—ESPN’s Tim Kurkijan said last night that Pujols is dealing with immense pain in his feet, and that type of lower body problem pretty much makes it impossible to hit effectively. If there is any such problem with Hamilton, we don’t know about it.
Jered Weaver has had a trouble year himself, having only made nine starts due to an early season injury. The starts he has made have been nothing special—a 3.79 ERA isn’t bad, but it’s not ace-caliber in a division where there are a lot of weak bats.
That’s the bad news—actually, its terrible news. The good news for Angels fans is this—if someone tells you your second-half chances are predicated on the improved play of Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Jered Weaver, I think that’s something you’re ready to take your chances with. So our next question is this—is that the case? Are the supporting cast members playing well enough that a Pujols/Hamilton/Weaver surge could push the Angels all the way back?
A SPLIT SUPPORTING CAST
The answer here is twofold—the supporting cast has been pretty good in the everyday lineup, while the starting pitching has been mostly awful. The one exception in the rotation is C.J. Wilson, who has a 3.63 ERA in 17 starts, and has pitched very well over the past month. But Joe Blanton has been a disaster, though in fairness, his last five starts have shown some signs of life. Tommy Hanson was first hit hard, then hit the disabled list.
Jason Vargas was having a decent year, but he’s on the DL with a blood clot, and may be out until the end of July. If the Angels had a five-game lead, that timeframe would be fine. When you have to play the last 80 games or so with playoff urgency, it’s not as manageable, and manager Mike Scoscia is trying to make do with a combination of veteran Jerome Williams and call-up Billy Buckner (yes, the son of the former Cubs/Red Sox first baseman who had over 2,700 career hits. The other thing he’s remembered for has been beaten to death) in the rotation.
In the lineup, Scoscia has gotten good work from a lot of supporting pieces. Howie Kendrick is having a good year, at .367/.475. I suppose we shouldn’t call Mike Trout a supporting piece after he finished second in the MVP voting for the 2012 season, but for the sake of this article he falls in this section. Trout’s numbers are .388/.539. J.B. Schuck, a young outfielder, along with catcher Chris Iannetta and third baseman Albert Callaspo are all respectable at getting on base, and Mark Trumbo can clean up the bases, having hit 18 home runs.
Here again, though the Angels can’t seem to catch a break. Or, more accurately they caught a break they didn’t need—a broken wrist, that is. Peter Bourjos, already an excellent young defensive centerfielder, was having a breakout year with the bat, with a stat line of .385/.450, when he broke his wrist. You first lose his bat, and the defensive shift likely forces Trout from left to center, thereby weakening two positions. Bourjos says he’ll back by the end of July, if not before, but even if that’s true, is really going to sustain his offensive production with a wrist on the mend?
SQUEEZING THE MOST FROM THE BULLPEN
The bullpen’s overall numbers aren’t good—they’re ninth in the league in relievers’ ERA. But in spite of that, they’ve managed to close 77 percent of their save chances, an exceptionally good number. Closer Ernesto Frieri explains part of the contradiction—he’s a solid 21/23 in closing saves, though his ERA of 3.19 is higher than that close rate would suggest.
In truth, I see these contradictory stats as evidence that Mike Scoscia can still manage, even as his team underachieves for a second straight year. He’s got just enough good arms—Scott Downs and Michael Kohn are each having great seasons, with sub-2.00 ERAs—that the manager can work good matchups when he gets a lead and finish the games the Angels have a chance to win.
The problem is that when your starting pitching is 10th in the AL, and your key offensive stars are struggling, you don’t get enough of those chances. In either case, Los Angeles probably needs one more arm to step up to give some depth and also provide Scoscia a decent option to keep games close when the team falls behind. And that arm will likely *not* be Ryan Madson. The closer continues to have setbacks in his rehab, and the team has admitted that missing the entire 2013 season is now a possibility.
WILL THE ANGELS FLY AGAIN?
If the question is whether the Angels are going to get back in the playoff discussion, I think the answer to that is yes. The talent here is too good to play below .500 all year, and if they even get to an 85-86 win pace that likely keeps you on everyone’s wild-card radar.
But just like last year, the Angels have started too late, and the pitching problems are too deep to allow the sustained stretch of dominance it will take to get to the 92-93 wins that it likely takes to make the postseason. They aren’t fortunate enough to be in the NL West, like their crosstown rivals, the Dodgers, who aren’t playing any better, but have a real shot at a division title.
The Angels have to catch both the A’s and Rangers to win the AL West. And the wild-card? In addition to the runner-up of Texas/Oakland, throw in the following—Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Toronto and the Cleveland/Detroit runner-up. Even with two wild-card spots, that’s not a lot of room for error. It will be a repeat of 2012 in Anaheim—a surge just enough to tease, but some crushing losses that prevent it from coming to ultimate fruition.
AROUND THE AL WEST
Oakland (49-35): We talked about the A’s briefly on my Monday podcast with Greg DePalma at Prime Sports Network. Greg finds it hard to imagine Oakland not winning the AL West. I’m not ready to go there just yet, but I can’t find the necessary arguments to dispute it.
Texas (48-35): Alexi Ogando is close to coming back in Dallas. That’s at least one part of giving me the arguments to make the Rangers’ case.
Seattle (36-47): We discussed Seattle in last week’s MLB coverage, and again reiterate this point—when you’re built on pitching, but the bullpen stinks, that’s not a workable formula.
Houston (30-54): Bud Norris is popping up a lot in trade talks, marking the one interesting thing about the Astros for this season.