Los Angeles Angels: Angels spring training questions 2012

Question No. 1: Albert Pujols and new scenery

February, 13, 2012
In the weeks leading up to spring training, we're counting down the biggest questions the Angels face in 2012.

Albert Pujols has never stood in the on-deck circle at Minnesota's Target Field in the regular season, a drought that will end within a week of Opening Day. He has never faced Felix Hernandez, but he figures to see the Seattle Mariners' ace four times or more in the next eight months.

It will be a season of new work experiences for Pujols, who signed a 10-year, $240 million contract to be the Angels' first baseman after 11 seasons playing for the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League. It figures to be such a jarring transition, in fact, that Pujols' production will be ... at least as good, maybe better?

That seemed to be the consensus of three veteran scouts I called to find out how they think Pujols will fare with the change of scenery. How he hits in the middle of the Angels' order will largely dictate the team's fortunes entering a highly anticipated 2012 season.

Each of the three scouts, who spoke on condition of anonymity, seemed to think Pujols was poised for some monster seasons in the early part of his deal. They don't envision much of a transition period to a new set of pitchers and hitting backdrops.

"I recall scouting Edgar Martinez, who I had to advance for a while. I never could think of a way to get him out," said one scout. "This man just didn't have any holes in his swing. He could handle every pitch. Albert's that kind of guy on a grander scale."

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Question No. 2: Jerry Dipoto's next move

February, 6, 2012
In the weeks leading up to spring training, we're counting down the biggest questions the Angels face in 2012.

The Angels will have a fascinating puzzle on their hands as spring training moves along and they try to assemble their most competitive roster.

Assuming everybody is healthy, they'll have three first basemen with 30-plus-home run power; two of the speediest young center fielders in baseball; and a designated hitter with a borderline Hall-of-Fame career and virtually no role. We haven't even mentioned the deepest rotation they've had in at least three years.

It's an unwieldy roster, for the moment, but exactly the kind of group that gives a general manager options. Jerry Dipoto already has remade the team by signing marquee free agents Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. Now, he has a chance to cement a championship-caliber group with one or two shrewd moves between now and July or so.

Other than Pujols, Wilson, Jered Weaver and, probably, Mike Trout, nobody on this 40-man roster seems off-limits for trade talks, but these guys seem particularly moveable: Bobby Abreu, Mark Trumbo, Maicer Izturis, Peter Bourjos (maybe) and Hank Conger.

To which some Angels fans will reply, "What about Vernon Wells?" Wishful thinking. Unless the Angels are willing to eat $60 million or so, nobody's going to take that problem off their hands and, for similar reasons, Torii Hunter figures to stay put at least until this fall.

If the Angels move Abreu, the return likely would be scant. He'll be 38 on Opening Day, makes $9 million and has seen his power and ability to get on base slip in recent years. If they move Izturis, it could get them an early-inning reliever or mediocre prospect.

To trade one of the younger players, they likely would have to be moved to do so by another team's offer.

Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe wrote that there is "a lot of speculation" the Washington Nationals will trade 27-year-old left-hander John Lannan for Bourjos, clearing a path for Mike Trout, a 20-year-old widely viewed as one of the top-five prospects in baseball.

It's not out of the question the teams could be talking about this deal, but is it a one-to-one proposition? Lannan would be one of the league's better No. 5 starters and give the Angels' rotation ideal balance: three right-handers, two lefties. But it seems like the Angels could get more than just Lannan for Bourjos, a 24-year-old who plays brilliant center field and is rapidly improving as a hitter. Lannan, 27, was 10-13 last year and has a lifetime 4.00 ERA.

Trumbo, 26, could see his at-bats drop by 200 or more with Pujols holding down his position, plenty of outfield depth and his ability to play acceptable third base in doubt. Hunter could vacate right field this fall, but Trout might be ready to play every day by then. Trumbo's expendable, but given his age, salary ($450,000 or so) and massive power potential, Dipoto can afford to wait for an enticing offer. Conger hasn't established himself in the major leagues yet so won't fetch as much as Trumbo, but a switch-hitting young catcher with power will always be in demand.

It's good to be Dipoto these days.
In the weeks leading up to spring training, we're counting down the biggest questions the Angels face in 2012.

When you add a hitter as good as Albert Pujols, the setting is crucial.

That's part of the reason the St. Louis Cardinals gave Matt Holliday so much money and traded with the Dodgers for Rafael Furcal. Holliday had enough power to protect Pujols in the order and Furcal helped catalyze rallies Pujols often ended with a bang.

So, one of the biggest concerns for the Angels this spring is sorting through players capable of setting the table for Pujols and others capable of punishing pitchers who walk him. It just so happens that the Angels' biggest offensive shortcomings, it would seem, are at leadoff and cleanup.

Angels leadoff men last year, mostly Maicer Izturis and Erick Aybar, scored 79 runs, worst in the American League. Their on-base percentage was .325, seventh in the AL.

Here are the candidates for the leadoff spot, and their age and career on-base percentages: Izturis, 31, .339; Aybar, 28, .319; Peter Bourjos, 24, .303; and Bobby Abreu, 37, .397.

The young, fast guys -- Bourjos and Aybar -- haven't historically been very good at getting on base, which is probably a bigger problem than the fact the older guys -- Abreu and Izturis -- don't run as well as they once did. Either way, the candidates are far from ideal. The Angels would love it if Bourjos continued to make strides as a hitter, cut down on his strikeouts and started taking more walks (his minor league .346 OBP is encouraging).

But right now, the leadoff spot is both fluid and worrisome. Cleanup hitter might be a bigger problem.

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Question No. 4: How good is the rotation?

January, 23, 2012
The Angels had the second-best starting pitching in the American League last year, behind only Tampa Bay. Then they added C.J. Wilson, a pitcher who has gone 31-15 and allowed batters to hit just .225 off him since he became a starter two years ago.

Everything is in place to make the Angels' rotation perhaps the best in franchise history and the stingiest in their league. When he ranked baseball's best rotations, ESPN's David Schoenfield slotted the Angels at No. 2. That's great, but it's also just one place better than AL West rival Texas, which replaced Wilson with Japanese sensation Yu Darvish.

The Angels figure to need all the pitching they can get, because -- even after adding the best player in the game, Albert Pujols -- their offense isn't the equal of either of the two AL East juggernauts in Boston and New York or of Texas'. Pujols will draw more fans, but the Angels' fortunes will rise and fall in 2012, again, with how Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and Wilson perform.

Here's what Schoenfield wrote about the Angels starting pitchers:

Weaver, Haren and Santana averaged 234 innings in 2011 and now they've add Wilson to the mix. He threw 223 innings for the Rangers. The last team with four starters to pitch 220 innings? The 1997 Atlanta Braves. That team won 101 games. Wilson could have a monster season -- after all, he posted a 2.31 ERA on the road last year and allowed just six home runs in 18 starts. Pitching behind Weaver and Haren should take away some of the pressure of the big contract. Yes, [Jerome] Williams is a bit of a question mark in the five-hole, but while they traded away Tyler Chatwood the Angels still have power arm Garrett Richards as depth.

Here are the ZiPS projections (via baseballthinkfactory.org) for Angels starters:

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Question No. 5: Is the bullpen good enough?

January, 15, 2012
We’ll preview spring training 2012 – one of the most anticipated in Angels’ history – with a series of five crucial questions about the upcoming season. First up: relief.

The Angels' bullpen was the area of the team that experienced the least upheaval this winter. The offense got an injection of power and plate discipline from future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols. The rotation finally took on a left-hander, and a pretty good one, in C.J. Wilson.

General manager Jerry Dipoto didn't neglect the bullpen -- he added veteran setup man LaTroy Hawkins -- but it probably wasn't the overhaul some Angels fans had hoped for. Unless something changes in the next four weeks (and it might), the Angels will go into spring training banking on second-year closer Jordan Walden. Considering he's 24 and maintained his upper-90s fastball all year, that's not necessarily a bad thing. When I talked to him a couple of weeks ago, Walden sounded excited to erase bad memories from the end of his 2011 season.

But if you're poking this team for soft areas, places where it might be susceptible, you'd probably point your stick at the relief pitching. Angels relievers actually had the second-best ERA in the American League (3.52), but that obscures some of deeper problems. They allowed opponents to bat .247 against them, which ranked ninth, and they walked 185 batters. Only six teams saw more walks from their relievers. When the Angels were trying to find their footing early in the season, the bullpen was awful. When they were chasing teams late, it tended to implode at inopportune times.

Letting Fernando Rodney walk (pun intended) will solve only so many problems. The scrutiny will be on Walden, but it's almost equally vital that some other young arms continue to develop. Let's assume that Hawkins and Scott Downs stay healthy and do what they normally do, which is to be two of the more-dependable eighth-inning guys. Hisanori Takahashi is probably fairly bankable in low-stress roles.

No other Angels reliever has proven he can lock down an inning or two. Rich Thompson was the best of the youngsters, but had some shaky moments, especially late in the season. Bobby Cassevah and Trevor Bell will be fighting to stay on the roster as usual.

When the Angels were throwing a blanket over the late innings in 2002, Francisco Rodriguez got much of the credit, but it was depth that made the team so hard to rally against. Troy Percival, Brendan Donnelly and Ben Weber gave Mike Scioscia options when he was mapping out the final three to 15 outs of a game.

The Angels might not need that kind of dominance to rumble into the playoffs in 2012 -- on paper, they've got the talent to barge right in -- but as we sit a month before spring training, the bullpen remains a major question mark.



Howie Kendrick
.292 7 72 85
HRM. Trout 35
RBIM. Trout 109
RM. Trout 112
OPSM. Trout .951
WJ. Weaver 18
ERAG. Richards 2.61
SOG. Richards 164