Sunday, May 26, 2013
Even short-handed, Angels flying high
By Christina Kahrl
The Angels had a plan, and the expectation was that if they executed it, this time around they’d get back to the postseason. They’ve followed a course many might advise, and when they fell hard early, many were ready to write them off. But now that they’re riding a seven-game win streak and they’re on the cusp of seeing their roster more closely resemble their original contending design, “it’s early” is no longer an excuse, and it might be a confident prediction that the Angels are far from done when it comes to the American League postseason picture.
Keep in mind, the Angels have been missing from October action since 2009, when they lost the ALCS to the Yankees in six games. Making good on the time and seasons lost inspired their $240 million investment in Albert Pujols, followed by last winter’s $133 million in Josh Hamilton. In doing so, the Angels were doing something many statheads could sign off on: investing major money in top-quality position players, putting their money on the so-called “certainty” that hitters age a certain way. Proving that Arte Moreno’s pockets aren’t bottomless, for free-agent pitching help they settled on journeyman Joe Blanton and traded for Jason Vargas and Tommy Hanson.
This season, same as last (when they got off to an 8-15 start in April), the Angels dug themselves an early hole. But now, as the big-spending franchise gets in gear and finally starts winning games -- clouting the AL’s middle-class franchises, such as the Mariners, Royals and White Sox -- it’s worth crediting Los Angeles for what’s working. Obviously, any plan that starts with having Mike Trout has something going for it, and he and fellow homegrown Angel Mark Trumbo have combined to make any investment in free agents over homegrown talent seem like money ill-spent. Trout and Trumbo have powered the win streak, between them muscling nine extra-base hits, including four home runs, in those seven games.
Mike Trout, left, and Mark Trumbo have been homegrown keys to the Angels' win streak.
That duo hasn’t been alone, though. Some of it is a matter of who’s due. Hamilton might not be slugging what’s expected in the aggregate yet, but he cranked out six walks and a couple of homers during the streak. Chris Iannetta, long loathed for what he hadn’t lived up to being during his time in Denver, has settled into being what he can be as an Angel, providing OBP -- in the form of 30 walks already -- to a team that can score men on base, plus a couple of homers during the streak. Alberto Callaspo has had a great week, ripping five doubles and plating eight men before Saturday’s action. That might be the last time you read about Alberto Callaspo, but if he can be better than the sub-.700 OPS he’d sunk to beforehand, third base is no longer a problem to solve.
But the better news is that the Angels have been doing this even as injuries have kept staff ace Jered Weaver, closer Ryan Madson and erstwhile leadoff threat Peter Bourjos out of action, while nagging hurts have kept Pujols from really romping at opponents’ expense. But Pujols, already living down the most disappointing 80-extra-base-hit season ever -- and how reasonable is that? -- while playing on bad wheels, has bounced back at the bat; seeing regular turns as designated hitter, he's been left to get back to doing what he can do best: hitting for average and power. And with Bourjos and Weaver due back inside of two weeks, and Madson gearing up for a June return, the Angels might be just rolling. But just as you might expect the natural life of a hot streak to peter out, they’re about to get reinforcements.
Even with Weaver out for another couple of spins through the rotation, it’s also worth noting that this year’s cobbled-together crew has done well in the meantime -- sitting just two quality starts behind the AL-leading White Sox and Tigers. With Weaver hurt and Hanson absent for much of May with an undisclosed problem, much of that has been thanks to C.J. Wilson (eight of 10) and Vargas (six of 10), the lefties scooped up from division rivals in consecutive seasons. But in their moments of need, they’ve also been able to turn to swingman Jerome Williams -- because, yes, the Angels have one -- who has put up three quality starts in four turns. Once Weaver and Hanson return, it makes for an interesting decision, to see whether manager Mike Scioscia will bump Williams back to the bullpen before Blanton, who’s 1-7 with a 6.19 ERA.
Going forward, the same reasons to believe that the Angels had it going for them up front are there. They still have Trout, who might be the best bet to be the no-doubt-about-it best player in baseball since Ken Griffey Jr., or maybe even Fred Lynn. Hamilton might not deliver the same results playing in Anaheim that he did in the Rangers’ bandbox, but the same basic talent should be there. Even if Pujols has to DH and Trumbo keeps manning first, if that lets Pujols keep producing an .876 OPS without having to field, that’s well worth doing.
With help on the way and the Angels already showing off how they can play, you better believe they’re far from done.