Commentary

Angels have reason for concern

Updated: April 16, 2012, 9:48 AM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

NEW YORK -- Jerry Dipoto has this uncanny ability to smile at the same time he's gritting his teeth. He'll be beaming, but the muscles in his temples are flexing and a vein stands out in the middle of his forehead.

Albert Pujols
Debby Wong/US PresswireBatting .243 and in the longest homerless streak to start a season in his career, Albert Pujols may be feeling the pressure of his massive new deal.

When the Los Angeles Angels' general manager met with a small group of reporters near the dugout rail on a glorious afternoon at Yankee Stadium, his expression seemed to sum up the state of his team. The Angels still like what they've got, but a few worries were starting to creep in after a wobbly first week.

It's not panic time, but it's time to be concerned.

"It's far too early to get dramatic, you know?" Dipoto said.

Is it the leaky bullpen, a disappointing rotation, a stop-and-start offense? Is it because Albert Pujols has started cold, Kendrys Morales has slumped his way to the bench or Torii Hunter is in one of the softest stretches of his career? The Angels are off to a 3-6 start and, when you raise your fans' excitement level to the brink of hysteria in March, you owe them some answers when you lose your first three series in April.

"No one's ever happy when you start off slowly. No one's saying, 'No big deal.' You're out there trying to win every ballgame," manager Mike Scioscia said.

"There's no crystal ball as to what's going to happen, but we have a good team, a deep team."

The Angels spent a weekend in the fishbowl of the largest media market in the world trying to figure out where things are going wrong. Front offices routinely evaluate their teams as the season creeps along, but the Angels are embarking on a season in which expectations are at unprecedented levels. Getting things fixed quickly is a must.

Spotty offense

One scout compared the Angels' lineup with others that feature power -- such as the Yankees, the Texas Rangers and the Detroit Tigers -- and said, "They can be pitched to, because they have so many free swingers. They have a lot of guys who like to swing the bat."

That seems like an understatement. Even after adding patient hitters Pujols and Chris Iannetta, the Angels went into Sunday having walked in 6.5 percent of their plate appearances, putting them 24th in the league in that category. Vernon Wells, Peter Bourjos and Morales still haven't taken a walk. Decline, obviously, could also be a factor. The average age of the Nos. 3 through 6 hitters Friday was nearly 35.

Pujols figures to have to answer the questions every time this team doesn't score much, and he spent a big chunk of his weekend telling reporters, "You know, this game is not that easy," in both English and Spanish.

It was hard not to gaze down at the field and see a cautionary tale. The only man currently playing under a richer contract than Pujols is the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, who is in Year 5 of a 10-year, $275 million contract. He played in 99 games last year and has seen his production plummet year after year since 2007, his last MVP season.

Is Pujols' contract a ticking time bomb? Is it part of the problem even now, as he tries to prove he's worthy of a quarter of a billion dollars? Batting .243 and in the longest homerless streak to start a season in his career, he may be feeling the pressure of his massive new deal.

Somebody asked Rodriguez about that after Friday's game. He was seated at a podium after he hit his 630th career home run earlier that day off Ervin Santana. "I can't speak for Pujols or anyone else," Rodriguez said. "I think overall you come into a new city, big market, big expectations, and it's natural for you to try to do a little bit too much."

Pujols didn't deny that could be the case.

"I'm human. Sometimes, that's going to happen no matter how you prepare yourself," he said.

The Angels have played nine games and manager Mike Scioscia has tried eight different lineups, to sporadic results.

Pitching problems

So, with limited options to fix the offense or rotation, Dipoto reached for solutions at hand: juggling some relievers. The Angels designated longtime farmhand Rich Thompson for assignment, brought in young sidearmer David Carpenter, and eyed the trade market to see if it was possible to poach a reliever from another team's roster.

"We have the same concerns we've always had -- creating depth. It's what I've spoken about since day one," Dipoto said. "We know we need it. We knew, particularly from the pitching standpoint with the bullpen, that our depth beyond the seven guys we had on the current big league club just wasn't good enough."

One guy who could attest to the early dysfunction down there was closer Jordan Walden, who still hasn't pitched in a save situation. When a team is going bad, closers become forgotten men. The first week was a roller coaster of inaction and false starts for Walden.

He warmed up in all three games in Minnesota, but sat back down all three days. First, Kevin Jepsen was able to escape a jam that nearly turned into a save situation. Then, middle relievers blew saves before Walden could appear. Thus far, Walden's only appearances have been mop-up duty, just to get a little work in.

He talked about it Saturday morning, wondering when he could begin to prove he can handle a job he was thrust into, maybe prematurely, last year.

"I'm just rolling with it, but I want to pitch, for sure," Walden said.

It could have been a lot worse if not for C.J. Wilson. After the Angels lost two straight to the Kansas City Royals, he pitched them to a win in Minnesota. After they lost their third in a row, this time to the Yankees, Wilson stopped the bleeding again with six strong innings Saturday.

One scout said he thinks the chances of the Angels being a major disappointment this season are nil because of their depth in starting pitching. Right now, Wilson is the stopper. It could well be Jered Weaver, Dan Haren or Ervin Santana at various parts of the season, and it probably will be.

"Every guy on the team wants to go out there and win on that day. You're not really concerned with if your team's won eight in a row or lost eight in a row, you just want to go out there and pitch your best," Wilson said. "There's no such thing as coasting in the major leagues."

Through nine games, the Angels have had three quality starts, two by Wilson. Little has gone according to plan.

The upshot

Ten days ago, the Angels figured they had great starting pitching, above-average offense and a solid bullpen. They've had a sporadic start, slumps galore and leaky relief. The beautiful thing about baseball, of course, is there's always tomorrow.

"I definitely think we're going to get out of this little funk, back to some normalcy and everything will be fine," Hunter said.

In the Angels' case, tomorrow comes early. Weaver and Haren flew back to Southern California well before Sunday's ESPN-televised 8:05 p.m. ET game began. The team hopes they can rest up for a couple of important starts Monday and Tuesday as the Angels try to find their footing. The rest of the team figured to land at John Wayne Airport at about 4:30 a.m. with a game scheduled Monday night against the Oakland A's.

Another thing about a baseball schedule: It doesn't pause while you figure out the next move.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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