“That’s right: you’ll get all these great classic rock hits in just one team preview.”

 

Angels TV color guy Mark Gubicza, a former pitcher, is known for relying on the same old pitching maxims: Trust your stuff, change eye levels, throw strikes. As far as announcers go, he’s probably not alone in that regard (though Gameday Audio folks could consider his radio counterpart, Mark Langston). But what makes Gubi different? He loves the old time rock ‘n roll, and his daily “Keys to the Game” usually consist of corny nods to old song titles. (Gubi’s also maybe too willing to partake in the team’s various retro-theme nights.)

So in that spirit, here are some Keys to the 2015 Angels, brought to you by Banished by the Pen:

 

Red Sector A

Before the on-field stuff, let’s get the actual field’s situation out of the way.

Angel Stadium has been around since 1966, making it the fourth-oldest stadium in MLB. The patched-up structure and its parking lots are owned by the city of Anaheim, and the Angels have the option of walking out of the lease between 2016 and 2019, after which it extends to 2029. As far as negotiations with the city go, all the news has been non-news, though Moreno has clearly been frustrated with the process.

So for those who still haven’t tired of the “____ Angels of ____” jokes, there may be even more material to draw from in the near future. Possibilities range from nearby Tustin (the most likely alternative in play), to Long Beach (less likely, but certainly closer to the actual LA market that Moreno covets). Should the Angels bolt, Anaheim could probably use a Disney backup plan, which could be employee parking, or another theme park (for you nerds wondering, Disney already seems to have makeover plans in store for their existing park land, so Mike Trout’s current workplace probably won’t end up being converted into a replica of Docking Bay 94).

 

Money

The Angels’ additions of Trout and Albert Pujols haven’t exactly stopped attendance from declining slightly over the past few years. Nonetheless, Moreno has been able to reap the rewards of hopping on MLB’s TV bandwagon, signing a 20-year $3 billion deal with Fox Sports through 2031 (one presumes games will be broadcast in hologram form by then).

Despite Moreno’s notorious free-spending on free agents during his tenure, he’s made it a point to avoid the luxury tax, though they’ve bumped up against it since the signings of Pujols and CJ Wilson. Going into this season, they rank 7th in payroll. They’re about $10 million short of their self-imposed budget, which could easily go towards any necessary midseason additions.

There weren’t any expiring albatrosses to take advantage of this time. Instead, the biggest chunk lost was the contract of Howie Kendrick, the longest-tenured Angel, who was traded to the Dodgers for high-end pitching prospect Andrew Heaney. Part of Kendrick’s $9.5 million ends up going to a raise for Trout, slated to make $5 million in the first year of his 6-year $144 extension.

And of course, there’s still backloaded contracts for Pujols (7 years remaining), Wilson (2), and Josh Hamilton (3). The online fanbase was inclined to blame those “big splash” signings on the image-conscious owner, rather than the newbie GM Jerry Dipoto.

 

Born to Run

When Dipoto first came over from the Diamondbacks three years ago, he was seen as a beacon of hope among those tired of the team’s old-fashioned views. He was a card-carrying member of SABR. At his job interview, he proudly showed off a notebook crammed with sabermetric principles. He was even a cancer survivor, and heck, he mailed a handwritten response to a fan’s letter (as reported by a local writer who had a bright future ahead of him).

While not exactly like bringing a World Series title to Boston, he may always be remembered for exiling Vernon Wells to the Bronx, even if he had to pick up a lot of the tab, and only got back the uninspiring — but hallowed — duo of Kramer Sneed and Exicardo Cayones. That mind-tricky move was perhaps the one that solidly attached him with the title of “JeDi.”

The mega contracts have led to frequent smaller-scale moves, but also failed gambles on pitchers (like 2013’s trainwreck quartet of Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson, Sean Burnett, and Ryan Madson). Dipoto also has no qualms in letting loose beloved fan favorites, like hometown kids Trumbo and Hank Conger, and veteran Torii Hunter.

Kendrick was shipped in a rare old-for-young deal. As perennial contenders, the Angels have seldom had chances to bolster their meager farm by trading expiring contracts at the deadline — and giving up compensation picks hasn’t helped.

 

Sultans of Swing

As one of the strongest offenses last year, Dipoto felt they could afford to swap a mid-lineup cog for some pitching depth. All of the ’14 regulars managed an average or better OPS+, including the likes of oft-injured Josh Hamilton, and glove/wheels backup Colin Cowgill.

Our preview utility man Nick Strangis sums up the offense:

PECOTA projects the Angels to score 738 runs, third in MLB behind only the Red Sox and Jays who play in much friendlier parks for hitters. The Mike Trout-led Angels scored the second most runs behind only the Tigers. They’re a middle-of-the-pack team in BB and K rates but hit the ball hard, finishing 7th in ISO in that time and 3rd in batting average (.266) sustaining a .308 BABIP, fifth best in MLB.

The leadoff man will again be Kole Calhoun, a stocky, solid, steady talent. The right fielder’s not flashy, but he’s got personality to spare. Drafted as an ASU senior in the 9th round, Calhoun impressed in a late-2013 audition (128 OPS+ in 58 games). Though not a SB threat, Scioscia happily handed the kid the leadoff role for much of the season, as he did with Trout in his first full year. After an early month-long ankle injury, Calhoun suffered little drop-off, notching .272/.325/.450, and 4.1 WAR (BRef). Projections peg him for a similar slash line, disagreeing mainly on playing time. The Angels have enough backup options at first base, but he’s also taken turns there (often making his listed 5’10” suspect). Do you like batflips? Then Calhoun is not your man, as he will often drop the bat neatly after solid contact. It actually looks kinda cool, but probably won’t catch on.

Mike Trout. Despite having a legendary start to his career, and being one of the Faces of Baseball, his Q rating hasn’t seem to have shot up accordingly. Sadly, non-baseball fans might only know him as “that guy in the Subway commercials,” or maybe even “that guy on the pretzel box.” To those who see him regularly, he’s accommodating and enthusiastic, if a bit bland. Always says the right things, about how he just tries to have fun out there. He’s not a serial dater of young starlets, and is more content to post photos of fishing hauls. His fans are perfectly content with boring off-field Mike.

On the field, there’s not much more to be said. Well, maybe a little. He was the youngest unanimous MVP after his third year, but it seems a dubious distinction considering he probably should have been such the year before. If not the year before that. Fans of the center fielder’s exciting all-around style did do some hand-wringing, as Trout seem to suddenly transform into a more standard (though elite) power hitter. Trout stole only 16 bases (though was caught only twice). Combined with his second-year total, it merely equaled his rookie season tally of 49. Maybe management wanted less wear and tear on a star CF who could easily rack up early mileage in his career, but he’s gone on record saying he plans to steal more.

Trout hit 36 homers and even tallied 111 RBI (as Scioscia will happily tell you). Though his Ks famously skyrocketed (from the 130s to 184), many were of the look variety, and he didn’t deviate from his first-pitch-taking ways. He’s been threatening to become  Aggressive Trout, though he did say the same thing last year. Nonetheless, many have speculated Trout could just be evolving earlier than expected from an ultra deluxe all-in-one, to something more professional strength. Scioscia has teased that 2015 Trout could utilize a bunt single feature. Yes, please.

35-year-old Albert Pujols will be pencilled penned into the 3 spot. Late in July, the stoic first baseman showed fans a different side during a memorable GIF-worthy scene, reciprocating a mock arrow shot from Trout to mimic Fernando Rodney. The gesture likely wasn’t as venom-tipped as many in the audience would’ve liked (Rodney had traded a 4.50 ERA in Anaheim for a point six-oh in Tampa the year after). Still, it was branded a Turning Point in retrospect, never mind that they were coming off just their third loss in 16 games.

After the usual preseason spiel about how good and healthy he felt, Pujols actually got to be good and healthy in 2014. He played in all but 3 games, and felt so darn spry that he manned 3B for a day. He managed a decent-for-Pujols 125+ OPS and 3.9 WAR. He also hit his 500th career homer, giving Angels brass something to promote that wasn’t related to Derek Jeter (though there was that, too). The projection systems seem to agree that his numbers will look quite similar to last year. Reassuring, maybe, but… those annual raises.

CJ Cron impressed early in his callup before regressing enough to warrant demotion. Still, the righty’s better stretches at this level will give management enough confidence to grant him a regular role at DH, which is what he’d been destined for for a while now thanks to his lackluster 1B glove. He’ll float with his raw power between 4th and 6th, depending on the pitcher.

The happy-go-lucky, sometimes-enigmatic Erick Aybar returns as the longest-tenured position player. He can be a wizard at SS at times, and will attempt as many dekes as he can. A good all-around piece, he still runs well and can be found almost anywhere in the lineup, though Scioscia’s experiements with Leadoff Aybar are frowned upon, given his tendency to swing early. Having signed a team-friendly extension much like his old keystone partner Kendrick, the two had often been trade targets in recent years, and obviously the team decided to stick with Aybar, whose deal ends after 2016. He put up a nice 3.9 WAR, in line with his previous highs, while Kendrick had a career-high 5.4

When glowing about then-new 3B acquisition David Freese, Dipoto beamed that he was capable of getting “the big hit.” Cringe. Ultimately, Freese did get one big hit, tying Game One of the ALDS. Everyone would’ve just liked a lot more small and medium hits along the way. Like far too many veteran acquisitions of late, Freese took a while to settle into Anaheim, but did manage to go from a low .500s OPS in the first half to a high .700s, and hit 8 of his 10 HRs. He’s going into his second and likely last season in Anaheim.

Chris Iannetta is the anti-Aybar — taking pitches, drawing walks, lacking expression. Perhaps unexpectedly, he formed an odd sabermetric tag team with the departed Hank Conger, who found himself among the pitch-framing elite, but never living up to his offensive promise. Meanwhile, Iannetta actually boasted the highest .wOBA on the team (among non-Trouts) and a 14.5% BB rate (17% in 2013). He’s ranked as one of the league’s worst pitch-framers, but apparently passed Scioscia’s preferred eye test, receiving the majority of starts down the stretch. Despite some skepticism on his part, he’s at least making a conscious effort to improve his framing.

 

Matt Joyce was brought in from Tampa to serve as the primary DH, and as backup for Hamilton. Instead, the insurance will look to pay off as he replaces Hamilton entirely for now. He’ll get most of the starts against righties, probably at cleanup, and would swap with Cron lower in the order should Scioscia have enough faith to start him against lefties.

One of the bigger stories heading into spring — the virtual open tryout for the 2B vacancy — appears to be complete. Johnny Giavotella was quietly picked up from KC as a contestant, a potentially good hitter with nice OBPs in the minors, but a fairly negative defensive reputation. Nonetheless, John G (one of many, but not that one) easily put up the spring numbers needed to win the job. He’ll likely be asked to keep out of trouble, hitting 8th or 9th.

 

All Along the Watchtower

Versatile UK grad Colin Cowgill figures to be the 10th man, spelling the other outfielders and seeing time against lefties. And like Aybar, he’ll find himself all over the lineup. Cowgill, Joyce, and Cron look to be part of a year-long rotation.

To back up Iannetta, the Angels signed Drew Butera, who got to be a pitcher in two career games, but has also hit like one in all of his career (hovering over and under the .200 line).

Efren Navarro has an elite glove at first, dabbles well in the outfield, and has a nice line-drive swing. He’ll figure to get starts when Pujols takes his half-off-days at DH.

Taylor Featherston’s rule 5 status has him slated to get the backup role at 2B, though he can also man SS and 3B. He’s quick, with slight pop potential, but has yet to play above AA.

An OC kid and hit-first utility guy, Grant Green has tried to up his value by becoming a defensive jack of all trades (though some would insist he’s more of a 4 or 5 on the playing card scale), playing 2B, 3B, LF, even SS and 1B. He’s shown good on-base skills in the minors, and flashes of pure-hitterness in Anaheim, but he’ll likely be optioned back to AAA.

Josh Rutledge was acquired from the Rockies after Kendrick was dealt, despite unimpressive numbers outside of Coors (sub-600 OPS last year). Theoretically he can also play SS, but serving as the understudy for the oft-injured Troy Tulowitzki didn’t appear to have rubbed off him in any way. Once the early 2B favorite, he instead appears ticketed for familiar altitude in Salt Lake. His plus-plus hair could give him a shot as the next Angels spokesman for shampoo.

And while we’re all just amateurs here having fun as faux journalists, outfielder Josh Hamilton’s relapse is of course a dicey issue, and any discussion of it is best left to experts like Russell Carleton. An announcement regarding a potential suspension could very well be made by the time you read this. Fans may have mixed feelings upon his return, as would Angels brass, considering the potential savings (he was already to miss 2-3 months due to offseason shoulder surgery).

 

Slow Ride

If you ever get a chance to meet nominal ace Jered Weaver, don’t ask him about his velocity. Just don’t. While the lanky 32-year-old’s blonde locks still flow vigourously, time hasn’t been as kind to his fastball. His slowing mid-/high-80s 2-seamer has annually been a go-to storyline, along with his anti-FIP superpowers, and the fact that he’s a prominent Scott Boras client who accepted an extension (slated to expire after next year). In Weaver’s case, it helped that he grew up in Southern California. It’s also where Boras currently works, resulting in the odd but common sight of Weaver pitching home games with his agent looking on from the dugout seats.

While not quite Fat Player Photo fodder, Weaver added 20 lbs in the off-season, hoping to add some stamina for the long grind. This despite topping 200 IP in 2014 after falling short the previous two seasons. For what it’s worth, his FIP has steadily increased since 2010. After an ERA of 3.59 last year, PECOTA expects a big drop to 3.00. We’re not sure where PECOTA falls on the FPP phenomenon, but the Angels will probably settle for a 2014-like year if the better rotation pieces can do likewise. On a more somber note, if you’re a relatively new fan who’s wondered what Weaver scrawls on the mound before each game, it’s a bit of a sad but touching story, going on six years now.

During his first year as an Angel, your team’s announcers probably spoke of CJ Wilson being something of a Renaissance man. He’s into racing cars, photography, DJing,  writing. His bosses just wish he were better at the one thing he actually gets paid for. Before coming home to play for the Angels, he was the best FA pitcher available, and Pujols was the best FA hitter available. The last time the Angels signed a duo with those labels was the 2003-04 off-season, with Vladimir Guerrero and Bartolo Colon. Guerrero of course became a beloved slugger who actually earned his pay, inevitably resulting in #27 being retired while Trout still wears it on his back. Colon won a Cy Young, followed by two seasons even worse than Wilson’s 2014. Perspective, perhaps.

Wilson has a variety of pitches in his toolbox, and on any given day you’re likely to see him empty out every last screw to see what fits. His BB/9 went from 3.6 to 4.5, while his FIP shot up from 3.51 to 4.31. He could be guilty of thinking too much, and only cemented his reputation as a “nibbler” (one wonders if Wilson and Trout suffer from too much faith in umpires). Projections agree he’ll improve his FIP slightly to 4.00, and Scioscia unsurprisingly has enough faith in the veteran to give him the No. 2 slot in the rotation despite an up-and-down spring.

Matt Shoemaker was expected to just be a back-end rotation option early in 2014. Instead, the undrafted free agent looked like an actual No. 2 in 20 starts, sporting a 3.04 ERA and 1.07 WHIP, good enough for 2nd in ROY voting. Unlike Wilson, he displayed great command, an aversion to walks, and an ability to get the most out of a repertoire that’s deep but not overpowering (particularly a 4-seamer and sinker). Unsurprisingly, projection systems aren’t quite sure what to make of the 28-year-old diamond in the rough, with WARs ranging from 0.3 to 2.9. Beard comps: Brian Wilson, Billy Mays, Damien Sandow.

Hector Santiago was acquired with current Tommy John-victim Tyler Skaggs in the Trumbo deal. Santiago has proved to be a useful swingman. A rocky start in Anaheim was balanced by a strong run in the second half, resulting in a league-average ERA+ overall. Rotation injuries helped him keep getting starts down the stretch, for a total of 24. Santiago got some attention for being perhaps the sole practitioner in the art of the screwball, which some credit to him making the majors, though it seldom saw action with the Angels.

26-year-old Drew Rucinski’s impressive spring would probably have gotten him the fifth spot, had the Angels had one available. Early off-days will be utilized to go with a four-man rotation to start April, though Rucinski ultimately could get his shot in the limelight for a turn or two. Should that happen, he’d join Shoemaker as the rotation’s second undrafted FA, and his stuff appears to be even better, with a 93-MPH four-seamer and various off-speed options.

Not mentioned above was the future staff ace, 26-year-old Garrett Richards, who gave the Anaheim crowd a rare sight last season — a homegrown pitcher actually fulfilling his great potential (the last  one may well have been Weaver). Richards gradually got more and more starts with each new season, finally earning his keep in 2014 with a 139 ERA+ and 1.04 WHIP in 26 starts. Richards benefitted from a 2-tick bump in velocity to his high-90s fastballs and consistent control of a gaudy curve and sharp slider. A mere week after the Angels lost Tyler Skaggs in August, Richards suffered a gruesome leg injury, ending his year. Encouraging updates through spring have him on track for a mid-April return  Like his fellow breakout artist Shoemaker, projections are varied, expecting some regression with a mid-3.00 ERA at worst.

 

Two promising youngsters are expected to eventually make the big league roster this year. One is easy-throwing lefty Andrew Heaney, who was snatched up at the cost of Kendrick. He instantly becomes the top prospect of a still-barren farm system (which hasn’t quite yet shown marked improvement after Dipoto’s organizational overhaul). He has a mid-90s 2-seamer, wicked slider, good change, and a record of great command in the minors thus far. Hopes are that he’ll ultimately serve as a lefty counterpart to Richards at the top of the staff, and be a solid 3 at worst.

The other is former Astro Nick Tropeano who, like Heaney, was freed from a deep system. Despite his 6-4, 200 frame, his best pitch is a change-up, complemented by a low-90s fastball and a decent slider. Tropeano could be a 3 at best.

 

Wheel in the Sky (Keeps on Turning)

Deep, effective bullpens are baseball’s golden fleece, and Dipoto finally completed that quest in 2014. Though it endured a rough start where things didn’t look any better from previous seasons, just about every move seemed to work out as the season went on: prize free agent setup man Joe Smith was reliable (202 ERA+ in 74 IP); rookie late-inning complement Michael Morin didn’t wilt on the big stage (126/59); faith in the inconsistent, hard-throwing Kevin Jepsen paid off (139/65); trade pickup Fernando Salas proved serviceable (108/58); and deadline acquisition Huston Street (258/59 for the year) gave Scioscia a veteran closer he could happily turn to, and actually closed out games.

The biggest coup was the shipping of Ernesto Frieri, the eminently likable closer whose troublesome walk rate finally did him in. In return was another fallen closer, Jason Grilli, who proved to be quite effective (his 93 ERA+ jumped to 142 after the trade).

The group combined for an impressive string of variety pak bullpen games after the losses of Skaggs and Richards. They were led by Wade LeBlanc (now in Japan) and Cory Rasmus (a starter candidate currently on the DL), neither of whom quite managed to go 5 for a W.

For 2015, Jepsen was sold high in a trade for Matt Joyce, and Grilli wasn’t re-signed. Potential young replacements are lefties Jose Alvarez and Cesaro Ramos, and possible future closer Cam Bedrosian. But Street is back for at least this season. Unlike Weaver, he can’t see his agent in the crowd, because he represents himself.

 

Don’t Bring Me Down

After years of an early “fundamentals” reputation, Scioscia can only hope for adequate D from his fielders. The projections don’t look kind, with only Pujols, Calhoun, and Trout expected to be solidly above average. Featherston may take over for Freese late in games. Ditto Cowgill for Joyce. Navarro also has a slick glove but probably won’t get many chances to show it.

 

Turn the Page

Oh, wait, that’s a Mike Scioscia reference, which easily could’ve been “Tip Your Cap.” The famously, if frustratingly, even-keeled manager is also MLB’s longest-tenured. After taking the helm in the year 2000, an early run of regular season successes basically led to a lifetime appointment, with a contract that seems to run longer and longer each time you read about it (it expires 2018). Though saber-minded fans had long been calling for Scioscia’s head, a hugely disappointing 2013 left many wondering if a proverbial “new voice in the clubhouse” was needed. Fans at least got to be intrigued by some of the dramatic behind-the-scenes gossip that leaked out.

Scioscia had other ideas in 2014, even adapting new ideas, as the Angels went 52-29 in the second half, notching their best season since a 100-win 2008. Still, it wasn’t without its headaches, as he stuck Raul Ibanez in the cleanup spot for far too long, until  Dipoto had to once again utilize his eject button, cutting Ibanez and his .523 OPS in June. See also: Frieri. His reverence for Veteran Presence still seems to linger, considering the apparent opening week roles of Freese and Wilson.

In 2014 at least, Scioscia was virtually neutral on the Managerial Meddling Index, perhaps out of some reluctant deference to Dipoto’s newfangled ways.

 

Do It Again

The Angels are widely considered to at least finish in the top two of the AL West. The chic pick is Seattle, while Texas is hampered by injuries once again, and Houston’s still not quite ready for prime time. That leaves Oakland, who seems to be the big wild card (lower case) of the division.

Were it not for a big divisional lead down the stretch, LAA could very well have pushed past 100 wins. So a Kendrick-less drop to a still-good low-90 mark seems reasonable, and optimistic me pins it at 92. PECOTA pegs them at 91, 4 games above Seattle. FanGraphs has them at 87, 1 game behind Seattle.

As for the playoffs, 2014 only reinforced the notion that baseball’s postseason can be a crapshoot, albeit an entertaining one. After an early exit, even Angel fans had no reservations in pulling for the Cinderella Royals. This October is a long way away. But should the Angels get there once again, they can only rely on a certain “old saying,” as immortalized by Gubi’s broadcast colleague, Jose Mota:

 

 

That’s All

 

 

Special thanks to Nick Koss and Nick Strangis for their assistance and contributions.

 

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