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Angels' Team Preview: Where Do We Go From Here?

Derek VanRiper

Derek VanRiper

Derek is the Senior Baseball Editor for RotoWire.com, where he's been a two-time finalist for the FSWA's Baseball Writer of the Year award, and winner of the Best Football Article on the Web (2009) and Best Baseball Article on the Web (2010) awards. Derek also co-hosts RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio (XM 87, Sirius 210) from 11a-2p ET on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Big things were expected in Albert Pujols' first year with the Angels, but the $250 million man and his new team couldn't recover from a slow start, even with Mike Trout producing one of the finest rookie seasons in MLB history. Although Pujols failed to meet the expectations of many fans, pitching was the real problem for this squad in 2012. Dan Haren and Ervin Santana - now in Washington and Kansas City, respectively - were both surprisingly bad, while C.J. Wilson faded after a strong first half, and the bullpen was a problem area all year long. The bullpen should be improved in 2013, but the starting rotation is still a bit of a question mark following the departures of Haren, Santana, and midseason acquisition Zack Greinke. Luckily for Angels fans, general manager Jerry DiPoto made a slew of moves, and owner Arte Moreno dug into his deep pockets yet again, signing Josh Hamilton to a back-loaded five-year deal that would seem to cement this team's identity as an offensive juggernaut. It's safe to say that anything less than a deep playoff run will be considered a disappointment.

Offseason Moves

Signed OF Josh Hamilton.

Hamilton's April and May (1.185 OPS, .370 AVG, 21 homers) were things of legend (including a four-home run game), and to see that hitter devolve into the .247/.323/.504 version that soon followed in the 401 at-bats after May 25 was a shocking development. Not that Hamilton could keep up with the pace of the first two months, but his continued "swing at anything" approach, and subsequent deep slumps that followed, began to erode his popularity with the fan base and reportedly several teammates as well. The Angels surprisingly gave Hamilton a five-year deal in December, where he will join a strong Anaheim lineup while moving into a pitcher-friendly park for half of his games after enjoying the hitter-friendly confines of Arlington.

Signed RP Ryan Madson.

Madson's one-year deal with the Reds was a disaster after he tore an elbow ligament in spring training and needed Tommy John surgery, missing the entire season. He might have been one of the top three relievers on the market last year, but it's an open question what he'll be able to deliver following the surgery. Many pitchers have come back strong from the surgery, but other high-effort relievers have had to change how they pitch - Jonathan Broxton comes to mind as one example. After signing a one-year deal with the Angels in the offseason, Madson should have a solid role with a chance to overtake Ernesto Frieri as the team's closer if he can stay healthy and produce.

Signed RP Sean Burnett.

Burnett lost some steam on his fastball last year, but instead of that hurting his performance his numbers soared. A 1.9 BB/9 rate cures a lot of ills, but so does a ridiculous 84.6 percent strand rate, and if either of those numbers slip (and the strand rate pretty much has to) Burnett could be in for a tough 2013. He turned down an option with the Nationals to go hunting for a long-term deal this offseason, and the Angels signed him to a two-year deal to work in a setup role. He had surgery to remove a bone spur from his left elbow in October, but is expected to be healthy in spring training.

Acquired SP Tommy Hanson from the Braves in exchange for RP Jordan Walden.

Hanson was one of the best young pitchers in baseball from 2009-11, but injury issues in the middle of 2011 began to erode his standing as a cornerstone of the Atlanta rotation. He suffered through a small rotator cuff tear in the later half of 2011 and had to re-work his delivery to reduce stress on his shoulder. Injury concerns cropped up again in 2012, and after finishing the year with a 4.48 ERA, he was traded in the offseason to the Angels for Jordan Walden. Moving to the American League obviously raises some concerns, but with an excellent team behind him in a pitcher's park, a rebound to his previous three-year levels is possible if he can put to rest concerns about his shoulder and overall health.

Acquired SP Jason Vargas from the Mariners in exchange for DH Kendrys Morales.

After consecutive years of absurdly low home-run rates – even more so considering his high flyball rates – Vargas normalized a bit in 2012, an ominous sign that was masked by Safeco Field, good defense, and luck. While Vargas' HR/9 rate ballooned to 1.45 last season (0.84, 0.99 the previous two years) and his HR/FB percent to 12.8 (6.1, 7.7), most of the damage was done on the road as spacious Safeco Field gave up just nine long balls in 98.2 innings. That resulted in a 2.74/4.78 home/road ERA split, but that's not the full story. Vargas' FIP (4.80) was nearly a full run higher than his ERA (3.85), and he stranded a career-high 73.8 percent of runners while posting a career-low .260 BABIP. Vargas' home protection will be reduced this year as he was traded to Anaheim in December for Kendrys Morales. If his luck changes too, he'll be in for tough times. His skill set remains a risky one to own despite the likelihood of improved run support and a very good outfield defense playing behind him in Anaheim.

Acquired RP Brandon Sisk from the Royals in exchange for SP Ervin Santana.

The Angels were hesitant to sign off on Santana's one-year, $13 million team option, so they flipped him for Sisk, a 27-year-old relief pitcher who has yet to appear in a major league game. Sisk will bolster organizational depth, but he isn't a major part of the Angels' plans in 2013, and the trade was really just about the Angels wanting to get something for Santana instead of letting him walk.

Re-Signed SP Joe Blanton.

Blanton was traded from Philadelphia to Los Angeles in August, where he provided 10 starts of 4.99 ERA ball. Overall, what stands out about his season are solid ratios (7.8 K/9, 1.6 BB/9) and a whopping 29 home runs allowed. Blanton's control is admirable, but in addition to the home runs, he's allowed more hits than innings pitched in each of the last seven seasons. After signing a two-year deal with the Angels in December, Blanton is worth taking a chance on in deeper formats given the defense behind him and pitcher-friendly home park, but do not be surprised if his strikeout rate slips with the move back to the AL.

Signed IF/OF Bill Hall, IF Brendan Harris, RP Hiroyuki Kobayashi, SP Robert Coello, 3B Jimmy Swift, RP Fernando Cabrera, RP Brandon Hynick, OF J.B. Shuck, OF Trent Oeltjen, SP Billy Buckner, C Luke Carlin, OF Matt Young, 2B/SS Luis Rodriguez, and RP Mitch Stetter.

All of these non-roster invitees will have an uphill battle to make the big league squad for Opening Day, although Brendan Harris and Bill Hall both offer a combination of versatility and experience. The Angels are set with their starters at every position, meaning that competition in spring training will either be the result of injuries or center around backup spots.

Projected Lineup

1. Mike Trout, LF
2. Erick Aybar, SS
3. Albert Pujols, 1B
4. Josh Hamilton, RF
5. Mark Trumbo, DH
6. Howie Kendrick, 2B
7. Alberto Callaspo, 3B
8. Peter Bourjos, CF
9. Chris Iannetta, C

The Angels appear to have their starting nine locked in, so what remains to be seen is how Mike Scioscia will put the pieces together. Normally a player with Mike Trout's power would move out of the leadoff spot at some point, but Trout did so well in the role last year that it's hard to imagine the Angels' skipper putting him anywhere else early on. Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton will occupy the third and fourth slots in the lineup, while the two-hole could either be up for grabs, or perhaps subject to some kind of rotation. Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar are the most obvious candidates to bat second, but Peter Bourjos could be an intriguing option if Scioscia wants to go speed-heavy at the top of the lineup.

Projected Rotation

1. Jered Weaver
2. C.J. Wilson
3. Jason Vargas
4. Tommy Hanson
5. Joe Blanton

Swapping out Dan Haren and Ervin Santana for Jason Vargas and Tommy Hanson might have sounded like a downgrade at this time a year ago, but it made sense after Haren and Santana both put together calamitous campaigns in 2012. C.J. Wilson will try to rebound from an elbow injury and a lousy finish to his first season in Los Angeles, while Jered Weaver remains a legitimate ace and is the only Angels pitcher without any major question marks. Garrett Richards is expected to start the year in the bullpen or at Triple-A Salt Lake, but he looks to be the sixth starter, and could replace one of these guys before the season is over.

Closer: Ernesto Frieri - Frieri was masterful after coming over from the Padres in an early-season trade last year, but there are some concerns about his job security going forward. Manager Mike Scioscia was quick to shift to a closer-by-committee after Frieri slipped up a couple of times late in the season, and while Frieri actually responded by finishing on a high note, it's interesting that Scioscia had such a short leash for a player who was in the midst of a fantastic season. The acquisition of Ryan Madson gives the Angels another option to close games if Frieri struggles, but this really should be Frieri's job to lose after he managed to strike out 98 batters over only 66 innings last season.

Key Bullpen Members: New acquisitions Ryan Madson and Sean Burnett look to be the top options for handling the high-leverage innings in front of Frieri, although holdovers Scott Downs and Kevin Jespen could factor in there as well.

Notes of Import, Fantasy And Otherwise:

What will Mike Trout do for an encore?

You've probably heard about Trout's rookie season by now, but just in case, let's provide a quick reminder: He produced a .326/.399/.564 batting line with 30 homers, a league-leading 129 runs scored, 83 RBI, and a league-leading 49 steals. He did all of that while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense and despite spending the first month of the season in the minors. His skill set can best be defined as "flawless", although if you had to pick one flaw he could perhaps strike out a bit less often. Of course, he's still only 21 years old, and based on his minor league numbers and age, there is reason to believe that Trout could cut down on his 21.8 percent strikeout rate going forward. He'll need to do that in order to be an annual competitor for the batting title since his .383 BABIP is probably unsustainable even for an incredible once-in-a-generation talent like Trout. Getting away from the nit-picking, his combination of speed and power is unmatched and he'll be the odds-on favorite to win the AL stolen-base crown this year, as well as a possible co-favorite (along with Miguel Cabrera) to take home MVP honors. Outside of some potential regression in batting average, there is nothing to indicate that Trout is headed for a significant “sophomore slump,” and he should live up to his promise as a first-round fantasy pick if he stays healthy.

Was the second half of 2012 the beginning of the end for Josh Hamilton, or just a slump?

Hamilton's ridiculous hot streak was arguably the biggest story in all of baseball towards the beginning of the 2012 season, but public perception of the talented slugger swung the other way by the end of the year. It seemed like the stretch of dominance contributed to some bad habits going forward, namely swinging for the fences without a care for anything else. That approach may be endearing when you're talking about a guy like Juan Uribe, but as the leading man in the Texas lineup, more was expected of Hamilton. His struggles even extended to the field, and his dropped pop-up against the A's is the most memorable image of the 2012 Rangers' collapse. Some fans went so far as to blame his struggles on an attempt to stop using chewing tobacco, indicating that it was selfish for Hamilton to tinker with his successful approach in the middle of a season. That might be taking things a bit too far, but in any case, Hamilton will have to put it all behind him as he suits up for the rival Angels. His shortened career could mean that there is less wear-and-tear on his body than you would normally see with a player his age, but it's also possible that Hamilton's interesting past will lead to a less favorable aging curve. There aren't many historical comparisons here, so go ahead and take your best guess. One thing that you can probably count on seeing this year is a highly motivated Hamilton. He can't be happy about how things ended in Texas, and will now have a perfect chance to prove himself from the other side of a budding rivalry. That extra motivation may not make up for aging and a move away from hitter-friendly Arlington, but it certainly shouldn't hurt.

Will Jered Weaver continue his dominance despite declining strikeout rates?

Weaver finished third in the 2012 AL Cy Young voting after going 20-5 with a 2.81 ERA, league-leading 1.02 WHIP, and 142:45 K:BB ratio over 30 starts and 188.2 innings. The 142 strikeouts were a disappointment, as was his 6.8 K/9, but Weaver's other numbers left fantasy owners with nothing to complain about and he finished in the top-five of the AL Cy Young voting for the third year in a row. Such a low ERA and WHIP would normally be unsustainable for a pitcher with a pedestrian strikeout rate, but Weaver is a flyball specialist who benefits from the spacious Angel Stadium and an outfield that will include defensive studs Mike Trout and Peter Bourjos. While the Angels would surely like to see Weaver improve his velocity and strikeout numbers after consecutive years of decline, he should be fine so long as he can put a halt to the downward trend.

Can Ernesto Frieri hold on to the closer job?

Frieri was fantastic as a setup man for two years before taking the next step in 2012, and he didn't allow a run in his first 26.1 innings with the Angels after coming over from San Diego in an early-season trade. He fell off a bit as the year went on despite walking fewer batters late in the season, and finished with 98 strikeouts and 30 walks in 66 innings. Much of his success was due to an increased reliance on his two-seam fastball, as the pitch helped Frieri make the leap from setup man to closer. He threw the two-seamer 13.6 percent of the time with an average velocity of 92.5 mph during the 2011 season, but upped those numbers to 31.9 percent and 94.3 mph last year. After holding down the closer job for most of the season, Frieri was moved into a closer-by-committee role in September, but he responded surprisingly well and shouldn't face any real threat from the other members of that committee, Kevin Jepsen and Scott Downs. It's newcomer Ryan Madson who is expected to challenge Frieri, although who knows what we'll get from Madson, at least initially. He missed the entire 2012 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery and is currently on track to return in April.

Strengths

A lineup that features three legitimate superstars and another guy, Mark Trumbo, with the potential to get there. An excellent defense, particularly in the outfield where Peter Bourjos and Mike Trout roam. The Angels also boast a true ace in Jered Weaver, and an improved bullpen.

Weaknesses

A rotation full of question marks behind Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. A weak farm system that will make it hard to pull off any big trades.

Rising: Mark Trumbo - Trumbo's numbers before the All-Star break in 2012: A .306/.358/.609 batting line with 22 homers, 42 runs, 57 RBI, and 65 strikeouts in 288 at-bats. Trumbo's numbers after the All-Star break: .227/.271/.359 with 10 homers, 24 runs, 38 RBI, and 88 strikeouts in 256 at-bats. He didn't hit a lick for two months despite getting regular at-bats, striking out an incredible 67 times in a stretch of 155 at-bats from the end of July to the middle of September. Of course, he was an absolute monster in the first half of the season, which allowed him to finish the year with a .268/.317/.491 line and 32 home runs despite his horrid slump. What's most likely is that the real Trumbo is somewhere between the two different players we saw last year, which means that his 2012 numbers could actually be a decent indicator of what to expect in 2013 despite the wild variations throughout the year. He may never be a player who hits for a high average or draws many walks, but Trumbo still hasn't made the most of his tremendous raw power. .

Declining: Albert Pujols - Pujols got off to a slow start for the second year in a row and finished the season with what were easily the worst numbers of his career despite turning things around about one quarter of the way through the year. Although his numbers were still excellent by the standards of nearly any other player, Pujols set career-lows in home runs, runs, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. The peripherals back up the numbers, as Pujols' strikeout rate of 11.3 percent was his highest since his rookie season, and his home run and walk rates (4.5% and 7.8%, respectively) were the lowest marks of his career. The good news is that Pujols should enter the season relatively healthy after undergoing a minor arthroscopic procedure on his knee in October, and he figures to improve a bit in his second season with the Angels, especially if he can avoid a slow start. Pujols' run as the best hitter in baseball has likely come to an end, but he still figures to be one of the top producers at first base this season, even if he is no longer in the same class as reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera. Although he very well may improve on his 2012 numbers, the long-term trend here is clear, as even legends like Pujols have to start slipping at some point.

Sleeper: Erick Aybar - Aybar will never be mistaken for a superstar, but he's an incredibly consistent player with no obvious flaws who seems to fly under the radar every year. After setting career highs in home runs, runs and RBI in 2011, he regressed a bit in 2012, but partially made up for it with a .290 batting average that represented his best mark since 2009. He offers strong offensive production for a defensive-minded shortstop, batting .283 with per-season averages of 140 games played, seven homers, 69 runs, 48 RBI and 21.5 steals over the past four years. Those numbers won't make him a highly sought after commodity on draft day, but he should be a nice fallback option for anybody who misses out on the name-brand shortstops. Fantasy owners will also want to consider the possibility that Aybar holds down the No. 2 spot in the lineup. He moved all over the order last season, and would see a significant increase in fantasy value if he gets to hit between Mike Trout and Albert Pujols/Josh Hamilton.

Supersleeper: Garrett Richards - Richards started nine games for the Angels last season and made 21 appearances out of the bullpen, compiling a 4.69 ERA and 47:34 K:BB over 71 innings. He was considered to be the best pitching prospect in the organization at one point, but it may be time to re-evaluate that given his low strikeout rates in the major leagues and upper levels of the minors. Despite the worrisome numbers, one also has to consider how quickly Richards has been rushed through the Angels' system, tossing just 143 innings at Double-A and 77 innings at Triple-A. Richards is likely to begin the season at Triple-A after the Angels acquired several veteran starters, but he should be the first pitcher called up if there's an opening. That sixth starter role could lead to 20-plus starts over the course of the season, and even if Richards isn't anything special as a pitcher, he'll be backed by an excellent roster and could thus provide value in some leagues.

Top Prospects

Kaleb Cowart, 3B - Cowart, the 18th pick in the 2010 draft, put up a .276/.358/.452 line across two levels (Low-A and High-A) last season, and made 16 errors in 125 games at the hot corner after compiling 16 errors in only 66 games of rookie league play during the 2011 season. Cowart has enough plate discipline and raw power to stick at the hot corner if he can continue to make strides defensively, and he's one of the better prospects in the Angels' organization. He should make it to Double-A before the end of the season if he doesn't start the year there, but is still probably at least two years away from making a significant impact in the majors. Look for him to arrive in late 2013 at the absolute earliest, with a 2014 or 2015 debut more likely.

C.J. Cron, 1B - Cron was the 17th overall pick in the 2011 draft and had an impressive showing at High-A Inland Empire last season after tearing up the rookie league the year before. He hit 27 homers and only struck out 72 times in 557 plate appearances for Inland Empire, but the Angels have to be concerned that he only managed to draw 17 walks all year. As promising of a talent as Cron is, he may stall out if he doesn't improve his plate discipline in the coming years. If he's able to do that, the sky is the limit for the 6-foot-4, 225-pound, 23-year-old slugger. Just don't expect to see him with the Angels this year.

Nick Maronde, SP - The Angels picked Maronde up in the third round of the 2011 draft, and he's been an incredibly pleasant surprise for the organization thus far. Amazingly enough, he began the 2012 season in the rookie league, but actually made 12 appearances for the big league squad by the end of the year, striking out seven batters and allowing only one run in six innings. Despite the impressive stint in the bullpen, Maronde figures to open the season in the starting rotation of either the Angels' Double-A or Triple-A affiliate. If he continues to progress quickly, he could join the big league starting rotation for the 2014 season or even make a few spot starts before the end of this year.