RotoWire Partners

2014 Angels Team Preview: Old And New Uncertainty

Christopher Olson

Christopher Olson

Christopher Olson covers the Angels for RotoWire and writes the weekly Draftster MLB and Dominate Your Duel daily games articles for RotoWire.

2014 Los Angeles Angels Team Preview

After winning 89 games in 2012, it's likely that the Angels believed the signing of free-agent slugger Josh Hamilton, combined with a resurgent year from Albert Pujols and perhaps an even better campaign from phenom Mike Trout, would vault them to a 90-plus win season, leaving them in position to take home the second championship in franchise history. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. Hamilton's struggles continued from the second half of 2012, Pujols' season was cut short by plantar fasciitis, and Trout, well, he was fantastic, but it simply wasn't enough, as injuries and ineffectiveness resulted in the Halos posting a 78-84 record last season. How bad was it? Angels' players spent more than 1000 days on the disabled list combined in 2013, and the team sunk under the weight of failed acquisitions on both sides of the ball, as the Angels finished 2013 in the bottom ten of both starter and bullpen ERA.

The Angels' first priority this offseason was offense, as they filled the hole left at third base when they traded Alberto Callaspo to the Athletics for prospect Grant Green at the deadline last season by sending power-hitting prospect Randal Grichuk and Peter Bourjos to the Cardinals in exchange for David Freese and Fernando Salas. With Freese, the Angels upgraded the production they received from the likes of Chris Nelson, Luis Jimenez, and Andrew Romine at third base in the second half of last season. In doing so, however, they traded away perhaps the best defensive outfielder in baseball in Bourjos, leaving Josh Hamilton and Kole Calhoun to man the corners, with Mike Trout patrolling center field next season.

The Angels filled holes in their rotation by sending slugger Mark Trumbo and a player to be named later to the Diamondbacks as part of a three-team trade with the White Sox. The Angels acquired Tyler Skaggs (from Arizona), whom they originally drafted in 2009, and Hector Santiago (from Chicago), while the White Sox received Adam Eaton from the Diamondbacks. In Skaggs and Santiago, the Angels got two left-handed hurlers who are high on strikeouts and low on control. Both have major league service time, but Santiago is clearly the more polished of the two, as he made 23 starts for the White Sox last season. While neither can be said to be a sure thing, they appear to be superior to the in-house rotation options for the Angels.

It may be tough sledding for the Angels again in 2014, as high-priced acquisitions ruled in the AL West, with Shin-Soo Choo, Prince Fielder, and Robinson Cano all finding homes within the division. While calling the division a four-team race may be premature, the Mariners, Athletics, and Rangers have all improved this offseason, meaning the Angels will need their big money talent to produce in order to have a shot at a World Series berth.

Offseason Moves

Lost Juan Gutierrez (Giants), Tommy Hanson (Unsigned), Chris Nelson (Reds), Scott Cousins (Red Sox), Billy Buckner (Unsigned), Barry Enright (Phillies), Jason Vargas (Royals), Ryan Madson (Unsigned), Brad Hawpe (unsigned), Robert Coello (Yankees) and Jerome Williams (Astros) via free agency.

Vargas is pretty clearly the most useful player in this group, as the veteran left-hander had a representative season in 2013, pitching to a 4.02 ERA in between missing nearly two months after getting a blood clot removed from his armpit in late June. While Vargas would have definitely been a stable presence in the back end of the rotation for the Angels in 2014, the team was apparently unwilling to offer him the four-year, $32 million contract he got from the Royals in November.

Signed Wade LeBlanc (Marlins/Astros) to a minor league deal.

It's hard to see much upside in LeBlanc these days, who pitched to a combined 5.40 ERA last season, but he is a lefty who could be an emergency option if the Angels need to fill a rotation spot.

Traded Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk to the St. Louis Cardinals for David Freese and Fernando Salas.

The Angels obviously couldn't go a full season with a collection of minor leaguers in a timeshare at third base, but there is uncertainty that Freese, who had by far the worst season of his career last year as a result of a groundball-heavy batting profile (55.2%), was the best they could have done in a package that included Bourjos. It's true he missed most of last season due to injury, but Bourjos is still relatively young, expected to be healthy in 2014 after having surgery on his wrist in September, and is one of the best speed/defense combinations in the game when he is on the field. Salas will likely compete for a spot as a middle innings reliever, but may continue to struggle if he can't regain the velocity he lost on his fastball last season. Grichuk, who is most famous for being the player selected immediately before Mike Trout in the 2009 draft, has prodigious power potential, but posted just a 5.2% walk rate in Double-A Arkansas last season.

Signed Joe Smith (Indians) to a three-year, $15.75 million deal.

As previously mentioned, the Angels finished in the bottom ten of reliever ERA in 2013, so a bullpen move or two was expected. There is no doubt Smith makes the Halos' pen better in 2014, but I wonder if that money could have been better spent elsewhere. The Angels already had a nasty closer in Ernesto Frieri, a quality setup man in Dane De La Rosa, and with Sean Burnett expected to be ready for spring training, it seems that the Angels were heading into the 2014 season with a pretty good bullpen as is, last year's numbers notwithstanding.

Traded Mark Trumbo and a player to be named later in a three-team deal with Diamondbacks and White Sox for Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs.

Right-handed power was all the rage this winter, and the Angels did a good job flipping Trumbo into two young pitchers with upside. Sure, it's nice to have a player with the ability to hit 35-plus home runs, but there are more concerns about the things Trumbo can't do. Namely: play defense, get on base, and hit for average. Skaggs is nice as a future investment, but it is uncertain how the move will affect the team in 2014, as he has struggled mightily thus far in his major league career, and the Halos' in-house pitching options to fill that spot should he need to be replaced are frightfully thin.

Signed Raul Ibanez a one-year, $2.75 million contract.

In a bid to recoup some of the power lost with the departure of Mark Trumbo, Ibanez was signed with the intention of being the Angels' primary designated hitter. Ibanez wowed the baseball world when he hit 29 home runs in his age-41 season, but it's certainly worth noting that 24 of those home runs came before the All-Star break. Ibanez may have the ability to run into some homers, but his .640 OPS in the second half last year, combined with his ever-advancing age, leads some to believe the Angels may regret having Ibanez as their everyday DH, even at under $3 million.

Signed free-agent Mark Mulder (Cardinals) to a minor league deal.

One of the most intriguing free-agent signings of the offseason, Mulder made the decision to attempt a comeback after discovering a way to hold his hands that would lessen the strain on his shoulder while watching Paco Rodriguez pitch in the playoffs last year. If Mulder can make it back to even half of what he was in his heyday with the Athletics, the Angels may have pulled off a heck of a deal here. Mulder could be quite an insurance policy if one of the young arms in the rotation falters; though there is a question of how many innings he can provide if he does make the big club.

Signed John McDonald (Red Sox) to a minor league deal.

McDonald is a solid defender who can play multiple infield positions, which bodes well for his making the team in a reserve role, considering how much time the Angels' infield spent on the disabled list in 2013.

Signed free-agent Carlos Pena (Astros/Royals) to a minor league deal that will be worth $1 million if he makes the MLB roster out of camp.

It's no secret that Pena is far removed from the 46 home runs he smacked with the Rays in 2007, but he still has his plate selection (13.1% walk rate last season) and could slide into the first base position on days when Albert Pujols needs to rest.

Projected Lineup

1. Erik Aybar, SS
2. Mike Trout, CF
3. Albert Pujols, 1B
4. Josh Hamilton, LF
5. David Freese, 3B
6. Raul Ibanez, DH
7. Howie Kendrick, 2B
8. Kole Calhoun, RF
9. Chris Iannetta/Hank Conger, C

Iannetta fell into a platoon situation with Conger last season after really struggling against righties early in the year. It seems likely that Iannetta has a chance to get his job back full-time, however, as he has a better skillset than Conger. He showcased an elite batting eye last season (17.0% walk rate), and has decent power, but he needs to improve on the .198 batting average he put up against right-handers in 2013. Mike Trout will likely start the year in the two-hole, with manager Mike Scioscia hoping to capitalize on resurgent years from Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols by having Trout on base (and he usually will be) directly in front of them.

Projected Rotation

1. Jered Weaver
2. C.J. Wilson
3. Garrett Richards
4. Hector Santiago
5. Tyler Skaggs

It looks like a good bet that Skaggs starts the year in the Angels rotation, but there's no guarantee he stays there, as he allowed 22 earned runs in 38.2 innings pitched last season. As noted above, relying on Skaggs in 2014 could present a problem, as the backup plan consists of Mark Mulder, Wade LeBlanc, and Joe Blanton. Matt Shoemaker, who impressed in the first major league start of his career in September, may also be in that mix, but as a 27-year-old who pitched to a 4.64 ERA in Triple-A Salt Lake last season, it's difficult to say if he would be considered a serious option. Garrett Richards will enter his first full season as a starter after an impressive second half last season, when he took Blanton's rotation spot after he struggled in July.

Closer: Ernesto Frieri's eye-popping strikeout rates will likely make him a successful closer for years to come, but a spike in his fly-ball rate last season (59.2%) led to a 1.4 HR/9 rate, the highest mark of his career. These struggles led to Frieri sharing the closer's role with Dane De La Rosa for a brief time in August. Frieri reclaimed the job in September, pitching to a 2.84 ERA in the month, which led to general manager Jerry Dipoto anointing him the team's closer for 2014 in November. Although the fly-ball rate spiked in 2013, Frieri's walk rate continued to trend in the right direction, falling to a career-best 3.9/9 last season. Despite his struggles last year, Frieri managed to put up 37 saves, and could be something of a bargain on draft day if prospective owners focus on his 3.80 ERA in 2013.

Key Bullpen Members: Dane De La Rosa was acquired by the Angels from the Rays in March and was able to work his way to the bullpen of the big club after Robert Coello landed on the disabled list. De La Rosa made the most of the opportunity, finishing the year with a 2.86 ERA while throwing 72.1 innings. While he may not have the blistering strikeout ability of Frieri, De La Rosa featured an impressive skill set in 2013, striking out a respectable 8.1 batters per nine while allowing just 0.4 HR/9. De La Rosa may lose his role as the set-up man with the addition of Joe Smith, but he should still factor prominently in the closer discussion if Ernesto Frieri has trouble with the long ball again.

It's not hard to see why the Angels liked Joe Smith this offseason. The reliever put up his third consecutive sub-three ERA season in 2013, and because he was not given a qualifying offer by the Cleveland Indians, his signing did not cost the Angels a draft pick. There are reservations with this move mentioned above, but cost-effectiveness aside, Smith is a groundball pitcher who has the ability to limit home runs, two things the Angels needed from their pen last season. He did have three saves with the Indians last year, and handled lefties well enough that he could get consideration at closer along with Dane De La Rosa if Ernesto Frieri hits another bump in the road.

Sean Burnett will look to have a bounce-back season after a nagging elbow problem led to him throwing just 9.2 innings last year before undergoing season-ending surgery in August. The Angels signed Burnett to a two-year deal coming off a fantastic year for the Nationals in 2012, when he posted a 2.38 ERA in 56.2 innings pitched. Burnett is unlikely to reproduce his stunning walk and strikeout rates from that season, but he can limit homers, and is an extreme groundball pitcher, so he will definitely be an asset in the bullpen if he can stay healthy.

Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:

Is Albert Pujols finally healthy?

Pujols played in just 99 games in 2013 as a result of his plantar fasciitis, putting up the lowest OPS+ of his career (116) last season. Just when it looked like it might be time to wonder how much he had left, however, something happened. Pujols began baseball activities early this offseason, telling media outlets in November his foot was "99.9% healthy". So what changed? Pujols apparently suffered a partial tear of the plantar fascia in July, and by not playing for the rest of the season, has allowed the connective tissue on his foot to reconnect. Even if this is the case, however, fantasy owners are still left to wonder how much of his recent decline is due to injury, and how much is simply a guy who can no longer perform at an elite level.

Can Josh Hamilton be one of the most feared sluggers in the league again?

As mentioned above, Hamilton's second half struggles in 2012 extended into the 2013 season, as the slugger once again posted a tremendously high strikeout rate (24.8%), and his power continued to decline (.182 ISO), resulting in just a .250/.307/.432 batting line, and a 108 OPS+ on the year. Hamilton told media outlets in January that things began to click for him in August, when he noticed that he wasn't driving his hips through the ball as well he had been as a result of surgery he had to correct a sports hernia in November of 2011. It's obviously jumping the gun to say that he's fixed the problem, but he did show improvement in the month of September. Hamilton also said that he's put on some weight this offseason, which should prevent him from overswinging. If you buy into his improvement, it may be time to buy low, but try to be careful about putting too much stock into what we see at the end of the season. It tends to stick out to us because it's the last thing we see before a long layoff, but as far as player performance goes; it's just another stretch of games, isn't it?

Are Jered Weaver's days as an ace coming to an end?

Weaver's 3.27 ERA last season was a bit higher than what we're accustomed to seeing, but certainly nothing to sound the alarm over. His 2013 peripherals, however, are a different story. Weaver's fastball velocity dropped to 86.5 MPH in 2013, the lowest mark of his career. All of Weaver's 2013 numbers come with the caveat that he missed seven weeks after breaking his left (non-pitching) elbow in April, but we aren't talking about one-year radar blips here. Weaver's K/9 has been below league average for the past two seasons, and his fastball velocity has been trending in the wrong direction every year since 2011. He still does some things very well, including limiting walks (2.2 BB/9 last season) and stranding baserunners, but he's been getting hit increasingly harder as his velocity has waned. Though he'll likely still be a good pitcher for a few more years, there is wonder to how much more he can lose before the drop off really starts to affect him.

Strengths

The 2014 Angels bullpen may be one of the best in the league on paper, as with the edition of Joe Smith and the return of Sean Burnett, they now have (at least) four above-average arms in the later innings. With three young pitchers set to open the year in the starting rotation, being able to limit their workload could be a huge plus for the team going forward.

Weaknesses

The depth of the Angels rotation is a bit concerning going into next season. None of the bottom three pitchers on the staff have ever thrown 150 innings in a major league season, and though Skaggs is promising in the long term, his ability to stick in 2014 is questionable. This lack of experience at the back end could mean problems for the rotation this year if Weaver's declining peripherals prevent him from posting another low ERA.

Rising: Garrett Richards - The right-handed Richards got his chance to pitch every fifth day after Joe Blanton was removed from the rotation in July and showed the makings of a promising starting pitcher, posting a 2.8 BB/9 rate and a 3.59 ERA after the All-Star break. While his strikeout rates have dipped since his days in the minors, Richards is a young man with a big frame and a big fastball, which may bode well for future improvement in his strikeout numbers.

Declining: Josh Hamilton - See above.

Sleeper: Kole Calhoun - The outfielder got a chance to log significant time in the majors last season after Albert Pujols was officially shut down in late July, and took full advantage of the opportunity, getting on base at a .343 clip and slugging .482 in the month of August. While it was initally unclear whether Calhoun would get a chance to play in the Angels' crowded outfield going forward, the trade of Peter Bourjos gave Calhoun a clear path to playing time. Calhoun's limited time in the majors last year may lead to some concerns as to whether he can sustain production over a full season, but after slugging .619 in Triple-A Salt Lake last season, it's clear that the Angels felt he was ready to take the next step.

Supersleeper: C.J. Cron - One of the top prospects in the Angels' system, Cron struggled in Double-A Arkansas last season after a promising campaign in High-A Inland Empire in 2012, slugging just .428 in 2013 with an unmanageable 4.1% walk rate. It should be noted, however, that that the park effects at Arkansas suppress offense, specifically power. He went on to have an outstanding Arizona Fall League, hitting .413 with five homers in 80 at-bats. While Cron's plate discipline has yet to develop, he has made a lot of contact early in his career (14.7% strikeout rate last season), which could help him offset his lack of plate selection. Cron gets the nod here because he's a player who could be useful in 2014, as general manager Jerry Dipoto said in December that he would likely see some time in the majors this season to help replace some of the power lost in the Mark Trumbo trade.

Top Prospects

Taylor Lindsey, 2B - A supplemental first-round draft pick for the Angels in 2010, Lindsey showed the hallmarks of a promising prospect in his first season in Double-A Arkansas in 2013, as he increased his walk rate, and improved in the power department en route to a .274/.339/.441 battling line in 566 plate appearances. While there are no immediate plans for the Angels to use Lindsey in 2013 with Howie Kendrick firmly holding down the keystone, the 22-year-old could begin to move through the ranks quickly if he continues to display the combination of power and plate discipline he showed last year.

C.J. Cron, 1B - See Above.

Kaleb Cowart, 3B - Cowart was the first selection for the Angels in the 2010 draft, and was one of the top prospects in the Angels' system coming off of a .452 slugging percentage between Low-A Cedar Rapids and High-A Inland Empire in 2012. Cowart took a backwards step in his promotion to Double-A Arkansas in 2013, however, as he slugged just .301 on the season. There were rumblings prior to the start of last year that Cowart could see time in the major leagues in 2014, but that will almost certainly not be the case after his struggles in 2013. The acquisition of David Freese in the offseason will give him some additional time to develop, but it will be interesting to see how the organization proceeds if Cowart's struggles continue this season.

R.J. Alvarez, RHP - The Angels' first pick in the 2012 draft (third round), Alvarez really turned heads at High-A Inland Empire last season when he struck out 79 batters in 48.2 innings pitched. Perhaps equally as impressive, he allowed only two home runs in the hitter-friendly environment of the California League in 2013. The 22-year-old is expected to move quickly through the Angels' minor league system, and has an outside chance of appearing with the big club in 2014.

Mark Sappington, RHP - A fifth-round pick for the Angels in 2012, Sappington pitched to a 3.45 ERA in time split between High-A Inland Empire and Double-A Arkansas last season. Sappington had issues with control in 2013, (4.7 BB/9), but was able to keep the ball on the ground enough to limit damage. The 23-year-old will start 2014 in Double-A, but could move to Triple-A Salt Lake by mid-season if he can improve his command.