This article is part of our MLB Team Previews series.
2015 Angels Team Preview: We Are The Champions?
Despite being swept in the ALDS at the hands of the Kansas City Royals, it's hard to look at the Angels' 2014 season as anything other than a success. After all, they captured the AL West crown by winning 98 games, eclipsing their total from the previous year by 20 games. They got breakout performances from two young pitchers, built one of the best bullpens in the American League, and even received something of a rebound performance from Albert Pujols, who swatted 28 home runs with 105 RBI in 159 games. So why does it feel like the Angels have an uphill climb heading into 2015?
One reason may be that the Halos did not make it out of 2014 unscathed, as one of the aforementioned breakout stars - Garrett Richards - was sidelined for the rest of the season after a patellar tendon tear in a game against the Red Sox on Aug. 20, while promising young pitcher Tyler Skaggs will miss the entire 2015 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Outfielder Josh Hamilton also battled injuries last year, playing in just 89 games before ultimately having surgery to repair the AC joint in his right shoulder in February. While both Richards and Hamilton could be ready early in the season, the replacements will need to be ready to perform if either timetable is extended.
Finally, the team said goodbye to long-time second baseman Howie Kendrick, who was shipped off to the Dodgers, leaving a four-player position battle in his wake. None of this necessarily spells doom for the Angels, as PECOTA projections are calling for the team to repeat as division champions, but they will need to get the most out of new arrivals and homegrown talent to pick up the slack for the injured and departed.
Heaney was highly touted last season for his success at the minor-league level, as the former-first round pick tallied a 2.47 earned-run average and 79 strikeouts in 76.2 innings between Double-A and Triple-A prior to his call up in June, but failed to produce as a member of the Marlins, notching a 5.83 ERA in seven games (five starts), which ultimately led to a trade to the Dodgers before being sent to the Angels. Heaney will compete for the fifth starter's job out of spring training along with acquisition Nick Tropeano and Hector Santiago, but Heaney's impressive minor league pedigree could give him a leg up in the competition.
Signed by the Astros as an undrafted free agent, Perez didn't hit for much power in the minor leagues, but kept a .274 batting average and .346 OBP in 1,738 at-bats. General Manager Jerry Dipoto told MLB.com that the organization is comfortable with incumbent catcher Chris Iannetta playing 110-115 games at the position, which could leave significant time for whoever is anointed No. 2 on the depth chart. Tropeano posted an unimpressive 4.57 ERA over 21.2 innings in his first cup of coffee with the Astros in 2014, but owns a solid minor league resume, striking out 479 batters in 470 innings en route to a 3.26 ERA. Both Tropeano and Heaney are successful minor league pitchers who are looking to make the next leap, which could make for an interesting competition in spring training.
There are four candidates in total that could win the reserve backstop position out of spring training, with the others being Jett Bandy and Jackson Williams, but Butera and Perez are likely the frontrunners. Butera is the very definition of a defense-first catcher, as he has slugged just .268 in 733 career plate appearances.
Joyce's strength as a major leaguer has always been his ability to mash right-handed pitching, but that skill abandoned him in 2014, as he posted just a .393 slugging percentage in 384 at-bats against his opposite hand. Initially acquired to split time in a platoon role with C.J Cron at DH, Joyce will now begin the season co-occupying left field with Colin Cowgill after the injury to Josh Hamilton.
Rutledge is the most experienced of the applicants for the vacant second base position, but spent most of his innings in 2014 at shortstop, as Troy Tulowitzki was limited to just 91 games as the result of a torn labrum in his left hip. If Rutledge could show signs of becoming the player who slugged .469 in 73 games with the Rockies in 2012, he could be an intriguing fantasy option, but he posted a career-high strikeout rate (24.3 percent) in 342 plate appearances last season, which likely doesn't bode well for future success.
Acquired 2B Taylor Featherston from the Cubs for cash considerations
A Rule-5 Draft pick by the Cubs, Featherston has shown plate discipline and hit for power at every level he has been exposed to, though it is worth noting he has spent the majority of his time in moderate-to -severe hitter-friendly environments as a member of the Rockies farm system from 2011 to 2014. If his power can play in the spacious environment of Angels' stadium he could have a chance to get some time at second base.
The Angels parted with the struggling prospect in exchange for a right-now piece for the bullpen, as Ramos will become the top lefty in relief in 2015. Ramos struggled in the first half of 2014, but came on strong after the All-Star break, posting a 2.66 ERA with 17 strikeouts in 20.1 innings. Ramos does not have a standout tool, but is able to be used against right and left-handers, as he logged 82.2 innings for the Rays last season.
Acquired 2B Johnny Giovatella from the Royals for RHP Brian Broderick
Giovatella has shown promise in the minor leagues, having posted a career OBP of .378 and 93 stolen bases in seven seasons, but has not produced during his short stint in the show, posting just a .611 OPS in 125 games. Given how open the keystone position is for the Halos this season, Giovatella could get his first real shot to be an everyday player if he is able to translate his tools to the highest level.
RF Kole Calhoun
CF Mike Trout
1B Albert Pujols
LF Matt Joyce/Collin Cowgill
3B David Freese
DH C.J Cron
SS Erick Aybar
2B Josh Rutledge/Grant Green/Taylor Featherston/Johnny Giovatella
C Chris Iannetta
As you can see, injuries and acquisitions have left a bit of a mess in the starting nine. It's a safe bet that Cowgill won't be in the cleanup spot when he draws into the lineup, possibly being replaced by Pujols, with Trout moving to the three-hole.
Grant Green is the only potential second baseman we have yet to talk about, While he has consistently put up numbers in the minors, the former-first round pick has yet to show power in the big leagues, as he owns just two home runs in 249 career at-bats, and walked a grand total of two times in 103 plate appearances last season, which could limit him to a reserve role going forward.
I've thrown Richards in the mix for the time being, as he is still hopeful to be ready for Opening Day, but if he is unable to take the mound for a few rotations, that list could easily include Nick Tropeano or Hector Santiago as a replacement. Santiago had stretches of quality outings as a starter last season, finishing with a 4.05 ERA in 24 games, but his fastball velocity has dipped each year since his debut in 2011, culminating in a strikeout rate below 20 percent last season.
Closer: After Ernesto Frieri's home run issues became his undoing; the Angels gave up two significant pieces of their farm system to acquire Huston Street from the San Diego Padres. While some questioned the wisdom of the move, there was no arguing with the results, as Street completed his second consecutive excellent season, tallying a 1.71 ERA and 17 saves in 26.1 innings as a member of the Halos. Fortune has smiled upon Street the last two seasons, as he's posted incredible strand rates of 99.5 and 93.3 percent, respectively, and while it is almost a certainty that neither of those numbers will show up again, Street was able to increase his strikeout rate and cut his walk rate from the previous year, and looks primed for another successful season in 2015.
Key Bullpen Members: The Angels' pen got an overhaul in this summer with the acquisitions of Street and Jason Grilli, taking them from a bottom-half bullpen according to ERA in the first half to a top-ten bullpen in the second half. While Grilli was signed by the Braves in December, the Angels will still feature quality arms that will look to build the bridge to their closer in 2015.
Joe Smith enjoyed his most successful season in the majors in his first year with the Angels, posting career-best marks in ERA (1.81) and walk rate (1.81). While the ERA was undoubtedly influenced by a .214 BABIP, the 30-year-old's peripherals have been trending in the right direction, as he has now lowered his walk rate two consecutive seasons while increasing his strikeout rate three years in a row. Unfortunately Smith's save opportunities will be few and far between barring injury, but he could still be a nice addition in leagues that register holds.
Mike Morin entered the big leagues in style last season after being selected in the 13th round of the 2012 draft, as he notched a 2.90 ERA with 54 strikeouts in 59 innings. Morin's ability to keep hitters off balance likely has something to do with his ability to change speeds, as his fastball in 2014 averaged 91.6, while his changeup came in at 73.2. Morin will likely reprise his role in the middle innings this season as he look to build on an excellent campaign.
Initially thought of as a secondary piece in the acquisition of David Freese from the Cardinals, Fernando Salas righted the ship in 2014 after back-to-back disappointing seasons, producing a 3.38 ERA in 58.2 innings. Salas was able to return to the strikeout and walk rates that accompanied his breakout season in 2011, as he struck out 61 batters in 58.2 innings last year, while walking just 14. If he can stay on track, the Angels may have gotten quite the Bargain in Salas, as they parted with an extra man their outfield in Peter Bourjos as part of the 2-for-2 swap.
Notes of Import, Fantasy or Otherwise:
Shoemaker and Richards came into the major leagues on opposite ends of the prospect spectrum, as one didn't pitch in his first major league game until he was 27, while the other is a former first round-pick, but they both had fantastic seasons in 2014. In Richards the Angels got what they expected after they selected him in the supplemental first round of the 2009 draft, as the flamethrower actually gained some speed on his fastball, aiding in a 24.2 percent strikeout rate and a 2.61 ERA. The inevitable question for Richards is how the 26-year-old will rebound after the extended layoff. While there is no way to know for sure, the fact that he is targeting Opening Day after he was expected to miss up to nine months due to suffering the injury seems like a good sign.
Shoemaker capitalized on an opportunity created by the struggles of Hector Santiago in April, and was able to stay on the radar for most of the season. While it is true that Shoemaker's peripherals last season seem like an anomaly when looking at his minor league numbers, it's encouraging that his FIP, xFIP, and ERA are within less than a quarter of a point of each other, which is a good indicator that his results were in line with what we should have expected to see. While I have doubts that he can post a walk rate of 4.4 percent in 2014, his strikeout numbers could remain fairly steady, making him a nice late-round buy on draft day.
Can the Angels survive the audition at Second Base?
Howie Kendrick will make $9.5 million in the final year of his contract in 2015, so it made some sense to try to unload for a young player, particularly one with such impressive credentials. Having said that, it seems that the Angels are hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. Despite a down year in the power department in 2014, Kendrick tallied a 4.6 WAR, while none of the players competing for his former job have tallied a higher score than 0.3 in a single season. It will likely become a question of how that gap gets filled, as none of the candidates seem major-league ready at this point in their careers.
What can we expect from Albert Pujols this season?
Those proclaiming the demise of Pujols were forced to take notice in April, as he produced a .934 OPS with nine home runs in 107 at-bats. The 34-year-old's production vacillated for much of the rest of the season while he dealt with minor ailments. It seems clear that Pujols is unlikely to regain his status as the best hitter in baseball, as his walk rate reached a career-low 6.9 percent, and he failed to tally a .200 ISO for the second consecutive year. But prospective owners may have hope yet, as he said in November that he will head into spring training with a healthy right knee for the first time since 2012. Even if the former king never returns to greatness, a potential 30/100 threat is nothing to sneeze at, particularly if his ceiling has the chance to be a bit higher.
One thing a great bullpen can do is strengthen a questionable rotation. With the Angels having to potentially start the season with multiple pitchers who have yet to log significant innings at the major league level, the ability to shorten their runs to six innings on some nights will help keep them fresh down the stretch, as well as limit the opportunity an opposing offense has to score runs.
As much as the rotation was a strength last season, it has some major holes that have been created by injury and ineffectiveness. Jered Weaver's ERA reached its highest mark since 2009 last season (3.59), resulting in the lowest WAR of his career at 1.5. With his velocity continuing to decrease, along with C.J. Wilson having to bounce back from a season which saw him post his highest walk rate since 2008 (11.2), it raises the question as to what might happen if Richards is not ready for Opening Day, or if Heaney doesn't put it all together.
Another weakness could be the starting lineup, particularly if Josh Hamilton is not healthy to open the season. I don't necessarily dislike the idea of platooning Cowgill and Joyce, but that means relying on Cron to produce from both sides of the plate, while also hoping that whoever wins the job at second base can put together a representative season. That may be one worry too many for a team whose goal is to defend their division title.
Rising:Kole Calhoun didn't quite have the season prospective fantasy owners were hoping for after his breakout year in 2013, as his walk rate went from 9.5 to 7.1 percent, and he swiped just five bases in 127 games, but he has been upgraded to a rising stock in 2014 because he once again showed us that the power is real, logging a .178 ISO, and finishing with a final line of .272/.325/.450. Calhoun was placed in a platoon for part of the season due to struggles against lefties, but he was still able to get 537 at-bats. I think there is a good chance we will see more from Calhoun on the basepaths in 2015, as he missed more than a month in April after injuring his ankle while breaking down his stride to first base, which may have hindered his output throughout the season. Calhoun appears set to reprise his role at the top of the lineup, which can once again mean runs scored hitting in front of Mike Trout and Albert Pujols.
Declining:Jered Weaver- In some ways, Weaver stemmed the tide after his poor season in 2013, as the drop in his fastball velocity was negligible, he raised his strikeout rate, and he threw more ground balls. So what was the problem? His HR/9 rate rose for the third consecutive season, while his walk rate jumped to 7.3 percent. This led to a 3.59 ERA, his highest such mark since 2009. I was a bit more reserved when speaking of Weaver last year, but if he continues to slip in the areas that have sustained his relevance during his decline, it may be difficult to find value in him going forward.
Sleeper- Matt Shoemaker: See Above
Supersleeper:Andrew Heaney- The prospect of Heaney logging a full compliment of innings in 2015 should be enough to make any discerning owner interested, as his struggles after his introduction to the league last season have likely extinguished much of the fire that came with news of his arrival. Heaney doesn't have a fastball like Matt Harvey, as he averaged just 90.4 in the majors last season, but he is a strike thrower with good ball movement who relies on deception. While a move straight to the American League could make things a bit tense in the early going, his early ADP is trending somewhere in the 300s, which could make him a more than worthwhile play if even half of the upside he showed in the minors comes to fruition.
Andrew Heaney: See Above
Sean Newcomb, LHP- The 15th overall pick by the Angels in the 2014 draft, Newcomb was promoted quickly from Rookie ball to Low-A Burlington, but struggled in his time there, posting a 6.94 ERA in 11.2 innings, despite striking out 15 batters over that span. Newcomb is considered a high-ceiling prospect, as he has a repertoire that consists of four pitches, including a mid-90s fastball and a curveball, which could develop into a plus offering. Newcomb has shown some control problems early in his career, as he walked six batters in his first 14.2 innings of professional baseball, but he has also shown an ability to make adjustments, as he was able to lower his walk rate from 4.6 BB/9 in 2013 to 3.7 BB/9 during his final season at the University of Hartford.
Cam Bedrosian, RHP- Hailed as a top-10 prospect in the Angels' organization heading into the 2014 season, Bedrosian made quick work of Double-A Arkansas, notching a 1.13 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 24 innings before being promoted to the big club in June. Bedrosian would not see that type of success for the rest of the season, however, as he allowed 17 runs in 19 major league innings and allowed six runs in eight appearances after a demotion to Triple-A Salt Lake. Bedrosian has got swing-and-miss stuff, as evidenced by his career 9.7 K/9 in 202.2 minor league innings, but he will need to get his walks under control before he will be able to succeed at the major league level.
Chris Ellis, RHP - A third-round pick by the Angels in the 2014 amateur draft, Ellis had his first crack at Rookie ball in 2014, and did not fare well, allowing 12 earned runs and giving up eight walks in 15.2 innings. The walks for Ellis are part of an ongoing problem he has experienced throughout his young career, as he posted a 3.3 BB/9 in 169 innings at Ole Miss. Ellis finished his collegiate career on the uptick, posting a 2.55 ERA in his final 19 games, but the 22-year-old will need to work on his command if he hopes to ascend through the minor leagues.
Joey Gatto, RHP - The 53rd overall selection in the 2014 draft, Gatto has the ability to reach 95 miles per hour with his fastball, but can sometimes have trouble controlling his curveball and changeup. While Angels scouting director Ric Wilson referred to Gallo as "unpolished" he added that he likes the right-hander's ability to "throw the ball downhill." Gatto found success in his final high school season, notching a 0.94 ERA with 65 strikeouts in 52.1 innings as a senior, but tallied just a 5.33 ERA in time split between the Orem Owlz and Arizona Angels in 2014.