Wait 'til next year.
The Angels' modus operandi in recent years has been simple and successful: pitching and more pitching. It didn't work last year, though - they finished 89-73, four games behind Oakland.
What happened? For one thing, the Angels were startlingly underefficient for a speedy, small-balling team. They actually finished a whopping eight games ahead of the A's in the third-order standings, but you'd never guess that from their unspectacular 766-732 run differential. Only the Royals, Rays and M's scored fewer runs than the Halos. And although Anaheim's pitching staff allowed the lowest GPA in the AL, they still only finished fourth in run prevention. Still, the third-order record indicates that if the Angels simply duplicate their individual performances from last year, they should be in a very strong position to make the playoffs. Easier said than done, naturally.
Let's meet the team. There aren't too many new faces, but they are listed in boldface in case they don't jump out at you for some reason. Here is the likely opening day lineup:
CF Gary Matthews Jr.
SS Orlando Cabrera
RF Vladimir Guerrero
LF Garret Anderson
DH Shea Hillenbrand
1B Casey Kotchman
C Mike Napoli
2B Howie Kendrick
3B Chone Figgins
Here is the bench:
C Jose Molina!
1B Kendry Morales
IF Maicer Izturis
UT Robb Quinlan
Here are the cheerleaders:
DL: Juan Rivera, nursing a rather peccably-timed broken leg from winterball that will keep him out until June/Julyish; Bartolo Colon, enjoy your walk year!
Here are the pitchers:
Rotation: John Lackey, Kelvim Escobar, Ervin Santana, Jered Weaver, Joe Saunders, (Bartolo Colon)
Bullpen: K-Rod, Scot Shields, Justin Speier, Hector Carrasco, Darren Oliver, Phil Seibel, callups
Here are the departed:
Brendan Donnelly (traded to Boston for Seibel), Adam Kennedy (signed by St. Louis), Kevin Gregg (traded to Florida), Darin Erstad (signed by White Sox), J.C. Romero (signed with Boston), Tim Salmon (retired).
Here is the manager:
And here are the seven deadly flaws that will keep this team out of the playoffs:
1. Shea Hillenbrand
2. They don't get on base
Last year's Angels finished 10th in the AL in OBP with a dazzling .334, ahead of the Three Doormats and the Tigers. (The Tigers finished 5th in SLG and hit a ton of homers, which helps to explain why they made the World Series and the Angels didn't.) Those Angels also had the benefit of full seasons from Juan Rivera (.365 OBP) and Maicer Izturis (.362). Rivera will be missing for at least half a year due to the aforementioned broken leg, and Izturis doesn't figure to play much more than half the time, bumped from the lineup by Gary Matthews.
In this year's lineup, Vladimir Guerrero should be somewhere in the .380s, effective part-timers Rivera, Izturis and Mike Napoli possibly somewhere around .350 if none of their 2006 seasons proves to be a fluke (gargantuan if!), starters Matthews and Kendrick a bit closer to .340, and then it gets ugly. I don't think I'd bet on any other individual player on this team's 40-man roster to have an OBP above .325. Orlando Cabrera? Dicey - that guy's had bad BABIPs his whole career. He's a flyball hitter with no power. Anderson? No thanks. Chone? Morales? Shea freakin' Hillenbrand? Brandon Wood, fresh out of AA? Quinlan? (No fair if he's only used in strict platoons.) The Last Molina? Reggie Willits? Tommy Murphy? A pitcher perhaps? Yeah, the odds say one or two of those guys pulls it off, but the point stands. This team is going to be in the bottom OBP tier once again, a problem that Deadly Flaw #3 can only exacerbate...
3. They don't hit for power
Vlad hits for power. That's it. Mike Napoli hit like a poor man's Frank Thomas last year in a smallish sample size; his .235 average could conceivably yield a few extra homers, but regression to the mean is a cruel mistress and he only gets catcher playing time anyway. Kendrick and Hillenbrand have gap power. I guess Casey Kotchman, Morales and Dallas McPherson have potential. Garret Anderson and Orlando Cabrera might hit 15 longballs apiece if they play all 162 games. Might. I suppose there could be more total gap power here than there was last year, so the Angels might finish higher than 7th in the AL in doubles. That would be nice given their team speed, but I wouldn't hold my breath. Any way you slice it, this is an offense that simply doesn't figure to put together a ton of runs the easy way.
4. Injury-prone pitchers
Here is a partial list of the injuries that have cost Kelvim Escobar time since he first donned an Angels uniform: Elbow strain, elbow sprain, shoulder tightness, residual elbow soreness, bone spur and bone chip in throwing elbow, split fingernail, blood blister on finger, plain regular hand blisters, sore back, sore left knee, patellar tendonitis. The bum knee apparently bothers him when he runs but not when he pitches. This is puzzling. In any event, as talented as Esco may be, he's sure isn't a sure thing. He has apparently fiddled with his mechanics in an effort to reduce the strain on that knee caused by pitching, which doesn't exactly inspire confidence. And there's nobody particularly inspiring to take his place if he gets hurt. Phil Seibel? Post-rotator cuff Bartolo Colon? Hector Carrasco, mayhaps?
Jered Weaver slung 200 fantastic innings last season between AAA and the majors and received as his reward a shiny case of biceps tendonitis. D'oh. The Angels have, rightly, handled him with extreme care this spring. He hasn't faced major-league hitters yet. The master plan is to sneak him into one spring training game, then start him sometime in the second week of the year. Given Weaver's painful-looking delivery, I wouldn't be surprised at all to see that biceps problem linger. That's just me though. Weaver does seem like a tough guy.
There are other possibilities which are less serious but certainly not farfetched. Joe Saunders strained his forearm and will miss at least one start this spring. K-Rod's violent delivery ensures that he gets brought up as a candidate for serious injury every spring. Scot Shields has thrown a whopping 433 innings out of the pen in the last four years. Justin Speier has been sidelined by finger, forearm and elbow trouble in the past 12 months.
Every team has pitching concerns like these. But not every team is leaning on its pitching as much as the Angels are.
5. Young pitchers
And not every team is leaning on young pitching as much as the Angels are. Particularly in the starting rotation.
Weaver and Santana are both 24 this year. Weaver's ERA was 2.56; Santana's, 4.28. They both have pretty good stuff - particularly Weaver, who breezed to a 3-plus K/BB rate - but they're both extreme flyball pitchers, particularly Weaver, whose FB% was north of 50. And both had well-below-average homers-per-flyball rates. More ominously, Santana had a .269 BABIP; Weaver, .246. To steal a line from Mike G, there are skeletons here.
Saunders is 26 and still hasn't pitched a full year in the bigs. Less is expected of him than of the other two, though if things go awry elsewhere in the rotation, that will change.
6. Sub-spectacular defense
I don't think the Angels' D is significantly above or below average, which is problematic for a team that is only likely to go as far as its pitching carries it. I figure Kendrick and the third-base position (Figgins and Maicer) should be good this year, but the defense in right (Guerrero) and left (Anderson) and at short (Cabrera) should take a step back. I also don't think Hillenbrand is particularly great at first. First base may have been below Darin Erstad, but he was really good at it. On the whole, Anaheim's defense is all right, but it's not going to really, tangibly enhance the pitching staff's performance. That's a problem.
7. No, really... Shea Hillenbrand
Shea Hillenbrand is a perfectly decent hitter, but he's the perfect symbol for the problem with the Angels' hitting in that he's being asked to do too much. Anaheim is loaded at the right of the defensive spectrum, but it's barren at the left side. At the hardest positions to fill, Anaheim trots out fine young players. There's three-true-outcome machine Napoli, rifle-armed Molina, budding star Kendrick, human highlight reel and solid leadoff hitter Matthews, potential starter Izturis, respectable shortstop Cabrera and defensive wizard Erick Aybar. These guys are mostly young and average-to-above-average. They constitute a solid supporting cast for Anaheim's future. But on the left side of the spectrum, offensively, the Angels have very little beyond Vlad, and given the enormous strength of the lineups they'll be competing with in the AL, that's trouble. Garret Anderson is this team's left fielder and occasional cleanup hitter. The Royals are fully qualified to laugh at that factual statement. Hillenbrand occupies first base, where his bat will almost certainly be substantially below average in both on-base and slugging. Chone Figgins' production will be below average for a third baseman. And DH, with Kotchman and Morales fighting over it, is completely up in the air. Perhaps Izturis winds up at first and Hillenbrand DHs. Either way, this is not an imposing lineup, as is usually the case when Shea Hillenbrand is the odds-on favorite to finish second on your team in homers and slugging.
So if Bill Stoneman decides he really wants to go forth and win in 2007, his job is straightforward. He has to find one Big, Scary Bat to complement Vlad. If he's lucky, someone (most likely Wood) will assume that role from within early this summer. More likely, he will have to parlay his multitude of prospects (Aybar, Jeff Mathis, McPherson, pitchers Nick Adenhart and Stephen Marek?...) into a BSB. There's really no reason not to, given the Angels' financial resources, multitude of established starting pitchers and great depth up the middle. Because of the flexibility of the position players Stoneman has in place, the BSB can play any position it wants and the Angels won't miss a beat. The tricky part will be finding such a bat early in the season without having to overpay too much for it, when all 30 teams are still in contention. If Stoneman does come away with a big-time power hitter without expending anyone on the current major-league roster, the Angels are probably favorites to win the weak AL West.
And if he decides to stand pat, hanging on to his chips to build a beautiful future instead? Not so much. Santana, Weaver and Saunders all regress, and only Kendrick really steps up on the offensive side. The Angels' 5-14 record against the rejuvenated Power Rangers is their undoing. They finish with 760 runs for, 750 runs against, more rotten win-efficiency luck and the West's bronze medal at 80-82, but just wait 'til next year.