Do we really need a preview? They're better than the Athletics, Mariners and Rangers. Again. They're worse than the Red Sox, Yankees, Tigers, and Cleveland. Again. They will make the playoffs. Again. They will be a fashionable sleeper pick on account of their good starting pitching and general fundamental soundness. Again. But although anything can happen in the playoffs, no amount of fashionableness can overcome the fact that Anaheim's OBP skills are usually a teensy bit subpar by AL playoff standards. Chances are they'll just get rolled by the dreaded Red Sox in the first round. Again.
Fortunately, the AL West is a foregone conclusion. Unless the Angels' top pitchers all get hurt or something.
March 15: Ace John Lackey expects to be out until about mid-May with a strained triceps.
March 27: Ace Kelvim Escobar appears to have a torn labrum; if he does, he expects to be out for the year.
Hey, this could be fun after all...
Every preview of the AL West published before this news broke had the Angels winning the division. There are two good reasons for that: the Angels are pretty good, and their division is pretty dull. Anaheim's run differential last year was a +91; Oakland was a -17, Seattle -19, and Texas -28. Did Anaheim do anything during the offseason to close that gap? They traded Orlando Cabrera for Jon Garland, and they signed Torii Hunter to make their outfield situation less uncertain. At worst, that's a wash, at least for 2008 purposes.
But take away a full season of Kelvim Escobar and 10 starts from John Lackey, and we might just have a race here after all.
How big of a blow is that, exactly?
Let's find out. In the least sophisticated way imaginable. First, here is what the various projection systems expect from the Big Two in 2008. Last year's total RA/9 in the AL was about 4.88. As far as I can tell, Anaheim is basically a neutral park.
John Lackey RA/9
Kelvim Escobar RA/9
The projection systems have Lackey averaging about 6.9 innings a start, and Escobar 6.5.
The next three spots in the rotation would've gone to Jon Garland, Jered Weaver and Joe Saunders, and the presumptive 6-7 punch consists of Ervin Santana and Dustin Moseley. Here are their projections:
Ervin Santana RA/9
Dustin Moseley RA/9
Santana is projected to pitch about 6.0 innings a start. The projections have Moseley as a swingman. In eight spot starts last year, he averaged 5.1 innings; I'll give him 5.7 this year. Since Santana is projected to be better and supposed to have a higher ceiling, I'll give him the full season in Escobar's place, and Moseley 10 starts in the spot vacated by Lackey.
Going straight by these crude projections, replacing Escobar with Santana 33 times will cost 33*6*(4.82-4.05)/9 = 17 runs over the 6 innings per start Santana should manage, plus 0.5*33 = 16.5 additional innings of work for the bullpen, plus the small difference between the runs Escobar would allow in the 16.5 innings and those the bullpen would allow. Going from Lackey to Moseley 10 times will cost 8 runs plus 12 relief innings. So, 25 runs plus 28.5 innings. That's a decent hit.
The bullpen innings are important. The Angels' bullpen has not been celebrated for its depth in recent years. Speier, Shields and K-Rod are a tremendous combination of short relievers, and Darren Oliver is a solid LOOGY, but there are question marks beyond. Chris Bootcheck is the next guy on the depth chart. He seems like an incredibly generic low-leverage pitcher, with his 2 K/BB ratio and neutral groundball rate; the Angels hardly ever used him in remotely important situations last year. He had a 6.76 ERA in 65.2 innings two years ago. In AAA. Fewer innings per start from the rotation means they're gonna have to use this guy with the game on the line a few more times than they'd like to. Beyond Bootcheck, there's 29-year-old righty Jason Bulger, who's posted excellent strikeout rates in the minors but has pitched all of 18 major-league innings, and 24-year-old Aussie righty Rich Thompson, who had a cumulative ERA in the low 2s between AA and AAA with pretty good peripherals. Even if one of Bulger and Thompson shows flashes of competence, this is a potential weak spot which will be tested due to the injuries to Lackey and Escobar. And exacerbated if Shields or when Speier gets hurt.
There's another external concern: rotation depth. The fact that Santana and Moseley have been called into duty immediately means that the second an Angels starter goes down, someone really uninspiring will get their spot. Maybe command-and-control type Nick Green, whose minor-league stats are reminiscent of Jesse Litsch's except he's 24 and he's a colossal flyball pitcher. Maybe top pitching prospect Nick Adenhart, who posted 17.3% K and 9.1% BB at AA Arkansas with a 51% groundball rate at age 21 last year as he continues his recovery from TJ surgery: not bad, but not overwhelming enough to be ideal insurance. On the whole, the Angels are much worse equipped to handle further pitching injuries than they were at the start of the season.
So, I figure, start with the 25-run hit. Then, factor in the bullpen effect and the chilling reality that Nick Green is the #6 starter for the next month and a half. Then, maybe you expect Chone Figgins' .399 BABIP from last year to slip to about .350, and maybe with the book out on Reggie Willits he doesn't walk quite enough to hit a Jerolomanic .291/.393/.344 again, and maybe Garret Anderson loses the 60 points of SLG he gained out of nowhere last year, and maybe Erick Aybar can't replicate Orlando Cabrera's standard issue hollow .300, and Seattle did add that big Bedard fella after all...
Nah, I don't buy it. For all the things that can go wrong, there's Howie Kendrick's bat waiting to break out, Brandon Wood's power waiting in AAA, Maicer Izturis' steady presence on the bench, and the potential of another big step forward from Casey Kotchman. And Torii Hunter is an upgrade over Gary Matthews. And there's still Vladi. If Lackey were out for the year I'd be tempted to bet on Oakland, but honestly I can't see the Angels finishing second. Not in this division.
810 runs for, 760 against, 86-76, first in the AL West.