Complete Los Angeles Angels 2014 Spring Training Preview
There is still so much to like about a Los Angeles Angels team that lost 84 games in 2013 and may have been the biggest disappointment in all of baseball.
Mike Trout, the team's 22-year-old superstar who has already established himself as one of the best—if not the best—players in the game, is still under club control for four more seasons. Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton may be on the decline and may be well overpaid, but it wouldn't be a huge surprise if either, or both, can still play big roles on a playoff-caliber ballclub. If that duo can stay healthy, the Angels' offense should be able to score plenty of runs.
The top of the rotation is strong with Jered Weaver and C.J Wilson. The bullpen, led by Ernesto Frieri and Joe Smith, should be able to shut down opponents late in ballgames.
General manager Jerry DiPoto, with limited financial resources and a very thin farm system that offers little immediate help or the high-caliber prospects necessary to acquire impact talent, has done a terrific job filling out his roster this offseason. And they may not be done; adding another starting pitcher is still a possibility.
It would be wrong to write off this Angels team based on last year's performance. Unlike the Los Angeles Dodgers, who had a mid-season resurgence after a poor start, not enough went right to get the Angels back on track for a sustained period of time in 2013.
They won eight in a row in late May but followed that up with 11 losses in 15 games. They won 11-of-14 late in the first half but lost all of their momentum with three straight defeats just before the break.
One last surge occurred late in the season, when they went on a 23-9 run to close within two games of .500, which would have at least been a silver lining in an otherwise rough season. However, things ended on a sour note with a four-game sweep at the hands of division rival Texas Rangers.
A quiet offseason may work in the Angels' favor in 2014. No one will talk about them as being playoff contenders. The Seattle Mariners are on the rise with the addition of Robinson Cano, the A's and Rangers are seemingly still the class of the division, and Pujols and Hamilton are done.
Maybe that's all true. But if it's not, the Angels could surprise a lot of people in 2014.
After giving out big-money deals to superstars Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton in consecutive offseasons, only to have each fall short of expectations thus far, it was expected that the Angels would take a more conservative approach this offseason.
Not only were they unlikely to spend lavishly on another free agent, but they lacked the top prospects it would take to land an impact player in a trade. What general manager Jerry DiPoto did have at his disposal was outfield depth in the major leagues, and he utilized it to upgrade his pitching staff, filling a major void at third base and adding a top pitching prospect in the process.
In trading away outfielders Mark Trumbo and Peter Bourjos in separate deals, the Angels received two left-handed starters, Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, who could fill rotation spots in 2014 and beyond, as well as third baseman David Freese (pictured), who was an All-Star in 2012 and a World Series MVP in 2011.
The addition of Skaggs was notable, considering that the team's top priority heading into the offseason was to add young, controllable starting pitchers, according to Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com. The 22-year-old Skaggs has six years of club control and was one of the top pitching prospects in the game not too long ago.
Joe Smith, arguably the top setup man on the free-agent market, was signed to a three-year, $15.75 million deal, while Raul Ibanez was brought in at a bargain one-year, $2.75 million deal to fill the team's designated hitter role.
Injury Updates Entering Camp
While he's expected to be a full participant from the start of spring training, Albert Pujols' return from a foot injury that limited him for most of the 2013 season and eventually caused him to shut it down for the year in late July should be monitored closely.
The 34-year-old Pujols (pictured) claimed to be "99.9 percent" healthy back in November, per Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com. However, he is coming off of his worst season as a big-leaguer, and the partial tear of the plantar fascia in his left foot was likely a big reason why.
Lefty setup man Sean Burnett, who signed a two-year free-agent deal with the Halos last offseason, is on track for the start of spring training after undergoing surgery to repair a small tear in his flexor tendon in August. The 31-year-old was limited to only 13 games in his first season with the club.
Coaching Staff Analysis
After a disappointing 2013 season, it would have been a huge surprise if the organization didn't make any coaching staff changes for the upcoming season.
While they could have opted to go an entirely different direction by firing manager Mike Scioscia (pictured) after 14 seasons, which included five division titles and a World Series Championship, they retained their longtime skipper and fired hitting coach Jim Eppard and bench coach Rob Picciolo.
The corresponding moves were to hire Don Baylor as hitting coach, promote third base coach Dino Abel to bench coach and to bring in Gary DiSarcina, who managed the Triple-A affiliate for the Boston Red Sox last season, to replace Abel.
Baylor won an AL MVP while with the Angels in 1979. He played with the team from 1977-1982, while DiSarcina spent his entire 12-year big-league career with the organization, which included an All-Star appearance in 1995.
1. Erick 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, C
Having Trout as the key figure in the lineup certainly takes pressure off of Pujols and Hamilton (pictured), but that doesn't mean that duo won't play a key part in whether the team can rebound from a poor season.
As previously mentioned, Pujols is expected to be fully recovered, while Hamilton is hoping that the 20 pounds he's added this offseason will help get him back on track. The 32-year-old posted a solid .833 OPS over his final 57 games last season, though he hit only seven homers.
If Pujols and Hamilton can stay healthy and get back to being productive middle-of-the-order run producers behind Trout, it would be hard to see this team struggling to score runs, no matter how well the rest of the lineup hits.
The addition of Ibanez and Freese, along with a full season of Calhoun, should help. A spark out of the leadoff spot, provided by Aybar, would also be a tremendous boost. He'll need to revert to his 2011-2012 form, however, when he posted a .742 OPS with 25 stolen bases per season, in order to provide a great impact.
1. Jered Weaver, RHP
2. C.J. Wilson, LHP
3. Garrett Richards, RHP
4. Hector Santiago, LHP
5. Tyler Skaggs, LHP
Weaver and Wilson at the top of the rotation would be a great start for any team. The Angels will need some stability behind that duo, however, if they're going to compete for a playoff spot.
Richards' strong finish after being placed in the rotation last July gives the team hope in the No. 3 spot, while offseason acquisitions Santiago and Skaggs give the team a strong starting five, on paper.
The depth is weak, though, with Joe Blanton being the team's top backup plan should Skaggs prove that he's not ready.
CL: Ernesto Frieri, RHP
SU: Joe Smith, RHP
SU: Sean Burnett, LHP
MID: Dane De La Rosa, RHP
MID: Kevin Jepsen, RHP
MID: Brian Moran, LHP
LR: Joe Blanton, RHP
The addition of setup man Joe Smith (pictured) to go along with the impending return of Burnett and the emergence of De La Rosa (2.86 ERA, 3.5 BB/9, 8.1 K/9 in 75 relief appearances last season) should give the Angels plenty of solid options to bridge the gap to Frieri.
Prospect R.J. Alvarez could also figure into the late-inning mix at some point in 2014 if he can continue to dominate in the upper-minors as he did in High-A last season.
Rule 5 draftee Moran, who was acquired in a trade with the Toronto Blue Jays, figures to have a good shot to be the second lefty out of the bullpen. The 25-year-old held lefty held hitters to a .235 batting average in Triple-A last season with six walks and 48 strikeouts in 32.1 innings pitched.
Prospects to Watch
The re-acquisition of Tyler Skaggs (pictured), who returns to his original organization just over three years after being traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the deal for Dan Haren, should offer a big boost to a farm system that has been considered one of the worst in baseball over the past few seasons. He'll graduate to the majors quickly, however, and the Angels will have to be patient as their other top prospects continue to develop and move up the ladder.
At least three of those prospects have the potential to move quicker than expected and break through in 2014, including second baseman Taylor Lindsey, who was ranked as the organization's top prospect by Baseball Prospectus.
The 22-year-old is blocked by Howie Kendrick, although he could be next in line to replace him in case of injury. A fall from contention could also force the Angels to shop Kendrick to open the job for Lindsey, who will likely start the season in Triple-A after posting a .780 OPS with 17 homers in Double-A in 2013.
Two pitchers who could force the Angels' hand are starting pitcher Mark Sappington (3.38 ERA in 22 High-A starts), who'll likely be in the Double-A rotation to start the year, and reliever R.J. Alvarez, who struck out 79 batters in 48.2 innings pitched in High-A last season.
Alvarez, 22, and Sappington, 23, are the team's top-ranked pitching prospects. Both were drafted out of college in 2012 and could get an early call to the big leagues if the team is in need.
One of the biggest reasons that general manager Jerry DiPoto felt comfortable trading away Peter Bourjos and Mark Trumbo this offseason was the play of Kole Calhoun (pictured) in 2013.
The 26-year-old, who is expected to be the team's starting right fielder in 2014, took full advantage of regular playing time over the last two months of the season with an .819 OPS and eight homers. If he can come close to that type of production over a full season, the Angels aren't likely to miss Trumbo's 30-plus homers or Bourjos' plus defense very much.
Starting pitcher Garrett Richards will enter his first full season in the starting rotation after bouncing back and forth between the rotation and bullpen over the past three years. After entering the rotation on July 27, the 25-year-old right-hander posted a solid 3.72 ERA in 13 starts to close out the year. He completed at least seven innings in five of those starts and held opponents to three earned runs or less 10 times.
Barring a last-minute acquisition, the No. 3 spot in the rotation is Richards' to lose. Regardless of whether he's No. 3 or 4 starter, the expectation is that he'll give the team 30-plus starts and will be part of the Angels' rotation in 2014 and beyond.
Position Battle Predictions
The lone position battle, aside from a couple of bench spots and middle relief roles, will be at the back of the rotation, where newly-acquired Hector Santiago will try to hold onto a rotation spot that is his to lose and prospect Tyler Skaggs will try to show the Angels that he's not in need of any more Triple-A seasoning.
Their main competition for one of the No. 4 or 5 spots in the rotation behind Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson and Garrett Richards will come from veteran Joe Blanton (pictured), who is due $8.5 million in salary and will likely be given one last chance in the spring to prove that the Angels didn't make a mistake by signing him last offseason. He had a 6.04 ERA and was removed from the rotation in late July during his disappointing debut season in Anaheim.
In all likelihood, the 33-year-old would only be keeping the spot warm until Skaggs is ready. If he pitches poorly in spring training, though, it wouldn't be a surprise if he was released outright and young pitchers Michael Roth and Matt Shoemaker were given strong consideration.
The dark-horse candidate in camp will be 36-year-old Mark Mulder, who has been out of baseball since 2008 and nine seasons removed from his last healthy season. Still, he says his arm feels great, and he'll be given a close look this spring.
Keep an eye on the catching duo of Chris Iannetta and Hank Conger, as there's a chance that playing time share could swing towards either based on their performance this spring.
Iannetta should get the greater share based on his defense and veteran experience handling a pitching staff. But if Conger can show improvement in those areas, manager Mike Scioscia could feel more comfortable with him behind the plate on a more regular basis.
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