October 2008

This ‘n That

I don’t suppose anyone would believe me if I said I’d predicted the Phillies would win the World Series in five games …

I told a friend from Philadelphia before the Series began that it would be Phils in five. He said Rays in five, being a typical pessimistic Phillies fan.

Just wanted to catch up on what’s going on with the FutureAngels.com web site and the Angels in general.

On Friday I’ll start the annual off-season tradition of posting Angels minor league game of the week webcasts. I’ve been archiving webcasts since 2003, so I’ll mix in some “classics” along with replays of 2008 games. First up will be an April 2003 Arkansas Travelers contest at Wichita. Bobby Jenks is on the mound for the Travs.

I’ve mentioned a few times that, in addition to my day job and FutureAngels.com, I was also working this year on a political project which has soaked up much of my spare time. With Election Day on Tuesday, that’s one time sponge eliminated.

Another big upheaval is that I lost my job last week, so both the spouse and I are now unemployed. The upshot is that it creates an opportunity for us to accelerate our move to Florida, as discussed a few times in this blog. But we have to jump through some financial hoops first.

In any case, it looks like I’ll have a lot more free time to catch up on all the 2008 photos that are backlogged on my hard drive. I’ve been working on the Orem Owlz photos shot last June; those should be done tomorrow. Then I’ll do the Owlz photos shot last September during the playoffs. After that, I’ll loop back to do the Tempe Angels photos from mid-July and the fall instructional league photos. Once those are done, I’ll process all the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes photos.

I also have a ton of video that’s been neglected, especially highlight clips of so many players.

And it’s about time to start writing the annual FutureAngels.com Top 10 Prospects report.

If we can get to Florida with cash in the pocket and no mortgage payments, then I’ll start work in earnest on the Angels minor league history book I’ve talked about. Statesville NC historian Bill Moose e-mailed a few weeks back to say he’d found another 1961 Statesville Owl, Ed Thomas. And Ed knows the whereabouts of Owls infielder Jerry Fox. It’s truly astonishing so many of them are still around 47 years later.

But first things first.

Because of the unemployment situation, I may start to post on eBay some collectibles for auction. I have a lot of Angels minor league prospect jerseys in the closet. First to go will be Bobby Jenks from the Quakes and Travelers. I’m not sure, though, if they have certificates of authenticity because minor league front offices back then didn’t always do that.

Worst case scenario, I’ll stand on a corner with a bottle of Windex, a squeegie and a roll of paper towels, and offer to clean windshields for a buck …

Obviously, if I’m still unemployed come spring training you won’t see me out at Tempe. But that’s five months away.

For those of you outside of SoCal who may not have seen it, the Los Angeles Times posted a frank interview with Torii Hunter about the Angels’ post-season stinkfest. Click Here to read the article. It’s well worth it.

Particularly revealing is this passage by sportswriter Kurt Streeter about the botched squeeze play:

I burrowed in on the question still haunting Angels fans: Scioscia’s decision to squeeze. There are many who agree that Aybar should have been allowed to hit. But bunting in tight moments, isn’t that the way your team played all year, dink-and-dunk, drip-and-drop, popgun hits and speed?

“No, no,” came a quick reply. “People say that, but that’s not how we played all year. You rarely squeeze. But in the regular season when you do squeeze you can do it because you’ve always got tomorrow. . . . If you lose you have tomorrow to make up for it. In the playoffs it is different. Totally different.”

Hunter also promised a clubhouse attitude adjustment, something I proposed in my October 7 blog. Torii said:

“I am going to start right in spring training making sure the guys know that this year we are going to kick some [posterior]. . . . We are going to put it in everyone’s heads that in the playoffs next year it is going to be different. Don’t start worrying about the pressures of everyone saying we can’t win the big ones or the Red Sox dominating you. Right away, I am going to try to [instill] that.”

Roger that, Torii.

The Future for the Angels

The Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox are playing Game #6 of the American League Championship Series as I write.

Too many self-declared experts on fan sites and sports pages told us that if the Angels would only hock their future for a “big bat,” I’d now be watching the Angels in the ALCS en route to their certain victory in the World Series.

So much for that “guarantee.”

The Angels will enter the off-season with more question marks than they’ve had in many years — not because the team is bad, but because expectations are so high that anything else than a world championship is labelled a failure by people who probably couldn’t hit a Jamie Moyer fastball.

None of the Angels’ divisional rivals appear likely to challenge them for the 2009 A.L. West title, so the question becomes how to get back to the World Series that’s eluded them since 2002.

First, a dose of reality … There’s no such thing as a guarantee. The multi-tiered playoff structure creates more opportunities for one-year wonders who happen to get hot for a couple weeks. The only team to show any resilience is the Boston Red Sox. Nobody thought back in March that the Rays would be one game from the World Series. Nobody thought in March 2007 that the Colorado Rockies would win the N.L. pennant.

I wrote in my October 7 blog that I think the Angels are missing a certain “grit” the Red Sox have now, and the Angels had in 2002. There’s no Darin Erstad, no Troy Percival, no David Eckstein to inspire or enforce. The Red Sox have guys like Jason Varitek, Josh Beckett, Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz who bring a certain gravitas to the field and the clubhouse. And heaven forbid anyone try to win a stare contest with Jonathan Papelbon.

The Angels’ team personality is one of untempered exuberance. Exuberance is great, but there comes a time when it has to be replaced by determination. That’s why the Red Sox arose from the dead to win ALCS Game #5.

Even if the Angels sign Mark Teixeira — more on that in a moment — he doesn’t seem to have that “grit” factor. Adding Teixeira might work in fantasy leagues or video games, but in the real world the Angels need someone who grabs the opponent by the huevos and doesn’t let go until they surrender.

So with that thought in mind, let’s take a look at the Angels’ roster as it is now and what I think they need to do for 2009.

The Riverside Press-Enterprise published on October 8 an excellent review of the contract status for each player on the roster. So I’ll use that as the foundation for this article.

FIRST BASE — Until July 29, this wasn’t an issue. It was assumed that young star Casey Kotchman would have the job until he retires in another 15 years or so. Yes, Teixeira hit far better in his 54 games under the halo than Kotchman would have. But the only justification for such a short-sighted move was that Teixeira would get the Angels to the World Series. He didn’t.

If Teixeira returns, it will be for an obscene contract. Obscene contracts tend to suck the life blood out of organizations, because that money could have gone to develop a lot of young talent. And when you invest so much money in one player, if he gets hurt or flops then you have far less flexibility — or wind up blowing the budget, which again sucks money out of player development.

If Teixeira doesn’t return, then the Angels either look elsewhere or stage an open internal competition. Kendry Morales would seem to be the #1 candidate, but he’s a big step down from Teixeira and has yet to hit at Kotchman’s level. Morales is only four months younger than Kotchman.

Dark horse candidates include Robb Quinlan, Matt Brown and Freddy Sandoval, although the latter two are third basemen who got limited exposure this year at Triple-A to first base.

SECOND BASE — Howie Kendrick had a mental meltdown in the playoffs, but he’s the second baseman of the future. Health remains his concern, as his hamstring was a problem throughout the season. Trainers and coaches have told me that hamstring injuries often happen due to dehydration. Like Kotchman, Kendrick is a young star. Let’s hope that, unlike Kotchman, he isn’t traded.

SHORTSTOP — Maicer Izturis and Erick Aybar took turns at shortstop this year, depending on who was healthy, but in my opinion it’s time to turn over the job to Brandon Wood. Only 23, he struggled in his previous limited opportunities, but in September he hit four homers and improved his strikeout rate. Wood spent most of 2008 changing his hitting mechanics, lowering his hands to bring his bat longer through the hitting zone. Pitch recognition is another bugaboo; he loves to fish after two-strike breaking balls down and away. In any case, the Angels need to find a place for his power bat in the lineup, especially if they lose Teixeira.

THIRD BASE — Chone Figgins had a career year in 2007 but reverted to a more typical season in 2008. A year ago, I suggested the Angels might think about moving him last winter to take advantage of his enhanced value, and replace him with Wood. Well, it turned out that Brandon wasn’t ready, but it also turned out that Figgins wasn’t the player we saw in 2007. Chone will be 31 in January, and can take his free agency after the 2009 season. This might be another winter to consider moving him; the Angels can turn over third base to Wood or Matt Brown or even give Freddy Sandoval a shot.

The downside of moving Figgins is that his departure would fundamentally alter the Angels’ offense. Manager Mike Scioscia relies on Figgins to be a disruptive factor on the basepaths, but his total stolen bases have gone down each year since his high of 62 in 2005. Injuries have had something to do with that, but in any case he’s not as “disruptive” as he used to be. Figgins’ departure would require the Angels to find a new leadoff hitter (assuming they didn’t get one in trade).

And while it doesn’t really mean much for 2009, I’m told that minor league outfielders Peter Bourjos and Jeremy Moore might be faster than Figgins.

OUTFIELD — Veteran Garret Anderson has the most uncertain status. The Angels have an option to bring him back for 2009, but if they do they have to pay him $14 million. If they let him go, they have to pay him $3 million. At age 36, Garret’s best years are behind him, but he can still hit. I’d love to keep him around, but baseball is a business and it doesn’t make sense to make a long-term investment in him.

Complicating that issue is Vlad Guerrero’s status. Vlad’s knees are shot yet so far he refuses to undergo corrective surgery. Guerrero, 33 next February, has a club option on his contract — the Angels pay him $15 million for 2009 or let him go for $3 million. It seems likely they’ll keep him for 2009, but he’s destined for the designated hitter role, which is where Anderson would play more as he ages.

Torii Hunter returns to center field.

Juan Rivera could start for most teams, and he’s a free agent. It seems likely that he would return only if guaranteed a starting job, which means adios to Anderson. Juan missed most of 2007 due to a broken leg and the injury bugged him through part of 2008, although as typical throughout his career he had a better second half than in the first.

Gary Matthews, Jr. and Reggie Willits also return. A dark horse is Terry Evans, who missed much of 2008 at Triple-A Salt Lake after injuring his right shoulder in May. If Teixeira returns, Morales might get a shot at a corner outfield job.

CATCHER — I’ve been writing for years that Jeff Mathis would exceed Mike Napoli and eventually become the Angels’ #1 catcher, but at this point I have to concede that Napster has won the competition. There’s no argument that Matty is the naturally gifted athlete, but Nap worked himself into the starting catcher job and has become a power hitter too. Mike was a 17th round pick in the 2000 draft, and never really viewed as more than a second-string catcher. But after surgery in 2003 to repair a torn labrum, Napoli returned in 2004, physically in shape and ready to take a starting catcher role.

Mathis is still a very gifted catcher, but the bat has yet to mature and he’s shown a tendency to lapse into bad throwing mechanics, a problem he had at times in the minors. Napoli and Mathis may evolve into the modern equivalent of the Dodgers’ Joe Ferguson / Steve Yeager combo in the 1970s.

On deck is Bobby Wilson, who made a token big league appearance in April then returned in September when the roster expanded. He projects in my mind as a Bengie Molina-type catcher.

STARTING PITCHING — Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders evolved into star pitchers. I predicted last winter that Saunders might become the next Tom Glavine, and he certainly showed progress in that direction. Joe also increased his velocity, touching mid-90s at times. Santana was trashed by the instant gratification crowd, but the Angels wisely ignored their opinion and let Ervin evolve into one of the most dominant young pitchers in the majors.

John Lackey remains the rotation’s stalwart, but showed signs of mortality as he missed the first six weeks of the season with a strained triceps. He can be a free agent after 2009; extending his contract should be a top priority this winter, as he’s one of the few “grit” players on the roster.

Jered Weaver shows signs of evolving into a #3 or #4 pitcher. The potential is there, but it seems at times that the focus is not.

That leaves open one starting pitcher job. Jon Garland is a free agent, but his 4.90 ERA isn’t likely to bring him a megabuck free agent contract. There’s no likely internal candidate, with Nick Adenhart another year or two away, and Nick Green needing more work. Most of the Angels’ starting pitcher prospects are in the lower minors.

Lefty workhorse C.C. Sabathia will be the big catch in this winter’s free agent market, but will come at a huge price and there’s some concern his girth might turn him into another Bartolo Colon. Still, there’s an enormous appeal to the notion of Sabathia and Lackey at the top of the rotation, followed by Santana and Saunders.

Another option might be a trade for Padres’ ace Jake Peavy, who according to recent press reports might be available. What the Pads would want in return is anyone’s guess, but it’s reasonable to assume that Adenhart would be in the package along with most of the Angels’ near future.

BULLPEN — It’s reasonable to assume Francisco Rodriguez will be elsewhere in 2009, and that’s fine by me. I’ve written for years that his violent mechanics would catch up with him one day, and despite the saves record (a fluke of so many close games) his walk rate increased to 4.5 per 9 IP. It’s pretty clear he expects an obscene contract; personally, I can’t see $15 million per year over five years for a guy who pitches about 75 innings in a season. Is Frankie really worth $200,000 per inning?!

So it’s time to move on.

Plenty of internal candidates, with the most likely being Jose Arredondo. Jason Bulger had a monster season at Salt Lake — 0.63 ERA in 37 relief appearances, a 75:22 SO:BB ratio in 43.0 IP — but he just can’t seem to bring his mental game to the big-league level. A dark horse is Kevin Jepsen, who actually beat out veteran Justin Speier for a post-season roster spot.

Scot Shields returns, as does Speier who had a disappointing year. LHP Darren Oliver is a free agent. Nick Green and Anthony Ortega are dark horse candidates, and if you want a real dark horse, consider lefty Daniel Davidson, who finally returned from injury to help pitch the Double-A Arkansas Travelers to the Texas League pennant. Davidson turns 28 in January and can be a minor league free agent, but I thought I’d toss out the name and we’ll see what happens next spring.

A wildcard is Kelvim Escobar, who’s recovering from labrum surgery. His projected return is somewhere around mid-2009, making it more likely he’ll be in the bullpen than the starting rotation, but who knows at this point.

So Much for That

For years, we’ve been told by the self-declared experts on fan boards and blogs that if only the Angels would flush their future for a quick-fix “big bat” a World Series championship was guaranteed.

The Angels finally gave in, trading Casey Kotchman and Stephen Marek to Atlanta for Mark Teixeira, a three-month rental who becomes a free agent this winter.

And yet here we are standing on the sidelines once again.

As I’ve written many times, one player does not make a team a world champion.

Teixeira was 7 for 15 in the ALDS, but all seven hits were singles.

Torii Hunter was 7 for 18, but all seven hits were singles.

Vlad Guerrero, the bat they were supposed to protect, was 7 for 15. But six of his seven hits were singles, and the seventh was a double.

The only two Angels batters with extra-base hits were Mike Napoli with two homers, and Chone Figgins with a double and triple.

The inevitable knee-jerk reaction among the clueless is to blame Mickey Hatcher — never mind they always fail to credit Hatcher when things are going well.

But people who never advanced beyond Little League don’t understand what a major league hitting coach does. And one thing he never does is signal to his hitters whether to swing at the next pitch.  That’s Little League.  In the majors, a hitting coach helps hitters stay in mechanics and act as a sounding board for hitting philosophy.  Not to “hack.”  Hatcher doesn’t get to bat, and he doesn’t push buttons on an XBox to make the hitters swing.

Time and again, the Angels’ hitters failed to execute in clutch situations. My personal opinion is that they weren’t aggressive enough. It was preached that they had to be patient with the Red Sox pitchers, to work up their pitch counts. All that is fine and dandy, but in a short series you have to take advantage of your opportunities, and for the most part the Angels didn’t play their aggressive style of game.

Until the very end.  And when they did, they overcompensated.

Mike Scioscia is generally regarded as one of the smartest managers in baseball, but quite frankly what he did last night was bone-headed.

With the score tied 2-2, pinch-hitter Kendry Morales led off the top of the 9th with a double. Howie Kendrick bunted him over to third. With one out, Erick Aybar came to the plate, batting left-handed against Justin Masterson. Chone Figgins was on-deck.

Scioscia called for a squeeze. And the Red Sox were looking for it.

It’s an axiom that you don’t squeeze with a left-handed batter, because it’s much easier for the catcher to see the play developing — and Jason Varitek is the smartest catcher on the field today. Masterson pitched inside, Aybar missed the bunt, and Varitek ran down Willits.

Aggressive is fine, but this was stupid.

Sometimes managers feel they have to DO SOMETHING, and this seemed to be that situation. Scioscia overmanaged.

With the speedy Willits on third, all Aybar needed to do was hit a ground ball, hit a single, drive a deep fly ball — or maybe Masterson would throw one to the backstop, which he’d already done once. Aybar was only 2 for 18 in the series, but with only two strikeouts, and as a rule is a pretty good contact hitter.

But Scioscia chose to force the issue.

Plenty other mistakes were made during the series, among them the failure of Kendrick and Hunter to communicate during Game #3 when with the bases loaded Joe Saunders induced a pop fly — yet the two stared at each other.

Vlad Guerrero’s base-running gaffe in Game #1.

Frankie Rodriguez refusing to employ basic pitching mechanics.

Let’s also give credit — plenty of credit — to the Red Sox. Their three starters — Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Josh Beckett — may be the best 1-2-3 rotation in the majors. Lackey, Santana and Saunders are no amateur hour either, but those the Sox’ Three outlasted the Angels’ uncharacteristically patient approach at the plate.

Another missing element, I felt, was that the Red Sox have a certain “grit” the Angels lack. When the Angels won the World Series in 2002, they had personalities like Darin Erstad, Troy Percival, David Eckstein and Scott Spiezio. Those were guys who either rose above their limited ability, or veterans who would bite the head off a rattlesnake if that’s what it took to win.

The 2008 edition is a bunch of great guys — and maybe that’s the problem.

Personalities like Guerrero, Hunter and Teixeira are great to market. But who’s the one to jack up a malcontent against a locker? Who’s the one to say, “I’m going to carry this team on my back”?

John Lackey has that personality, but he pitches once every five days.

The Angels traded for Teixeira, while the Dodgers traded for Manny Ramirez. Manny was just the personality transplant the Dodgers needed. They’re not the same team they were. With “Tex,” the Angels are pretty much still the same team, just with a better-hitting first baseman who can leave in a few weeks.

Manny wouldn’t be the right addition for the Angels clubhouse, but they need an Erstad or a Percival — not those guys literally, but that type of personality.

I’ll write later about what moves I think the Angels need to make this winter. But for now, the personality transplant is at the top of the list.