Mike Trout will face high expectations in 2011.
After a somewhat somnambulant winter, the Angels enter 2011 with more questions than answers.
The bullpen was strengthened by the signing of free agent lefty relievers Scott Downs and Hisanori Takahashi, but didn’t flush hundreds of millions of dollars into a “name” like Carl Crawford or Adrian Beltre.
In 2009, the Angels led the American League in batting average (.285), were fourth in total bases (2,482), second in runs scored (883) and third in stolen bases (148).
In 2010, the Angels were 12th in average (.248), 11th in total bases (2,142), ninth in runs scored (681), and seventh in stolen bases (104).
What went wrong?
Many fingers are needed to point the blame, but in summary it boils down to several players had disappointing years. Their failure to produce anticipated offense was one major factor in the Angels’ decline from 97-65 in 2009 to 80-82 in 2010.
Brandon Wood, Erick Aybar, Howie Kendrick and Jeff Mathis failed to produce as projected. Kendry Morales broke his left ankle on May 29 when he leapt onto home plate to celebrate a home run. Juan Rivera had a down year.
If they all rebound in 2011, no one will care about Carl Crawford or Adrian Beltre. But that’s a big “if.”
On the mound, Jered Weaver delivered a Cy Young Award-caliber season, and Ervin Santana pitched to expectations, but after that the pitching staff was somewhat disappointing. 2009 free-agent signee Joel Piniero missed about ten starts due to injury. Joe Saunders had a 4.62 ERA in 20 starts, then was shipped to Arizona in the Dan Haren deal. Haren had a 2.87 ERA in 14 starts. Scott Kazmir, now the lone lefty in the rotation, had a nightmare year with a 5.94 ERA.
Loek Van Mil was acquired from the Twins in the trade for Brian Fuentes. Van Mil is listed as 7’1″ tall.
The bullpen was another disappointment. Brian Fuentes had a 3.52 ERA in 39 relief appearances before he was sent to Minnesota in a September 1 trade for minor league pitcher Loek Van Mil. Fernando Rodney appeared in 72 games but had a 4.24 ERA. Scot Shields was 5.28 in 43 appearances, unable to recover effectively from a 2009 injury. The rest of the bullpen was a mix of young relievers — Kevin Jepsen, Jordan Walden, Michael Kohn, Trevor Bell, Bobby Cassevah and Rich Thompson — who offered future promise.
Nothing is certain in life, nor in the baseball universe. Splashy free-agent signees don’t guarantee anything.
They also siphon off a lot of money that could be invested into player development.
Years ago, Baseball America did a study where they concluded it cost about a million dollars to develop a major leaguer. I’m sure that number is much higher today, but it illustrates the impact on the budget when signing a player for a mega-buck contract. Using as an example Beltre’s six-year $96 million deal with the Texas Rangers, that’s $16 million a year that could have been invested in future talent.
The flip side of that argument is that an established major leaguer is more of a “sure thing” than a prospect. The failure in the last decade of the Angels’ minor league system to produce a hitter that lived up to expectations underscores that reality.
So can the Angels rely someone in the mix of Wood, Aybar, Kendrick and Mathis to step it up?
If not, the focus will shift to the next generation of prospects. Peter Bourjos arrived in early August and showed off his plus-plus defense, but only hit .204 in 181 at-bats. Hank Conger and Mark Trumbo had token appearances, but will probably return to Salt Lake.
After them, everyone awaits the arrival of the savior, Mike Trout.
But fans need to temper their enthusiasm. Let’s not forget he’s only 19 and has only a half-year of experience at advanced Class-A. For every prospect, there comes a time where he experiences failure for the first time. Can he adjust? That’s the true test, because for every professional baseball player his career is a series of adjustments as opposing pitchers seek out flaws and weaknesses. So let’s give the kid some breathing room, okay?
I look forward to a full healthy season for Randal Grichuk. He injured both hands in 2010, but during his last month of play with Cedar Rapids after his return he hit .366/.385/.645. As with many Angels minor league batters, Randal didn’t take many walks, but in that month he showed an improved knowledge of the strike zone, which is a good first step.
Charitably listed as 5’8″, Alexi Amarista hit .400 in 70 plate appearances during his late-season audition with Triple-A Salt Lake.
Two middle infielders are on the prospect radar. Jean Segura may switch to shortstop or remain at second base. He reminds me of a cross between a young Alberto Callaspo and a young Erick Aybar, but neither of those has produced the stellar numbers hoped for earlier in their minor league years. Diminutive Alexi Amarista may be the “feel good” story of 2011. He’s likely to start the year at Salt Lake, and the PCL is always generous to hitters, but he too draws few walks and tends to chase bad pitches.
If Aybar and Kendrick have another disappointing year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Angels have Segura at shortstop with Triple-A Salt Lake by season’s end as half of a double-play tandem with Amarista at second base.
The pitching prospect depth shallowed significantly in the last year, due to the Alberto Callaspo and Dan Haren trades. The Angels sent Sean O’Sullivan and Will Smith to Kansas City for Callaspo. Joe Saunders, Tyler Skaggs, Pat Corbin and Rafael Rodriguez went to Arizona for Haren.
I’ll be watching closely the progress of three pitchers — Tyler Chatwood, Trevor Recking and Garrett Richards.
Chatwood was the Angels’ 2010 minor league pitcher of the year. With High-A Rancho Cucamonga, he had a 1.77 ERA in 14 starts (81.1 IP), averaged 7.7 strikeouts per 9 IP and had a SO:BB ratio of 1.91. Promoted mid-season to Double-A Arkansas, his ERA climbed to 3.82 (68.1 IP), his strikeout rate dropped to 4.7 per 9 IP, and had a SO:BB ratio of 1.3:1. At age 20, he would have been one of the youngest starters in the Texas League, where he should resume in 2011.
Reckling was the 2009 minor league pitcher of the year, but at age 21 couldn’t handle Triple-A Salt Lake (8.53 ERA in 69.2 IP) and at mid-season found himself back in Double-A with Arkansas (4.56 ERA in 79.0 IP). Trevor is pretty much the only significant left-handed starting pitcher prospect left in the system, so the Angels need him to mature past his growing pains.
Richards will be 23 on May 27, and will probably start the season with Double-A Arkansas. Between Low-A Cedar Rapids (19 starts) and High-A Rancho Cucamonga (7 starts), Richards averaged 9.4 strikeouts per 9 IP. He has a mid-90s fastball, slider, changeup and curve ball. The curve could be a “plus” pitch but he seems reluctant to use it.
It’s possible that the Travelers’ opening night roster could include Chatwood, Reckling and Richards in what might be the elite starting rotation in the Texas League. Of the three, I think Richards has a chance to move up the fastest due to his age and overall repertoire.
Will Smith pitching for Orem in the 2008 Pioneer League championship series.
Oh, one another pitcher I’ll be watching — from afar — is Will Smith. Traded to the Royals, I’ve always thought his ceiling is underestimated by many observers. Prior to the trade, he had a strange odyssey that saw him move up from Rancho to Salt Lake as an emergency after the Bees’ rotation was decimated by promotions. He’d been sent down to Arkansas when he was traded. He finished the regular season back in High-A with Wilmington in the Carolina League, where he had a 2.80 ERA in eight starts (54.2 IP). Always stingy with the base on balls, Will struck out 51 and walked four.
Those numbers are not a typo.
The Royals then assigned him to their Double-A team’s post-season roster. Smith started the Northwest Arkansas Naturals’ title game against Midland, pitching 6 2/3 shutout innings. I wasn’t surprised, because I saw him on the mound for Rookie-A Orem in the 2008 Pioneer League playoffs. In a pressure game, Will goes into a higher gear.
If Smith returns to Double-A for 2011, it’s likely he will face his former Angels teammates for the first time since the trade. In a year or two, it might happen again at the major league level.