With a rotation of Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Martin Perez, (and arguably the best lineup in baseball), the Texas Rangers were my offseason runaway favorite to win the AL West. It seemed the only thing standing in their way were the young and promising starting pitching staff of the Oakland Athletics. Jarrod Parker and Sonny Gray were positioned to be one of the great 1-2 combos in the AL. After a horrendous April in which Parker struggled with mechanics and posted a 7.36 ERA, he rebounded strongly posting a 3.38 ERA and holding opponents to a .220 batting average the rest of the season. Sonny Gray’s 2.67 ERA and 67 strikeouts in 64 innings left A’s fan’s eagerly awaiting what those numbers could look like stretched across a full season. Now after multiple injuries to several Oakland and Texas regulars, up is down, black is white, and The Rangers and Athletics are no longer obvious front-runners to win the division.
Mariners and Angels fans can rejoice! Two teams that were both one dominant starting pitcher away from being in the AL West conversation are now lucky benefactors of addition by subtraction. The Mariners failed to cut a deal for David Price, but The A’s lost A.J Griffin for at least a month, and Jarrod Parker for the entire year to Tommy John surgery. The Angels failed to sign a much-needed #3 starter like Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana, but Texas lost their catcher, second baseman, short stop, and top-three starters. Who knew the inability of two team’s front offices to make crucial moves could have such a serendipitous outcome. Despite all the injuries between Oakland and Texas, I still see both teams at least 5-10 wins above Seattle. After signing Cano, Seattle looked to be all in as they pursued Price, Nelson Cruz, and Ervin Santana. Instead the Seattle offseason ended with a whimper with the questionable signings of Corey Hart, Logan Morrison, and Fernando Rodney. Seattle has also yet to cash in on top 2B/SS prospect Nick Franklin who was essentially made expendable following the Cano deal. With Injuries to Taijuan Walker and Hisashi Iwakuma, Seattle oddly loaded up on injury prone 1B/DH types, with their real weaknesses being outfield defense and starting pitching depth. With Cano already 31 years old, Seattle needed to do a better job building around him as quickly as possible as he transitions out of his prime.
After releasing Joe Blanton last Wednesday and eating the remainder of the Vernon Wells contract, the Anaheim Angels will spend $27 million this season on two players that aren’t even with the organization. The Angels have become poster boys for bad contracts the last few years, but fortunately for Angel’s fans, Anaheim has the payroll to make mistakes and still be competitive. With all the money coming off the books in 2015 it isn’t farfetched that Anaheim makes a run at James Shields or Max Schrezer next off-season. They might instead decide to put the money into a long-term extension for Mike Trout. To Keep Trout though, The Angels may have to do both… Trout has made it clear that he wants to play for a competitor, and with the Halo’s core of Weaver, Wilson, Pujols and Hamilton quickly approaching their mid-30’s, the window of opportunity to win is closing and Trout’s future could be somewhere else. Winning in 2014 will be incredibly important for the Angel’s future. Without the farm system to make a big in-season trade, free agency remains the Angels best option to acquire talent. It is the Angel’s best interest to double down next off-season and show Mike Trout they are willing to win at all costs. A case can also be made for the Angel’s to not sign Trout to an extension. If the Angel’s decided to move Trout in one of his final arbitration years they could easily persuade a high-payroll team to take on the contract of Hamilton or Pujols and rejuvenate their lackluster farm system in the process. I realize letting go of a once-in-a lifetime player like Trout is easier said than done, but signing a player of Trout’s caliber in today’s market will leave little room for Anaheim to do much else. Unlike basketball, hockey, and football, baseball is not a sport where an elite player can single-handedly lead a team to the playoffs (as the angels have proved the last two seasons).
Shifting Focus to the season at hand, The Angels have several players poised for bounce back years. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projects increased production from David Freese, Albert Pujols, and Josh Hamilton. Kole Calhoun and Hank Conger have major upside going into their age 26 seasons. Taking Mark Trumbo’s -0.8dWAR out of the spacious Anaheim outfield should help improve the Halo’s defense and swapping Trumbo’s .294 OBP with Calhoun’s .347 OBP will help create more runs for the middle of the order. The lineup is well-balanced between righties and lefties and won’t be easily exploited from either side of the pitching rubber. Tyler Skaggs has increased his velocity this spring and is a key component to the Angel’s success in the back-end of their rotation. Pitching Depth remains a big issue as the rotation is in a much more precarious position than a team Like the Athletics with more depth at the minor and major league levels. The greatest advantage I see the Angels having this year is their schedule. In the first 10 weeks of the season Anaheim will play a combined 13 games against the Rangers and A’s, as well as an additional 10 games against the Houston Astros. The Angels need to seize the opportunity to beat up on the injury plagued AL West Rivals before the majority of their players return from the DL. They will also face the Astros sans top prospects Mark Appel, George Springer, Carlos Correa, and Michael Foltynewicz, who will likely be called up later this summer. In the final two months of the season, the revamped Astros will face the A’s and Rangers a combined 16 games, while only facing the Angels for five. I’ll be watching closely in April and May because if the Angels can start strong, it would force Oakland and Texas to play catchup against much tougher competition. Anaheim needs to make the playoffs this season in order to justify past, present, and future front-office spending and thanks to a succession of injuries to rival opponents, I believe they will.