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The Strike Zone

Winter report card: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Josh Hamilton If Josh Hamilton can stay healthy, he'll give the Angels another top slugger to join with Albert Pujols and Mike Trout. (Getty Images)

 

With just a few weeks before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2012, and I’ll revisit and adjust their grades to account for late-winter deals as spring training begins.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

2012 Results: 89-73, 3rd place in AL West (Hot Stove Preview)

Key departures: RHP Zack Greinke, RHP Dan Haren, RHP Latroy Hawkins, OF Torii Hunter, RHP Jason Isringhausen, IF Maicer Izturis, DH/1B Kendrys Morales, IF Angel Sanchez, RHP Ervin Santana, RHP Jordan Walden, C Bobby Wilson

Key arrivals: RHP Joe Blanton, LHP Sean Burnett, OF Josh Hamilton, RHP Tommy Hanson, RHP Ryan Madson, LHP Jason Vargas

Last winter, after missing the playoffs for the second straight year, the Angels took aim at the division rival Rangers by signing away free agent C.J. Wilson, a key piece from a rotation that had helped Texas reach back-to-back World Series. The tactic worked, in that the Ranger rotation's ERA rose from 3.65 with Wilson to 4.37 without him, and they slipped into a wild card spot instead of taking the AL West. Nonetheless, that outcome didn't benefit the Angels as intended, since their own rotation ERA rose from 3.59 to 4.04, and they fell from second place to third place thanks to the emergence of the upstart A's. This winter, general manager Jerry Dipoto has gone back to the well by adding another ex-Ranger, Josh Hamilton, via a five-year, $125 million deal that has left a Texas-sized hole in the lineup that has yet to be filled.

In the short term, the 31-year-old Hamilton adds one more potent bat to an Angels lineup that ranked third in the league in runs last year after adding free agent Albert Pujols and rookie Mike Trout and watching sophomore Mark Trumbo spend the first two-thirds of the season terrorizing opposing pitchers. Hamilton hit .285/.354/.577 with a career-high 43 homers for Texas in 2012, but just .245/.322/.487 from June 1 onward while dealing with oddly public struggles regarding chewing tobacco and energy drinks — troubles that hinted at the substance abuse and addiction woes that nearly destroyed his career. In the long run, the change of scenery could do him good, assuming that the Angels can provide Hamilton with the necessary support network to keep him out of trouble off-field. For the contract to be a win for the Angels, though, they'll have to keep Hamilton on the field as well; he has averaged just 123 games a year during his six-year major league career, playing 150 games or more only once (2008) and never combining for more than 269 games across back-to-back seasons.

His durability could be helped by the Angels' plan to move him out of centerfield, where his defensive performances have declined considerably, and into rightfield to replace the departed Hunter. Defensive whiz Peter Bourjos has been restored to the lineup in centerfield after spending much of last year as a fourth outfielder, with Trout sliding over to leftfield, where he made 29 starts. That bumps the defensively questionable Trumbo into the regular DH role, where he'll replace Morales, who was traded to Seattle for Vargas.

Elsewhere in the lineup, the loss of the versatile Izturis via free agency will deprive manager Mike Scioscia of some flexibility in moving Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar and Alberto Callaspo in and out of the lineup. The top in-house candidate to take up some of his playing time is Andrew Romine, a 27-year-old who has hit just .227/.292/.227 in 51 major league plate appearances over the past three seasons and just .283/.350/.367 over the past two years at Triple-A Salt Lake City, a hitters' paradise. Expect Los Angeles to add a more experienced backup infielder before Opening Day, because Scioscia loves his moving parts.

For most of Scioscia's tenure, pitching and defense have been the Angels' hallmark. From 2001 (his second season), to 2008, the team never ranked below fifth in the league in run prevention, and as recently as 2011, they ranked second. Nonetheless, three times in the past four years, they've ranked in the middle of the pack or below, even while expending considerable blood and treasure on midseason trades for Scott Kazmir, Haren and Greinke as well as the signing of Wilson. This winter, the Halos have cleaned house by declining Haren's $15.5 million club option and trading the erratic Ervin Santana to Kansas City for minor league lefty Brandon Sisk, somehow convincing the Royals to take on $12 million of his $13 million salary along the way. They also failed to retain Greinke, for whom they traded three prospects to Milwauke last July; adding insult to injury, he signed with the cross-town rival Dodgers this offseason.

Haren, Santana and Greinke accounted for 73 starts, a 4.50 ERA and an 84 ERA+ in Anaheim's pitcher-friendly environment. In their place the Angels have signed Blanton and traded for Vargas and Hanson, but it's not clear they've gotten a whole lot better. In 2012, the newcomers put up a 4.32 ERA and an 87 ERA+, with the only significant difference in their collective peripherals being the newcomers' still-gaudy 1.4 homers per nine compared to the old trio's 1.6 per nine. Blanton, 32, signed a two-year, $15 million deal after splitting last season between the Phillies and Dodgers; though his 1.6 walks per nine was the NL's third-lowest mark, he struggled to keep the ball in the park en route to a 4.71 ERA (an 84 ERA+) in 191 innings. He's no stranger to the AL West, having pitched for the A's from late 2004 to mid-2008, but he's mostly a rotation filler with a career 4.37 ERA and 96 ERA+. Vargas, who turns 30 on Feb. 2, is functionally a more durable left-handed version of Blanton, with a career 4.35 ERA and a 90 ERA+; even last year's 3.85 ERA in 217 1/3 innings was good for just a 97 ERA+ in Safeco Field's run-suppressing environment.

Hanson, 26, was acquired from the Braves in a trade for reliever Jordan Walden, a move that might be a mismatch if it weren't for ominous trends in his declining velocity, rising ERA and price tag ($3.725 million in 2013, his first year of arbitration eligibility). He's coming off a 4.48 ERA and 89 ERA+ in 174 2/3 innings in by far the worst of his four full major league seasons. Ranked number four on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list back in 2009, he maintains by far the most upside of the trio, but injuries have been a problem; last year, he missed 17 days with a lower back strain, while in 2011, he lost more than two months due to shoulder impingement. That motley trio will join Wilson and Jered Weaver in the rotation, with Garrett Richards and Jerome Williams, who combined to make 24 starts, on the outside looking in, either in the minors or the bullpen.

A strong bullpen has long been a Scioscia hallmark, but last year's unit ranked 12th in the league with a 3.97 ERA, down from second at 3.52 the year before. Walden, who saved 32 games in 2011, struggled early and quickly lost the job, while Scott Downs and midseason acquisition Ernesto Frieri took over ninth inning chores. Madson, who signed a one year, $3.5 million deal, has been designated the closer upon arrival; he saved 32 games with a 2.37 ERA and 9.2 strikeouts per nine for the Phillies in 2011 but missed all of last year due to Tommy John surgery. As he won't pitch until mid-March, he may not quite be ready to start the year, but once he is, Frieri and Downs will be the top setup men, with Burnett, who is coming off an outstanding year with the Nationals (2.38 ERA, 9.1 stikeouts per nine and just 1.6 walks per nine in 56 2/3 innigs) also in the mix for high-leverage innings.

Unfinished business: All's well that ends Wells? Thanks to the emergence of Trout, Vernon Wells was limited to just 262 plate appearances last year and hit just .230/.279/.403, the barest improvement over his .218/.248/.412 line across 529 PA in 2011. He's still owed $42 million through 2014, and it doesn't appear as though any team — even the outfielder-barren Mets — are lining up to take on any portion of the remaining salary of a replacement level dud. Thus far, Dipoto has refused to cut bait, and the most viable fourth outfielder alternatives he's come up with are players on minor league deals such as Scott Cousins (.183/.231/.291 in 188 career PA) and Trent Oeltjen (.220/.299/.384 in 194 career PA) — players who don't even compare favorably to Wells. TwentKole Calhoun, a 25-year-old lefty and former 8th-round pick who hit .298/.369/.507 for Salt Lake City in 2012, could challenge Wells; he has a strong arm and made 52 starts in centerfield last year. Even if he makes the team and Wells gets the axe, Dipoto may still have to scare up another outfielder for the bench.

Preliminary grade: B-. After five AL West titles, six playoff appearances and a world championship in an eight-year span from 2002-09, the Angels have now missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons. The pressure to return to the postseason is mounting, particularly given that between Pujols, Hamilton and Wilson, they've committed more than $440 million to marquee free agents over the past two winters. Particularly with the Rangers' weak winter, the Angels aren't in bad shape, but the rotation doesn't look as strong as it has in recent years, and the bench is particularly weak.
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