Jon Heyman
Wednesday April 14th, 2010

NEW YORK -- These are not the Angels. This 2-6 team, sitting in last place in the AL West, 3.5 games out of first, looks nothing like the team that has won three straight division titles and six of the past eight. Which may be why after their latest sub-par effort, a 7-5 loss to the Yankees on Tuesday, manager Mike Scioscia held a closed-door clubhouse meeting with his slumping squad. Club leader Torii Hunter identified the speech as a "pump-it-up special.'' But Scioscia's public critique of their latest game and their eight-game start was less than flattering. No pom-poms were involved as he gave an honest assessment of the state of the disappointed and disappointing team.

The Angels' stretched the clubhouse cooldown period to the outer limits of the permissible 10 minutes to allow Scioscia to "tighten some stuff up,'' in his words.

How did he do that? "You get out that verbal wrench, and you tighten it up,'' Scioscia said. "We have different sizes in several different languages.''

Afterward, Scioscia offered his version of some of the many things he's seen and the many things he'd like to see going forward:

• "Some things have happened this week that have been uncharacteristic, and some things have snowballed.''

• "Some guys in that room are trying too hard. Some guys' confidence is getting tested.''

• "There are a lot of things we're not doing as well as expected to.''

• "The real heartbeat of our club is the rotation. We've been getting good efforts mixed in with inconsistencies.''

• "Pitchers are getting a little tentative, a little indecisive, in the pitcher-catcher relationship.''

• "I think the guys in the bullpen need to get settled.''

• "For the most part, we're not playing the high level of baseball we're capable of playing.''

• "There are things that obviously we need to clean up.''

• "We haven't competed the way we can.''

• "We're talking about being able to execute ... and right now we're not.''

That was never more obvious than in the fourth inning, when Kendry Morales, forgot how many outs there were and nearly got doubled off second base on a routine fly ball to right field by Jeff Mathis. Morales was almost to third base before frantically running back toward second. Morales would have been out if New York's Nick Swisher had made a decent throw to shortstop Derek Jeter, who was awaiting what seemed to be a sure double play at second base.

When someone mentioned regarding Morales' mistake to Scioscia that "it happens,'' Scioscia quickly shot back, "It shouldn't happen. That is definitely not something that falls under the heading, 'Junk happens.' That's something obviously we need eliminate.''

The Angels have a fairly established team that was thought by most experts to have taken a small step back after losing ace John Lackey, leadoff man Chone Figgins and cleanup hitter Vladimir Guerrero in free agency, though Guerrero was replaced by Hideki Matsui in what may turn out to be an upgrade, pitcher Joel Pineiro was signed to give them what appeared to be excellent rotation depth and the bullpen was expected to be much better with the return of Scot Shields and signing of Fernando Rodney.

There isn't much that can be done beyond talking to them. Although, one thing to keep an eye on is youngster Brandon Wood, who is struggling offensively as Figgins' replacement at third base. Wood had only his second hit of the season in the loss to the Yankees and has looked overmatched at times. They have given him a couple days off already, and Scioscia said they will "monitor'' his progress.

One thing Scioscia should be pleased about is that the Angels are not making excuses. "He's right,'' Hunter said of Scioscia. "We've got to go out and play the game the way we know how to perform and execute.''

Hunter didn't accept the suggestion that the tragedy a couple of their players witnessed before heading to Yankee Stadium for the game -- a 39-year-old man plunged to his death outside their team hotel -- is a valid excuse for a poor performance.

"That ain't the reason why we lost,'' Hunter said. "We've been playing bad the the whole time -- eight days.''

Hunter called the start "disappointing'' but stopped short of saying he's concerned.

"Come back and ask me that in 30, 40 games,'' he said. "If we're 2-28, I'd really be (ticked).''

That, of course, won't happen. For now, on a scale of 1-10, the Angels only rank a 5 on the Worry Meter. But as their manager well knows, they need to avoid many repeat performances of Tuesday's disaster.

The Angels aren't the only ones off to a disappointing start. Here are four other teams who have struggled out of the gate, and just how worried they should be.

Manager Jerry Manuel said the team "seemed unprepared'' after Nationals veteran Livan Hernandez beat ace Johan Santana, a demoralizing defeat if there ever was one. That's not good, but the troubles go well beyond that. Their 2-5 start has conjured thoughts of a repeat of last year's disaster.

"Not impressive'' was the two word summary by one scout of their beginning.

Oliver Perez "didn't look good'' in the words of the scout, Mike Pelfrey "didn't have his slider'' during his last start and John Maine is throwing so poorly his spot in the rotation is now in jeopardy (Frenando Nieve and Hisanori Takahashi would make sense), leaving three question marks behind Santana and youngster Jon Niese, who looked very good in his 2010 debut.

Jose Reyes came back for the last three defeats (the first two to the Nats), but the lineup still looks weak without Carlos Beltran. David Wright has two home runs, and the scout said he thought Wright was using his lower half better but was still occasionally "pulling off the ball" -- though, the scout said he's done that before even in the good times.

With talented youngsters Fernando Martinez and Ike Davis in the minors, Manuel has some tough managerial calls to make. Mike Jacobs can carry a team when he's hot, but some found it questionable to bat him fourth for a few games early before he established that he's hot. "Mike Jacobs is not the answer. He isn't even close to the answer,'' the scout said.

Plus, the call to play Gary Matthews over Angel Pagan raised a few eyebrows, especially when Reyes was out and the Mets needed a leadoff hitter. "Pagan brings so much more on both sides of the ball, it's not even close,'' the scout said.

Worry Meter: 7.

Everyone in Florida said the Orioles were improved, and some even called them "most improved.'' Through eight games, though, they look as feeble as ever.

They've lost five in a row to drop to 1-7. What's more, word of their alleged improvement apparently hasn't gotten to their skeptical fans; the O's drew a record low 9,129 fans to beautiful Camden Yards on Monday.

New closer Mike Gonzalez is already under the gun with an 18.00 ERA and two blown saves in three chances. But most of their issues are offensive in nature thus far. The injury to star second baseman Brian Roberts has hurt them, as Julio Lugo (2 for 16) doesn't appear to be an adequate replacement. They do have a pretty nice nucleus with Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis and Brian Matusz. But it might not be enough. Not yet.

Worry Meter: 6. (No sense worrying too much in that division. Not much they can do. Not yet, anyway.)

There was suspicion all along that the Mariners overachieved last year to get to 85 wins. They led the majors in one-run victories and actually allowed more runs than they scored, so there were a fair number of skeptics to go with the believers in their team built around pitching and defense.

The injury to Cliff Lee, their biggest winter acquisition, is demoralizing in that he's here for only one year and they need him now. Doug Fister and Jason Vargas have been starting games while they wait for Lee (he was said to be pain-free in a bullpen session Tuesday but isn't expected back until early May) and negotiate with Jarrod Washburn, and on Tuesday night, Fister was the first starter to pick up a win, but that only improved them to 3-5.

But the hitting is the main issue. They lost Russell Branyan and Adrian Beltre off last year's team and are counting heavily on Milton Bradley, whose reported one-finger salute to Texas Rangers fans represented the number of hits he had until his three-run home run ended a 20-inning scoreless streak and beat the A's 3-0 Tuesday night. Meanwhile, Ken Griffey Jr., Casey Kotchman, Figgins and Jack Wilson haven't started much better, as all are batting .214 or worse. Even Ichiro, at .222, isn't doing much better.

Worry Meter: 4.

As SI.com's Joe Lemire pointed out, no team that's started 0-7 has ever made the playoffs. The Astros aren't likely to buck that trend.

When I referred to the Astros as a "rebuilding'' team this spring, their new manager Brad Mills appropriately corrected me. This team has far too many established veterans to be considered rebuilding. So Mills is right.

Rebuilding is actually what they should be doing but won't under their current dysfunctional front office setup. In the meantime, they have a lineup with Carlos Lee hitting .111, Hunter Pence at .120, Lance Berkman out indefinitely and a bunch of guys few have heard of. At least ace Roy Oswalt "looked very good'' according to a scout.

But of course, since the Astros refuse to rebuild, they won't do the smart thing and trade Oswalt at the deadline. They'll undoubtedly hold onto him for the race that will never materialize.

Worry meter: 8.

Jimmy Rollins is likely to wind up on the disabled list due to his calf injury. The great likelihood is that Phillies people play it safe with their star shortstop.

• Phillies GM Ruben Amaro told ESPN Deportes they've talked to Pedro Martinez. But one Phillies person called a Phillies-Pedro reunion anytime soon "doubtful."

• Good for young Reds outfielder Jay Bruce apologizing for being caught making an obscene gesture. He didn't try to explain it away even though it was done in a light-hearted manner toward his own dugout, where teammates were teasing him for breaking an 0-for-17 streak. Bradley could learn from Bruce, though it's unlikely he will.

• The Blue Jays are rebuilding the right way hiring many new scouts and taking chances on young talents, like shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria. Their $10-million signing of Hechavarria was announced Tuesday and they outbid the Yankees, who bid $8.5 million for Hechavarria.

• It's an issue worth discussing, but I think Orlando Hudson is off base in suggesting to Yahoo.com that racism is behind the non-signings of Jermaine Dye and Gary Sheffield. Ageism appears to be at play, as older players faced disappointing markets all winter, no matter what race they are. John Smoltz is working in broadcasting because he didn't find a suitable offer. Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon, Vladimir Guerrero and Miguel Tejada, all very accomplished older players, had to settle for one-year deals. Dye's case is a bit curious, but if Sheffield is your second example of alleged discrimination, your argument is in trouble. Sheffield is 40, can't move, is usually hurt and, putting it kindly, self-centered. (Atlanta was about the only place he didn't act up in all his stops.)

• The Yankees, led by Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, heading over to hug Matsui at the ring ceremony was the best scene so far this year. Matsui was beloved in the Yankees clubhouse, and not only because he is about the most clutch hitter in the game. He's truly a great guy, as well.

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