Angels have no margin for error in defense of AL West crown
This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 4: the Los Angeles Angels.
2014 Record and Finish: 98–64 (.605), first place in AL West (first overall)
2015 Projected Record and Finish: 92–70 (.568), second place in AL West (fourth overall)
The Case For
Although they trailed the Athletics until mid-August, the Angels finished the regular season as the AL West champion with the majors' best record and most runs scored (773, 4.77 per game). Indeed, even with subpar seasons from Albert Pujols (.272/.324/.466, still good for a 125 OPS+) and Josh Hamilton (.263/.331/.414, 114 OPS+), they received above-average production at every position. Los Angeles will be without Hamilton for at least the first couple months of the season due to his shoulder injury—and maybe longer, given a pending drug suspension—but offseason acquisition Matt Joyce should be able to pick up the slack.
Breakout sensation Garrett Richards may not be ready to return from his season-ending torn patellar tendon on Opening Day, but he should be back some time in April, and the Angels will have the benefit of a full season of AL Rookie of the Year runner-up Matt Shoemaker in the rotation. The bullpen should be far more settled with Huston Street in the closer role from the outset. Oh, and Los Angeles still has Mike Trout, fresh off his overdue AL MVP award and a career-high 36 homers.
The Case Against
There are plenty of reasons to be worried about the rotation, between Richards's knee, Jered Weaver's diminishing velocity, C.J. Wilson's declining performance, Tyler Skaggs's loss to Tommy John surgery and concerns that Shoemaker—who broke out at age 27—could turn back into a pumpkin just as quickly as he arrived at the dance after so many years in the minors. Rookie starter Andrew Heaney offers plenty of promise, but the hit the team took by trading second baseman Howie Kendrick to the Dodgers to acquire him is considerable on both the offensive and defensive sides, as he produced a career-best 5.4 WAR (second-best on the team). The competition for his vacated spot (see below) is underwhelming, and the bench as a whole looks very thin. In short, the Halos just don't appear to have a big margin for error.
X-Factor: Second base
Currently, the Angels have four candidates vying to succeed Kendrick: Josh Rutledge, Grant Green (pictured above), Johnny Giavotella and Taylor Featherston, none of whom are likely to deliver the impact that their predecessor typically provided. The most experienced is the going-on–26-year-old Rutledge, owner of a career batting line of .259/.308/.403 for an 83 OPS+ in three seasons with the Rockies, not to mention -12 Defensive Runs Saved in roughly half a season at second base; all told, his career WAR is -1.7. Also from the Rockies is Rule 5 pick Featherston, a 25-year-old former fifth-round pick out of Texas Christian University who hit .260/.322/.439 with 16 homers and 14 steals at Double A Tulsa. He's more in the mix as a utilityman, though, as he can handle shortstop and third as well as second. Meanwhile, the 27-year-old Giavotella owns a career 67 OPS+ (.238/.277/.334) in 465 PA strewn over four seasons with the Royals, during which he failed to claim a job that was there for the taking time and time again, in part because of his defense.
Perhaps the most promising option is the 27-year-old Green, a former first-round pick who made three appearances among Baseball Prospectus' Top 101 Prospects, topping out at No. 49 in 2011. He too owns a career OPS+ of 83 via a .259/.293/.347 line in 256 PA, though he's been much closer to average (95 OPS+) since being acquired from Oakland, where he began his career in an 0-for-15 slide. While he's bounced all around the diamond, the small samples of his defense at second (-6 DRS, -2 UZR in 55 games) suggest he could struggle there as well.
Number To Know: 8.4 WAR
That's what the Angels received from Pujols (3.9 WAR), Weaver (3.0), Hamilton (1.5) and Wilson (0.0), their four highest-paid players last year. The quartet made $73.1 million, and this year their combined salary has risen to $85.7 million, thanks largely to the sharp increase in Hamilton's take. That growth was one reason the Angels not only weren't players for any free agents of note but also were forced to trim payroll by dealing Kendrick.
Though Pujols rebounded from an injury-shortened 2013 showing, by now it's clear that the 35-year-old, three-time MVP winner is a shadow of the player he was in St. Louis. Weaver—whose ERA and FIP have increased in each of the last three seasons—is no longer a Cy Young contender, and Hamilton isn't suddenly going to recover his MVP form, if he even plays this year. That leaves a whole lot riding on Wilson, who has had one good season out of three since signing his five-year, $77.5 million deal.
Most Overrated: David Freese
"I think they thought they were going to get a prime-time player. I don’t think he’s quite that player. He’s a good major leaguer, but he’s not that player he was in the  World Series."
Most Underrated: Erick Aybar
"There’s nothing that he can’t do. People always said he didn’t walk a lot. I just don’t think everybody can be a guy that walks. You can’t teach everybody to be patient, to look at pitches and watch the count. This is a guy that has an aggressive nature who goes up there to do damage. And I don’t think he’s been given the props he deserves as a defender. He’s got one of the best, most accurate throwing arms."