Spring Postcard: Angels still need an ace to guide them

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1. This is a team without an ace

The last image that L.A. fans will have of John Lackey in an Angels uniform will be of him imploring manager Mike Scioscia to leave him in Game 5 of last October's ALCS. "I got this!" he barked, as the spittle flew. "This is mine!" Scioscia wasn't swayed; the Angels ended up winning the game, but lost the series; and less than two months later, Lackey, the Angels' second-round pick in 1999 and the winner of 102 games in eight seasons in Anaheim, signed a 5-year, $82.5 million contract with the Red Sox. "We made an evaluation on the player, and we put a dollar value on the player, and in terms of annual salary and years, and when his expectation exceeded what we felt, what we were comfortable with, we decided to go in a different direction, as did he," says GM Tony Reagins. "As far as John, there's a tremendous amount of respect for him, what he did for this organization, and there are no bitter feelings."

That's all very nice. But now the Angels will enter 2010 with five starters (Scott Kazmir, Joel Pineiro, Ervin Santana, Joe Saunders and Jered Weaver) who have all had success -- four have won 16 or more games at least once, three have been All-Stars -- but none of whom have yet to show that they can be what Lackey was: a bellwether, a certain Game 1 playoff starter, a big-game pitcher. Each of them would make for a nice No. 3 starter, and the rotation is one of the game's deepest, but will any of them become the No. 1 that any real World Series contender requires? "I think we've got a solid five," says center fielder Torii Hunter. "If we had a five game series and had to pitch five pitchers, I'd definitely bet on my guys." This, of course, is not how baseball -- particularly playoff baseball -- is designed, nor works. And that could be a problem.

2. The loss of Chone Figgins might be even more painful

Not only because Figgins was the offense's lead-off-hitting sparkplug -- he ranked second in the AL in 2009 with 114 runs scored, first with 109 walks and third with 42 stolen bases -- but because he'll now be plying his trade with the arch-rival Mariners, whom the Angels will play 19 times. "You definitely have to keep your focus forward," says Scioscia, "and focus on filling the voids that are left when prominent guys leave your team." The Angels have successfully sustained free agent losses to their offense before -- Darrin Erstad, Troy Glaus, David Eckstein, Garret Anderson, to name a few -- but none of those had been as recently integral as was Figgins. Shortstop Erick Aybar will likely replace Figgins atop the lineup, and although he hit .312 last season, he drew only 30 walks in 556 plate appearances, and stole just 14 bases despite his considerable speed. The production of the Angels' middle-of-the-order hitters will likely suffer without Figgins dancing on base in front of them, and it's difficult to imagine the club will again rank second in the majors in runs scored, as they did last season.

3. Even so, never count the Angels out

"I'm going to tell you: the Angels, they will be good," said the Mariners' Milton Bradley, who has now been a member of every AL West club but the Angels, the other day. "They always are. That's the way it is. It's like the Utah Jazz in basketball -- no matter who they've got, they're going to be good." The Angels undoubtedly remain "good," but the problem for them is that each of the other teams in the AL West appear to have markedly improved from '09, the Angels, if anything, have gotten ever-so-slightly worse, due mainly to the departures of Lackey and Figgins. The Angels have won the division in five of the past six seasons, by an average of nine games, but it will be a tall task indeed to make it six of seven.

Still, says Hunter, "The other teams in our division definitely look better. But we won the last couple years, and for me, the last time I checked we still have the title. It's premature to say we're going to lose. That's just a projection." The Angels remain one of the most admired, best-managed and best-run organizations in the majors, and even after enduring an annus horribilis in 2009, in which several key players (Lackey, Hunter, pitcher Ervin Santana) were sidelined or hampered by injuries, and pitcher Nick Adenhart was killed in an auto accident, they won the division by 10 games. Having said that: if Angel Stadium is quiet this October for just the third time since 2001, it wouldn't be a surprise.

Joel Pineiro

That a team as fiscally careful as the Angels would give a two-year, $16 million free-agent contract -- the eighth largest of the off-season, in terms of total monetary value -- to a 31-year-old pitcher with a 87-79 record and a 4.39 ERA might seem to be a head-scratcher. But Pineiro was simply not the same pitcher in '09 as he was for the first nine seasons of his career. At the behest of renowned Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, Pineiro became, suddenly, a sinkerball pitcher. PitchFX data indicates that he threw his sinker more than 27 percent of the time, after throwing it less than 2 percent of the time the previous two years. The results were remarkable. After going 7-7 with a 5.15 ERA in 2008, Pineiro was 15-12 with a 3.49 ERA in '09.

Can he sustain that success on a new team, in a new league, and, perhaps most crucially, without Duncan's daily tutelage and the sure-handed catching of Yadier Molina? Pineiro believes so. "I'm not going to change anything I did, just because I went to another league or anything like that," he says. "It's going after hitters, attacking the strike-zone and making them put the ball in play with my sinker. I'm not going to go out there and strike out 200, 300 people. I'm a pitch to contact guy. That's one of the things that attracted me to Anaheim -- their focus is so much on defense." Pineiro's unlikely to repeat last year's numbers, but his new go-to pitch should serve him well even in the AL. An ERA just over 4.00 seems probable, which would give the Angels another solid middle-of-the-rotation-type starter.

Brandon Wood

Of course, Wood could have filled this spot in 2006 ... and 2007, 2008 and 2009. After he put up one of the more extraordinary seasons in minor league history in 2005, when he hit .321 with 43 home runs and 115 RBI at Single-A Rancho Cucamonga, Baseball America named Wood the No. 3 prospect in the game. Then, as he watched the players that surrounded him on that list -- Delmon Young, Justin Upton, Stephen Drew, etc. -- quickly become major league regulars, Wood spent year after year riding buses and continuing to smash homers out of dinky minor league parks, waiting for his brief big league call-ups (he has 236 total plate appearances with the Angels) to become permanent. "It was tough going back to Triple-A for the second, and then the third, year," he says.

The departure of Figgins, though, means that Wood should finally have a full-time major league gig, at third base. The Angels aren't expecting him to put up offensive numbers anywhere near those of his '05 campaign, but they are counting on the former shortstop to play an elite hot corner. "We think he has the potential to be a Gold Glove-type third baseman," says Reagins. Hunter predicts that Wood will hit .260, with 20 homers and 70 RBI, and that for Wood would represent a fine -- if belated -- start.

Hideki Matsui

On the heels of his World Series MVP swan song with the Yankees, the Angels signed the 35-year-old Matsui to a one-year, $6.5 million deal to fill the hole in their lineup left by Vladmir Guerrero's defection to Texas. Matsui (.274/.367/.509, 28 HR, 90 RBI) rather significantly out-produced Guerrero (.295/.334/.460, 15 HR, 50 RBI) last season, and should prove to be an upgrade on the future Hall of Famer, likely as a full-time DH. "I think we want to see where his [chronically balky] knee is, explore the possibility of him playing the outfield," says Scioscia. "But his ability to play everyday and bring that veteran presence in the middle of our lineup, that's more important than playing the outfield."

Scot Shields

The 34-year-old Sheields is about to embark on his 10th season as an Angel, making him the club's longest-tenured member. He also might be its most quietly valuable. Shields was hampered by a partially torn left patellar tendon at the start of the year -- "My knee hurt every time I landed on it," he says -- and pitched his last game on May 26, before undergoing surgery in mid-June. It's no coincidence that the Angels' bullpen, traditionally one of the league's best, faltered last season (its 4.49 ERA in `09 ranked it 23rd in the majors, only the second time in the decade it finished out of the top ten) without his steady presence. Now, though, Shields (career ERA: 3.03) expects to be fully recovered by opening day, and he'll return to anchor a bullpen that will also feature free-agent signing Fernando Rodney and quickly-developing Kevin Jepsen and Jason Bulger in front of closer Brian Fuentes. The bullpen, in other words, should once again be one of the club's strengths.

Scioscia, who expects more from his catchers that perhaps any other manager, intends to once again use Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis in perhaps a 60/40 time-share (Napoli got 382 at-bats last season, Mathis 237). "Those guys are not resigned to not being everyday guys," Scioscia says. "They both want to be. I'm sure some day there'll be some separation."... After a frustrating year, which included a 20-game stint in Triple-A, Howie Kendrick seems ready to chase the batting title that so many have predicted for him. "My goal every year is to hit .300," he says. "I missed that last year, I was about .290 or something [actually .291]. Maybe one day I'll win a batting title. That's something I'd love to do." Kendrick should easily top his career-high of 105 games played, and should be more like the hitter he was in the second half of '09 (.358) than the first (.239)... I was wondering what would become of Roger Kahlon, Matsui's interpreter for each of his seven seasons as a Yankee -- and there he was, standing by Matsui's side in the Angels' spring training clubhouse, wearing a red warm-up shirt instead of his accustomed Yankee blue. "Since he's on a one-year contract, I didn't really move," said Kahlon. "I'm still based in New Jersey. My mother's house is there, my house is there. I haven't found anywhere to stay near Anaheim yet. I'll find something soon."