TEMPE, AZ - Albert Pujols #5 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim waits for the pitch in the third inning against of the Los Angeles Dodgers during a spring training baseball game at Tempe Diablo Stadium. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
The Los Angeles Angels found hundreds of millions of dollars in an old coat that they hadn't worn for a while. But will it be enough to overtake the Texas Rangers?
But where last year the Angels had one of the worst hitters of the past 20 years, this year they'll have one of the best. The whole Jeff Mathis thing might have been overblown. The last 10 players to hit under .200 over 1,000 career at-bats were a who's who of All-Stars and Hall of Famers. Just look at the list!
- Tom Glavine
- Greg Maddux
- Rick Reuschel
- Jerry Reuss
- Don Sutton
- Phil Niekro
- Tom Seaver
- Jim Kaat
- Gaylord Perry
- Juan Marichal
That's a cavalcade of amazing players. Mathis is in pretty good company if you frame it in the right context. But if you're looking at apples to apples, Mathis is the sixth non-pitcher in baseball history to have a sub-.200 average in over 1,000 career at-bats. He's one 13 players in history to have two seasons with at least 200 at-bats with an OPS+ under 40. He was, as the kids say, not a good hitter.
Albert Pujols is one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. He's played 11 years, and he's finished in the top-ten in MVP voting every one of those years. If he and Mathis were to shake hands, a rift in space-time would open up, and you could crawl through the wormhole and watch yourself being born.
That's the Angels' offseason to me, even though they did more than that. They traded for a replacement at catcher, and not just any scrub with a chest protector, but Chris Iannetta, who is a living, breathing, plus-hitting catcher. They added another fantastic starting pitcher to their already formidable staff. But the story of the Angels' offseason can fit on the inside cover of a matchbook to me: out goes Mathis, in comes Pujols.
The Angels led the American League in ERA last season, even beating the Rays, who play in one of the most extreme pitchers' parks in the majors. But they missed the playoffs because of a feckless offense that contained two of the very worst hitters that baseball had to offer in 2011. One of those players is gone. In his place is the best hitter of his generation. Things are looking up.
But it's not all unicorns and leprechauns. The projected starting lineup, via MLB Depth Charts:
The lineup, reviewed in a single word for each spot: 1. Okay, 2. cool, 3. great, 4. fine … 5. wait, seriously, fifth? I know this is supposed to be a one-word review, but Vernon Wells might actually hit fifth? As in, between fourth and sixth? Vernon Wells? 6. understandable, 7. fine, 8. fine, 9. fine.
The advancing age of Hunter and Wells is a legitimate concern, so it's not like the Angels have a perfect lineup once you stop thinking about Wells, but it's a lineup filled with people who make sense. If Abreu does struggle, the Angels will have two ready-made DHs in Mark Trumbo and Kendrys Morales, casualties of the Pujols signing.
But Vernon Wells. Yeesh. He's been alternating good seasons with awful seasons since 2006. The human brain is wired to look for patterns, so the alternating bit probably doesn't mean anything. And just when you start to feel optimistic about the Angels' offense, you look up and note that Wells might hit fifth. That's paying too much attention to one questionable player, though, especially if Mike Trout can push him out of the lineup before the end of the season.
Swapping in Iannetta for Mathis and Pujols for Trumbo is an amazing improvement. Even if Wells repeats his previous season, the Angels' lineup is much, much improved. And it's not as if the lineup is supposed to be the thing that impresses most about the Angels. Their rotation is ridiculous, ranked by FanGraphs as the best in baseball. Dan Haren and Jered Weaver are strike-throwing, bat-missing machines. C.J. Wilson is probably better than you think if you don't remember how hard it is for a pitcher to put up those kind of numbers in Texas. Ervin Santana might be the best fourth starter in the game.
If the Angels are going to overtake the Rangers in the AL West, it's going to be about the starting pitching. And possibly this Pujols cat that everyone keeps talking about. The Angels almost certainly improved more than any other team in baseball over the offseason. Forget about 2016, when the contracts start to look questionable: Just about the only way the Angels were going to compete with the Rangers is if they added the best hitter in baseball, a top-20 pitcher, and got rid of at least one of the millstones around the neck of the starting lineup. That's exactly what they did.
Will it be enough? Dunno. The Rangers are still a fantastic team, and they won the West by 10 games. That's a hard deficit to make up. But they certainly increased their chances at a playoff spot with their $300 million or so in committed money, especially with the extra wild card. Hitting was a problem for the Angels last year, so they got the best hitter available and ditched the worst hitter in the majors. As far as an offseason blueprint goes, that's a pretty good way to address the team's weakness.
Coulda Shoulda Woulda (Move they didn't make)
Jerome WIlliams was a great story last year, a poor man's Ryan Vogelsong, right down to the part about being a former Giants prospect. But with Bartolo Colons and other assorted fifth-starter options floating around, it's a little curious that they didn't get the extended warranty and get someone else, even if through a trade for a pitcher like Wandy Rodriguez (or at least Jeremy Guthrie).
Kendrys Morales was very good before his freak accident. He's something like a third-DH at this point, but if he's anything like his old self, Mike Scioscia will get him plenty of at-bats. He also added an 's' at some point. That probably helps a player's offense, though the major studies that were commissioned have been inconclusive so far.
They lead the AL in ERA again. Pujols repeats his season from last year, without the indignity of the poor start. Still can't overtake the Rangers, but still playing in a 163rd game at the end of the year.