ANAHEIM, CA: Albert Pujols #5 of the Los Angeles Angels reacts to his homerun to become the first player to hit at least 30 homeruns in each of his first 12 seasons during the ninth inning against the Oakland Athletics at Angel Stadium of Anaheim in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
The Los Angeles Angels finds themselves in familiar territory, despite a second wild card and a more expensive roster.
The Los Angeles Angels aren't a bad team. Not by any stretch of the imagination! In fact, the third-place Angels have a better record than the AL Central-leading White Sox, as well as all of the contenders for the second wild card in the National League. The AL West is a little AL East-like this year, though, and because of that, their 77-66 record puts them 3½ games back of the second wild card and 8½ back of the division-leading Texas Rangers.
What's fascinating about this, and likely painful for many Angels' fans, is all of the resources and new faces pumped into the Angels this winter. Albert Pujols was signed to a 10-year, $240 million contract, the third-largest in the history of baseball. C.J. Wilson didn't get nearly as much cash, but his five-year, $75 million deal was meant to strengthen an already productive rotation. Kendrys Morales was returning after a broken leg cost him most of 2010 as well as all of 2011. Chris Iannetta was added to bolster production behind the plate. Finally, Mike Trout was expected to be part of the team at some point, though, even the most optimistic didn't think it would be as the league MVP right out of the gate.
Sometimes, new faces isn't enough -- the Angels wouldn't be the first team to load up and then fail to deliver on off-season promise. But what's odd about this with regard to the Angels is where they stood after 143 games last year: the 2011 Angels were 78-65, 2-½ back in the division, and 7-½ back of the only wild card. That's just one game difference, albeit with wild card and division distances swapped, from where they are today. That, despite all of the good they did over the winter to improve on that.
Plenty of good things have happened to get the Angels to where they are. After a slow start, Pujols is hitting .287/.345/.534 on the season, with an OPS+ (145) close to last year's rate (149). Mark Trumbo, who has been more utility than anything this year, is hitting .269/.322/.500 with 30 homers and 49 extra-base hits in 525 plate appearances. Iannetta has brought offense to a position that has lacked it ever since Mike Napoli was dealt for Vernon Wells. Morales owns a 120 OPS+ this year as the team's primary DH. Then, there's Trout, who is hitting .331/.396/.569 while leading the AL in OPS+.
That's about it for positives, though. Wilson has been league-average as a starter, and at the wrong time, as Dan Haren (85 ERA+) and Ervin Santana (74 ERA+) have been inconsistent, at best. Jered Weaver is the lone Angels starter well above-average, with Wilson the only other even above that mark at all. The bullpen brought in an anchor in Ernesto Frieri, but they can only do so much when the rotation is hemorrhaging runs. Overall, the relievers have been about average, while the starters have been well below that as a unit.
Offensively, there have been issues, but the overall strength of the lineup has allowed the Halos to overcome that to a degree. Wells is the team's leader for games played in left field, with his .223/.271/.427 line dragging down the team line. Howie Kendrick's OPS+ has dipped from a career-high 125 in 2011 to a respectable, but not quite good, 103. While Iannetta is at .247/.340/.431, Halos' backstops as a whole are hitting .231/.311/.361 thanks to the failures of Bobby Wilson, John Hester, and Hank Conger. As said, though, the lineup has overcome this, and leads the American League in OPS+ as well as wRC+, if that's more your speed.
That pitching has just been brutal, and that's where separation between 2011 and 2012 kicks in. Last year's Angels squad was league-average offensively, with the fourth-best ERA+ in the AL. This year's club can mash, but only the likes of the Twins and Indians -- both 59-84 on the year -- own worse ERA+ in 2012. Their primary opponents, division rivals Oakland and Texas, rank first and second, respectively.
Things didn't end well for the 2011 Halos. They won just eight of their final 19 contests, despite outscoring opponents 81 to 76 in that stretch. With four games left to play, they sat three games back of the wild card, and just one behind the Rays. They would lose all four games, never entering into the insanity that was Game 162, 2011.
If the Angels could pitch well for the next three weeks, they could easily head in the opposite direction of the 2011 team. The offense is there, and has been there, and as long as they don't suffer a rash of injuries in the next few days, will continue to be there. The pitching, though, needs to improve their performance, even if it's unsustainable, or cosmetic, or nothing that can be relied upon to repeat. The Angels need some wins in the bank, but with a little luck -- maybe some of what was denied them last September -- they can get them.