Angels banking on old model to return to top
Defense, power bullpen, key additions could revitalize club
TEMPE, Ariz. -- In some ways, the Angels had become a sort of walled city down the street from Disneyland. Before 2010, they had finished first in the American League West five times in six years and had the state of California's only world championship in the past two decades.
They played the way manager Mike Scioscia wanted: contact at the plate -- not on-base percentage -- running first to third, executing hit-and-runs and playing defense.
Then it all unraveled, and when the 2010 season was over, the Angels were 10 games behind the Rangers and in third place in the American League West, at 80-82, outscored by 21 runs, last in the division in runs allowed. Nearly 38 percent of their runs were scored on homers, and even then, their best hitter, Kendrys Morales, went down for the season with a fractured ankle suffered celebrating a walkoff homer.
2010 Spring Training - Los Angeles Angels
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Sights & Sounds
Spring Training Info
"It wasn't pretty," said Torii Hunter. "That kinda summed things up."
Then came this past offseason. By the time general manager Tony Reagins was going up to Carl Crawford's room to challenge Boston's offer, Crawford had already made up his mind he was signing with the Red Sox. The Angels could never get close to a deal with Adrian Beltre, so they agreed to take three-time All-Star Vernon Wells' contract, signed left-handed relievers Hisanori Takahashi and Scott Downs and are back looking up at the Rangers and Athletics.
"I know what some people think, and that may be in our favor," said Scioscia. "But we're a lot better. Our defense is better. We've got good starting pitching and a very deep bullpen. We've got power in the middle, although we need Kendrys Morales back [and he is only running in back fields at this point]. But we're going to be good again. And I don't know how Mark Trumbo is going to fit as yet, but he may be a big factor. He's really something."
Essentially, the 2011 Angels are built on the Scioscia model that won the 2002 World Series and thrived until last season.
It begins with starting pitching: Cy Young-challenger and strikeout-leader Jered Weaver, Danny Haren, Ervin Santana, and Joel Pineiro.
Then there is Scott Kazmir in his walk year. There was a time when he was the vaunted gun in Tampa Bay, but Rays GM Andrew Friedman knew precisely when to dump Kazmir's contract (in 2009), in the middle of a run when Tampa Bay won the AL East twice in three years.
Kazmir's 5.92 era in 2010 reflected his season, and whereas he once struck out 10+ batters per nine innings, last season, he fanned 93 batters in 150 innings.
"He's been working on his mechanics, and we've seen progress," Scioscia said Saturday morning.
Three hours later, Kazmir took to the mound against the Indians and looked as plebian as last season, allowing three hits, four walks and four runs in 4 1/3 innings.
The second essential in the model is the power bullpen. Fernando Rodney is at the end, with the two new left-handers (Hisanori Takahashi and Scott Downs), Kevin Jepsen, Jordan Walden and a rookie from Coastal Carolina named Michael Kohn, whose cousin ran for governor of South Carolina and who has struck out 204 batters in 135 Minor League innings.
"I think probably what I like best is our defense is really improved," Scioscia said. "We really have a three-center-fielder defense," says Wells.
Asked if the transition to left field is difficult because for the first time in his career he's not looking directly to see the ball come off the bat, Wells laughed, "not at all. Actually, it's kind of boring out there."
"It is boring in right field," said Hunter. "Peter [Bourjos] is so fast, we don't have much to do."
Wells may make light of the workload in left field, but the important thing is that he's relaxed. Not running as much can save his legs for offense (particularly since they're off the Toronto turf). Wells is also a diligent worker who has prepared hard for the transition.
"That's the way I am," he said.
We know. One postseason, Wells spent a week at ESPN as an analyst and was in the building two hours before every meeting, asking questions and researching online.
Indeed, Scioscia argues that Bourjos may be as fast as Crawford, although he adds that Double-A phenom Mike Trout can run with Bourjos, step for step. And with the three-center-fielder defense, Bobby Abreu, at 37, can DH.
With Jeff Mathis the regular behind the plate, Erick Aybar at short, Maicer Izturis, Alberto Callaspo and possibly Brandon Wood at third, the belief is that the Angels will be more consistent catching the ball.
"We need Morales back in there, because he is the middle of our offense," said Scioscia.
This weekend, Morales did some straight running, but he's yet to run the bases or slide. Which raises the Trumbo question.
"He has been the talk of this camp," said hitting coach Mickey Hatcher. "He has [Mark] McGwire power. He squares the ball. He doesn't swing and miss very often. He's hit balls off the left- and right-field foul poles, he's cleared light towers and the batter's eye in center field. He has a chance to be really special."
In the Angels' first 17 games, Trumbo batted .340 with five homers and a 1.100 OPS.
"The encouraging thing is that he's hit the good pitchers this spring," said Scioscia. "We went back and researched his Minor League record, and he hit the better pitchers in Double- and Triple-A."
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound first baseman could be a great story. He was an 18th-round pick out of an Anaheim high school as a pitcher in the 2004 Draft.
"I got to the Instructional League, and my arm was bothering me," said the 25-year-old Trumbo. "They shut me down and told me to hit. I still haven't pitched in professional baseball."
Maybe sometime, he'll get to pitch the 17th inning in a tie game.
Trumbo hit 36 homers at Salt Lake City in 2010, but what's interesting is that if you look at his ascension line, his average has progressed: .220, .272, .281, .291, .301. His OBP has also progressed: .293, .326, .325, .333, .368.
If Trumbo is ready and Morales comes back, it could mean fewer at-bats for Abreu, who had another 20/20 season but saw his OBP and OPS fall to career lows.
The problem appears that it could be getting runners on in front of Hunter, Wells, Morales and Trumbo. The Angels had the worst on-base percentage in the league (.311). Aybar is discussed as a leadoff hitter, and he had a .306 OBP last season, .318 lifetime.
Bourjos has made strides with his swing and approach this spring and can run with anyone, but in 51 games in August and September, he got on base less than 25 percent of the time.
Callaspo's OBP was .291. Mathis was .219, although his approach of hitting line drives in the alleys may work far better than his attempts to drive the ball.
"Sometimes when teams get playing and rolling, they figure things out," said Hunter. "I think that can happen here. We're a lot better than people think. We'll surprise."
In a division where the Rangers and Athletics have built formidable teams, and Oakland could have young, championship-caliber pitching, it won't be easy. But as they get back to their Angel ways, if they pitch and someone gets on base at the front of the lineup, they will, at worst, be challenging.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.