With pitchers and catchers having already reported to camp, it’s time to start looking at the Astros competition. The Los Angeles Angels will be looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2013 season. Perhaps the low point of the Angels 84-loss campaign was getting swept by our lowly Astros in a 4-game series at Angels Stadium.
Marquee free agent Josh Hamilton failed to live up to expectations in the first year of his 5-year, $125 million contract. Superstar Albert Pujols missed the final 63 games due to a torn plantar fascia in his left foot. Meanwhile, former Astro J.B. Shuck was a pleasant surprise and Mike Trout was… well, Mike Trout.
Pitching was the big issue in Anaheim as the Halos ranked near the bottom of the league in most categories. Jared Weaver and C.J. Wilson were excellent at the top of the rotation. But, after that, Angels fans were in for three days of misery. The bullpen also had its share of problems. Closer Ernesto Frieri‘s up-and-down season seemed to spread through the Angels’ relief corps like a bad case of the flu.
Albert Pujols (Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports)
So, should we expect anything different from the Halos in 2014? Well, Pujols claims to be pain free and ready to go. But the powerful bat of Mark Trumbo will be missing from the lineup. Trumbo was sent to the Diamondbacks over the winter in a deal that netted starting pitchers Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs. The club is hoping that newcomers David Freese and Raul Ibanez can bolster the middle of the lineup and offset the loss of Trumbo.
Howie Kendrick could also help pick up the slack. The second-baseman had a strong performance in 2013. His OPS of .775 was actually higher than that of Pujols. And, even though it seems like he has been around forever, Kendrick is still only 30 years old. Rightfielder Kole Calhoun, 26, is another player to keep an eye on.
Already on the hook for nearly $400 million with Hamilton and Pujols, Arturo Moreno decided against adding a high profile Free Agent this winter. Ibanez and reliever Joe Smith, perhaps better described as mid-level Free Agents, will be expected to play key roles with the club.
A slew of non-roster invitees were also added. Former Astros Brandon Lyon, Wade LeBlanc, and Carlos Pena will be among those auditioning for jobs with the Angels in Tempe this spring. For more of an inside look at Mike Scioscia‘s club, I posed a few questions to FanSided MLB Director and Halo Hangout writer Kyle Franzoni.
CTH: Will Albert Pujols ever come close to being the dominant player he was in St. Louis or will his 10-year contract end up crippling the organization?
HH: I think Pujols is in for a fantastic rebound season. He’s healthy for the first time in several seasons, he’s excited to get going, and he’s motivated after a career-worst season, one that was capped off by Jack Clark insinuating that he Pujols had used performance-enhancing substances during his career. With all of that seemingly behind him, Pujols has a chance to start earning his money again. Now, will he be the force he was in St. Louis, probably not. Age will eventually take its toll. However, if he can improve slightly on his first campaign in Anaheim (.285/.343/.516, 30,105) then the Angels will be excited by what they see.
CTH: In an effort to upgrade the starting rotation the Angels sent Mark Trumbo to Arizona to acquire Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago. How do you feel about that trade?
HH: Trumbo was a big bat, but the Angels did a solid job of doing that by picking up David Freese from the Cardinals this winter. However, it was a trade that needed to happen for this team, as they seriously needed to get younger in the rotation and their own farm system wasn’t producing anything substantial. Santiago should be able to step right in, and now with the injury to Mark Mulder, Skaggs should be the favorite to do so as well. That said, they both have options remaining, which gives the Angels some flexibility to allow these guys to develop if needed. This move, while needed now, was all about the future.
Kole Calhoun (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
CTH: Kole Calhoun was a nice source of production over the last two months of the 2013 season. Can we expect him to continue to rake or is he more likely to experience a sophomore slump?
HH: Calhoun has shown an ability to hit at every stop he’s made along the way to the Majors, and that ability carried over to his small sample for the Angels. He’s slated to lead-off in 2014, with Mike Trout sliding down the order into the 2-hole. That will mean the Angels expect to see a lot out of Calhoun this season, and he’s given them no reason to believe otherwise. While a sophomore slump is generally expected once the league gets the book on a hitter, Calhoun’s patience at the plate and his ability to get on base and limit strike-outs may prepare him as much as anyone to avoid that slump.
CTH: Carlos Pena served as a veteran clubhouse leader for the Astros until he was released last July. Is there any reason to believe he can stick in Anaheim?
HH: While it is a good depth signing, I find it difficult to believe that Pena will have much impact as an Angel. With Pujols back and fully healthy, reps at first base are going to be extremely limited. The signing of Raul Ibanez and Pujols’ needs for days out of the field will also limit reps at DH. The Angels have enough position flexibility that they can carry only one natural first baseman and slide guys like Howie Kendrick, Kole Calhoun, et al around as needed. That makes it a tough battle for Pena to win.
CTH: Are there any prospects in the pipeline that could make an impact for the Angels this season?
HH: Depending on how the Angels do this season, and what they choose to do with second baseman Howie Kendrick, infielder Taylor Lindsay may be ready to make the jump around mid-season. He carries a solid bat for a middle infielder and will perhaps start the season at Triple-A before getting his first taste of the big leagues.
Nick Maronde may also figure into the season plans again in 2014. A lefty reliever, Maronde was rushed to the Majors during his first professional season but will likely start back in the minors this season. However, given the Angels struggles in the bullpen last season, that may be a revolving door again this year as well.
CTH: Bonus question: What can Astros fans expect from Jerome Williams this year?
Jerome Williams (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)
HH: Williams’ greatest strength was his flexibility to take the ball in any given situation. With the Astros, that role will be a bit more defined, as he’s expected to be given every chance in the world as a starter. That said, he’s nothing more than a solid veteran arm in that he’s nothing special. He’ll post an ERA in the mid-4.00’s, run up a K/9 around 6.0. That said, he’s also homer prone, surrendering them at a clip of 13.0% HR/FB ratio over the last three seasons. With Minute Maid park ranking 6th in HR Park Factor in 2013, that may be a problem with a full starter’s workload. Still, with a young staff, he’s a good addition at the price.
Thanks, Kyle. When I look at this Angels team I see an aging squad that should perform similarly to last season. The offense, which ranked fifth in the American League, could be slightly improved. That will depend on how Calhoun performs and whether or not Pujols and Hamilton can bounce back.
A pitching staff that ranked in the bottom third of the league in 2013 could also be slightly improved. But if the youngsters struggle or an injury or two pops up, there isn’t much depth. Last season I predicted the Angels would run away with the division. I’m not going to be so bold this time around. I see them doing a little better than last season, going 83-79. Unfortunately, that won’t be enough to get them out of third place or into a playoff spot.
Thanks again to Kyle Franzoni for Climbing the Hill and helping us with our Angels preview.