The other day, a reporter asked Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto to assign blame for the acquisition of pitcher Joe Blanton, the occasion being the Angels’ unconditional release of the, ahem, struggling right-hander. Dipoto’s answer was refreshing.
“It’s a mistake on my part. There’s no one else to blame,” Dipoto said.
That little bit of accountability had to be music to Angels fans ears. For four long years, a team with three of the most dangerous hitters in baseball, a strong manager and one of the best starting pitchers in the game has been shut out of the playoffs, and the atmosphere in Anaheim has been a bit more drab with each passing season.
It should be noted, by the way, that owner Arte Moreno didn’t do Dipoto any favors in recent seasons by jumping in on the big-splash signings of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, leaving Dipoto scant resources to build a pitching staff.
Perhaps Angels fans didn't realize how spoiled they had become by the team’s run of excellence under Mike Scioscia from 2002 to 2009, a stretch that included a World Series title, three trips to the ALCS and six trips to the postseason.
Did the release of Blanton and Dipoto’s frankness signal a new era for Orange County’s baseball team?
The Angels' offseason makeover wasn't all that different from what the Boston Red Sox underwent going into the 2013 season. It was a bit of a reboot, with an emphasis on quality, low-impact moves rather than the big winter meetings splash that winds up weighing the team down.
Dipoto has certainly been making every effort to improve the team’s pitching, which -- even more than underperformance and injuries from Pujols and Hamilton -- has been this team’s demise. Presuming even a marginal uptick in those two sluggers’ production, the Angels look like a team with vast potential to improve. Who wouldn’t take a lineup that includes Mike Trout, Pujols and Hamilton?
This pitching staff has potential. When Jered Weaver first arrived in the major leagues, he could touch 95 mph and, combined with his off-speed pitches and funky delivery, made for one of the more uncomfortable at-bats in baseball. He’s different now, with the years of heavy workloads reducing his fastball velocity to the sub-90 range most games. But he’s still got the deception, the movement and the savvy to serve as a legitimate No. 1 starter.
C.J. Wilson can be maddening at times, but he still won 17 games and pitched more than 200 innings last year and is a nice left-handed complement to Weaver at the top of the rotation. Beyond those two, things get murkier. Some scouts think Garrett Richards is a better look coming out of the bullpen than starting, but Richards has huge breakout potential because of his power stuff and improving command.
The Angels gave up one of the most powerful hitters in the game, Mark Trumbo, but it’s not easy to acquire young, affordable pitching with upside, particularly left-handed pitching.
In a three-way trade involving the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago White Sox, they were able to acquire Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs to round out their rotation. Skaggs is a bit of an unknown, but Dipoto obviously likes him, since he traded for him twice (once when Dipoto was in Arizona). Santiago is a more bankable commodity. His 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings for Chicago last season was actually better than Weaver’s.
The Angels are going to score a lot of runs, presuming, of course, they can keep their main players on the field. Pujols and Hamilton have shown some promising signs this spring, and hard as it is to believe, it’s not out of the question that Trout could still be improving. It would be hard to find someone in baseball who doesn't think Trout is the best player in the game, and he won’t turn 23 until August.
David Freese adds some power to the lineup to help offset the loss of Trumbo. Chris Iannetta has a knack for getting on base and Hank Conger is a far better hitter than most backup catchers, though his defense is shaky. Howie Kendrick has never won the batting crown people have predicted for him since he was in Double-A, but he’s a well-above-average second baseman in all phases. The Angels live with Erick Aybar’s limited offensive production because he’s one of the league’s best shortstops. Raul Ibanez was a good under-the-radar signing and will help improve a sometimes-uncomfortable clubhouse atmosphere.
There has been a steady succession of bad injury news coming out of the Oakland A’s and Texas Rangers’ camps, leaving the door wide open for the Angels to slip back into control of a division they once owned. Once the playoffs start, it’s kind of a crap shoot. Pujols and Freese have a knack for collecting rings, and they’d love to show their West Coast teammates the way.