Promise doesn't always pan out. But when a team offers up $240 million in the offseason to procure that promise, you'd like to see some good things happen early.
It didn't work that way for the Los Angeles Angels. Albert Pujols' underwhelming start in his Halos debut was a source of constant frustration. Right up until Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo led a youth movement that has reinvigorated the offense and has helped the Angels close the gap on the Texas Rangers.
For an outside-in look at what's been going on in Anaheim, we assembled a roundtable of experts from across ESPN and its SweetSpot network for some perspectives on five questions designed to evaluate the Angels' first half.
What was the team's greatest strength?
Evan Brunell, Fire Brand of the American League: Where did Mark Trumbo come from? The Angels could have been much worse off earlier in the year if they didn't have Trumbo stepping up to fill the breach Pujols left open. He's been hitting out of his mind this year, shattering everyone's expectations for him. Having Trumbo as a trump card to slide into the lineup was (is) huge to the Angels. Having the depth of Trumbo (and Mike Trout) allowed the team to move on quickly from underperformers.
Alex Convery, Fire Brand of the American League: Their ability to rebound from an absolutely abysmal start to the season was impressive in its own right, but the Angels have been buoyed all season by the duo of Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. They're also one of the best defensive teams in the majors and a lot of that has to do with the 20-year-old center fielder who has turned a disastrous season into a promising one: Mike Trout.
Matthias Koster, MopUpDuty.com: Having three of the MLB's top hitters in their batting order: Mike Trout, Mark Trumbo and Albert Pujols.
Brenden Lowery, It's Pronounced Lajaway: I would have to say that the pitching staff has definitely been as advertised for the Angels. Keep in mind that they lead the AL in shutouts (12; next closest team has eight) and rank second in ERA (3.66).
Anna McDonald, SweetSpot contributor: Building team chemistry and bouncing back from a slow start offensively. On May 8, the Angels were in last place and 7.5 games behind Texas. Moving up in the standings, even early in the season, is no small accomplishment.
What was its greatest weakness?
Brunell: Behind the dish, the Angels have struggled to generate any offense. New Angel Chris Iannetta couldn't hit and got injured, while Bobby Wilson and John Hester also can't hit. Similarly, the stubbornness of playing Vernon Wells, even though he's clearly not worthy of a starting spot anymore, prevented the Angels from going to Trout or Trumbo earlier.
Convery: An atrocious bullpen, one that had a lot to do with the team's early-season woes but has vastly improved of late. The Angels couldn't hold a lead to save their life the first couple of weeks of the season. Jordan Walden, who started the year as the closer, was particularly disappointing. Vernon Wells' being placed on the disabled list turned out to be addition by subtraction, as it freed up room for Trout, improving Anaheim's defense greatly and providing a spark to the lineup.
Koster: The bottom third of the batting order and the back end of the rotation.
Lowery: It has to be the performance of the Angels' catchers. Although the trade for Chris Iannetta seemed to be a "win" at the time, his poor play and inability to stay healthy has caused the Angels to rely on the likes of Bobby Wilson and John Hester. If they believe they are going to get to a World Series, they are going to need some improvement in the catching department.
McDonald: Obviously, the slow start for the offense. However, ultimately, this may serve the team well. The best teams in baseball learn how to bounce back and win games even when things don't go as planned.
What, or who, was the biggest surprise?
Brunell: Ernesto Frieri has simply blown people away since joining the Angels. It's not often relievers improve after leaving Petco Park, but Frieri has -- although he's due to give up a few homers soon.
Convery: Trout -- whose 4.7 WAR leads not only the Angels, but the entire American league -- is the obvious answer. But how about Ernesto Frieri? Acquired from the Padres for just two minor leaguers, the 26-year-old single-handedly saved the Angels' bullpen. He didn't allow a hit in the first 13 innings he threw for Anaheim and has struck out 63 batters in only 38 innings. Not even on the roster coming into the season, he's now a mainstay of the team as the closer.
Koster: Undoubtedly Mike Trout's level of production. After a rough 2011 MLB stint, expectations were tepid (ZIPS .752 OPS prediction) . Trout has surpassed these expectations and is a legitimate contender for AL MVP.
Lowery: I think most people expected Mike Trout to perform at a high level once called up to the Angels; however, I do not think many people expected him to be hitting better than .340 and leading the league in steals at the All-Star break. He gets my vote.
McDonald: Mike Trout. Of course we expected him to be good, but this? This is "pack the stadium with fans, fill a scorecard out and save it for your grandkids" kind of good.
What, or who, was the biggest letdown?
Brunell: Albert Pujols has to be the biggest letdown given his slow start to the season. Even though he's recovered since, his overall numbers still look fairly pedestrian (for him).
Convery: Back in mid-May, Albert Pujols was looking like the biggest letdown since Carl Crawford inked his name on his Red Sox contract, but he's done well enough since then to escape getting this honor. Instead, it's been the back end of the Angels rotation that has let them down. Dan Haren, who had excellent numbers last year, is having the worst season of his career and was finally placed on the disabled list last week. Ervin Santana (5.75 ERA, 4-9 record) has been even worse. Jordan Walden also deserves mention here.
Koster: Albert Pujol's terrible April (.570 OPS, 0 HR) is an obvious choice. A close runner-up would be Ervin Santana. He's having issues with command and control. His K/BB ratio of 1.74 is a career low. He's also surrendered 20 HRs.
Lowery: Although I would think some people might say Albert Pujols for his slow start, for me it has to be Ervin Santana. His 5.75 ERA is fifth-worst among MLB starters, and he has already given up 20 home runs. Just think how good the pitching staff would be if he could have put up even a 4.50 ERA for the first half!
McDonald: It was really disappointing the Angels offense couldn't perform better under batting coach Mickey Hatcher. While many things play into this dynamic, with Hatcher as coach the team was hitting .253, had scored 141 runs and had 34 home runs. With Jim Eppard, the team is batting .281, has scored 231 runs and has 56 home runs. How this coaching dynamic (which had red flags in 2011 ) was missed in the offseason is a mystery.
What's your overall grade for the first half and why?
Brunell: B. The Angels were slow to recognize the need for changes (and would Vernon Wells still be playing full-time if he were healthy?), but to their credit have made the right adjustments since, as well as striking quickly for a reliever to stabilize the bullpen. There's a lot to look forward to.
Convery: B+. The Angels certainly expected to be better than 48-38 going into the All-Star break, but considering the fact that they didn't have a .500 record until May 28 (not counting the second day of the season), they've done well over the past month and a half to get to where they are now. If the season ended today, they would be in the playoffs. Can't argue with that.
Koster: B+. I think the Angels have to be pleased with their record heading into the All-Star break. Pujols struggled early, the rotation has been basically a two-man show (Weaver, Wilson) and the club has received below-average production from the majority of its infield. Despite these problems, the Angels are 10 games over .500.
Lowery: B+. Keep in mind, this team started the season 6-14 before winning 42 of the next 66. If it had not came out of the gate as bad as it did, it would have received an A from me.
McDonald: C. The talent the Angels have is arguably much better than the Rangers. While beginning to turn things around, it is fair to say they have underperformed to date.