September 20, 2010

Well, how did we get here?

There’s a song by the musical rock group Talking Heads that starts out like this…

You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself: well... how did I get here?

Well, I imagine there’s been many a morning this season when the Angels woke up wondering to themselves; well - how did we get here?

Fear not, I have the answers.

When the 2009 season ended, the Angels were two games away from going to the World Series. A couple of breaks here or there and the Angels might have found their way to their second world championship. Today they find themselves on the verge of being mathematically eliminated (the elimination number is 4) from the Western Division title discussion.

It seemed logical that this team would be back to make another run at a title even with the pending free agency of five key players.

We knew that Vladimir Guerrero, John Lackey, Chone Figgins, Bobby Abreu and Darren Oliver would be free agents and we knew the likelihood of the Angels retaining all five would be highly unlikely. Most assumed they would keep some of them and everyone from radio talk show hosts to the fans themselves talked about how important last year’s off season would be.

Funny that a year later, the upcoming Hot Stove season is viewed (once again) as possibly THE most important off season for the Angels in recent history. Again, how did we get here?

As four of the players( who were all corner stones of the team) found their way out the door, it became apparent that the Angels would have to adjust and regroup. As we look back at that time – I think we can say the Angels made a reasonable attempt to do the right thing in some cases and totally missed the boat on others.

One of the first mistakes the organization made in my opinion was handing Bobby Abreu and two year contract at $9 million per with an option for a third year. Abreu signed that deal on November 5, 2009 which was quite early in the Hot Stove Season.

Abreu had a fabulous 2009 season, but let’s keep in mind that he had something to prove last year. Players often play above and beyond expectations when they’re auditioning for a new contract. Besides, he’s older than Yoda and regression is a way of life even for a Jedi Warrior.

That contract might not have been so bad had Abreu been penciled in as the every day DH to take over the role that belonged to Vlad Guerrero. However, that didn’t’ end up being the case – instead, he would continue in his role as the every day right fielder. That should have been the first clue that this team was in trouble.

Abreu is a player of diminishing defensive skills (to put it kindly). Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe he ever had any defensive skills what-so-ever. Sometimes it’s as if he’s running on ice and to make matters worse, he extends his glove like he’s hailing a cab. Not the best technique when trying to snare line drives and fly balls. He runs bad routes and looks like a guy who couldn’t pass a sobriety test.

To make matters worse, this year he became a player of diminishing offensive skills as well. Anyone who believed Abreu would continue to hit the way he did in 2009 for another year, let alone two or three had to be somewhat delusional. Abreu is currently hitting 38 points below his 2009 average of .293 and 32 points lower than his 2009 OPS of .825.

To be fair Abreu’s decline was somewhat predictable; however, no one anticipated him falling as much as he did. FanGraphs projected him at .289 with a .816 OPS.

With one of the five signed, Angel fans waited to see what would happen next.

The first domino from the 2009 roster to fall was Chone Figgins who signed a 4 year $36 million deal with Seattle Marines on December 8, 2009. Figgy cashed in on a pretty good 2009 campaign. It appears the Marines are fond of third basemen coming off career years and then signing them to large contracts (see Adrian Beltre).

The Angels unwillingness to match Figgy’s salary demands seem to pave the way for Brandon Wood to take over at third base. Besides, Angel fans had grown weary over Figgy’s post season numbers (which were horrible) and most were willing to see him walk away; especially for the price the Mariners paid.

In stepped Brandon Wood. Now, mention Brandon Wood to most Angel fans and you’re likely to get an ear full. You’ll get the full range of emotions on that topic. Everything from anger to frustration to hysterical laughter is the norm when talking about Wood.

All that being said, the idea of putting Wood in as the every day third baseman made all the sense in the world. He had nothing left to prove at the minor league level. He was also joining a lineup where he would hit last and the expectations weren’t exactly sky high. FanGraphs seemed to project reasonable numbers. CHONE and ZIPS both predicted 20 homeruns and a batting average around .245.

Well, we all know what happened there. Wood’s failure was monumental. Matthew Pouliot of HardballTalk talked about how Wood’s 2010 performance could end up ranking as the lowest of any player in the expansion era.

I don’t think anyone saw that coming. Sure, some Angel fans will tell you they did, but the reality of it all is no one saw Wood failing to catastrophic levels. No one.

On December 14, 2009 the Angels signed Hideki Matsui for $6.5 million. It was a very significant day in the history of Angels baseball in that it spelled the end of Vlad Guerrero’s six years in Anaheim.

Guerrero signed a one year deal with the Texas Rangers for $9 million plus a one year mutual option on January 11, 2010.

Message boards and sports talk shows have had their hands full with this one. Matsui was coming off an MVP performance in the 2009 World Series. Vlad was coming off his worst season since becoming a full time player in 1998. There was talk that his bat speed was slowing down and that his knees and body was giving out.

It made perfect sense to let him walk. Only those with an emotional attachment to Vlad questioned the move. The logic to say so long was overwhelming.

Well, logic doesn’t always factor into the real world (a topic for another day).

The late Rory Markas once tabbed Vlady a “Proud Warrior.” And apparently, Markas’ insight into Vlad’s character was dead on. Vlad is having what will likely earn him “Come back player of the year” honors this season.

He’s slowed a bit in the second half; however, even though his OPS dipped to .622 in July after being as high as 1.049 in June) he is finding his groove once again down the stretch with a .897 OPS in September (through 16 games).

Did the Angels let Vlad walk too soon? That does appear to be the case; never-the-less, the move made sense at the time and I can’t fault the Angels for going down this road. Despite his strong year, I don’t think Guerrero would have made enough of a difference for the Angels this year. Heck, Albert Pujols may not have even made a difference.

Matsui has been an acceptable DH for the most part, but his addition to a lineup that included players as un-athletic as Abreu and Juan Rivera was problematic. I made my concerns known back in December (twice) about both the possibility of adding Matsui and again when it became a reality.

I didn’t like the idea of adding any old, slow moving players. That being said, if you look at the Vlad/Matsui situation objectively I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe the Angels did “ok” here even though Vlad gets an edge offensively.

In fact, when Matsui is set loose this off season – it will be hard to replace his offensive production. The 20 homeruns and 79 RBI he has so far will be missed and the Angels will need to make up that offensive production some how.

Moving on…

December 16, 2009 will forever be remembered as the day John Lackey became dead to me. It’s the day Lackey signed a 5 year, $82.5 million contract with the Boston Red Sox.

John Lackey was on his way to becoming one of my all-time favorites, but all that went out the window the day he signed with the one team that has been the most responsible for Angel fans’ post-season misery.

As bad as this loss seemed at that time, I have to say it is another situation where I don’t blame the Angels one bit for letting Lackey walk. $82.5 million? Really? I think it’s important to note that Lackey has a 4.63 ERA with the Red Sox; that’s his highest ERA since 2004. He doesn’t have any complete games this year, and his strikes outs per nine innings is the lowest it has been since 2002. On top of all that, Lackey has given up 219 hits this season; tied for the second most in baseball.

The list of career lows (I only scratched the surface above) for Lackey is significant. Lackey will be 32 in October and it appears that he’s on the downside of his career. He is not going be worth any where near $82.5 million over the lifetime of his contract.

So… if you’re one of those Angel fans who love to criticize the Angels for letting Lackey walk – I have three words for you: get over it. Be glad Lackey has moved on. End of story.

If you want to be upset about an Angel pitcher getting away – be upset about Darren Oliver. Oliver signed with the Texas Rangers on December 22, 2009 for $3.5 million plus a one year option. He signed for less money than he made in 2009 ($3.66 million). The fact that the Angels didn’t offer him arbitration and let him get away is inexcusable to me.

Think about the woes the Angels bull pen has had this year. Take two aspirin (okay maybe 3) and then think about the impact Oliver could have had if he remained an Angel. It’s a head scratcher. I believe the Angels didn’t offer Oliver arbitration because they knew he’d get a substantial raise and they were overconfident in their abilities to resign him for less.

I’m amazed more fans aren’t upset about this move (I was livid). Perhaps the reason Angel fans didn’t complain about the loss of Oliver is because two days after the Rangers signed Oliver, the Angels signed Fernando Rodney to a 2 year, $11 million contract.

Many saw this as move that would strengthen the bull pen. On the surface of things it looked like it might be a good deal. Here was a guy with a power arm (something Scioscia covets) and he was coming off a season where he had saved 37 of 38 games. He looked like an insurance policy for Brian Fuentes and at the very least a solid set up man.

However, a deeper look reveals some interesting statistics about the man who likes to wear his hat a little cockeyed. Rodney’s strike our rate per nine innings was 7.26 in 2009 after being as high as 13.5 in 2007 and 10.93 in 2008. His K rate this year? An even lower 6.97. It appears he’s fooling fewer and fewer batter these days.

I actually voiced my concerns prior to his signing back in December.

Rodney hasn’t done much to alleviate those concerns the thought of Rodney as the closer next season is enough to make Angel fans fall on their knees and beg for the return of Brian Fuentes. Given my opinions about closers, I’m not quite as concerned – but will admit those thoughts are changing every time he steps on the mound.

When the new year finally rolled around (and fans like myself were counting the days until spring training), the Angels had yet to replace Lackey, replaced Oliver with Rodney and Vlad with Matsui.

There were still holes to fill and questions to be answered. Some of that became clearer on January 5, 2010…

The idea that Wood would be taking over at third base became more apparent when the Red Sox signed Adrian Beltre that day. January 5th also saw the Mets sign Jason Bay to a 4 year, $66 million contract. And then on January 10, 2010 Matt Holliday signed a whopper of a deal with St. Louis (7 years, $120 million). Just like that, all the “big bats” were off the board. And let's not forget Vlad signed with Texas on January 11.

Whatever plans the Angels might have had to add more offense (a need that seems to come up year after year) all but evaporated. You might have asked yourself… Should the Angels have gone after Beltre, Bay or Holliday?

Holliday has had a pretty solid season, but not one that’s necessarily worth the $17 million he’s earning this year. Then again, the same might be said of Torii Hunter’s season and his $18 million contract. No doubt Holliday’s bat would have been a nice addition, but the cost would have been too high and the commitment too long.

I’d say the Angels did the right thing in not topping the Cardinals offer to Holliday and Jason Bay hasn’t exactly panned out for the Mets. Even before his concussion, he wasn’t hitting anywhere near what he had done over the course of his career.

As for Beltre, he has had a solid season; but the question with Beltre is always about his consistency. It appears that he shines brightest in contract years and guess what? That’s right – Beltre is auditioning for a big pay day. That being said, Beltre may be an interesting discussion yet again in 2011.

Here’s what we know… Beltre is a plus defender (something Scioscia also covets) and he did manage to hit at least 25 homeruns a season for three of his last four years in Seattle. At 31 years of age, he has the ability to be among the top five third basemen in the game, but he also has the potential to be a huge disappointment and grossly over paid. Also - his agent is Scott Boras, who probably isn’t on Arte Moreno’s Christmas card list.

The popular thought on Beltre seems to be to take a pass, but when I look at the landscape of who’s available to play third base I might be inclined to roll the dice on Beltre. Add the ongoing dilemma with Brandon Wood and the prospect of a mediocre Alberto Callaspo at third and Beltre doesn’t look so bad.

I don’t necessarily expect Beltre to repeat what he’s doing this season for Boston, but he is worthy of a discussion at the very least. In any case – I can’t fault the Angels for passing on Beltre last year. However, this next year, I may feel differently if they do that again.

On January 22, 2010, Christmas came late for the Angels. First, they managed to trade Gary Matthews, Jr. to the New York Mets. It didn’t matter much as to whom or what they got in return as most people viewed moving GMJ as addition by subtraction.

Turns out the Angels actually able to get something when they acquired Brian Stokes. Stokes had a solid 2009 season and was yet another power arm for the Angels pen. The move looked brilliant. Yes, I said “brilliant” – remember we’re talking GMJ.

Stokes didn’t pan out and ultimately was released, but even still not having Matthews on the roster was a plus all the way around.

January 22 was also the day the Angels inked Joel Pineiro to a two year, $16 million contract. It was a move that some applauded as being one of the best of the Hot Stove season. I was a little skeptical, when it happened but gradually came around to thinking it would be a solid move.

Pineiro has actually been one of the bright spots of the season even despite his time on the disabled list. While Pineiro’s ERA climbed a tad in 2010 (something we all expected), his strike outs per nine innings actually went up from 4.42 in 2009 to 5.70 this season. A nice trend.

Last, but not least on January 25 the Angels signed Maicer Izturis to a three year, $10 million deal. It was a deal they didn’t have to do, but wanted to because of how much Izturis has meant to the local doctors and how much money they can make off him. I’m kidding of course. Fact is Izturis is a nice piece, but whenever he’s counted on to make a regular contribution, he breaks down like a Ford (which is an acronym for Found On Road Dead or Fix Or Repair Daily).

I mean isn’t Izturis the kind of guy you sell to someone else? Or does baseball have some sort of lemon law? Whatever. The moves basically ended with his signing an extension.

And there you have it; the off season in a nut shell. The bottom line is that when I look at the moves that were made and those that weren’t, I am not certain there was anything the Angels front office could have done differently; at least not from a free agency stand point.

Now, that doesn’t mean they get a free pass either. They could have been more creative about the off season and explored possible trade partners, but that didn’t happen. They could have reacted quicker when Kendry Morales went down and when Brandon Wood didn’t pan out.

It’s easy to second guess at this point and I’m not really here to do that (you believe me don’t you?). I thought that putting the whole picture in perspective was warranted at this time. Many of the things I’ve written about here have been discussed; however, only in pieces. When you look at the big picture; it seems this season was somewhat predictable.

Now I know there are some fans out there who simply say the Angels lost too much and let too many good players walk away (an annoying and somewhat ignorant analysis). A closer look (like what we just did here) really shines a different light on the whole situation.

Now – this coming off season is definitely critical. I’m hoping the Angels get back to their winning ways and then we’ll sing that Talking Heads song with more emphasis on the lines “same as it ever was… same as it ever was.”

Hopefully, we won’t be singing…

You may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
You may ask yourself
Where does that highway lead to?
You may ask yourself
Am I right? Am I wrong?
You may say to yourself
My God!... what have I done?

I know this is a bit strange.. but I can imagine Tony Reagins peforming this song:

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