Despite having some of the brightest stars in the game, both young and old, a $160 million payroll and sky high expecations, the Los Angeles Angels are far from a perfect team. Many have picked the Halos as their World Series favorite, much like they did last season when they failed to even qualify for the playoffs for the third consecutive season. Led by wunderkind Mike Trout, the Angels have an uncharacteristically high octane offense but an off-season overhaul of their pitching staff has many wondering if they haven't set themselves up for a fourth straight post-season spent on the golf course.
Mike Trout. After his incredible rookie season, it almost seems like an insult to refer to him as a strength. Perhaps a force of nature would be more appropriate? With all that he does in the batter's box, on the basepaths and in the outfield, Trout makes the Angels a team to be reckoned with no matter who is surrounding him on the roster. After all, we are talking about a guy with a 10.0 WAR last season. There are several teams that didn't have an aggregate 10.0 WAR in their entire starting outfield last season. Despite what the BBWAA might think, Mike Trout is the best player in baseball right now. Period.
Big bats. Oh but the Angels offense isn't just Trout. It turns out he does have a pretty nice supporting cast. Albert Pujols and new addition Josh Hamilton have four MVP awards between them. Add slugger Mark Trumbo behind them in the order and Trout is backed up by three player who could each hit 30 or even 40 dingers. The star power definitely drops off after that, but looking up and down the lineup, there isn't really an easy out in the order. While the Scioscia era Angels aren't normally known for their potent offense, there is a good chance that they end up with the top-scoring lineup in the majors this season.
Defense. What the Angels don't get nearly enough credit for is that they are a tremendous defensive club all over the diamond, especially now that Josh Hamilton is on board, pushing Mark Trumbo into the DH role. With Hamilton in right, the phenomenal Peter Bourjos in center and the prolific Mike Trout in left, it will be a wonder if a flyball drops at all this season. That's a nice thing to have when you have a big stadium and a pitching staff full of flyball pitchers. The infielders are no slouches either. Albert Pujols and Erick Aybar both have Gold Gloves and Howie Kendrick and Alberto Callaspo are both strong fielders as well. Probably the worst defender of the bunch is Chris Iannetta and he is probably no worse than an average defensive catcher. This is one team that isn't going to give away a lot of runs.
Starting rotation. The Halos lost Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and Zack Greinke in the off-season and replaced them with the underwhelming trio Joe Blanton, Jason Vargas and Tommy Hanson. While Haren and Santana were both coming off of down seasons, the overall talent level is still way down for the Angels. Gone is the high ceiling of the rotation in favor of a bunch of guys that can basically just eat innings. The bigger problem is that the front of the rotation, while still intact, is full of question marks. C.J. Wilson struggled through the second half of 2012, dealing with an elbow problem that ultimately required elbow surgery. While the procedure was supposedly minor, a starting pitcher in his thirties getting his elbow cut open is never a positive. Even the stalwart ace Jered Weaver has a shaky outlook for the first time in his career after a season where he was hindered by a back injury and bicep tendinitis that cost him a few MPH on his fastball. Make no mistake, the Angels are not going to be able to ride their rotation to a division title like they did in the past.
Health. Every team has health concerns, but the Angels seem to be pretty heavy on medical red flags this season, especially amongst some of their key players. Albert Pujols is still recovering from off-season knee surgery and only just started running the bases again. Jered Weaver dealt with back and arm problems last season and may not recover his lost velocity. C.J. Wilson and Sean Burnett are both coming off surgery to remove bone chips from the pitching elbows. Josh Hamilton is a constant injury risk. Tommy Hanson has a shoulder held together by rubber cement. Ryan Madson is still on the comeback trail from Tommy John surgery. Scott Downs is in his late-thirties and made multiple DL trips in the last two seasons. Catcher Chris Iannetta also has a history of struggling to stay healthy. Couple this lengthy list of injury risks with the next weakness and it is easy to see how a few bad breaks on the injury front could submarine the LA's entire season.
Roster depth. As of today, the projected bench for the Angels figures to be Vernon Wells, Hank Conger (a catcher who can hit but throws more balls into center than he does to second base) and a bunch rookies. In other words, they better hope that they don't suffer any major injuries to their starting lineup. The same goes for the their pitching staff, where they do have a small safety net with Jerome Williams and Garrett Richards backing the rotation, but not much else in relief. These are the kind of things that happen to you when you have arguably the worst farm system in baseball. That lack of prospects will also greatly hinder GM Jerry Dipoto's ability to swing a deadline deal to fill any roster holes if they feel the need.
Bullpen improvement. With all their big spending before the 2012 season, the Angels somehow forgot to address their leaky bullpen and it cost them in a big way last season. One could actually make a very good argument that their bullpen full of hot garbage cost them a Wild Card spot. Not to be burned again, Jerry Dipoto signed lefty Scott Burnett and closer Ryan Madson. On paper they should get better relief, especially with a full season of Ernesto Frieri and a rejuvenated Kevin Jepsen. They still may not be a good bullpen though, at least not until they know what they are going to get out of Madson, who is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and currently looking like he will miss the first few weeks of the season. If he can come back and hit the ground running as the pitcher he was before his surgery, then the Angels could have a very lethal bullpen on par with the great pens that Mike Scioscia thrived with a few years back.
Tommy Hanson. The only real chance that the Angels' starting pitching evolves into an actual strength is if Tommy Hanson finds the wayback machine and/or his lost velocity. Hanson is only 26 years old and was one of the top pitchers in baseball as recently as 2010, but shoulder woes have robbed him of velocity and effectiveness the last two years. That's not usually a trend guys are able to turn around, but given Hanson's youth and that he himself has professed that he feels fully healthy and in shape for the first time in years and just maybe he can get back to his 2010 form or something close to it. If he doesn't, there is not really much in the way upside in the rotation as Jason Vargas is probably already maxing out his ceiling and Joe Blanton somehow found a way to be the only guy in history who has steadily gained velocity, increased his strikeout rate, reduced his walk rate and seen his ERA balloon at every step of the way.
Straight cash, homey. The Angels have a pretty terrible farm system, as we mentioned above, but what they do have is an owner willing to throw money at his team's problems. Arte Moreno wants a World Series so badly that he has told his front office that he'll sign off on any deal within reason to add payroll if it can push the team over the top. That is a factor that could put the Halos in play for guys with big price tags that lesser teams can't afford and it can also help make up for their lack of prospects since they can just take bad money off the hands of a team instead.
Pressure and expectations. Anyone who watched the Angels' epic struggles in the month of April last season could tell you that the suddenly sky high expectations and the pressure that comes with them was getting to the team. Following yet another off-season spending spree, those expectations haven't changed at all. If anything, they've only gotten higher and more dire. For the first time in his entire tenure, Mike Scioscia finds himself on the hot seat, something that would have been unthinkable just two years ago. This team has simply paid too much money to not be a contender and one can't help but wonder what the reaction will be in the front office and owner's box if the Halos come limping out of the gate again.
The AL West. Importing the Houston Astros into the division is something the Halos and the rest of the division have to be looking forward to, but mostly because it grants them a reprieve from what is otherwise a brutal division. The A's and Rangers are coming off of 94 and 93 win seasons, respectively and should both be in a position to win 90+ games once again. Even the Seattle Mariners have managed to overhaul their roster and figure to be more competitive than they have been in years past. If the Halos want to secure a return to the post-season, they'd be well advised to slug it out and win the AL West because if they don't the division is so tough that they could all end up cannibalizing each other to the point that none of them are able to grab a Wild Card spot.
Philosophical differences. Part of the reason Mike Scioscia finds himself on the hot seat this season is that he and second-year GM Jerry Dipoto don't necessarily see eye-to-eye. Under the previous regime, Scioscia wielded great influence over every single roster decision, but that has changed under Dipoto. Furthermore, Dipoto is a GM who subscribes to some of the more modern sabermetric-based ideas of playing the game whereas Scioscia once famously joked that he didn't know the difference between PECOTA and chicken piccatta. This has left Scioscia under pressure from the front office to ease off his small-ball and aggressive hitting and baserunning mantra in favor of the front office's preference towards count control and less risky decision making. This culture clash is one of the reasons Dipoto fired Scioscia's long-time hitting coach and close friend Mickey Hatcher last season. If the two sides are unable to find some sort of happy medium, the power struggle could spill over into the on-field product and hold the Halos back.