After falling short of expectations for years, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim finally broke through to win the AL West and give MVP Mike Trout his first taste of the postseason, brief though it might have been. Now with expectations once again sky high, are Trout and company ready to take the next step?
Depth Chart (as of 3/6)
C: Chris Iannetta
1B: Albert Pujols
2B: Josh Rutledge
SS: Erick Aybar
3B: David Freese
LF: Matt Joyce
CF: Mike Trout
RF: Kole Calhoun
DH: C.J. Cron
SP: Jered Weaver
SP: C.J. Wilson
SP: Matt Shoemaker
SP: Andrew Heaney
SP: Hector Santiago
CL: Huston Street
New Faces: Drew Butera, Taylor Featherston, Johnny Giavotella, Andrew Heaney, Matt Joyce, Cesar Ramos, Dan Robertson, Josh Rutledge, Nick Tropeano
Departures: Gordon Beckham, Brennan Boesch, Tony Campana, Hank Conger, Jairo Diaz, Jason Grilli, Kevin Jepsen, Howie Kendrick, Wade LeBlanc, John McDonald, Shawn O’Malley, Joe Thatcher
Impact Rookies: As derided as their farm system has been for the last several years, the Angels are counting on rookies to be a big part of their roster this year. Acquired in an offseason deal for Howie Kendrick, Andrew Heaney is expected to slot into the rotation for the Halos. Heaney has been a top pitching prospect for years, but he struggled in his first taste of the majors last year, causing the Marlins to sour on him. Now the Angels have gotten a hold on him and are hoping he can live up to his potential quickly and give the Angels pitching staff it sorely needs.
Rule 5 pick Taylor Featherston may not make the team out of camp, but if he does, he could very well end up being a big part of replacing Kendrick at second base. His ceiling isn’t very high, but anytime a rookie is in position to become at least a part-time starter, it is worth taking notice.
The final rookie to watch is Cam Bedrosian, son of former Cy Young winner Steve Bedrosian. Cam put up video game numbers in the minors last season and will compete for a bullpen spot out of training camp, giving him a shot to try and translate his prolific strikeout rate to the majors.
Position Battles: The most wide open competition by far in Angels camp, and maybe any team’s camp, is the starting second base job. It is a four-man free-for-all between Josh Rutledge, Grant Green, Johnny Giavotella and Taylor Featherston. Rutledge has the early edge due to his experience, but he had very little success in that experiences, so Green, Giavotella and Featherston all have a good shot at winning the job. In all likelihood it will end up being some sort of timeshare, but a hot spring from any of the four could change that.
With Garrett Richards expected to miss at least the first two weeks of the season recovering from his horrific knee injury, there are two open spots in the Halo rotation. Andrew Heaney, Hector Santiago and Nick Tropeano are the primary candidates to fill those two spots, but Jose Alvarez is a dark horse candidate to at least grab the one spot that is just a placeholder for Richards until he returns. The Angels very much want Heaney to win the full-time opening, but if shows that he still has some development to do, the Angels might fall back onto Santiago who is otherwise ticketed for the bullpen.
An unexpected battle for the Angels is finding someone to take over in left field until Josh Hamilton returns from his injury and suspension, however long that proves to be. The initial plan is for Matt Joyce to take over full-time or platoon with Collin Cowgill, but that leaves a big opening at DH if they do that. C.J. Cron would be the de facto player to assume that role, but while he has massive power, he’s also an OBP sinkhole, so the Halos could explore alternatives. That could be internal options like Dan Robertson, Marc Krauss or Efren Navarro or it could be external options, especially if Hamilton is handed a lengthy suspension.
Injury Concerns: Garrett Richards busted out to become a bona fide ace last season, but then he went and busted his knee. He suffered a torn patellar tendon, an injury with virtually no precedent in MLB. Richards is just a few weeks behind schedule in training camp and likely to rejoin the rotation in April, but nobody knows what lasting effects the injury will have. There could no problems, or maybe it will sap Richards of some velocity, stamina or control. Nobody really knows because no pitcher in recent history has ever suffered the injury.
Then, of course, there is Josh Hamilton. Already expected to miss at least the first month of the season due to shoulder surgery, Hamilton is now facing a very uncertain future due to substance abuse. He could be suspended for 25 games, which would functionally cost him no additional time over what he was going to miss anyways with injury. He could get a year-long ban. No decision has been made yet, but it is expected to come soon. Even if Hamilton does get a short suspension, the shoulder issues that Hamilton suffered late last season gave him major problems. The surgery he had will help, but Josh still is dealing with an arthritic condition in that shoulder. If that messes up his timing or swing mechanics, he could be in for an even more catastrophic performance than he’s already turned in during his first two years with the Angels.
Most Important Player: Mike Trout.
Really, who else did you think it would be? He’s the reigning AL MVP and that was for a season that was easily the worst of his three full seasons as a pro. That’s the luxury of having a generational talent on your roster.
Trout showed some actual flaws last season as he saw his strikeout rate go up dramatically after his inability to handle pitches up in the zone was exposed, but he also developed into a premier slugger as he cranked 36 dingers and posted a .274 ISO. If Trout can get a handle on his strikeouts and maintain that increase in power, it may not matter how shaky the Angels rotation is or how much the lineup misses the bats of Kendrick and Hamilton.
X-Factor: Matt Shoemaker.
Matt Shoemaker was a raven-beareded Cinderella story for the Los Angeles Angels last year. His out-of-nowhere emergence as a quality starter halfway through last season might very well have been the reason the Angels won the division. His story of being an undrafted non-prospect that turned into a Rookie of the Year runner-up is a great one, but he won’t be able to rely on his anonymity anymore. The league has seen him now, setting him up as a prime sophomore slump candidate.
If that happens, the Halos could be in big trouble. There are so many questions marks in the Angel rotation, but Shoemaker sets up as the key to that rotation since his performance expectations span from establishing himself as a legitimate front-of-the-rotation All-Star to falling off to become a homer-prone fringe #5 starter. The Angels need him to find that glass slipper and keep his Cinderella story going because if he turns back into a pumpkin, they’re pretty much screwed.
Key Question: Is the rotation good enough?
In case this hasn’t been made clear enough already, the Angels’ hopes rest almost entirely on their rotation. Their lineup was one of the best in baseball last year and should be roughly as good this year. They finally fixed their bullpen last season, so they’ve got that taken care. But the rotation, oh boy, that rotation. Literally everyone one of their rotation pieces is shrouded in questions in 2015.
Can Garrett Richards recover from injury? Can he repeat his breakout performance prior to the injury?
Can Jered Weaver still perform as a front-end starter? How much more velocity can he lose before he turns into a pinata?
What the hell happened to C.J. Wilson last year? Is he hurt? Is he washed up? Can he bounce back?
Is Matt Shoemaker for real?
Is Andrew Heaney ready for the majors? Is he ready to be top-of-the-rotation arm? Why did the Marlins punt him on him so quickly?
Will Hector Santiago be part of the rotation? Should he be part of the rotation?
A lot of the answers to those questions could turn out to be very positive ones, but there is also a possibility that the answers are very, very negative and the rotation completely submarines the Angels’ World Series aspirations.
Best Case Scenario: After winning 98 games and ending their abbreviated playoff drought last year, make no mistake, it is World Series or bust for the Halos. They very much have the pieces to pull it off to. If Mike Trout solves his strikeout issues and returns to posting a 10+ WAR and the rest of the lineup lives up to expectations, the Angles should once again have a top offense. If Richards and Shoemaker can repeat their performances from the year before along with C.J. Wilson pitching more like his old self, the rotation should be solid. Maybe they even get lucky and Andrew Heaney lives up to the hype and becomes the quality arm they need to push them over the top and all the way to a World Series title.
Worst Case Scenario: On the flip side, the Angels aren’t all that far away and cratering completely. It isn’t all that hard to imagine Trout continuing to struggle with balls up in the zone and only posting really good numbers instead of truly amazing numbers. Throw in Albert Pujols dropping off a cliff because of his decaying body and the Angels struggling to find a competent second baseman and/or bat to replace Josh Hamilton and suddenly their strong offense looks pretty pedestrian. But the real risk is in the rotation where Garrett Richards could struggle in his return, Shoemaker could regress, Weaver could continue his steady decline, Wilson could pick up where he left off last season and Heaney could be a bust. That’s just not a very a good team, but it also isn’t all that unrealistic of a scenario.
Realistic Prediction: This Los Angeles Angels team probably isn’t quite as good as last year’s team and last year’s team wasn’t a true talent 98-win team. Still, the talent is pretty close, it might even swing in the other direction if Heaney can realize his potential right off the bat. There’s little reason not to expect the Halos to make a strong run at repeating as the division champ in the much-improved AL West. Even if they don’t take the division title, they should be in excellent position to snag a Wild Card spot.