Sunday, March 22, 2009
Angels establish style from the top down
TEMPE, Ariz. -- On a typical spring training morning, Mike Scioscia oversees the infield, baserunning and defensive drills on the main fields. When he wants to pressure his defenders, he brings in three to five of the fastest players from the minor league fields to serve as runners.
Then when it's time for the major leaguers to hit, Scioscia leaves that to hitting coach Mickey Hatcher and other coaches. He heads down to the minor league complex for a series of drills with major leaguer players and the kids with the gray pants, the minor leaguers.
One day, he was teaching how to defend when runners are at first and third, and the runner at first takes off and the catcher and infielders have to defend. He stops runners for being a split-second late or infielders for being too far behind the bag, catchers and infielders for being indecisive. He runs them all himself.
"We have some ways we want things done," says Scioscia. "And we want them done on every level. I want to get to know our young players, and I want them to know me."
One of the best things that ever happened to the Angels was the day 10 years ago when the Dodgers decided not to retain Scioscia after he managed the 1999 season in Albuquerque. The Dodgers since have won five postseason games, with only one coming in the NLCS.
The Angels, under Scioscia, have won one World Series and four AL West titles in five years and have the best winning percentage in baseball (.583) the past four seasons.
"We have to get around to beating Boston," says Scioscia, whose team has lost to the Red Sox in the first round in 2004, 2007 and 2008.
Oh yes, he is also the longest-tenured active manager in baseball.
That the 2008 Angels were the first team since the 1931 Cardinals to win 100 games without anyone knocking in 100 runs, hitting 30 homers or winning 20 games is testament to the style Scioscia established.
"People here expect to play a certain way and they expect to win," center fielder Torii Hunter said. "There are stars here like Vladimir Guerrero, but they don't act like it. They don't tolerate that stuff. They pay very well, they lose players, they go get players, and we move on."
They believe in aggression, but they still want talent; they just believe in their own organization, which is why 53 of the 67 players in spring training were homegrown talents.
This past winter, the Angels lost Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Garret Anderson and Jon Garland. They added Bobby Abreu and Brian Fuentes, for what will cost them $13.5 million. And Scioscia will convince anyone within earshot that the Angels will be right back in the September scrum with a chance to win it all.
"We believe we're going to be very good again," Scioscia said.
Scioscia says that, despite knowing full well that 16-game winner Ervin Santana might need an elbow operation come the middle of the season. For now, Dr. Lewis Yocum says the strained ligaments in his right elbow shouldn't keep him from pitching. So the Angels optimistically believe the 26-year-old Santana can be back in May, as John Lackey was back in May last season. Even with Lackey out until May, they still won 100 games.
They are confident Kelvim Escobar, who missed all of last season with a torn labrum in his shoulder, will be back in five or six weeks. With Lackey, Joe Saunders and Jered Weaver, the Angels feel they can get by with Dustin Moseley (whose velocity is up considerably five months after experiencing elbow problems) and Nick Adenhart in the first month.
They also think that with Rodriguez gone, Fuentes -- whose velocity has been off this spring -- and Scot Shields, Jose Arredondo, Kevin Jepsen, Darren Oliver and Justin Speier can hold the bullpen down.
Scioscia and his staff believe their everyday team will be better than last season. Here is the thinking:
1. The top third of the order. Chone Figgins has averaged 45 steals a year the past five seasons and an on-base percentage between .367 and .393 from 2006 to 2008. Howie Kendrick missed 65 games with a hamstring pull last year and had two stints on the disabled list in 2007, but the Angels believe he is a batting champion in waiting. Abreu has a .405 lifetime on-base percentage and a major league leading 87 two-strike hits for the Yankees last season. He also has seven career 100-RBI seasons and has scored 100 runs eight times in his career.
2. The heart. Vladimir Guerrero finally had his knee cleared out in this, his free agent season, and is moving and swinging the bat much better than he had. Hunter bats behind him. Then comes the optimism.
"Kendry Morales is going to have a breakout season," Hatcher predicts.
At 25, with his .273 on-base percentage and .393 slugging percentage last season?
"He's finally figured it out," Scioscia said. "He's worked hard on driving the ball to the alleys from both sides of the plate, and he's doing it. He's going to be a big factor for us. And he's a gold glove first baseman."
Mike Napoli had his shoulder cleaned out on Oct. 31, 2008, and is still getting into catching shape after hitting 20 homers and leading all major league catchers with a .586 slugging percentage.
The Angels are also sold on Jeff Mathis getting it. Oh, he is one of the best receivers in the league, but that .272 career on-base percentage isn't pretty.
"He came down early to work on flying open, trying to pull and concentrate on hitting line drives to the opposite field," Hatcher said. "He's got it. Wait and see."
They think Brandon Wood -- who has hit 25 or more homers three times in the minors -- is going to be a contributing factor in the infield. "He took 17 consecutive first-pitch strikes this spring," says Hatcher, "and not only is he getting more selective, but he's become a much better two-strike hitter. He is ready to impact us."
"The second half of last season Brandon really grew up," says Scioscia.
Can their starters again lead the majors with 73 wins? Can they replace Rodriguez's 62 saves? Can Shields keep rolling after leading the majors with 425 relief innings the past five seasons? Can Morales, Wood, Mathis and Kendrick progress the way they believe?
In this organization's eyes, yes they can. From the bottom fields in Tempe to Orange County, they believe this will be the Angels' year.