- Mark Saxon, ESPN Staff Writer
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The reviewers have lined up to pan the Los Angeles Angels' offseason. If this team's winter moves were a Broadway play, it would have run for about three days, the jokes met with silence, the dramatic turns met with half-stifled giggles.
One national baseball writer called it a "stinker" of a winter. Another recommended that owner Arte Moreno avoid promising to do "whatever it takes" to bring a winner back to Anaheim next time he has a losing season.
A local columnist wondered how long Angels fans will "continue to listen to the stubborn, tired rhetoric of Arte Moreno, Tony Reagins and Mike Scioscia."
Those are the nice comments. Fans writing on message boards were even more vitriolic, with some threatening a boycott.
It's enough to make me think: These guys might be good.
It was a great winter to sit out a sellers' market. Granted, Moreno probably shouldn't have declared his willingness to spend if he wasn't willing to go where the market drifted (as usual, it went up). It's funny how Scott Boras' gift of gab can hurt the Angels even when they aren't talking to him (the Jayson Werth deal might have priced the Angels out of the hitters market before they really got started).
Yes, Carl Crawford was the one guy this team had to have if it was serious about fixing its sputtering engine. He was a perfect fit for the expanse of left-field ground at Angel Stadium and for the type of motion offense Scioscia loves.
As for the Angels, let's look at facts, not expectations. The one big lineup change swaps Hideki Matsui for Kendry Morales, a declining, 37-year-old designated hitter for a 28-year-old first baseman who looks a lot like a burgeoning superstar.
Morales has an above-average mitt and is a rare power-hitting switch-hitter. He looks to be good for 30 to 35 home runs a year while playing in a pitchers' era and playing at a pitchers' ballpark. His skills are increasingly rare. Matsui really wasn't there when the Angels needed him last year. After they fell out of the race, he got hot and tidied up his numbers to ward off retirement.
There's also the bounce-back theory, a reasonable assumption that players' performances should, over the long run, drift back to their career norms. Here is a list, in alphabetical order, of regular Angels hitters whose 2010 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) was below their career marks: Erick Aybar, Bobby Abreu, Maicer Izturis, Howie Kendrick, Jeff Mathis, Matsui, Mike Napoli, Juan Rivera and, ahem, Brandon Wood.
Here is a list of regulars whose OPS was better than their norm: Torii Hunter (by .016).
Aybar, Abreu, Izturis, Kendrick, Napoli and Rivera probably aren't that bad. Mathis and Wood probably aren't that awful.
Argument Plank No. 3, which probably should have been No. 1: pitching. Let's not forget which city last held a World Series parade. The San Francisco Giants opened last season with Aubrey Huff as their cleanup batter, the same dude who had batted .241 and got traded -- after the trading deadline -- from the Baltimore Orioles to the Detroit Tigers the previous August.
The Giants' front office made some shrewd tweaks to the offense as the season went on, but it mostly sat back and relied on stifling pitching and a bad division. Hello, Angels blueprint!
The Angels' rotation might not have the star power of San Francisco's, but a full season of Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Joel Pineiro, Ervin Santana and, um, Scott Kazmir should keep the Angels afloat even if the offense is as bad as everyone thinks.
Plus, the bullpen is the one part of the team that got some stimulus money. The Angels got arguably the two best left-handed relievers available, Hisanori Takahashi and Scott Downs. Assuming somebody steps up to get a handle on the ninth inning (I'm betting on young Jordan Walden, by August), this group should be better.
The Angels have the second-best pitching in their division after the Oakland A's and the second-best lineup in their division after the Rangers. Those components might not be enough to give them favorite status but should keep them in the race longer than last season, which fizzled into six months of blah.
I see 2011's American League West playing out like an underwater action scene: a lot of moving around, but not much progress. The Rangers won the division last year with 90 victories. That might be ambitious for 2011. The Rangers are one strained Josh Hamilton or Nelson Cruz muscle away from trouble; the A's have been dormant for almost a decade and play in a silent, empty airplane hangar of a ballpark. The Seattle Mariners need we waste our time?
Now, the Angels have to accomplish one more thing before spring training: They have to get a leadoff hitter. He doesn't have to be a great player, just a veteran who has done it competently before. Scott Podsednik would do. The Angels have no good in-house candidates to bat No. 1. It goes against Aybar's nature. The plate appearances would put too much strain on Izturis' fragile body. Let's not even imagine Abreu doing it every day at 37. Nobody wants to see that, probably not even Abreu.
If the Angels can sneak into the playoffs, they might be able to make a little October noise because of their pitching. If that happens, nobody will have to tell Moreno to shut up. He can let his inactions speak for themselves.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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