How good can these Angels be?
After a roller-coaster first half, how the Halos will finish the season is a mystery
ANAHEIM -- The baseball season will make a fool of you every time.
You watch the Los Angeles Angels slide into first place for a week in early May and you start to think that last season was just a pebble in their shoe, that they're stomping back to their AL West perch. Then you find out Kendrys Morales is out for the year.
The games keep coming, the losses start to mount. And mount.
You watch them play awful baseball for a solid month, giving away at-bats and games, and you start to surmise they just don't have the heavy wood to survive in a big-bat league. The games keep coming, the interleague portion of the schedule arrives, and suddenly they spring to life by winning five straight series.
Now, you don't know what to think.
The Angels played Game No. 82 on Wednesday afternoon, slipping quietly into the second half with a 1-0 win over the Washington Nationals, their 11th win in 15 games against National League teams.
The Angels' fortunes didn't spike up and down like a stock price in the first half, they moved up and down in slow parabolas, goo-ooood, ba-aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad, goo-ood. We learned a few things about who this team is. It's a foundation of aging outfielders, a heavy dose of kids feeling their way and two brilliant starting pitchers in their prime.
What we haven't found out is how good the Angels are yet, though the rest of their division seems to be waiting to find out. Even as they've barely poked their head above .500, the Angels are only 1 1/2 games behind the first-place Texas Rangers. Because they're young, the Angels can reasonably expect to be better in the second half, but they would have to go 48-32 the rest of the way to win 90 games. That's what it took to win the division last year.
"We know that we have the talent in this room to be a better ball club than we are at this point," said Vernon Wells.
Typically, a team with one of baseball's biggest payrolls doesn't open multiple positions to guys from its Triple-A team, but maybe $140 million doesn't buy what it once did.
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This season has been an experiment in grafting one-third of last year's Triple-A Salt Lake lineup onto an expensive veteran roster and seeing what comes out. It led to some first-half moments when the test tube just sat there, not even bubbling. Mark Trumbo, Peter Bourjos and Hank Conger have had some confusing moments, have seen pitchers attack them in new ways, but seem to have come out on the other end.
Their ups and downs wouldn't have been so naked if it weren't for the struggles of the veterans, Wells (.216) and Torii Hunter (.239), who provided them scant cover. The Angels' youngsters didn't have the luxury of struggling in the warm cocoon of an otherwise deep lineup.
Asked if he expects his team to improve in the second half because of its youth, Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, "I think with some of our veterans, we're looking for a lot of improvement in the second half."
Wells, who was batting .179 a few weeks ago, has had too much on his plate to worry about how the young Angels are doing. But he has noticed some games within the games. He has seen Trumbo, Bourjos and Conger begin to make counter-adjustments to how pitchers are going after them.
He saw Trumbo make one in a matter of minutes Tuesday night. Reliever Todd Coffey threw Trumbo nothing but sliders -- a fairly common practice these days -- and struck him out with two runners on in the seventh inning. The next inning, reliever Ryan Mattheus, following the same scouting report, tried to throw a 3-and-2 slider past Trumbo. He slammed it off the center-field wall for a two-run double.
"It's making those quick adjustments that are so important in this game," Wells said.
As long as the Angels' three kids stay on top of this cat-and-mouse game, it's more than reasonable to expect them to get more consistent.
But offense is never going to be what carries this team into October. If the Angels can get back to the playoffs after a one-year break, it will be because of their defense and, especially, two starting pitchers.
Jered Weaver looks like the favorite to start the July 12 All-Star game for the American League. Even with a sub-par May, he's been perhaps the most dominant starting pitcher in the league through the first three months.
Dan Haren, at times, has been just as good. Nobody was better through the end of May, even if Haren only had a 4-3 record to show for it. After that, he noticed his arm didn't feel as fresh, his fastball not as crisp and, as a result, his split-finger fastball nowhere near as reliable.
"I've just been kind of mediocre lately," Haren said Tuesday, the day before his 17th start of the year. "There have been some games where things could have snowballed and I could have had some really bad games. I managed to keep it together and win a couple games. I'm sure I'm going to throw the ball better. It's only a matter of time before I'm back in a groove."
It was a matter of time, roughly 24 hours. Pitching in the late-afternoon shadows Wednesday, Haren was almost impossible to hit. He gave up just two hits over 7 1/3 innings and one of them was a bunt that was misplayed by third baseman Alberto Callaspo. Haren (8-5) has got the life back on his fastball and that's setting up everything else, including his strikeout pitch, the split-finger.
"I felt as fresh as I have," Haren said. "It's velocity a little bit, but more the finish on my fastball. That sets up my other pitches, makes all my other pitches better."
With Weaver (9-4) and Haren (8-5) at the top of their rotation, the Angels should at least have a chance at a pennant race in a couple of months.
Charting a course
The beginning and end of a baseball season tend to get the most attention, but the middle might be the most important. It's these next four weeks that will tell the Angels' front office whether to make a trade for veteran help or to set its focus on 2012 and beyond.
Indications are the Angels aren't interested in adding to their payroll, so another swoon in July could lead to a bout of selling. Pitcher Joel Pineiro is one of a small group of guys who will become free agents after this season and he's ready for anything. Teams figure to be pushing and shoving to get to any decent starting pitchers by the deadline, so general manager Tony Reagins figures to field calls about Pineiro.
"I think I'm past the stage of worrying if I'm going to be here," Pineiro said. "But yes, it could happen. We all know that. At the moment, I'm here and pitching to help the team and help myself out."
For the 25 guys in the clubhouse and for their fans, the second half is a mystery, but the first three months at least left us some clues.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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