Angels finally delivering on promise

With essentially the same roster, the Angels have gone from a below .500 team last year to a playoff club this season, writes Rob.

Originally Published: September 17, 2002
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

On November 1, 1999, Bill Stoneman took over as general manager of the Anaheim Angels. On November 18, Stoneman hired Mike Scioscia to manage the Angels. In Stoneman's (and Scioscia's) first season, the Angels improved 12 games, to 82-80. But in Stoneman's (and Scioscia's) second season, the Angels declined seven games, to 75-87. While there certainly were positive signs in Anaheim, the Angels weren't anybody's pick to challenge for the American League West championship.

Well, guess who's tied for first place. And whether or not the Angels do finish ahead of the Athletics, they will 1) be playing in October and 2) destroy the franchise record for victories in one season.

We're just a deeper club, whether it's the bullpen or the bench. Then, we have guys who are playing very well. When you look across the team, they're doing pretty much what you'd expect them to do.
Bill Stoneman, Angels GM

So the question, of course, is "How?"

Now, some will argue that the Angels are winning because of their great chemistry. Because of their will to win. As Tim Salmon recently said, "We've got a club that just never quits and plays hard. I think that's what every guy wants to be a part of."

But that can't be the whole explanation, can it? Because most of the same guys were around in 2001 when the Angels lost 87 games. In fact, the seven Angels who've played enough this year to qualify for the batting title are the same seven Angels who played enough last year. The only significant addition to the lineup has been Brad Fullmer, who's taken most of the at-bats that went to Shawn Wooten and Orlando Palmeiro last season.

So the Angels are scoring more runs this season not because they've got better hitters, but because the hitters they already had are hitting better. A year ago, the Angels finished 12th in the American League in runs scored. This year, they're fourth, with essentially the same lineup.

Meanwhile, the pitchers, who were very good last year, have gotten even better. In 2001, Anaheim's 4.20 ERA ranked fifth in the league. This year, they're second in the league with a 3.68 ERA, and Angel pitchers have actually allowed fewer runs than anybody ... yes, fewer than even the vaunted Athletic hurlers. The bullpen has been particularly outstanding -- Anaheim's 2.91 relief ERA is lowest in the league by a healthy margin.

Granted, the Angels did have a hole to fill when Shigetoshi Hasegawa left as a free agent, and I asked Stoneman how he filled that hole from within the organization.

"We thought that Scot Shields would be an ideal guy," Stoneman said, "and possibly (Brendon) Donnelly. We thought we had the answer from within. And a couple of the guys, when we brought them up, they just stuck."

Shields and Donnelly have both been outstanding, but just as important have been the performances of Troy Percival and Ben Weber ... both of whom were there in 2001.

Of course, the Angels did make a couple of big moves last winter. Stoneman signed free-agent pitcher Aaron Sele, who was been something of a disappointment and then got hurt. Also, Stoneman traded one big contract (Mo Vaughn) for another (Kevin Appier). And while Vaughn's been something less than a sensation for the Mets, Appier's been solid for the Angels.

Stoneman saw something in Appier that made him go after the veteran right-hander.

"Well, he had a real good finish with the Mets last year," Stoneman says. "And he's a guy who's got the reputation of being a very good person to have on the club. Mo had expressed very clearly that he wanted to be back east, that he didn't want to be in Anaheim. We were able to accommodate him, and it really helped us avoid a potential problem in the clubhouse."

Even with all of this, the numbers still don't add up. How have the Angels improved so much in one season?

"A lot of it was the confidence we had, going into spring training," Stoneman says. "Three of the starting pitchers were returning, one year further along in establishing themselves as major-league pitchers. And in the offseason we added a couple of guys with pretty good track records, (Aaron) Sele and (Kevin) Appier. So our players looked at that and thought, while we may not have a Cy Young candidate, we're pretty solid in the rotation.

"So when we entered spring training, we figured that if everybody had their normal years, we were going to be pretty good. We had balance going into the season, and then as the season went along, we were able to reach down and bring up people like John Lackey, and we moved him into the starting rotation. We were having a problem with left-handed relief, with Dennis Cook having shoulder troubles, so Lackey allowed us to move Scott Schoeneweis into the bullpen. So Lackey made us better in the rotation and the bullpen."

"We're just a deeper club, whether it's the bullpen or the bench. Then, we have guys who are playing very well. When you look across the team, they're doing pretty much what you'd expect them to do."

Well, maybe. But outside of Anaheim, I think you'd be hard pressed to find many people who expected them to do what they've done.

Then again, maybe we're thinking too much. Come November -- or December, if they win the World Series -- it will be appropriate to wonder if the 2002 Angels were little more than a fluke, like the 1961 Angels and the 1979 Angels. For now, though, what matters isn't how the Angels are winning, but that they are winning. And the 2002 Angels have already won more games than any Angels team ever have before.

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