Breaking down the Angels

While Vladimir Guerrero is a huge addition, the Angels need other players to improve if they're to be better in '04.

Originally Published: January 14, 2004
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

With a lull in the Hot Stove League, today I'd like to revisit the last couple of columns, both of which resulted in a great deal of e-mail that fairly demands my attention. And if I have to read it, so do you ...

    Rob,

    You missed eight important points concerning the 2003 Angels versus the 2004 Angels. This short-circuits the extra wins the Angels can be expected to obtain.

    Troy Glaus

    1. Troy Glaus is healthy. He was never healthy last year, and underwent eye surgery to increase his vision this offseason. He no longer has the wrist or leg problems that plagued him throughout the 2003 season. He was virtually worthless last year. You can't talk about expected improvement without talking about Glaus.

    2. Jarrod Washburn hurt his shoulder in spring training and was never fully healthy.

    3. John Lackey pitched much better than his record indicated. Another thing that's important to remember about Lackey is his struggles came in big innings. That's going to change.

    4. Scot Shields in the bullpen makes the Angels' pen the best in baseball ... period. Shields, Derrick Turnbow, Brendan Donnelly, Ben Weber, and Troy Percival. You and Bill James are one of the few to realize that a left-handed pitcher in the pen is overrated. You need a guy who can get left-handers out.

    5. Darin Erstad plays center field like a linebacker. He does not realize baseball is a marathon and not a sprint. He is much more likely to be an effective hitter as a first baseman than a center fielder. If you look at his career, you'll notice, he's a much much better hitter when he's not hurting himself playing in center.

    6. David Eckstein was hurt all of last year. He's a lot more like the hitter of 2001 and 2002 than the 2003 version.

    7. Tim Salmon is going to be a better hitter not playing right field every day. He gets banged up playing the field. He'll hit better and play more often. If you think he can't adjust to DH, take a look at 1998. He had his second best season ever as a DH.

    8. Look at Adam Kennedy's splits last year after given the everyday job. This is the only area that optimism may be taking the place of logic. He'll do better than you think.

    All that spells the likelihood the Angels will pick up a lot more wins than the number you mentioned. The Angels should not only be the favorite to win the AL West, but a solid favorite. This in spite of the brilliance of A's GM Billy Beane.

    Jack McPherson
    Bend, Ore.

Well, the Angels finished 19 games out of first place last season. Not that it's particularly important, but if the Angels really are solid favorites, they're probably the first team to go from 19 games out to solid favorites in major league history.

1. Troy Glaus is not healthy, at least not completely. He had shoulder surgery in the offseason and it's said that he might not be able to play third base when the season starts. This creates at least one problem: the Angels don't have anybody else who can both hit and play third base. Another is that if Glaus has to DH for a spell, that pushes Tim Salmon out of the lineup. About the laser surgery, that's great but to this point nobody's studied the effects the surgery has on players who have had it. Great idea for a research project, though.

I will say this (because Dave Zybert told me) ... "The only thing you missed is to maybe throw in another 50 RBI and 15 HR to make up for Glaus being out half of 2003. That may tip it one or two more games, depending on how timely they are."

Agreed. Glaus' presumed return does add a game or two on the plus side. Addressing McPherson's (many) other points ...

2. I mentioned Washburn's likely improvement in the column.

3. Ditto for Lackey, and Ramon Ortiz is also likely to pitch better in 2004. Aside from signing Guerrero, this is the single biggest thing the Angels have in their favor, that all three of their holdovers in the rotation are perfectly capable of pitching better than they did last season.

4. Do the Angels really have the best bullpen in baseball? Well, they just might. Jack didn't even mention Francisco Rodriguez, who didn't win the Rookie of the Year award everybody thought he would (after that amazing performance in October of '02). Last season, Anaheim relievers posted a 3.13 ERA, second lowest in the majors (behind only the Dodgers and their 2.46). Considering the differences between Dodger Stadium and Anaheim Stadium, and between the National League and the American League, one might reasonably argue that the Angels were nearly as good as the Dodgers in 2003. And considering that the Dodgers have lost Paul Quantrill (1.75 ERA), one might reasonably argue that the Angels really will have the best bullpen in 2004.

Realistically, they probably will not, simply because when you're competing with 29 other particular teams for a particular something, you're unlikely to win even if you really are the best. Yes, the Angels should sport one of the best bullpens in the majors. But remember, we're talking about changes from last season to this season ... and it's not likely that the Angels will be much better in 2004, because they were so good in 2003.

Darin Erstad
APDarin Erstad is expected to play first base for the Angels in 2004.

5. Uh, right. This argument -- that Erstad will suddenly become a good hitter because he's not playing center field any more -- strikes me as fairly ridiculous. It's certainly possible, but we're talking about a player who's been a good hitter in exactly one season out of the last four. Does he really have a 776 career OPS because he's been all beat up from playing center field? Or does he have a 776 career OPS because that's how good he really is?

Taking this further, I think we might reasonably argue that the Angels are worse off if Erstad is healthy. As Joe Sheehan observed in his column on Tuesday, if Erstad's playing first base he really doesn't have any value at all, because most of his value rests in his brilliant defense in center field. Take him out of center field but keep him in the lineup, and all of sudden you're spending $8 million per season on a whole lot of nothin'.

6. It's true, Eckstein's better than he played last season. Not a lot better. But better.

7. Salmon's old, Salmon's injury-prone, and he's not likely to play better in 2004 than he did in 2003.

8. Reprising No. 6, I agree that Kennedy is a pretty good bet to improve this season. He enjoyed a big second half, and a 20-homer season might be in his future.

Our correspondent does suffer from OSS (Off-Season Syndrome), the primary symptom being the assumption that everything that can go right, will go right. On the other hand, the Angels probably have more up-side than any other team in the division. I won't be shocked if they win 100 games ... nor will I be shocked if they finish third.

Actually, I will be shocked if they win 100 games, because it's such a tough division. In last Friday's column, I argued that the Angels had to improve by roughly 15 games if they're going to contend for the division title. But as Jeff Gerbracht, Howard Beckerman, and a few other sharp readers pointed out, if the Angels improve, some of those extra wins will come at the expense of their divisional foes. So it might not take 95 wins to win the division, and it'll be awfully tough for somebody to win 100.

Getting back to the original question, should we now consider the Angels the favorites in the West? Based on rosters as they're currently composed, yes we probably should. But that ignores any moves that might be made between now and Opening Day, and it also ignores Billy Beane's proven ability to improve his team in July and August. If I were a betting man, I'd bet on the A's. But the Angels are certainly going to have something to say about that.

Speaking of saying more, I won't today. In Friday's column, though, I will discuss the reaction to last Friday's column, which was about incorporating quality of competition into objective analysis. (I've learned a lot since then.)

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. Next spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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