Angels looking for an offensive spark
The Angels just haven't clicked offensively when it counts the most in October
TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Los Angeles Angels didn't always come down with the hives in October. Just close your eyes and think back to 2002, when they beat the Yankees, Twins and Giants in succession for the franchise's first and only title. Even little David Eckstein was walking with a swagger.
Disney-caliber endings have been harder to come by under the Arte Moreno regime. Since winning the World Series seven years ago, manager Mike Scioscia's club is 5-15 in the playoffs. The Angels have hit .232 as a team and averaged 3.25 runs per game in those 20 postseason games.
They're developing a reputation as a club that is well suited for the 162-game haul but lacks a key ingredient when it matters most. The Angels spent so much time scraping to erase deficits the past two Octobers that the Rally Monkey filed a worker's compensation claim for overuse.
The 2008 season ended fittingly and unceremoniously, with a failed suicide squeeze by Erick Aybar in the American League Division Series against Boston. Even rent-a-slugger Mark Teixeira contracted the dreaded single-itis, rapping out seven singles in 15 at-bats against the Red Sox.
Four months later, the Angels begin the quest for their third straight AL West title and sixth playoff appearance this decade. The starting rotation is solid, particularly if Kelvim Escobar returns from shoulder problems in May. And free-agent acquisition Brian Fuentes should help compensate for the loss of Francisco Rodriguez to the Mets.
But the Angels must again confront those nagging questions about their offense. Management took a shot at retaining Teixeira only to fall short of the Yankees' winning $180 million bid, and expressed little or no interest in free agents Manny Ramirez and Adam Dunn.
So what's a general manager to do? The Angels' Tony Reagins spent $12.75 million on Juan Rivera, who is 30 years old and has one 400 at-bat season in the majors, and landed a $5 million bargain in Bobby Abreu, an on-base machine who will bat second in the order behind Chone Figgins.
"We're going to have a one-two punch at the top of the lineup with the ability to run, work counts and create offense by setting the table that's better than we have in a while here," Scioscia said.
The Angels like to turn games into track meets, to the point where the idea has infiltrated the clubhouse vernacular. Scioscia divides the team's production into two categories -- "batter's box offense" and baserunning, which the club diligently chronicles in successful forays from first to third on singles.
"They do it as well as anybody," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "We want to run the bases like they do."
Problem is, it's tough to keep stringing together singles against the best pitching staffs in October. The Angels were outscored 37-17 and outhomered 8-2 in consecutive playoff losses to Boston the past two years. Call it a small sample size if you wish, but when the fans and media start harping on it, the team psyche shows the strain.
"We're certainly not proud of the way our team has performed in the playoffs, but it's important to keep moving forward," Scioscia said. "I think people take some things for granted. Division championships have kind of taken a backseat when people talk about what teams are achieving."
Hey, just ask John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox of the Atlanta Braves.
First things first, as they say. Texas' pitching is iffy, Oakland's is ridiculously young, and there's no reason to expect the Mariners will spring from 61 victories to contention, so the Angels are the consensus AL West favorites, as usual.
What will it take for them to make it to October and, more important, to stick around awhile? Here are four offensive questions worth pondering in Anaheim:
• How much does Vlad have left?
Age has quietly crept up on Vladimir Guerrero. His smile is incandescent, and he radiates the old joy for the game. But from the way he hobbles and creaks when he walks, he looks every bit of his 33 years.
The scouts who disparaged Guerrero in the spring of 2008 weren't counting on a Teixeira-induced revival. In the Angels' first 97 games, Guerrero hit .276 with 17 home runs and 54 RBIs. Then Teixeira arrived from Atlanta to share the load, and Guerrero hit .362 with 10 homers and 47 RBIs in his final 46 games.
Still, all was not right with his world. Guerrero was bothered by swelling and inflammation in his right knee, and he underwent surgery in October to repair cartilage damage. He's already taking batting practice in camp but isn't expected to make his Cactus League debut until mid-March.
Even if Guerrero isn't the Vlad who wowed them in Montreal, he's vital to the success of the Angels' offense. Last year, Guerrero joined Lou Gehrig as the only players to hit .300 with 25 homers for 11 consecutive seasons.
But if anyone deserves to be linked to the Angels' playoff flameouts, it's Guerrero. He has two extra-base hits in 75 career postseason at-bats, for a .293 slugging percentage. Maybe teams have no incentive to pitch to him in October, or perhaps he's worn out each autumn. Regardless of the explanation, he'd better figure out a way to remedy the problem in this, the final year of his six-year, $85 million contract.
• Will there be an Abreu effect?
In the six seasons since their World Series victory, the Angels have ranked eighth, sixth, ninth, 10th, third and 11th in the AL in on-base percentage.
"We don't have a lot of power in the lineup, so they'll throw us more strikes," hitting coach Mickey Hatcher said. "If you're dangerous all the way through the lineup like the Yankees, you're going to get more walks."
Hey, it's a theory.
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Can Abreu, who revels in taking two fastballs down the middle and fouling off two more on the black before working 10-pitch walks, have a palliative effect on a lineup that lacks plate discipline? According to the FanGraphs Web site, Abreu swung the bat only 35.6 percent of the time last year -- making him the most finicky hitter in the majors.
Teixeira, by acclamation, had an impact on the Angels' collective mindset. Now the Angels hope Abreu can rub off on Aybar, Rivera, first baseman Kendry Morales and even Torii Hunter, an inveterate free swinger who established a personal best last year with a .344 OBP.
"Just from having Bobby Abreu in the lineup early in the season, the younger guys will learn from him," Hunter said. "I will, too. I'm just a guy from Arkansas who played football and used my God-given ability. I've never really been taught."
• Who will play in the outfield?
Scioscia says he likes the idea of competition for at-bats between the outfield and designated hitter spots. But with Guerrero, Hunter, Abreu, Rivera, Gary Matthews Jr. and Reggie Willits in the mix, someone is bound to be disappointed.
It could be Matthews, who has three years and $33 million left on a five-year deal that has not worked out according to plan. After posting an OPS+ of 121 in 2006, his final year with Texas (100 is league-average), Matthews has dipped to 93 and 77 in two seasons as an Angel.
Matthews refrained from having knee surgery in the summer because he wanted to play in the postseason. He finally had the operation in October and is ahead of schedule in his rehab. But it's a stretch to envision he'll get the plate appearances he desires.
"We all know this game, so you can look at all the guys who can play everyday and see it doesn't fit," Matthews said. "I'm not going to sit here and lie to your face and tell you, 'I'll be OK sitting or playing a couple of times a week.' Because I'm not. And I don't anticipate doing that."
• Is there a savior in the house?
We're certainly not proud of the way our team has performed in the playoffs, but it's important to keep moving forward. I think people take some things for granted. Division championships have kind of taken a backseat when people talk about what teams are achieving.” -- Angels manager Mike Scioscia
Second baseman Howie Kendrick, who has been hyped as a future batting champion, has yet to emerge as the second coming of Bill Madlock. Kendrick has visited the disabled list four times since April 2007 and has 163 big league strikeouts and only 30 walks.
"Howie was a guy in the minor leagues who tore up fastballs and breaking balls," Hatcher said. "But in the minor leagues, they always threw breaking balls for strikes. In the majors, they bury breaking balls and make you chase them. He's getting a taste of that."
Although Morales hit .404 with eight homers in the Dominican winter league, nothing else in his portfolio suggests he'll be a big power threat. If it's home runs Scioscia wants, he might consider giving less time to catcher Jeff Mathis and more to Mike Napoli, who went deep 20 times in 227 at-bats and slugged a whopping .586 last season.
The wild card in the equation is former megaprospect Brandon Wood, who'll either have to crack the Opening Day roster or go back to Triple-A Salt Lake City for a third season. If Wood has a huge spring and wins the third-base job, that would force the Angels to shift Figgins to the outfield and exacerbate the traffic jam there.
Scioscia, who signed a 10-year contract extension in January, has four weeks to find answers to some of the aforementioned questions and several months to resolve some others. Either way, the Angels would like to start making a little more noise.