Inbox: Are Angels improved from a year ago?
Beat reporter Alden Gonzalez fields offseason questions from Halos fans
"Now," Jerry Dipoto said a few days before Christmas, "we just have to get them onto the field." The Angels' second-year general manager basically concluded his eventful offseason before the holidays, and now, with pitchers and catchers reporting to Tempe, Ariz., in exactly 35 days, there's little left to do but wait.
Dipoto acted quickly and with purpose this winter, essentially replacing the septet of Torii Hunter, Zack Greinke, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana, Kendrys Morales, Jordan Walden and LaTroy Hawkins with that of Josh Hamilton, Ryan Madson, Tommy Hanson, Jason Vargas, Sean Burnett, Joe Blanton and Peter Bourjos, who regains a prominent role.
The Angels still have the lingering arbitration cases of Vargas, Hanson, Alberto Callaspo, Jerome Williams and Kevin Jepsen (the two sides exchange figures Jan. 18). They may also look to make a few more Minor League signings, and who knows: perhaps they find a reasonable suitor for Vernon Wells.
But most of the dust has settled.
And it's as good a time as any to take your questions ...
Everyone seems to think the Angels have an incredible lineup, but basically they are replacing Hunter and Morales with Hamilton. Along with that, they are counting on Bourjos to hit. They have also replaced Santana/Haren with Vargas/Hanson. The bullpen does look greatly improved. What is your take on the Angels' offseason? Are they better than last year?
-- Jarett B., Villa Park, Calif.
I think overall they are. And I think in the end, Dipoto did a great job of using a very similar payroll figure (about $160 million) to make a series of moves that give the Angels a more balanced and functional 25-man roster -- despite a free-agent market that got a little out of control.
I disagree with you on the lineup, Jarett. I think with Hamilton, Mike Trout and Albert Pujols -- and don't forget Mark Trumbo -- the Angels have the best offense in baseball. They'll miss Hunter, but Bourjos has the kind of talent to match him over the next couple of seasons and is still a year removed from arbitration.
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They're also a lot more fluid. Remember last spring, when Trumbo, Bourjos, Wells, Callaspo, Bobby Abreu and Maicer Izturis were all fighting for varying degrees of plate appearances? With Morales gone, manager Mike Scioscia suddenly has a lot more flexibility in that designated-hitter spot, using Trumbo there mostly but being able to plug in Pujols and Hamilton at any time.
The most improved area, as you mentioned, is the bullpen. The additions of Madson and Burnett provide up to five back-end options, a big step forward for a team that has blown an AL-leading 47 saves the past two years.
Rotation-wise, Hanson, Vargas and Blanton pale in comparison to Greinke, Haren and Santana. But the new trio basically matched the old trio in production last year, will cost less than half in 2013 and is being placed in an environment to thrive.
The Angels will have four fly-ball starting pitchers -- Hanson, Blanton, Vargas and Jered Weaver -- in a pitcher-friendly home ballpark with one of the best defensive outfields behind them. So, even on the Angels' weakest department, there's reason for optimism.
Is there a performance floor that Bourjos has to make sure he's over before Wells starts cutting into his at-bats? I know Bourjos' defense will be there, but his hitting is a big question mark after last year's regression.
-- Dennis M., Commerce, Calif.
Very relevant question, Dennis. The Angels will go into the season with a starting outfield of Trout (left), Bourjos (center) and Hamilton (right), with Trumbo primarily at DH. So, barring a trade, they'll have an outfielder making $42 million over the next couple of seasons on their bench.
If Bourjos gets off to a slow start, I wouldn't be surprised to see Wells get some time in left field, pushing Trout back to center. Scioscia loves his veterans, and Bourjos basically lost his chance to play regularly in 2012 after hitting .167 that first month. No question, this team is better if Bourjos is playing every day. But after limited playing time last year, he'll have to prove he's worthy of 500-plus plate appearances again.
Here's what Trumbo said about Bourjos getting back into rhythm: "It's a tall order, but there's not a person I know that's better-equipped at doing it than him. With his demeanor and how even-keeled he is, he's going to be just fine. The biggest thing that I think he's got going for him is his speed. Speed doesn't go into slumps."
The biggest weakness in their lineup is a lack of a high on-base percentage hitters for the No. 2 slot, in front of Pujols and Hamilton. Erick Aybar, with his [.320] lifetime on-base percentage and career inability to take a strike should be ruled out right off the bat. Howie Kendrick has also been unsuccessfully tried in the two-hole; another guy who refuses to take a walk. Seems to me Chris Iannetta would be the best choice. He shows patience at the plate, giving Trout a chance to steal, and has the best on-base percentage of any of the other possibilities. Why isn't anybody talking about this? All I hear is Aybar. Can Sosh really put this undisciplined hitter in front of murderer's row?
-- Jackson E., Seal Beach, Calif.
That, perhaps even more so than his unmatched leadership, is the big void left by Hunter. The Angels now don't have a natural fit at the No. 2 spot between Trout and Pujols/Hamilton. Jackson, you make an interesting point to mention Iannetta. Besides Trout, Pujols and Hamilton, the catcher is the only one in the Angels' lineup with a career on-base percentage over .350 (.354). Next up is the walk-prone Callaspo at .335.
But I'd still personally go with Aybar. He's a switch-hitter who's a great bunter and can run. He may not be an on-base machine, but anybody who hits in the two-spot next year will see a boatload of strikes, and Aybar can sure hit strikes. Taking it one step further, I'd like to see Bourjos bat ninth so the Angels have all three speed guys lined up.
With the departure of Maicer Izturis, who is likely to be the Angels' third-base backup to Callaspo?
-- Mike P., Irvine, Calif.
That'll be an open competition between Andrew Romine, the Angels' two offseason Minor League signings -- Luis Rodriguez and Brendan Harris -- and anyone else they may pick up before mid-February. The Angels need someone capable of manning second base, third base and shortstop, like Izturis did. The homegrown Romine has the advantage of familiarity, appearing in 27 games the last three years. But he's played shortstop the majority of his pro career and still needs to grasp third base, as Mike mentioned. Harris and Rodriguez have more experience at the other positions.
So it's pretty much time to get rid of "Build Me Up Buttercup," right? I mean, Angels fans have higher expectations than to ultimately be let down. Right?
-- Jason D., Tustin, Calif.
Turns out the most popular Inbox email had nothing to do with Hamilton, Pujols, Trout or the starting rotation. It was regarding "Build Me Up Buttercup," the classic Foundations song with pessimistic lyrics -- "Why do you build me up [build me up], Buttercup baby, just to let me down" -- that the Angels play during the seventh-inning stretch.
Angels communications manager Eric Kay told me that as of now there are "no plans for a change." But upper management and the entertainment department usually make that call closer to the season. I'll keep you posted; I know you're all very concerned.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.