Who are these guys? There are plenty of new faces on the Angels to make us forget who was on the team last season. Nearly half the starting lineup is different from a season ago. The entire bench got an overhaul. There are several new coaches in the dugout. And a new general manager has taken the reigns of what has been perceived as a dysfunctional front office over the last few years. So what does all of this boil down to going into 2016?
Much skepticism. Since the Angels missed the playoffs (by one game!), projection systems are buying lower than they were going into 2015. That’s one of the bases of those systems. Pundits and fans alike are going along with that and have grilled the club’s chances simply because they didn’t go out and sign another marquee free agent being so close to the luxury tax this time. And that’s after the Halos and owner Arte Moreno were criticized for the amount of money they spent before that. So which is it? Narratives, mostly.
What gets audiences hooked?
Well, what really hooked the masses was former GM Jerry Dipoto‘s sudden resignation on July 1, 2015. This resulted from an ongoing feud between himself, manager Mike Scioscia, and the coaching staff. There were ongoing battles over the distribution of information and its use on the field. Dipoto’s side was all about the advanced analytics, and basically running a team from a laptop. Scioscia’s side was about the part of the game that you can not quantify on paper or on a computer.
It has been well publicized in several articles by now that Dipoto erased the philosophy that Scioscia had brought to the organization, and got them six playoff appearances in an eight year period and a championship. The former GM set out to implement a batter’s box/station-to-station approach that the more I hear about the more I feel like I’m just watching ‘Moneyball‘ again.
No stealing, no bunting, no aggressiveness. Just wait it out and let the power come through, with just enough pitching to give the offense a win. That was Dipoto’s philosophy. And it didn’t work.
Then the Kansas City Royals won the the 2015 World Series with a team that was basically built like those Scioscia teams from a decade ago.
So who won this battle? No one really. If you step away from social media and narratives, and just let these things exist instead of playing social justice warrior, you might find that it was simply a matter of two differing philosophies that could not co-exist. Neither is really to blame. It was just a relationship that didn’t work.
Enter Billy Eppler. From the moment he and Scioscia began working together, things quickly took a positive turn. What Eppler brings is something Dipoto unfortunately could not bring with him: the ability to get people on board.
Eppler took a real hard look at the current Angels squad, and then did his homework by looking at the teams that were making the playoffs year after year. He looked at how those teams were constructed and basically set out to provide Mike Scioscia and his club the kinds of tools that proved so valuable in the previous decade.
He started by acquiring Adrelton Simmons from the Atlanta Braves for Erick Aybar, Sean Newcomb, among other prospects. Then, the new GM got Yunel Escobar from the Washington Nationals in exchange for young reliever Trevor Gott. More moves were made not only to counter the clubs proximity to the luxury tax, but to tailor the club to their ballpark, and to return to the aggressive, versatile style the Angels were once famous for.
Here is a video clip from Sunday’s exhibition game against the Chicago Cubs, where Eppler discusses this very thing. What finally sold me permanently on Eppler’s position as GM was the part here he talks about not just building the Angels to their ballpark, but to the amount of games the team will be playing in similar ballparks throughout the course of the season:
Very insightful. And it shows that Eppler is here to work ‘with’ Scioscia and the Angels instead of worrying about making his mark. The club is now returning to that more aggressive and versatile approach the organization was so famous for ten years ago. And it’s only a matter of playing the game on the field to see how it all turns out.
So let’s get to the 2015 Angels Opening Day roster, shall we?
3B Yunel Escobar
LF Daniel Nava (vs. righties)
CF Mike Trout
DH Albert Pujols
RF Kole Calhoun
1B CJ Cron
SS Andrelton Simmons
C Carlos Perez
2B Johnny Giavotella
STARTING LINEUP ANALYSIS: There is an historical pattern where the success of Angels offenses is often dictated by the strength of their table setting. Look at 1979, 1982, and 1986. On base machines ruled the top of those lineups. Fast-forward to 2002, 2004, 2007, 2009, and 2012 through 2014. It was all about the top two spots in the order getting on base constantly. And the offense’s biggest problem in 2015 was their table setting.
Trout and Pujols both led the Majors in solo home runs, and that is just ridiculous. The top two spots in this lineup are now filled with guys who actually have good on base ability, and one of them is in that left field position that has been so controversial this offseason. They’re not going to have OBP’s around .400 like Chone Figgins and Bobby Abreu did in 2009, but they will likely provide a healthier amount of opportunities for Trout and Pujols.
The middle of the order has enough power for a formidable threat, especially if Cron can hit like he did after the All-Star Break for the entire season. His slow first half was another big reason the Halos missed the playoffs.
The bottom third resembles the more successful bottom thirds in some of the most productive Angels lineups. The only questions are is Simmons can progress as a hitter, and if Perez and Johnny G can both take steps from last season and stay productive. Either way, there is going to be a lot of small ball and a lot of movement on the bases between those three.
That’s another thing. Dipoto’s offense didn’t call for much stealing. And although the Astros and Cubs both hit just as poorly as the Angels did in 2015, both of those other two clubs countered with a LOT of stolen bases. Well, that element is supposed to be a big part of the Angels’ game, and it’s finally coming back to a lineup that will also display a lot more bunting and taking the extra base.
This should be a fun lineup to watch in 2016.
C Giovany Soto
UT Cliff Pennington
UT Ji-Man Choi
OF Craig Gentry
BENCH ANALYSIS: This bench has versatility written all over it. And that even goes for the guys they have waiting at AAA. Catchers have better bats and it remains to be seen how many games either will play. Regardless, both fit right in here as there is plenty of small ball, base running ability, and some pop from Choi that will really help the Halos supplement their starting lineup.
Bench production was also a big issue for them last season. When guys were struggling or hurt, there wasn’t much coming off the bench at all. Even when the Halos acquired bench depth at the trade deadline, it didn’t help much outside of David Murphy providing some boost in left field.
This looks to be a much better and deeper bench. The Halos even brought in some promising looking utility players like Todd Cunningham, Rafael Ortega, and Shane Robinson in case of an emergency. They will get their playing time. And it should be fun to watch.
RHP Garrett Richards
LHP Andrew Heaney
LHP Hector Santiago
RHP Jered Weaver
RHP Matt Shoemaker
STARTING ROTATION ANALYSIS: Suddenly this looks like the young, controllable rotation that Jerry Dipoto was seeking to build. That’s one thing he did very well. And the future of the rotation looks bright. Richards looks to take the next step towards being the ace, Heaney is ready too be the pitcher the Angels acquire, Santiago just needs to control his pitch counts, and Weaver is a major question, and Shoemaker just needs to control the long ball, because he does not walk hitters.
So this is not a rotation necessarily filled with future potential aces like the New York Mets have. But there are five starters here who are serviceable a whole. As far as tapping into depth, C.J. Wilson is starting the season on the disabled list, Weaver is working on a degenerative neck issue, and Tyler Skaggs won’t be back until the end of May. But there’s still a full rotation there. In fact, there were eight spots available going into Spring Training. Not only that, the Angels signed Kyle Kendrick, still have Nick Tropeano on stand-by, and acquired a couple of other depth pieces. And now the club has a total of eleven starting pitchers on their depth chart.
It’s not nineties Atlanta Braves depth, but it’s more than enough bodies to counter injuries and to give the Angels what they need from them the most all season: innings.
RHP/CL Huston Street
RHP/SU Joe Smith
RHP/SU Cory Rasmus
RHP/SU Mike Morin
RHP/MR Fernando Salas
RHP/MR Jose Alvarez
RHP/MR Cam Bedrosian
BULLPEN ANALYSIS: When the Angels acquired Street in 2014, it pretty much exposed exactly why the Angels couldn’t close the deal in 2011 and 2012, and tumbled in 2013. It also propelled the Angels to just that and run away with the AL West in ’14. Street is still here, as is Smith. There are a few bounce back candidates here, but those who are in that position have shown lights out ability when healthy.
This is a bullpen that could shorten games on a nightly basis if a few of these guys can ride it out. Bedrosian is taking strides and won himself the final spot. There is also a handful of experienced hurlers signed to minor league deals who are in AAA. Anything goes wrong and Al Albequerque and Javy Guerra can immediately fill in. So like the rotation, there is depth here to tap into. There is also more strikeout ability than the last couple of seasons. That’s something a good bullpen should always have.
If the rotation can give the innings, this pen will be well rested and ready to go. Something tells me that will most likely be the case with the a out of starters the Angels have piled on.
Let’s not forget the part where the Angels finished tenth in fielding percentage last season. They weren’t catching the baseball as well as they should have. With Simmons at shortstop, Escobar’s season will be a lot easier at the hot corner. Both Cron and Giavotella have improved this spring, and it’s only a matter of how that translates to the regular season. I can’t even tell readers about the outfield. We all know Trout and Calhoun can get it done. Nava isn’t too shabby either. Gentry is actually a very good defender. And then there’s the catching. Now you have two guys who can frame pitches, throw out runners, and are the kinds of catchers Mike Scioscia is looking for. That is going to be huge.
Honestly, this team is about as fuzzy an Angels ball club as I’ve seen probably since going into 2010. But this is a better roster than that one. There is just a high amount of bounce back candidates that makes it understandable for pundits and fans alike to proceed with much caution. But the one thing that excites me is the versatility and depth that was so prevalent in those Angels teams from a decade ago. That’s the key.
If bounce back candidates falter, and too many players have injuries and down years, expect about an 86-76 season. This roster would have to have a pretty catastrophic occurrence to have a losing season. You want to see a bad Angels roster? Look at the 1992 Angels.
If those players don’t falter, and guys stay relatively healthy and don’t have too many down years, we’ll probably see a 92-70 season.
If all goes well. And things gel. This team has the capability of going about 96-66. A lot of things have to go right. But that’s just describing every team that has ever won around 96 games, or is in contention to win that many.
2016 is a tough season to assess right now, I hope we are all wrong about our skepticism. But it should be more fun to watch this time regardless. And here’s to a good 2016 for your Angels! Hopefully it will result in lighting up that Halo and bring home another ring.
We’ll just have to wait and see. But in the meantime: