The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim finished a great 2008 with the New Year's eve signing of closer Brian Fuentes. The 2 year deal vests a 3rd season if Fuentes closes 55 games in 2010. If this is the final piece of the puzzle, have the 100-Win Angels improved much? If the season were to start today, would they be ready to defend their division title? The lack of any obvious addition out there along with the team's depth could lead a casual observer to believe that General Manager Tony Reagins could go on a three month sabbatical today and still compete for a world championship.
STARTING PITCHING: The Angels bring back 4 of their 5 starting pitchers form last season - John Lackey, Ervin Santana, Jered Weaver and Joe Saunders. Jon Garland declined arbitration. If the season started today, the fifth starter for the Angels would be one of: Dustin Moseley, Nick Adenhardt, Shane Loux, Nick Green or Anthony Ortega. Look for the battle for #5 to be the story of the Spring in an otherwise set Angels mound.
RELIEF PITCHING: The Bullpen lost Frankie Rodriguez but almost makes up for it with Lefty Brian Fuentes anointed as the Angels' closer. The insurance the team has behind him is sick - Scot Shields and Jose Arredondo could easily be in his shoes. Lefty Darren Oliver accepted arbitration and Justin Speier will pretty much have to be worse than ever to be released, so any improvement will ensure he is the mop of the pen. Kevin Jepsen and Jason Bulger pretty much muscle out anyone else even thinking about cracking this bunch. Darren O'Day and Chris Bootcheck are gone from the organization, by the way.
OUTFIELD: Look for Torii Hunter to start in CF 150 times this season. Juan Rivera signed a 3-year deal in the offseason, so LF is his to lose. Vladimir Guerrero will be testing out that Colorado-Kobe-Doctor knee to play RF and Gary Matthews jr will be baseball's highest paid rover on days Vlad DHs. Reggie Willits looms as a pinch-running option but there is always the hope for a non-roster invitee to make Mike Scioscia suffer an interesting Spring.
CATCHER: There is no reason to not start a healthy Mike Napoli 120 times this seaosn and DH him in games where Jeff Mathis rests him. If Mathis is not traded, this DHing scenario is a better reason for Scioscia to carry 3 catchers at the major league level (Bobby Wilson and Ryan Budde are interchangeable as Hank Conger still needs seasoning in the minors) than his 2005 Molina-x-2 +Pope Josh Paul scenario.
FIRST BASE: The organization traded away favorite son Casey Kotchman and a pitching prospect for the Yankees' 1st round pick and a sandwich pick (plus two months of a Departed Scott Boras client) because they believe in Kendry Morales so much. There is always the occasional Robb Quinlan appearance at this spot, but if Hank Conger were to make strides this season in AA, Mike Napoli trying out at 1B in an experimental improvisation is not out of the question if Morales cannot make it as an everyday producer. Organizational depth-wise, the fingers are still crossed on Mark Trumbo, but even a breakthrough first half will not see him making a difference in L.A. of Ana in '09.
SECOND BASE: As long as Howie Kendrick keeps crowding the plate he is going to keep getting bones in his hand and wrist bruised and broken - maybe 2009 will be the year he dodges the inside pitch and hits 60 doubles, maybe it will be the season that the pitch does him in - oh, and then there are those hamstrings. Sean Rodriguez is scratching at the door and Maicer Izturis needs a place to play, too.
THIRD BASE-/-SHORTSTOP: The odd men out seem to be a quickly aging Chone Figgins and Maicer "Uhmembah Me?" Izturis. Incumbent Erick Aybar might be on more than one sheet list for missing the bunt last October, but that glove sure helps the pitching staff and he will only be turning 25 this month. Brandon Wood can play either position BUT if he is benched in favor of Figgins, Ranger and A's fans can confidently cheer for their teams' title hopes.
IN SUMMARY: There is just about NO position other than Fifth Starter at which the Angels can drastically improve with absolute certainty, save for signing Manny Ramirez, which they have announced they will not be doing. Juan Rivera will be an improvement over Garret Anderson and some combo of Fuentes/Aredondo/Shields should soften the loss of Frankie's 62 Saves. Kendry Morales will have a tough time filling the shoes of Departed Boras Client, but a combo of Morales and Wood will likely add more to the offense in 2009 than the Figgins-BorasClient combo contributed in 2008.
4 THINGS LEFT TO DO BY OPENING DAY: Jettison Chone Figgins, determine the 5th starter, determine the Bullpen roles, determine the Outfield hierarchy in games where Vlad DHs. Then just play ball...