FanPost

Shocker: Dave Cameron Thinks it Might Soon Be Time for Angels to "Rebuild"

Over at the well-respected FanGraphs website, Dave Cameron ranks the Angels as just the 11th best organization in baseball. Some excerpts from his write-up:

[L]ike all good things eventually do, it may be coming to an end.

The Angels aren't a bad team, but they aren't a great team anymore either. With John Lackey bolting for Boston, the team's best player is now probably Kendry Morales, who has had one good major league season. While the team has quality around the diamond, there is a significant lack of star power. ... There is no franchise player. [...]

The Angels certainly have ... depth, but it's not young and spry. Hunter is 34, Matsui is 35, and Abreu is 36. Even Juan Rivera is on the wrong side of 30. That outfield is long in the tooth, and they need all of those guys to play well and stay healthy.

[W]ithout a premium group of young players to build around and some important aging role players, the Angels are at a crossroads. If they don't win in 2010 with this team, it might be time to look at going young for a year or two in order to rebuild the foundation of the team.

The team is well run and well financed, so the Angels will likely never be a laughing stock, but their run of owning the division appears to be nearing its end.

A few comments:

1) Again, Cameron has the Angels ranked as the 11th-best organization in baseball at the moment. (And for those who think that this is an example of Cameron's Mariner bias showing, here is his response: "Of the FanGraphs authors to submit their personal rankings, I had the Angels the highest. Had I not been involved, they would have ranked lower than 11th. Claims of bias are the crutch of those who have no credible argument.")

When is the last time the Angels have finished as low as even EIGHTH in the Major Leagues in victories? 2003. From 2007-2009, no Major League team has won more regular season games than the Angels (the team has finished 3rd, 1st, and 2nd in the MLB in victories those three years). Cameron, and apparently the whole FanGraphs crew, would have us believe that we witnessed the end of a great 6- or 8-year run last October. While that certainly jibes with all the preseason projection systems, and maybe with the fears of some regulars at Halos Heaven, it's certainly not obvious to me. I'd want more evidence of decline before writing off what has come to look like a long organizational default of excellence.

2) Speaking of evidence, John Lackey hasn't been the team's best starting pitcher, let alone player, since 2007.

3) In order for you to conclude that the Angels have "a significant lack of star power," you have to set your bar for "star power" pretty darn high. Torii Hunter, Bobby Abreu, and Erick Aybar were each top-3 in the AL at their positions last year, according to Win Shares/AB. Morales and Abreu both had 23 Win Shares, which is a level at which you more often than not both make and deserve to make an All-star team. Ervin Santana was a top-5 starting pitcher as recently as 2008, and is all of 27 years old. Jered Weaver ain't no superstar, but a career ERA+ of 121 through age 26 is certainly nothing to sneeze at.

The implication here is that we're talking about people who are plausible in an MVP conversation (the way that Ichiro Suzuki and Felix Hernandez are, but Torii Hunter and Weaver are not). Aside from the fact that Kendry Morales came 5th in the MVP vote last year (and Abreu 12th), the implication is correct: We don't have an obvious "franchise" player, at least for the moment. Nor did the 2005 White Sox, the 2003 Marlins, or the 2002 Angels, to cite 37.5 percent of our most recent World Series winners. Nor, for that matter, did the 2009 Angels, and last I looked they did all right. If having Ichiro/King Felix-type franchise players was so essential to winning, then, well, you can finish the sentence.

Also, considering that basically all of our infield and starting rotation is either entering or in their primes, this conversation will almost certainly look different a year from now. Twelve months ago, the words "best player" and "Kendry Morales" were nowhere near each other.

4) The Angels "depth," contra Cameron, is "young and spry." Depth does not mean the starting OF/DH rotation, it means, you know, the guys who will step in if and when the starters get hurt. They are: On the infield, Macier Izturis (29); behind the plate, Jeff Mathis (27); at DH (should Matsui or a corner outfielder fall) Mike Napoli (28), in the outfield Reggie Willits (29), with 23-year-old defensive phenom Peter Bourjos ready for his closeup in case Hunter is stricken for any length of time. Behind the starting rotation we have Matt Palmer (31) followed by a pile of young arms: Trevor Reckling (21), Sean O'Sullivan (22), and Trevor Bell (23).  

Cameron is not actually talking about the Angels' "depth" being old, he's doing something I've seen an awful lot of people do this past offseason: using the fact that the Angels' four OF/DH starters are old to make the broader implication that the team is old. But the team ain't old! Here are your core players:

25:
Wood, Jepsen,
26: Kazmir, Kendrick, Aybar
27: Morales, Weaver, Santana, Mathis
28: Napoli
29: Saunders, Izturis, Willits
30: Stokes
31: Rivera, Pineiro, Bulger
33: Rodney
34: Hunter, Fuentes, Shields
36: Abreu, Matsui

That's 17 out of 23 players -- including the entire infield and starting rotation -- between the ages of 25 and 31. And chances are that spots #24 & 25 will be within that band, too. The Angels don't have an old team, they have an old outfield, and troika of moderately old arms in the bullpen (none of which are under contract very long).

5) Do the Angels really "need all of those guys to play well and stay healthy"? Last year, three of the four OF/DH starters spent some quality time banged up, and one of them (Vladimir Guerrero) had by far his worst year, and was arguably the worst offensive player in the lineup when Jeff Mathis wasn't playing. Hunter only started 114 games in CF, Vlad only 93 at DH. Take the 639 starts at those 4 positions, and the 4 main guys accounted for 496 (78%) of them. Making 125 starts each is not particularly healthy in the scheme of things, and again the team managed to do all right. The most likely ominous possibility is that one of Matsui/Rivera/Abreu has a significant injury. But -- especially if it's Matsui, who is the most likely -- the team has the depth to deal with it. The Angels might legitimately be in a bad way if Torii Hunter has a catastrophic injury, but again, the guy missed 48 starts in CF last year, and Peter Bourjos' defense is already ready for prime time.

Ah, but will the fogeys "play well"? While I am almost positive that they will play worse than last year, and that the team will suffer from that drop in production (after all, they are aging, and Hunter in particular had a terrific year), let's remember a few things here: Bobby Abreu has never not hit. His great year last year was actually his second-worst season by OPS+, a still-very-good 116. Torii Hunter has never hit fewer than 21 home runs in a full season, and his lowest OPS+ was 98. Juan Rivera has always hit, with the exception of the two mostly wiped-out seasons after he snapped his leg in half. And Hideki Matsui's career-low OPS+ was 108; his lifetime (which he exceeded as recently as last year) is a stellar 124. These guys will decline, because they're getting older, but they're starting from a good deal higher than, say, Franklin Gutierrez. They should still hit.

6) How on earth can you conclude that the Angels lack "a premium group of young players to build around"? Scott Kazmir, Ervin Santana, and Jered Weaver have 167 victories between them, and none are older than 27. Mike Napoli is one 16 catchers in Major League history to have a 120 OPS+ through his age-27 season. Erick Aybar is as talented a defensive shortstop there is in the game, and he's entering his age-26 season after hitting .312. Howie Kendrick, despite being mostly a disappointment so far, is a career .300 hitting second baseman entering his age-26 year, coming off a .350 second half. There's a new athletic 3Bman in town with prodiguous power, and the guy on first just set a franchise record for extra base hits in his first full season in the bigs. The whole infield and rotation is young, mostly cheap, and under contract for several years. And there's a young cat in the bullpen who throws 100 MPH, with a 92-mph offspeed pitch.

This is no "crossroads"; this is, finally, the full fruition of a youth movement that began (disastrously!) in 2005, lumbered into gear in the second half of 2006, and ultimately contributed (more in each passing year) to four division titles in five years. That group is right now hitting its numerical prime, just as the older pieces are seeking free agent money elsewhere, and replenishing our farm system with a dozen high draft picks in just two years.

I don't mean to pick on Dave Cameron here; just using him as a stand-in for a lot of the skepticism I've read this offseason. There are reasons to doubt this year's team -- what if a starter or two goes down, what if Kazmir/Santana never turn back into their 2008 selves, what if Torii breaks his shoulder, what if Brandon Wood pulls a Jack Howell, and what if Aybar/Morales et al never again hit as good as last year. But there is huge upside over last year on the pitching staff, and there are an awful lot of players at the magical age of 26-27. Saying that we're old, or at a crossroads, or lack premium young talent ... I really don't get it.

Nor do I get this tack-on explainer from Cameron:

Texas has more quality young talent than any non-Tampa team in baseball. This isn't just unproven young prospects, but a core of tremendously good players to build around. And yes, the best farm system in the game. They’re as good as the Angels now (maybe even better) and have a significantly better talent base to build from going forward.

Seattle is about equal to the Angels in present talent, but take the lead in future talent. They have better near major league ready players than the Angels do, and they have a better management team in place.

Look, I know it's ridiculous to award pennants based on past performance, but can we hold off on the parades for the upstarts for at least, I dunno, a month? The Angels averaged 90 wins this past decade; Texas never once during that time managed that many in a season. Seattle's high total in wins the past six years was 88; the Angels' lowest was 89. The Mariners have no catcher, no back end of the rotation, no batter at shortstop, a 40-year-old DH, and an offense so anemic that Casey Kotchman is projected to be their number-three hitter. The Rangers had a lousy offense last year, lost some of their better hitters, and also let their best starting pitcher walk. Both organizations may be headed in the right direction, but to declare anyone in this division as having equal talent and "better management" at this point is a triumph of hope over experience.

This Fan-Post is authored by an independent fan. Tell us what you think and how you feel.

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