As all the major off-season moves and speculation come to an end and spring training draws nearer and nearer, Halo fans float in a limbo of realism and optimism for this upcoming year. I'm here to shed some perspective on the realists (or in some cases, pessimists) and give the optimists even more to look forward towards in 2014. No matter which side you're on, I hope I can give some confidence to a fan base that hasn't had a lot to be confident about the last couple of years. I'm taking a couple different approaches with this fanpost so stay with me here, first, let's look at the off-season moves.
There's no need to revisit the 2013 season, it was brutal, plain and simple. But every off-season offers the delight of a clean state, everyone needs a fresh start every once in a while, a baseball franchise is no different. Throughout the off-season, I've been keeping a little transaction log on my Iphone of every Angels transaction announced. For this part, I'm going to break up the transaction into a couple different categories, Front Office, Coaching Staff, Free Agency/Trades/and Minor League deals. Let's get into it.
Front Office Transactions/Personnel:
A majority of the front office was already in place with Dipoto making up his staff during his first year here, minus a couple assistant GM's being brought into the fold. This off-season was no different, unless a major front office turnover was necessary, which it wasn't, no major moves will be made so that the dynamic of the front office doesn't change. How is a team supposed to build up a winning franchise when the guys at the helm are constantly changing? The Halos hired former MLBer Rico Brogna as a part time scout/part time assistant to the general manager, unless Brogna is responsible for discovering the next Mike Trout, it'll be hard to see what he's actually doing underneath the surface so we'll move on.
A running joke this off-season was that the Angels were getting more assistant hitting coaches than actual players and you can see why when looking at all of the coaching moves. The Angels started out the off-season by dismissing bench coach Rob Picciolo and hitting coach Jim Eppard and promoting beloved Angels coach Dino Ebel to the bench coach role. While none of these moves will help the pitching (I get it, a lot of people wanted Butcher's head) creating new voices in the dugout and getting new opinions can make a difference for a team. Ebel has received a fair amount of love from Halos players, in this article, Alden Gonzalez discusses some characteristics of Mr. Ebel which, to me, get me excited that Dino's getting a larger role on the team.
Now comes the injection of some former Angel star power, the hiring of Don Baylor as the new hitting coach and Gary DiSarcina as the replacement for Ebel at third. While it might be hard to evaluate what their contributions to the Angels are, they should have some pretty nice impacts on younger players and maybe righting the "Josh Hamilton ship." Last season, the Angels offense was 6th in runs in the AL, 3rd in OBP, 5th in OPS, and 3rd in batting average, so obviously offense wasn't really the problem. Buuut if you can get better, why wouldn't you? Baylor should be able to help some of the younger guys like Calhoun, Shuck, and Conger develop while helping our veterans get back on track in Pujols and Hamilton. While Pujols' problems are rooted more towards injury, Hamilton could use the help. I don't want to focus on the coaching moves too much but it's the next moves that catch my interest.
During a time where stats and sabermetrics are taking over the game, teams are finding more and more ways to use these numbers to win. The Angels hired Rick Eckstein to become the new player information coach which in a quote from the article is summed up like this.
"Rick calls his new job 'a multi-faceted role' with 'many, many arms to it.' Pregame, he'll meet with the coaches to go over hitter-pitcher matchups and defensive alignments, then help out during batting practice. In-game, he'll go upstairs to serve as what the organization calls "an eye in the sky."
The Pittsburgh Pirates hired someone of this position heading into the 2013 season and the results were drastic. In this article, the author, Travis Sawchik, discusses the profound impact of defensive alignments and shifts on the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates and is really worth a read that shows where the future of baseball could be heading. I'm already almost 800 words in so I'm gonna cut it short and say you should read it to show where the Angels are heading. Even with a manager with a dinosaur mentality like Mike Scioscia, the Angels are changing into a team that will implement numbers to help them win, and we need all the advantages we can take. To help Mr. Eckstein get the scouting reports and information around the league needed, Dipoto brought along Nick Francona (the son of Terry Francona) as the coordinator of MLB intelligence and Jeremy Zoll as the coordinator of advances scouting. They're here to help Eckstein get all the information he could possibly need. I found an article on Nick Francona here and an article about both here. These are moves that should help the defense, pitching staff, and shed off some runs. Jim Eppard was rehired as a roving hitting instructor and Dave Hansen was added as an assistant hitting coach. We're moving forward though!
Free Agency/Trades/Minor League Deals:
The immediate help to the big league club. The last couple years have seen the Angels walk away from the off-season with the title of "off-season winners" after the signings of Pujols, Hamilton, and Wilson. Obviously we've discovered that winning the off-season does not lead to results on the field or in the win column. So after an off-season where our biggest glaring need, pitching, was ignored and attempted to be patched up with the Blanton's, Hanson's, and Madson's of the world, Dipoto went back to the drawing board to rebuild our pitching staff, and he did a pretty good job goddammit.
He upgraded third base with the acquisition of David Freese. In 2013, Angels third baseman combined to hit .246/.304/.333, while the first two stats are bad, that slugging percentage is awful. Alberto Callaspo played the most games there, 83, with a .684 OPS and a handful of errors, Chris Nelson registered 27 games (it felt like a lot more than that) and put up a .611 OPS. Luis Jimenez posted a .651 OPS in 28 games. Andrew Romine played 22 games there with a .587 OPS and the combined contributions from Brendan Harris and Tommy Field really isn't worth mentioning. Even if Freese posts the same numbers as he did in 2013, a down year by his standards, his .721 OPS should represent a pretty nice upgrade at the hot corner. I will admit I was, and am not a fan of the trade, mostly for the inclusion of Randal Grichuk, but third base was upgraded and our lineup is a little more balanced this year. Take out Freese's April, where he was limited by a back strain and hit to the tune of a .459 OPS, and he had a pretty solid season. If he can just put up his career averages of .286/.356/.427 Freese will make our lineup a hell of a lot better. We can finally have a productive third baseman since Chone Figgins left.
While many of us were left scratching our heads about the Bourjos/Freese deal, Dipoto redeemed himself just ever so slightly with the signing of submariner reliever Joe Smith to a 3-year contract. I get it, a lot of people, myself included, don't like giving big contracts to relievers but Smith will really help out this bullpen in the late innings and the Angels needed an arm like his. Fernando Salas was included in the Freese deal, who posted very solid numbers in his first two years in the majors but has struggled the last two but should create some depth and competition. Brian Moran was acquired from the Blue Jays who was acquired from Seattle in the Rule V Draft for an international slot bonus. Moran has a minor league career 3.06 ERA with a 10.6 K/9 rate and should really help the left handed depth in the bullpen with injury concerns to Sean Burnett. LHP Robert Carson was claimed off waivers from the Mets and RHP Josh Wall from the Marlins and loogy lefty Clay Rapada was signed to a minor league deal. The 2014 bullpen should look something like Frieri, Smith, Burnett, De La Rosa, Moran, Kohn, and Jepsen/Salas which looks much better than the bullpen last season.
Dipoto was also able to sell high on Mark Trumbo who, beloved by Angels fans regardless, had some pretty huge holes in his game. The Angels were able to pick up two young lefties in Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago that have the potential to be very solid pitchers on our staff. Skaggs was the 12 rated prospect in all of baseball as soon as 2012 and Santiago posted a 3.56 ERA in his first full season of his major league career. Dipoto did the exact opposite of what he did last off-season, he acquired young cost controlled pitchers with upside for a player who was more of a luxury more than a necessity. To replace Trumbo, Dipoto signed Raul Ibanez to DH. If Ibanez duplicates his 2013 slash line he'll represent an upgrade over Trumbo (Ibanez- .242/.306/.487 vs. Trumbo- .234/.294/.453) and around 60 less K's to boot.
Minor league deals include: RHP Orangel Arenas, RF Julio Concepcion, LHP Wade LeBlanc, SS Jimmy Swift, C Luis Martinez, RHP Michael Monster (a guy to keep an eye on, a potential diamond in the rough), C Angel Molina, SS Shawn O'Malley, LF Kyle Hudson, RHP Yoslan Herrera, LHP Justin Thomas, RHP Yeiper Castillo, RHP Jarrett Grube, utility veteran infielder John McDonald, IF Ian Stewart, C Angel De La Rosa, and two Dominican young guns in RHP's Anderson Motilla and Lianmy Galan (here's Baseball America's page on Galan.) And finally, the surprise comeback story/signing of Mark Mulder.
What I'm seeing from the Angels is patience, restraint, and getting back to being a very well ran team. I see an emphasis on keeping our draft picks, smart trades (mostly the Trumbo deal), smarter free agent signings, resurrection in the Latin market, depth moves, and some potential diamond in the rough moves. I think it's realistic for the Angels to pull a mini 2012-to-2013 Boston Red Sox turn around which was the original point of this fanpost. The Angels are nowhere near as cancerous as the 2012 Bobby Valentine led Red Sox were but they had some similar issues. By adding some of the middle tier players and being a solid overall team, you're only as strong as your weakest link, getting much needed bounce back and/or healthy seasons, and some contributions from the farm system/development of players, the Red Sox pulled a worst to first and won it all. While I don't think the Angels will win it all in 2014, I see some potential parallels.
The Red Sox needed healthy and bounce back seasons from some of their stars in Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, David Ortiz, and Jacoby Ellsbury, sound familiar? The Angels will need the exact same thing from Pujols, Hamilton, Weaver, Freese, and Burnett. The Red Sox had a couple guys develop into having some solid seasons for them in Daniel Nava, Xander Bogaerts, and Felix Doubront. The Angels could very well have that happen with Calhoun, Richards, Skaggs, Santiago, and maybe Morin, Cron, and Alvarez from the minors. Stay focused on the mid tier players, which the Angels did with Skaggs, Santiago, Smith, Ibanez, and Freese, not stars but they make our team that much better.
While I think the team will be improved this season, I don't think it's our time just yet. I think 2014 will be more of a transitional year for the Angels. Get Pujols, Hamilton, and Freese back on track, let Skaggs, Richards, and Santiago continue to develop and pitch, and let some of the young guys play like Calhoun, Conger, Morin, etc. If we can lock up Trout, sign someone like Peavy next off-season, preserve draft picks, and continue to add young Latin players (in the last two years we've added Mario Martinez, Natanael Delgado, Ricardo Sanchez, Lianmy Galan, and Anderson Motilla) JeDi and co. might be able to salvage a franchise that looked to be heading in the wrong direction. Basically, follow the Red Sox's recipe for success and I think that's what I'm beginning to see. Thanks for reading, I know it was a long read but I hope it showed the Angels are starting to get smarter with their decisions, I just decided to do it in 2189 words. Go Angels!
(Update: Angels sign 1B Carlos Pena and OF Brennan Boesch to minor league contracts with invitations to spring training.)
(Update: Angels sign 1B/3B Chad Tracy to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. )