2015 was a tough year to be an Angels fan. It started off with a bit of holdover hope from the previous season, where the team found themselves with a bunch of wins and a trip to the playoffs. But then they were booted early, and if that wasn’t enough to have a bad vibe hangover going into Spring Training this time last year, fans would have to contend with the Josh Hamilton powder keg...the cold and brash remarks from the front office...the hostile manner that Hamilton and the team parted ways.
That atmosphere is on the opposite end of the spectrum from what the coaches would have preferred; toxic, corporate gloom and Arte Moreno’s unwavering stance were the sign of the new Angels times, and there was more to come. The only bigger public meltdown(yes, there were more than one) was the ousting of Jerry Dipoto, the ex-Halos GM who clashed with Mike Scioscia on multiple occasions, for multiple reasons. But distilled to it’s core, you’ll find it was two different, contrasting styles of baseball and a cliche "failure to communicate."
With all that went on off the field, the bunk on-field product was only pouring salt into the wound. There was Mike Trout, but beyond that, it was anybody’s guess as to who would bring the Angels wins on a consistent basis. The Machine, Albert Pujols, looked much more broken-down-Rube-Goldberg than baseball-crushing-robot, in terms of Machine-ness, and the left field put together on a shoestring budget performed only marginally better than an actual piece of shoestring would have.
Amidst all of the Moreno-fueled trauma and the mediocre play(amidst high expectations), the Angels still put together some great stretches of play, and even the fans that had given up on them earlier in the year were tuning into their last few crucial contests. They just barely missed making the playoffs, and instead finished 3rd in the AL West.
Then Winter came.
There was a bevy of lethally talented, free agent left fielders heading into the Winter Meetings, and the Angels were thought to have one thing on their mind: Get LF help. Who was going to lead this charge for the Dipoto-less Angels? Former Brian Cashman-protege Billy Eppler, hired by Arte Moreno to set the tone on a new era of Angels baseball. Were things really that different now, though? Well, technically yes, things were different...but not in the way Angels fans would like. In years past, they spent, and they spent big, on free agents; vaunted, big splashes made by the boisterous and punch drunk Moreno, seemingly on a whim and like a puzzled panther, most years. But not this time.
There was no high profile LF signing for the Angels, and the fans went nuclear. We needed a palate cleanser, a clean slate of the mind and of the baseball soul; we needed to see redeeming qualities and fan service aplenty once again, not the snide, supercilious owner making detrimental decisions left and right, through the proxy of the fellows Reagins, Dipoto, and now Eppler. We needed something more than what the mortal soldiers playing a kid’s game could offer alone. We needed a sign.
2015 was a tough year to be an Angels fan, but 2015 came to a close and the new one came to blanket us in beguiling hope, for every facet of the Angels franchise. Amidst the furor the fans caused over the inaction and stubborn refusal to spend money, among the countless comments and rhetoric shouted from the edges of barstools, alongside the bluster of the angriest of angry Angels fans, there were signs of prospect and promise. The first started on February 8th, 2016...Chinese New Year. That was the day we entered into the Year of the Monkey.
If I were someone looking for a sign, buzzing on apophenia as humans are fond of doing, then I would call this particular brand of lunar cycle naming a bright, blinding sign. 2016 was set to be the Year of the Rally Monkey, with the Billy Eppler and the Angels staff putting together some defensive secret sauce with the players, and hoping for some good, ol’ fashioned mojo mining with a slew of front office and coaching hires.
Some people will doubt this line of thought, sticking their feet firmly in the ground of browbeaten pessimism, and I can’t exactly blame them. But i’m looking at all the pieces, all the signings, trades and borderline superstitious hirings, and i’m seeing a team that is attempting to surprise people this season, and an organization as a whole that is attempting to bring the morose fanbase back from the brink, and win them back like it’s the mid-2000s all over again. I’m ready; are you? It’s the Year of the Rally Monkey.
With all the clamor about the Angels being quiet in the acquisition department this off-season, they DID make a pretty surprising, jaw-dropping trade. Back in mid-November, they traded away longtime SS Erick Aybar away to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for generational talent Andrelton Simmons. On that alone, it’d be a coup for new GM Billy Eppler, but the feathers of some Angels honks were ruffled when they learned top Angels pitching prospects Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis would be included in the deal. The Angels’ farm, already weak, only got weaker and in the coming months they’d be ridiculed for the barren system. But what’d they get for Aybar and the young arms? A pretty amazing, talented, human highlight factory who goes by "Simba"; a guy who could run circles around Aybar with the glove, and who is still improving at the plate.
Still, at this point there were hopes and dreams being builtup to upon the foundation of having a Jason Heyward or Justin Upton in the lineup in 2016, but those ideas were dashed, and then some. Once we realized that we'd get no shiny, new LF toy, we had to get used to the idea of Craig Gentry and Daniel Nava creating a platoon to make us forget what could have been. Daniel Nava was signed to a deal around the $1.3 mil mark, with some performance incentives, and Craig Gentry was picked up to a minor league contract originally.
While this doesn't blow anybody's socks off on first glance, there is reason to believe this platoon could work, and perhaps even provide about 1.5 WAR, optimistically, which would be a HUGE improvement over 2015. Eppler is hoping on some rebounds from injury and bench-sitting follies,but if he's right on this one, it'll be his first step towards cementing his folk hero status with the Angels faithful.
One man who wouldn't be returning to the squad in the Year of the Rally Monkey is David Freese, but instead Billy Eppler fired away another trade. Thiis time he was sending young reliever Trevor Gott to the Nationals in exchange for clubhouse curiosity Yunel Escobar. Escobar is off of a hot 2015 campaign, and while he's not up to snuff with his glove, he's a possible big time improvement upon Freese's bat. So far in Spring Training, Escobar has been leading off and it's worked like a charm. If he can keep this momentum going into the season, give another bow to Mr. Eppler for knowing when to say goodbye to Freese and bring in some new blood.
The Angels and Eppler had a handful of other lottery tickets this off-season, as well as a failed trade with Cincinnati and Toronto for OF Michael Saunders, but most of those were scrubs and almost-rans, most of which are, at best, riding the bubble to make the roster, and at worst, already been optioned or let go. The left side of the field, with Escobar, Simmons and Nava/Gentry, is completely new and 100% manufactured by our new GM. It will be his legacy, or it will be the root of his infamy.
If you thought the Angels' rotation was a bit too sketchy for respectability in 2015, then you might find yourself watching games in fright on a regular basis, peeking through your fingers at the likes of an iffy Jered Weaver or a jittery Matt shoemaker. The stalwarts are there, still, and the youth movement will be on full display. We're all waiting on pins and needles to see if this is a boon, or a horror show.
Garrett Richards is set to be the ace, and look to get to his 2014 peak performance, and he's the guy we're going to see have the ball on Opening Day. Andrew Heaney and Hector Santiago are both having great Springs, and they seem to be dead set on continuing their success found in 2015, but hopefully they'll also build on it, as well. Those guys are all okay, and i'm not worried too much. Now, the rest of the possible starting arms this team has is another story altogether. C.J. Wilson, in his contract year, has yet to do anything this Spring, after using the entire off-season and part of last season to rehab from elbow surgery. We've yet to see him throw a pitch in 2016, and he recently got shut down for yet another month.
Jered Weaver has had problems with degenerative neck issues, as well as degenerative velocity issues. His fastball has strained to break the 80mph mark so far in camp, and it's looking like Weaver barely has the stuff to depend on any more.
On top of those calamities, you have Matt Shoemaker having an EXTREMELY rough Spring Training. Wilson, Weaver and Shoemaker may all be in a sad death race to see who, if any of them, can meaningfully contribute to this team in 2016. I'm rooting for them, but if they don't come through, then the Angels are in the nice position of having options. Those options are named Tyler Skaggs and Nick Tropeano.
We last saw Skaggs in 2014, when he came onto the mound for the Halos like a lightning bolt, but an injury ended his rookie season early, and he had to get Tommy John surgery done. He's just about ready to rip, having taken the mound for the first time since 2014 this past week. He'll start the season on the DL, along with C.J. Wilson, but if he can contribute to wins, then we'll be riding the gravy train.
Nick Tropeano, or NiTro, is in a similar situation; the Wilson injury is opening the door to him getting more time on the bump. I don't like a player getting injured more than anybody, but NiTro had a good inaugural year, and he's a guy that can feed lots of ground balls into the Andrelton Simmons black hole. If he gets more starts because Wilson is still nursing his elbow, it might be a silver lining for the Halos. Here's how their starting rotation probably figures to look like on Opening Day:
This could all be a potential disaster, but I like the upside of the young guys, and I also have a good feeling about the OTHER big Angels pitching acquistion: pitching coach Charles Nagy. Nagy is a former all star, and had spent pretty much his entire career with the Indians. He has pitching coach credentials with the Arizona Diamondbacks and most importantly, he's NOT Mike Butcher. This was one Billy Eppler's first personnel moves and it was a harbinger of things to come...a grand shakeup...getting the good vibe band back together. With a little luck, it might be the change that kickstarts the rotation this season.
The bullpen almost has as many question marks as the rotation does, but it's going to have quite a few familiar names. Huston Street, Joe Smith, Fernando Salas, Mike Morin, Cory Rasmus and Jose Alvarez are still around, but they've been "bolstered" a bit by pickups like Al Albuquerque, or the rise of youngsters like Greg Mahle. You're probably going to see the aforementioned Halos returnees as the main relief core, with Mahle or Bedrosian making their case for MLB worthiness throughout the year. It's an okay bunch, not amazing.
They'll do well to win a lot of high scoring games, but there are some solid arms here that can do the job. Most importantly, there's a lot of health in the older veterans, and their are names in the farm that could help if need be. They also added Scott Radinsky as their bullpen coach, and i'd like to think that his punk rock pedigree will only lend to the ethos and lore when it comes to Year of the Rally Monkey. That's mojo, if I've ever seen it.
We already talked a bit about the new look left side of the field, but the rest of the lineup and position players isn't going to be all that different. Mike Trout, MVP runner up and best baseball player in the world, is still holding court in CF. His road dog, Kole Calhoun, is taking his throne in RF again, hoping to repeat as a Gold Glove winner. The left field is going to be made up of Craig Gentry or Daniel Nava, the latter who has been arguably the hottest Angel in 2016 Spring Training.
On the right side of the field, there will be fan favorite Johnny Giavotella, and Albert Pujols(when healthy) at 1B. Carlos Perez is going to take the bulk of the work behind the plate, and it's about time. He's projected to catch a TON of pitches this year. The DH spot is not all that much of a mystery. It's most likely going to be C.J. Cron, who isn't exactly burning any barns down right now(or in the past), or it's Rule 5 pickup Ji-Man Choi, who started out on fire, but has cooled significantly.
The bigger question might be Pujols' health; if he's willing to acquiesce the 1B position, since he can't stay off the DL for long periods of time any longer, then they'll have to have someone who can be more than a DH, but a solid glove at first. Choi is already there, Cron is working more on his picking. On the bench, you'll probably see veteran utility guy Cliff Pennington, another Billy Eppler piece, backup catcher Geovany Soto, and then an extra OF like Rafael Ortega or Todd Cunningham. Lots of new faces will be riding the pine in the Year of the Rally Monkey, but who is up to the task of playing the Hero role?
Opening Day starting lineup
The best case for a renewed sense of self for the Angels' organization is lengths they went to bring Mike Scioscia's old brain trust back together. They brought back Bud Black, in the form of a special assistant to the GM. They hired Ron Roenicke as 3B coach; Roenicke, you'll remember, was a coach on the championship 2002 Angels team. So was Bud Black. The only guy missing now is Joe Maddon, but...he's probably busy. But the fact remains: the Angels fired the hated pitching coach. They ALSO fired the struggling batting coach, Don Baylor, and replaced him with Dave Hansen. They brought back two guys who left for greener, more lucrative, managing pastures and gave them a spot back at Mike Scioscia's bench or at his desk.
Billy Eppler also went to great lengths to get a new analytics department, presumably to counter-attack all the anti-analytics arguments and lamentations that were brought to light in the Dipoto/Scioscia feud. They brought in that punk(in a good way) Radinsky! Arte Moreno may be listening, and while he's not spending like we deplored him to, he's seemingly letting all the chips fall back into place, just like they were before he got here...when the Angels won a title.
I don't know if it was his command or Eppler's own volition, but either way, they are trying to stir up some new emotion, some excitement and a change of culture around the team. On top of all the moves, the most stunning may indeed be the new-but-familiar faces we're seeing in the dugout and rocking the red polos. They have a plan, and it starts in the Year of the Rally Monkey.
So how are the Angels going to do?
Most projections have the Angels finishing in a similar spot that they did last year. That is to say, about 85 or so wins, third place in the AL West and another year of sky high wasted payroll. The good news is that the expectations are fairly low, and 2015 had so many holes in the field that we're not really expecting much. But here's the thing; at the very least, this team is BETTER than 2015.
Defense has improved, and the LF problem would have to be legendary if it wanted to beat the eye sore that we witnessed last year. The rotation has a decent floor, but be excited about the young, hurling ceiling. And the defense...defense is the name of the game in Eppler's GM strategy repertoire, and you can expect to see endless streams of Simba highlights and the typical radness and badness from the Batman/Robin duo of Mike Trout and Kole Calhoun.
Runs will hopefully come at a premium with this club, and with a promising offensive Spring, the bats will do their part. I would be surprised if they won less than 88 games, and I definitely think they're going to be giving fits to the pundit-favorites Texas and Houston. This team, constructed by Billy Eppler and with a refreshed approach by Mike Scioscia, could be two-stepping over the Texas terribles and finding themselves in the playoff promised land.
All the moves, or lack of moves; all the random waiver wire pickups and scrap heap amassing; the fired and hired coaching/front office staff; the beginning of the Eppler Era and a step towards the Angels' revolution; all moves of the chess pieces towards another stretch of halcyon Halo days. The Year of the Rally Monkey, the year we get hyped about our beloved team again; the year we're either surprised beyond belief, or we say "no, I knew they were this good all along". It could be the year...but it's Spring. There are Buttercups abound in this world, you and I know that as good as anybody, and we've been built up before, only to let us down. I'm choosing to believe in the power of mojo, and the power inherent in The Year of The Rally Monkey.