Chilling thoughts Angels GM Bill Stoneman hates when his veterans play winter ball, but his closer Francisco Rodriguez and his best player, Vladimir Guerrero, both played. In his first game for Licey in the Dominican, Guerrero made a diving catch. Considering Guerrero missed two months with a back problem in 2003, Stoneman wouldn’t have enjoyed that scene.
Rodriguez hasn't been a closer on a consistent basis, but he was nearly perfect filling in for Troy Percival for three weeks in 2004. The Angels think Rodriguez is the perfect closer-in-waiting since he led all relievers with 123 strikeouts and held batters to a .172 average.
Hit and miss Rookie
Dallas McPherson figures to wow fans at times and give them reason to hold their breath at others. He hit 43 home runs at three levels in 2004, but struck out 186 times. He batted .313 in Class AAA, but made 17 errors in 67 games.
Darin Erstad isn’t just a Gold Glove first baseman; Angels coaches say he’s heads and shoulders above the rest of the league. He became the first player to win Gold Gloves in both the infield and outfield.
Best friends New shortstop Orlando Cabrera was secretly hoping the Angels would inquire about him this winter, but it wasn’t until their pursuit of Matt Clement ended that they called Cabrera’s agent. The slick-fielding shortstop is close friends with Guerrero from their Montreal days.
The Angels have plenty of prospects to trade if they need to add a veteran at the trade deadline. They might have baseball's strongest farm system, with C Jeff Mathis, 1B Casey Kotchman and RHP Ervin Santana leading the parade.
Bad blood? It will be interesting to see what happens in mid-June when Angels pitchers face ex-teammate Jose Guillen and the Washington Nationals. Guillen blasted the Angels' staff last year for not protecting the hitters, after he and Guerrero were frequently hit by pitches early in the season.
Jarrod Washburn becomes a free agent after the season. The team has given no indication it wants to lock him up long term, so it is conceivable he could be traded by August. How he does early could determine his fate.
Like many big spenders, the Angels reinvent themselves every year. The team that won the World Series in 2002 is gone, with Troy Glaus, Troy Percival and David Eckstein the latest cast-offs from that magical run. Still, Arte Moreno's team is serious about winning, and it probably has stayed atop the AL West heap by adding Orlando Cabrera, Steve Finley and Paul Byrd.
While nobody is going to be scared by a rotation of Bartolo Colon, Kelvim Escobar, Jarrod Washburn, Byrd and John Lackey, the Angels also don’t have any hold-your-breath starters. Last year, the Ramon Ortiz-Aaron Sele part of the rotation was more than a little wobbly. A year off elbow surgery, Byrd should be a solid No. 4 starter. Colon needs to enter spring training in better shape than he did a year ago, when his lack of conditioning led to one of the worst first halves in the league. Escobar might be the Angels’ secret weapon. Even though lack of run support cost him wins last year, he was one of the most consistent starters in the AL. Washburn has had health issues in recent seasons -- and he broke Angels’ fans hearts with a bad slider to David Ortiz in the playoffs. Lackey hasn’t figured it out as quickly as the team had hoped.
The marquee question this April will be how Francisco Rodriguez handles the closing job Percival owned for so long. Indications are the confident 23-year-old won’t be frightened, but Percival’s professionalism could be sorely missed. The Angels have an obsession with power pitchers, so they added Esteban Yan, who doesn’t have a stellar track record. The bullpen traditionally has been its strength, and the team tampered with that by allowing Percival, one of the team’s leaders, to depart. That makes 2005 a brave new world for manager Mike Scioscia and staff.
Angels’ fans flooded area newspapers with letters of complaint when the team let popular shortstop David Eckstein go. It’s hard not to root for a player who competes in the major leagues at 5-foot-7 with barely enough arm strength to get the ball to first base. Still, Cabrera is a significant upgrade, primarily because of his range and athleticism. If Cabrera can return to 15-20 home run power, his bat could also be a big boost, especially since the Angels didn’t hit for much power in 2004. While Adam Kennedy is recovering from knee surgery -- he'll probably be sidelined for at least two months -- super-utility man Chone Figgins will play second base. While Figgins’ defense tends to get exposed over time, second is probably his strongest spot. He did not look comfortable in the playoffs last year, but he did have a breakout season. The team feels he’s best suited as a utility player, so he’ll probably hit the bench when Kennedy returns.
Another red-letter question is how Dallas McPherson will do now that the third-base job has been handed to him. His minor-league numbers suggest he’ll mix the spectacular with the spectacularly bad. Unless he stumbles badly at the start, however, the Angels will stick with him. And if he can hit 25-30 home runs, he could help offset the loss of slugging outfielder Jose Guillen. Darin Erstad is one of those players people either love or hate. While he lacks pop and doesn’t get on base as much as many first basemen, some of his less-tangible skills make him one of Scioscia’s favorite players. For one thing, he plays Gold Glove defense. For another, he’s the team's vocal leader. As long as the clunky-fielding McPherson is at third, the Angels will need Erstad’s deft scooping ability at first base. Figgins also has been known to be erratic with his throws.
Nobody knows how Finley does it, but the Angels hope he can keep doing it for another two years. He chose the Angels’ offer over a slightly more lucrative one from the Giants in order to play an hour away from his northern San Diego County home. If he can continue to play Gold Glove defense in center field and hit 35-plus home runs at 40, he’ll give the Angels perhaps the best outfield in the game. Vladimir Guerrero’s MVP 2004 season was far from an aberration — GM Bill Stoneman termed it a “normal” Guerrero year — and Garret Anderson should benefit from a move back to left. The team did lose a lot of right-handed power when it traded Guillen, but Finley’s signing should help pick up the slack in run production. One sticking point is that the Angels’ lineup has become left-handed heavy. Defensively, the Angels are above-average.. Alongside Finley, Anderson is a borderline Gold Glover in left; and Guerrero has a strong arm in right.
As long as Bengie Molina is the primary catcher, the Angels will be tempted to keep three catchers. Conditioning is an issue for the lead-footed Molina, and his durability has waned. The emergence of his brother, Jose, means he doesn’t have to be as much of an ironman. Jose Molina actually throws a little bit better than his brother, though he’s far from the same hitter. Bengie Molina didn’t win two straight Gold Gloves for nothing. He knows how to work his way through a game with the pitching staff, and he is a bold and accurate thrower. Also, his ability to put the bat on the ball makes him one of the best clutch hitters on the team.
The Angels could have one of the most effective benches in the AL. Jeff DaVanon is a solid producer in spot starts and Robb Quinlan carried the team for a while when he was starting at third base in 2004. When Kennedy returns, Figgins gives them a difference-maker who can play almost every position. The DH opening -- Tim Salmon probably won't play after knee and shoulder surgeries -- should keep the young bench players interested. If Cuban defector Kendry Morales begins the season in the minor leagues, the Angels likely will rotate the DH spot around, allowing them to rest their outfielders and get DaVanon or Quinlan’s bat in the lineup.
Scioscia hasn’t taken much heat in his first five seasons in Anaheim, though many people did second-guess his decision to use Washburn to face Ortiz on the final pitch of the 2004 season. Now, Scioscia will have to face challenges that haven’t existed before: a first-year closer, youngsters grumbling for at-bats and a fan base that expects to go to the playoffs every season. He and GM Bill Stoneman seem to have an open line of communication, which should help. Stoneman has been slow to pull the trigger on trades, but Moreno’s deep pockets have made Stoneman look smart with free-agent signings.
The Angels are old and fragile, which gives their fans reason to worry about 2005. But if the Angels stay healthy, it’s hard to imagine them not having an easier time in a division that no longer has Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. The Angels are one of the true big-market teams, and they can plug holes to improve every offseason and make adjustments in-season when necessary. Their stellar bullpen, solid rotation and veteran lineup make them favorites to retain the AL West flag.