Monday, March 15, 2004

It's odd, because you spend the whole off-season counting down to that magical day when pitchers and catchers report. They finally do, position players follow, and then what happens? Absolutely nothing. A bunch of scrubs get at-bats and innings. In face, for your favorite team, no news is good news. The last thing you want to hear about are injuries to regulars, or about discord between your stars and your manager.

Right now, there's nothing of interest going on in Angels' camp. Garret Anderson is fighting a small injury, but it doesn't look like it's going to be a big deal. So, in the absence of news, I'm just going to do my own team preview.


: Bengie Molina
Bengie is a terrific defensive catcher. MGL of Baseball Primer renown rates him as 11 and 6 runs above average for the last two seasons, while Clay Davenport at Baseball Prospectus puts him at 10 and 13. Of course, this matches subjective observation, which has awarded Bengie two consecutive Gold Gloves.

Even with this great glovework, Bengie usually comes out to being a below-average player once you account for his hitting and base"running." He hit 100 on the OPS+ scale last year, with his EqA and SLwts being just a bit below average. Last year is about as good as it gets for Bengie's bat.

So, he's not a star, but he doesn't hurt you. The most important stats he may rack up for the 2004 Angels will be his games played. His career high, 130, came in 2000. He's played in 96, 119, and 122 since then. What happens when Bengie sits? His brother, Jose, plays. Yikes.

This will all likely become academic in a year's time. Jeff Mathis should be the best catcher in the minors this year, and Bengie's contract expires at its close. If Bengie gets hurt, Mathis could see himself in Angel red this summer and make some decisions a bit more obvious.

FIRST BASE: Darin Erstad
The single greatest risk for the Angels coming into 2004. Erstad is an all-world defender in center field. MGL's numbers rate him as so good that he ranks with some of the best players in the game even in a down offensive year. And, ever since his miracle 2000 season, they've all been down offensive years.

Let's face it: Erstad cannot be expected to hit well enough for a first baseman. The Angels hope that removing him from the outfield will reduce wear-and-tear on his body and allow his hitting to flourish. Is there any reason to count on this pipe dream? Looking at his lifetime splits indicates that he may be a slightly better hitter at the dawn of the season, but the difference does not appear significant.

If Erstad flops with the bat, the Angels will likely point to his glove as such a plus that it balances it out. They'll likely be wrong. They'll also point to the fact that the departed Scott Spiezio was not an offensive wonder, or to the A's use of Scott Hatteberg. Not good enough.

If Erstad gets injured, Robb Quinlan or Gary Johnson could provide better-than-replacement performance. Another alternative would be to move an outfielder to first and play Jeff DaVanon regularly, though that would really hammer at the depth of an already health-suspect outfield.

SECOND BASE: Adam Kennedy
Okay, he's not Jim Edmonds, but Kennedy is one of the league's more underrated players. He's developed into a hitter of league average or a bit more, with an increasing walk rate and a bit of pop. He shines with the glove, according to Davenport (15, 15 the last two years), MGL (25, 21) and personal observation. He has good range, good hands, and a strong enough arm. He's also a good baserunner who can rack up a few steals.

THIRD BASE: Troy Glaus
I can strike Troy Glaus out. Okay, I can't pitch. But if I could pitch, I could strike him out. Bust him inside with some fastballs, then hook him low and away. He'll bail and miss every time. Usually, he does this from June through August.

But when he's on, he's on, as you may have noticed in 2002's postseason. He lays off the junk away and makes you come to him with the fastball. And his batspeed is good enough to turn around just about anyone's fastball; if you hang a breaking pitch, you can forget it.

Troy's numbers have been on a skid since 2000. That's okay; that was a terrific year, and there's no shame in not matching a fantastic early season (just ask Eddie Mathews). But I think Troy is due for a rebound. He got the Lasik surgery during the off-season, which could assist his patient hitting. Dan Szymorski's ZiPS predictions (available at the Primer) concur with me, pegging his slugging average over .500 for the first time since 2001.

Troy has good range and a strong but erratic arm that limits his defensive value. Dallas McPherson is making quick work of the Angels' farm system, but appears to have even less defensive value. Will McPherson push Glaus off the team or to a different position? There was talk of putting McPherson in right, but obvious developments have crushed that plan. I'd say the Angels should keep Troy around indefinitely, and train McPherson to play left field (or designated hitter) starting in 2006.

SHORTSTOP: David Eckstein
David Eckstein will bounce back in 2004.

His career line is a 279/350/360, and I believe he will perform close to this in the coming season, and will make his injury-riddled 2003 a distant memory. Even at that level, and a pretty good on-base percentage, Eckstein isn't really a league average hitter.

You may not believe this, but Eckstein is a good defensive player. Not good as in "good for his size," or "good even though he does that whole crow-hop thing before he throws." MGL has seen him 14 runs above average with his glove in each of his three seasons as a regular. Davenport doesn't see it, but I'll go with the play-by-play analysis. He doesn't have outstanding range, but he positions himself well and makes the plays. What more do you want?

Do the Angels have outstanding advance scouts? They always rank high in defense, even though many of their players don't seem like they have the best range. Is their positioning that good? The communication between fielders and pitchers? I don't know, but it works.

The Angels flirt with the idea of giving the shortstop job to Alfredo Amezaga, but I just don't see it. He's a good athlete, but raw with bat and glove and baserunning. But if I'm wrong and Eckstein doesn't bounce back, Amezaga gets first crack at the job, and is capable enough to have a couple of hot months and run with it. He is not a long-term solution.

LEFT FIELD: Jose Guillen
Was last year's improvement for real? Believe it or not, but 2003 was Guillen's first above-average season offensively. This is not particularly encouraging for an outfield corner. The Angels hope that Guillen really did turn a corner last year, and can hold down the six- or seven-spot in the order for the duration of his two-year contract.

I don't think he's going to be all that good with the bat, but he should be an average to above-average defender, and he was signed at a low price. He's a fairly replaceable talent; if the Angels can get him to repeat 2003, give them credit.

CENTER FIELD: Garret Anderson
Garret was overrated for so long that he's now become underrated, at least by statheads. He has firmly established himself as one of the top 25 players in the league. So, he doesn't get on base a whole lot. He has a lot of pop, and carries a high enough batting average that he still reaches more often than average.

Garret was a wonderful defensive leftfielder, and I think he's going to make a fine adjustment to center. He was below average there in 2000, and he won't be Darin Erstad, but that's a tall order. The Angels should get a lot more production from center this year, and the bat will more than balance the glove.

RIGHT FIELD: Vladimir Guerrero
What is there to say about Vlad? The man can play, and nearly single-handedly brings the Angels back into contention.

He's lost some power. He's lost a step in the field, and has become a detriment in right field. But the man can still hit.

Can you take a DH with a 284/389/506 career line, an OPS+ of 131? I sure can. And while he isn't at this age, likely to be at the top of his range, playing a full season as DH should keep him rested and raking.

The big question with Salmon will be his health, which of course is a question faced by all teams. But an outfield injury will really harm this team. DaVanon is an excellent fourth outfielder, but miscast in the starting lineup. Chone Figgins was solid in his utility player audition at the end of last year, but is not a long-term solution anywhere on the diamond. The other back-up is Shane Halter, which is a sick joke.

Between Vlad, Anderson, Glaus, and Salmon, the Angels have the top-line talent to run in this division. The A's are no longer an offensive powerhouse, Seattle is in decline, and Texas is pitching- and A-Rod-phobic. Kennedy, Eckstein, and Guillen should be good filler, while Molina and Erstad are the likely offensive sinkholes. The offense was anemic for the Angels in 2003, partially because of injuries. They ranked ahead of only Cleveland, Tampa Bay, and Detroit in the AL, scoring 736 runs; this was down from a fourth-ranked 851 in 2002. Splitting that difference gets you back to 793.5 runs, while the addition of Vlad should bring on, what, 25 or 30 more? Replacing Spiezio with Guillen should be about a push, and then you have an Eckstien rebound balancing a likely Molina retreat. Glaus should be a little bit better, but I'm not sure you can count on Anderson to be quite as good, especially with moving to a more difficult defensive position. The bench should be stronger than it was last year, as Jose Molina can't be that bad, and because Eric Owens was a disaster. It's an inexact science, but let's peg the Angels for 820 runs this year, which should rank them about sixth in the league. That projection feels generous, but I think the Angels would be disappointed to have such a rank. However, Angels Stadium is a bit of a pitcher's park, so their offense will be better than it appears. It could very easily be the top offense in the division, once you account for Texas' ballpark.

I'll get to the pitching staff tomorrow.

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