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Pressing Questions: The Los Angeles Angels

Dalton Del Don
Roto Arcade

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Mike Trout is good at baseball (USAT)

The Angels were one of the most disappointing teams in baseball last season, finishing in third place in the A.L. West and 18.0 games behind the division winner (and 13.5 games out of the wild card). After winning the division in five of six seasons from 2004-2009, Los Angeles hasn’t made the playoffs in the past three years, which is especially discouraging since MLB added a second wild card team over the past two years, when the Angels committed a total of $365 million to Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. But fear not Angels fans, as Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projects them to win the A.L. West in 2014, pegging them to win 88 games.

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It’s going to be a competitive division once again, with even the Mariners likely to be much improved (although when it comes to the wild card, it helps playing the Astros 19 times). The Angels had a fairly busy offseason, trading Peter Bourjos for David Freese (and spare parts). Bourjos is one of the best defensive players in all of baseball, but the team seemingly upgraded at third base and has Kole Calhoun ready to take over in the outfield. Los Angeles wasn’t done dealing, as they also were involved in a three-team trade that had them shipping off Mark Trumbo while getting Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago in return. They also signed Raul Ibanez to a one-year deal, filling their void at DH. It’s safe to say this Angels team enters 2014 with a wide range of possible outcomes.

Onto the pressing questions:

Q: Will Albert Pujols bounce back?

A: Here are Pujols’ OPSs since 2008, respectively: 1.114, 1.101, 1.011, .906, .859 and .767. That’s a drop in five straight seasons, which isn’t an ideal trend. In fact, the last three happen to also be his worst marks of his career. There’s some question Pujols isn’t really the age in which he's listed, but this is still a player who essentially produced the most impressive start to a career ever. Pujols is an inner-circle Hall of Famer who finally succumbed to injury last season, which can be blamed on his poor performance. Pujols isn’t that far removed from hitting at an elite level, as he belted 16 homers with 54 RBI and a .305/.354/.581 line over 279 at-bats after the All-Star break in 2012.

Looking deeper into Pujols’ stats from last year reveals a mixed bag. On one hand, his LD% (19.8) was actually higher than his career level (19.0), and his HR/FB% (11.8) was by far a career-low (previous worst was 14.0), so his career-low .258 BABIP sure appears unlucky on the surface, especially since he also combined that with fewer pop ups than usual. On the other hand, Pujols’ BB% (9.0) and K% (12.4) were both the second worst marks of his career. His SwStr% (7.6) was his highest since his rookie campaign, albeit still better than league average. Pujols is obviously in decline, but last year he both suffered from bad luck and was playing injured, so he’s a prime candidate to target in fantasy leagues in 2014. He hasn’t been this cheap at fantasy draft tables since his MLB debut.

Q: Will Josh Hamilton bounce back?

A: After signing a massive five-year, $125 million contract, Hamilton finished his first year in Los Angeles with the lowest batting average (.250) and OBP (.307) and his second worst slugging percentage (.432) of his career. It gets worse, as despite him playing in the second most games he ever has (151), Hamilton also had the second fewest runs scored (73), homers (21) and RBI (79) since his rookie campaign. His SwStr% (16.2) was the second highest among all batters (only Pedro Alvarez was worse, although it also wasn’t that far off Hamilton’s career mark (15.2%), who's had big seasons in the past with his approach at the plate). Hamilton also graded poorly defensively, so it marked back-to-back years in which the Angels made huge signings look immediately bad.

Hamilton’s career OPS at the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington is .964 (his career mark is .883). He’s hit a home run once per 15.7 at-bats in Texas. He’s hit a HR once per 21.2 at-bats everywhere else. Not that this should be unexpected, as Texas has increased homers for left-handed batters by 22 percent over the past three years, while Angel Stadium of Anaheim has decreased them by 11 percent over that span. Moreover, there have been some one-year blips when it comes to splits in handedness, but it’s probably worth pointing out just how helpless Hamilton was versus southpaws last year, when he posted a .201/.233/.363 line with a 60:8 K:BB ratio over 179 at bats. There’s little to no question this contract will go down as one of the worst in MLB history, but Hamilton is still just 32 years old, and even during a disastrous season last year, he recorded 21 homers and 79 RBI (although he did stay healthy, which has been rare). Hamilton’s stock has dropped in a big way in fantasy leagues, so despite the downside, he’s not a bad gamble in the middle rounds. This is a player considered a steal if he fell into the third round last year.

Q: How good is Mike Trout?

A: There’s no need to debate MVP awards here, especially since defense doesn’t matter in our fake game, and there’s no denying Miguel Cabrera is the best hitter in baseball. In fact, after Cabrera won the Triple Crown, he actually hit better last season, and that was with him playing badly hurt over the entire final month. But that’s neither here nor there, as no one would argue Cabrera and Trout aren't the top-two fantasy picks in 2014. After a remarkable rookie season, Trout was even better at the plate during his sophomore campaign, when he recorded 43 more walks while striking out fewer times in 30 more at-bats. He also increased his LD% while lowering his GB/FB ratio, IFFB% and SwStr%. Trout’s WAR over his first two full seasons in the league has been 20.4. The same exact total as Ryan Howard’s CAREER. Your order may vary, but the top-two fantasy picks this year are no-brainers.

Q: What’s going on with Jered Weaver?

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A: Weaver posted his highest ERA (3.27) and WHIP (1.14) to go along with his lowest K% (18.5) last season since 2009. Most worrisome, his fastball velocity dropped for the third straight season, as his average mph (86.5) was actually the lowest among all right-handed pitchers who qualified (not counting knuckleballer R.A. Dickey). However, while this trend is obviously disturbing, a 3.27 ERA and 1.14 WHIP isn’t exactly terrible, and while suffering through an injury-plagued season, Weaver also recorded an impressive 9.9 SwStr% (his second highest mark since 2008) while continuing to defy the odds when it comes to balls in play (.268 BABIP and 7.8 HR/FB%), like he has his entire career (.271 and 7.7%).

Weaver is still just 31 years old, and while losing Bourjos hurts, having Trout in center sure is a help for such an extreme fly ball pitcher, as is pitching in a home park that has suppressed run scoring in the American League more than any team other than the Rays over the past three seasons. He posted a 2.99 ERA and 1.08 WHIP after the All-Star break while dealing with a forearm strain. The Angels are filled with “buy-low” opportunities, and Weaver is a prime candidate.

Quick Hits: Kole Calhoun is coming off a season in which he posted a .354/.431/.617 line with the same amount of strikeouts as walks in Triple-A. He was 25 years old, and it would hardly be the first time an Angels prospect was overrated based on big minor league numbers in fantastic hitting environments, but Calhoun also hit eight homers with a .282/.347/.462 line over 195 ABs during an audition with L.A. last year as well. Not only is he slated to be the team’s every day right fielder in 2014, Calhoun is also the favorite to bat leadoff, making him something of a sleeper considering his current ADP is outside the top-150…I’ll probably end up with Howie Kendrick on at least one of my teams this year, but as someone I was once convinced would win a batting title, he hasn’t hit .300 since 2008 and has only finished with 15 home runs one time and has never stolen 15 bases during his career.

After hitting 19 homers while playing in baseball’s best HR park when it comes to left-handed batters (Yankee Stadium) in 2012, Raul Ibanez somehow hit 29 bombs while calling Safeco Field (which suppressed LHB HRs by 14 percent) home in 2013. Ibanez was 41 years old! Sometimes baseball just doesn’t make any sense. Anyway, Ibanez hit .203/.295/.345 after the All-Star break last season and will once again be playing in a tough park for left-handed hitters…David Freese is one season removed from posting a solid .292-70-20-79 line over just 501 at-bats, but those ABs represent a career-high for an injury prone player who’s now joining the tougher league at age 30. Freese had a 2.30 GB/FB ratio last season (career 2.04), so his limited power potential hurts his fantasy upside.

Garrett Richards is an extreme groundball pitcher (57.9%) - only Justin Masterson had a higher rate in 2013 (58.0%) among those who qualified, and it’s safe to call Richards’ 6.27 K/9 rate a fluke bound to improve considering he combined that with an average fastball velocity of 94.8 mph (this would have been by far the highest among left-handers had he qualified. The next highest (Derek Holland) would have been a distant second at 93.6) as well as a 9.2 SwStr%. Richards is a major fantasy sleeper…Ernesto Frieri had a 5.14 ERA and 1.36 WHIP after the All-Star break last year, and there’s no question his 3.93 BB/9 rate is a problem. However, there’s also a lot to like. He may be an extreme fly ball pitcher with questionable control, but as someone who threw fastballs and sliders on 97.6 percent of his pitches last year, it’s pretty crazy he held left-handed batters to a .155/.262/.310 line (compared to .292/.357/.469 vs. RHB). That seems bizarre considering the slider usage, although to be fair, he was also better vs. LHB the year prior too. But it’s not like the Angels have many alternatives waiting around to steal the team’s closing job. Even with the poor post ASB numbers last year, Frieri posted a 32:4 K:BB ratio over 23.2 innings during August/September, and his SwStr% ranked third best in all of baseball, behind only Koji Uehara (18.5), Greg Holland (16.6) and Aroldis Chapman (16.3).

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