The team that won more games than any other in MLB was the LA Angels, led by manager Mike Scioscia. The Angels won 98 games, finishing ten games ahead of the Oakland Athletics. The Angels had come off a very disappointing 2013 season, finishing with an unacceptable 78-84 record. Hopes were high for the Angels the season before, when they finished in third place, at 89-73.
The fact that the team won 20 more games in 2014 than in 2013 had to do with one major thing: the starting pitching in 2014 was exceptional. Ace RHP Jered Weaver (18-9, 3.59, 34 starts) was healthy all season, something that did not happen a year earlier. The Angels got major contributions from Garrett Richards (13-4, 2.61, 26 starts) before he was injured on a freak play that cost him the rest of the season and the postseason. RHP Matt Shoemaker (16-4, 3.04, 27 games, 20 starts) came out of nowhere to dominate the competition down the stretch of the season. The Angels also enjoyed a resurgence from 1B Albert Pujols (.272, 28, 105) and a MVP season from OF Mike Trout (.286, 36, 111).
Not to take the bloom off the rose, but Trout’s 2014 was not overly impressive. I know that the MLB community is in love with Trout and he does represent what makes baseball great, but he did hit 36 points lower than he did a year ago and his OPS was 49 points lower than it was in 2013. He also struck out 184 times, which was 48 times more than the past season. It also led the American League.
The Angels off season consisted of a lot of interesting moves made by GM Jerry Dipoto. The Angels traded starting 2B Howie Kendrick (.293, 7, 75) to the Dodgers for newly acquired LHP Andrew Heaney (from the Marlins in the Dee Gordon trade). They then acquired OF Matt Joyce (.254, 9, 52) from the Rays for RHP Kevin Jepsen. They then acquired 2B Josh Rutledge (.269, 4, 33) from the Rockies for RHP Jairo Diaz. Finally, they traded backup catcher Hank Conger to the Astros for RHP Nick Tropeano. For a backup catcher, they acquired defensive minded Drew Butera (.188, 3, 14) from the Dodgers.
The biggest loss for the Angels going into this season looks to be that of OF Josh Hamilton. Hamilton, in February of 2015, admitted to MLB officials that he had a relapse of both cocaine and alcohol. A shoulder injury would have likely delayed his start to the season, but a long suspension is likely due to Hamilton’s previous infractions with MLB’s drug policy, something that had previously cost Josh two full seasons and two separate 30-day suspensions. The Angels are preparing for the season as if Hamilton will not be a part of it.
Different from the past couple seasons, the Angels will be looking at their pitching as one of their strengths. Led by Weaver, Shoemaker and eventually Richards (when he returns from his 2014 injury), the Angels have a solid top three, based on their 2014 performances. Former ace C.J. Wilson (13-10, 4.51, 31 starts) saw his ERA go up over 1.10 last season and was chased in the first inning of his only postseason start. He has been very consistent over his five seasons as a starter but his digression last season is a cause for concern. That’s why the addition of Heaney and Tropeano from this offseason and the addition of Hector Santiago (6-9, 3.75, 24 starts) and Tyler Skaggs (5-5, 4.30, 18 starts) are important for depth purposes. Skaggs, of course, will be out this season until at least June after undergoing Tommy John surgery last year. It also allows them not to rush Richards as he recovers from his injury.
If the rotation to start the season consists of Weaver, Shoemaker, Richards, Wilson and Heaney, that leaves Santiago and Tropeano as options to help out in the back of the bullpen. The addition of closer Huston Street (2-2, 1.37, 41 saves) from the Padres helped reshape a bullpen that struggled at the beginning of last season. They also added Jason Grilli (1-3, 3.48, 40 games for Angels), a guest on the Passed Ball Show, who has since signed with the Atlanta Braves. RHP Joe Smith (7-2, 1.81, 76 games) provides the team with a very good eighth- and ninth-inning team. RHP Vinnie Pestano (0-1, 2.89, 25 games) came over from the Indians and seemed to have a resurgence with the Angels. RHPs Mike Morin (4-4, 2.90, 60 games) and Fernando Salas (5-0, 3.38, 57 games) give the team at least five right handers in the bullpen to start the season. LHP Cesar Ramos (2-6, 3.73, 43 games, 7 starts) comes over in a trade with Tampa Bay and will be the primary left handed specialist. I think Santiago can excel in this role and potentially even get some work in the 8th inning.
The Angels offense will, of course, go as far as Trout and Pujols take them. Without Hamilton, the team will be counting a lot on newcomer Joyce, who is likely to play the OF. C.J. Cron (.256, 11, 37) will be the primary DH and Kole Calhoun (.272, 17, 58) will be playing RF. SS Erick Aybar (.278, 7, 68) and 3B David Freese (.260, 10, 55) also see their offensive responsibilities increase with the loss of Hamilton. I would use the veteran Aybar in the leadoff spot and follow him up with Freese 3B, Trout CF, Pujols 1B, Joyce LF, Calhoun RF, Cron DH, Chris Iannetta C (.252, 7, 43), Rutledge 2B. This allows for Aybar to set the table and perhaps for Freese to get back to what made him prosper in St. Louis.
The Angels bench will be led by OF Collin Cowgill (.250, 5, 21), infielder Grant Green (.273, 1, 11) and C Butera. Heaney and Tropeano head the list of top young Angels pitching prospects. Also to be noted is Cam Bedrosian, son of All-Star closer and 1987 Cy Young Award winner Steve Bedrosian. Cam has plus stuff and may end up a solid big league reliever, just like his dad. 20-year-old Cuban defector Robert Baldoquin is a middle infielder who could make his MLB debut this season. His signing allowed for the trade of Kendrick and signals the efforts made by Dipoto and staff to make this team about the future as well as the present.
For a team not known for having a strong farm system, the Angels have done a good job in trading for younger pieces without giving up on the present. This team will go as far as their pitching, which I expect to be close to as strong as it was last season. Not having Hamilton will hurt, even though he was not particularly good last season. Scioscia will have to be creative to get the most out of his regulars, mainly Calhoun, Joyce and Cron. Vegas has the Angels at 89 1/2, which I do think can be achieved. In a tight league all around, I have the Angels at 86 wins, finishing at 86-76. That is good enough for 2nd place in the AL West division and enough to take the first Wild Card spot in the American League. In a fun bit of irony, the 2012 Angels won 89 games and missed the playoffs.