Opening Day 2012 for the Angels has finally come! No more speculating about what may happen, asking whether Mark Trumbo can play third base, or Kendrys Morales can avoid shattering his leg again, or if Vernon Wells is really that bad. Now we get to learn the answers! We also get to see new additions like Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson suit up and try to take this Angels squad over the top. It’s nothing but optimism and possibilities slowly giving way to the cold, unforgiving clutches of reality from here on out! Wow, that got dark!
The Angels start their 2012 campaign against the Kansas City Royals, who finished 2011 at 71-91, finishing fourth in the AL Central, 24 games back of division-winning Detroit. The Royals are a popular pick to be a darkhorse in the Central this season, as they continue to bring up young quality ballplayers through their farm system. In 2011, the Royals finished in the top-10 for batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and runs scored. Their undoing was in their pitching, which ranked near the bottom of the league in ERA (27th), quality starts (27th), WHIP (26th), and batting average allowed (27th). If the Royals are going to take the next step and close the gap on the mighty Tigers, they will need to see some drastic improvements from their pitching staff.
No surprise that Weaver will be taking the hill first for the Angels. He set himself apart as the ace of the staff in 2011, posting a 2.41 ERA with a 1.01 WHIP while going 18-8 in 33 starts, finishing second in the AL Cy Young vote to Justin Verlander, who also won the MVP award last year. Weaver’s less than stellar spring (2-2, 5.40 ERA) doesn’t have many concerned as he showed himself ramping up for the start of the season with excellent control of his pitches, but was hurt by the dry air of the Arizona spring turning some of his fly balls into home runs. Settling back into the home confines will keep some of those fly balls in the yard, and Weaver should continue his excellence atop one of the deepest rotations in baseball.
Chen, on the other hand, is making his very first Opening Day start of his career. The 34-year old left hander led the Royals in wins last season, going 12-8 with a 3.77 ERA and is 24-15 over the last two seasons. His consistency has made him a favorite of manager Ned Yost, who feels like Chen can go toe-to-toe with other teams’ number one starters. Chen isn’t going to blow hitters away, with his fastball topping out at 87-89 MPH, and he posts a modest 6.04 career K/9 ratio while earning a reputation as an extreme fly-ball pitcher (48.2 percent rate over last three seasons). While that tendency could hurt him more in hitter-friendly parks, the Angels won’t see too much of an advantage as Angels Stadium is a notoriously spacious park that is kind to fly-ball pitchers (just ask fellow fly-ball pitcher Weaver). The Angels will need to show patience and string together some hits or hope to muscle some fly balls out of the park in order to get to Chen and the Royals.
Haren comes into the 2012 season as the “co-ace” of the staff after posting an excellent 2011 campaign, going 16-10 with a 3.17 ERA and a 1.02 WHIP. There was the usual dowturn in Haren’s performance post-All Star break, with a pre-break ERA/WHIP of 2.61/0.95 and a post-break of 3.89/1.12, which has been common for the innings-eater. Haren himself has admitted this spring that he’s a fast starter to the season, and you can expect that trend to continue as he has been lights out during spring training. Haren has quietly carved himself a nice career, staying remarkably healthy while consistently pitching well, earning himself the co-ace title after just a season and a half with the Angels on a very good rotation.
Hochevar was the Opening Day starter for the Royals last season, and led the team in ERA (4.68), WHIP (1.28), and strike outs (128). The former number-one overall pick has yet to really live up to his potential, but may be starting to head in the right direction towards it. Last season, Hochevar posted eight quality starts with a 3.52 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP in 12 starts after the All Star break. He has perfected a cut-fastball that he started to trust more as the year went on in 2011, throwing it 13% of the time and limiting batters to just .188 when he threw it. He has vastly improved his performance against left-handed batters since putting the cutter into heavier rotation, and the Royals will be hoping he continues that progress he displayed down the stretch of last season. At 28-years old, Hochevar still has room to grow as a pitcher, so their hope is certainly not misplaced.
Santana is often the forgotten man when it comes to this deep Angels rotation, but he’ll get the third spot to start this season, partially as a show of support to one of the longer-tenured Angels and partially to improve matchups. The Royals last season were one of the best hitting teams against lefties, so left-hander C.J. Wilson won’t make his first start until Monday against the Twins. That’s not to say Santana hasn’t earned the 3-spot, coming off a career-best 3.38 ERA in 2011, when he went 11-12 with a 1.22 WHIP. While he may not have developed into the top of the rotation ace that he was projected to when he came up in 2005, Santana is as solid a number three as there is, winning 52 games over the last four years. He’ll look to continue an excellent spring and erase any doubts why he should be the third starter again in 2012. While he may be the last of the Big-4 that you think of when it comes to Angels starters, he’s still going to pitch tough and give the Halos an excellent shot for a win.
Sanchez is making the transition to the AL after spending his entire career with the San Francisco Giants. The Royals acquired the 29-year old right hander in a trade with the Giants for outfielder Melky Cabrera. Sanchez has made a name for himself as a great strikeout pitcher, posting an impressive 9.4 K/9 ratio for his career, but has been hampered with a high walk rate of 4.8 BB/9. Last season, his strike out rate dropped to a below-average 9.1 K/9 while his walks jumped to 5.9 BB/9. The Royals hope that this was an aberration and not the beginnings of a bad trend. In order for Sanchez to be successful going forward, he will have to make an effort to reduce the number of free passes, which will extra difficult as he also tries to transition to the more hitter-friendly American League. Sanchez is going to be tested early with this Angels lineup, and the Royals will have an idea of what to expect going forward from him after this weekend.
Storylines to watch
How will the Angels new additions fit in SoCal? Negative or positive, we’re a reactionary culture and seeing how quickly Albert Pujols hits out of the gate is going to dominate the news cycle. Seeing C.J. Wilson will have to wait until Monday in Minnesota, but the media are going to jump all over every swing Albert takes as he officially transitions to the AL with a team other than St. Louis.
For the Royals, the question will be if the pitching can catch up to all that talent they keep bringing up through their system at the plate. Sure, whether Eric Hosmer is going to breakout in 2012 will be on the radar as well, but without some significant improvement from the pitching staff, it won’t matter how well the team hits.
It’s the first series of the year, so nothing that happens this weekend is insurmountable down the stretch (obviously), but as I said above, we are a reactionary culture. Both of these teams have high hopes and expectations for the 2012 season and this series is simply going to give fans hope that all their excitement during the spring was founded or dash them completely right off the bat. It’s all about seeing if that potential is going to give fruit this year for each squad.
The Hangout View
The Royals major weakness in 2011 was their pitching, and they’re hoping for a change in fortunes this year with the addition of Sanchez to the rotation. However, this is not really the lineup you want to cut your teeth on when trying to build confidence in your pitchers. There are going to be a lot of pitfalls to trip up on with this Angels’ lineup, and the Royals’ pitchers are likely going to struggle to find a lot of success. Winning two out of three seems like a given for the Angels with a sweep of the series highly likely.