For the first time in a long time, the Los Angeles Angels open a season without sky-high goals. A four-year postseason drought will do that to a team, and in a lot of ways that’s exactly what they need. The Angels stumbled out of the starting block last year with a 9-17 April record and finished with their lowest win total since 2003.
Following manager Mike Scioscia’s commitment to a strong start, the Halos amassed a 19-11 Cactus League record this spring. Without any major injuries to account for, the Angels don’t have many excuses for another underwhelming start. If they make a legitimate postseason run it’ll be because the players that make up an estimated $146 million payroll meet expectations.
Here are four storylines to watch throughout the 2014 season.
Now that contract talks are out of the way, Trout can focus solely on baseball. The AL MVP runner-up two years running steamrolled Cactus League pitching on his way to a .414 batting average. It’s hard not to compare Trout to the likes of Ken Griffey Jr. or Mel Ott when they were roughly the same age. Each reached unprecedented success before they were old enough to buy a beer and each is remembered among the greatest outfielders ever. The only difference is that Trout just received a bigger paycheck than either Griffey Jr. or Ott could have imagined.
Trout’s six-year, $144.5 million contract extension will have the center fielder in Anaheim until he is 29-years-old. It pales in comparison to the deal Miguel Cabrera just signed, but still makes him the highest-played player at his age. With Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols offering tidbits here and there, there is not telling what level of success Trout will reach in 2014.
The bottom line is that we can expect Trout to maintain, and possibly improve, on his lifetime .314 batting average. Whether that means anything in October depends on his supporting cast.
Can Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols live up to expectations?
Flash back to 2010 when Hamilton and Pujols earned Silver Slugger awards in their respective divisions. Hamilton won the AL MVP and led the Texas Rangers to their first-ever World Series. Meanwhile, Pujols had a “down” year, hitting .312 with 42 home runs and earned his second career Gold Glove.
A lot has changed since then. Each underperformed in their first season in Anaheim and speculation persists that they’ll never live up to their contracts. Pujols still have seven years left on his deal and Hamilton has four years left on his. This is a make-or-break year for the former MVP’s.
Hamilton arrived in Tempe, Ariz. much more toned than last spring. He hopes the weight gain will help improve a slash line that saw career lows (.250/.307.432). In addition, former AL MVP and new Angels hitting coach Don Baylor bring managerial that will help Hamilton. It’s worked so far. Hamilton hit .333 with two homers and eight RBIs in 33 spring at-bats.
After missing the last two month of 2013 due to plantar fasciitis, a foot injury that’s nagged him over the last two years, Pujols has played like his old self this month. Cactus League stats may not mean much but his .321/.375.536 numbers are promising. He’s also running without discomfort as Angels fans saw when he tested Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig’s arm during an exhibition game last week.
Will Jered Weaver have a comeback year?
Weaver makes his fifth consecutive Opening Day start. He is by all accounts the staff’s ace and its most consistent pitcher. That consistency, however, subtly includes a decline in his strikeout rate and velocity over the last two years.
From 2009-2011 Weaver gathered a 14.8 fWAR and struck out 22% of batters. He also averaged 223 innings per season with a walk rate of just 6.5%. Needless to say, Weaver was on top of his game.
Beginning in 2012, his strikeout percentage has dropped considerably. There is no question injuries have inhibited Weaver over the last two years, first with a back problem in 2012 and last year with a broken left elbow. This is Weaver’s year to prove that, when healthy, he is still among the game’s best.
How will the backend of the starting rotation fare?
The term “addition by subtraction” was appropriate in the Angels releasing Joe Blanton. It gives Tyler Skaggs and Garrett Richards the chance to prove their worth as starters. The only question is whether they are ready.
Skaggs was the centerpiece in the deal that sent Mark Trumbo to Arizona in a three-team trade that also brought left-hander Hector Santiago. The idea is to have young, cost-controlled pitching. The seven starts Skaggs got with the Diamondbacks last season is too small a sample size to determine where his career goes. He has the talent to be a solid pitcher, but may need more time at the AAA level.
Despite his 4-9 record, Santiago has a solid season with the Chicago White Sox, posting a 3.56 ERA in 34 games. Santiago is one of the few pitchers in MLB that throws a screwball and it baffled hitters last year, leading to 137 strikeouts.
This will be a make-or-break year for Richards. The powerful righty is worthy of a starting role but needs to master pitches beyond his cutting and sinking fastball. He’s toyed with a changeup this spring, but hasn’t slowed it enough to throw hitters off balance.