Wednesday, April 20, 2005

While I was Away...

Not much changed in the AL West. The four teams continue to beat-up on one another, trading victories to the point where LA, Seattle & Oakland are all 7-7 while slacker Texas is a 1/2 game back at 7-8.

While Steve Finley's offensive struggles have stood out like a sore thumb, there are actually several factors that have kept the Angels from taking an early lead in the division. But likewise, there are some very good things happening as well.

What's Wrong

1. Finley - A .167 average and .333 slugging percentage were not what the Angels counted on when signing Fin to a big off-season deal to become their starting center fielder for the next two seasons. But no one should be surprised by this as historically April is always Finley's worst month. For his career Finley has hit .239 in April with a .407 slugging percentage. Finley's career numbers in May are much better with a .286 average and a .467 slugging pct. Finley is starting to see the ball better and I suspect as he gets more AB’s under his belt and gets a second look at some of these AL pitchers, Finley will do a lot better.

2. John Lackey - It has been a nightmare start for John Lackey in 2005, but what else is new? Lackey's career ERA in April is 3-5 with a 7.45 ERA which begs the question; why not stash Lackey & Finley in Salt Lake for April? His ERA improves to 5.08 in May and then finally steadies at 3.55 for June and 3.56 for July. Then for some inexplicable reason it jumps to 5.16 in August before settling back down to 3.33 in September. But this April has been especially brutal with a 1-1 record (by all rights he should be 0-3) that features a grotesque 8.22 ERA that grows with every outing. Big John has been battered by opposing hitters who have 18 hits in 15.1 innings of work. While Lackey does have 12 strikeouts (4 in each game) he also has 8 walks. Strangely his walks and K's mirrored one another with four of each in the first two games but then he did not walk anyone in his last game on April 17th while still notching his customary 4 strikeouts. Despite that brief shimmering flicker of hope, Oakland did tag Lackey for 10 hits and 7 runs in just 5.2 innings. But no walks! All we can do is buckle in and hope our hitters out-slug theirs when Lackey takes the mound early in the season. Maybe they should send him to the islands to play some winter ball prior to the start of the regular season.

3. Brendan Donnelly - the middle relief specialist has been flat-out awful in his early appearances of 2005 which includes a blown save back on April 6th when Donnelly gave up two runs on three hits in one inning of work. Donnelly has had control, yielding just one walk in 7.2 innings of work, but his strikes have been very hittable as opposing batters have pummeled the right-hander for 11 hits and 5 runs so far this season giving BD a lofty 5.87 ERA. There is a silver lining: Donnelly has now pitched in consecutive games (1 inning 4/16 vs. Oakland & 1 inning 4/18 vs. Seattle) in which he has been perfect. Six consecutive outs should do a lot for Donnelly's confidence not to mention Mike Scioscia's. Donnelly's ERA has gone down in each appearance, testament to both his overall improvement and the heinous 18.00 earned-run-average he was tagged with in that first forgettable game on 4/6. Like Finley, Donnelly will work out the kinks and be fine.

4. Kevin Gregg/Kelvim Escobar - With Escobar starting the season on the DL manager Mike Scioscia used Kevin Gregg as a spot-starter in two games with poor results. In the first game Gregg went five innings against a fairly weak Kansas City lineup giving up 3 runs on 3 hits with 4 walks and 4 K's. Despite the shaky outing the offense posted 8 runs and the bullpen shut down the Royals the rest of the way to preserve the win for Gregg. His second outing was yesterday when Gregg walked the first two batters and gave up a warning-track shot to Adrian Beltre and a no-doubt home run to Richie Sexson. Another solo shot in the first by Raul Ibanez was all Seattle would need for a 5-3 victory. Gregg lasted 2.1 innings giving up 4 runs on 5 hits and 5 walks. The walks are what really killed Gregg and his lack of control is disastrous. This should be the last start Gregg makes this year as either Chris Bootcheck or Jake Woods would be at least as good as Gregg as a spot-starter and both have the potential to develop into legitimate major league starters (Gregg, in my opinion, does not). Gregg's poor performance makes him a question mark for the bullpen as well where so far this year he has appeared in one game going 1.2 innings and giving up a run on 3 hits (but surprisingly no walks or K's). Escobar had a rehab start last night for Triple-A Salt Lake where he went 4 innings, allowing two runs on five hits. In addition Kelvim fanned six batters and walked just one. He should be good to go against the A’s next Sunday.

5. The Catcher Spot - Bengie is hurt. Again. While Halo management had high hopes that a new 'Bengie-Lite' might be able to avoid the injuries that have plagued him the last few years, here we go again as Molina is sent to the 15 day DL with a strained quadriceps. Molina was having a fantastic start to the year hitting .323 with 2 HR's and 8 RBI. Molina is this close to jumping into the elite level of catcher but he has to avoid the injuries that are limiting his playing time. Josh Paul has been awful and again begs the question, why is he here? Paul is hitting .125 after hitting just .243 last season in 46 games. But the issue with JP is that he is a strikeout machine. Last season Paul whiffed 17 times in 46 at-bats compared with just 7 walks. So far this year Paul has 3 k's, 0 walks in just 8 AB's. I know the Angels want to give Jeff Mathis a lot of at-bats in the minors but why not bring him up for a couple of weeks to get a taste? Mathis is clearly the catcher-of-the-future and he can strikeout just as well as Paul can. The Angels have veteran pitchers who do not need a lot of coddling behind the plate so give the kid a chance.

6. The Third Base Spot - With McPherson opening the year on the DL Robb Quinlan was given a golden opportunity to earn a bench spot with the Angels. To put it bluntly, he blew it. The not-so-mighty Q has hit .154 in 26 at-bats with no home runs. But it was not just Quinlan. The third-base trifecta of Q, Maicer Izturis and Lew Merloni combined to hit just .163 with 2 RBI and a pathetic .213 on-base percentage. Meanshile McPherson was starting to heat-up in Salt Lake, hitting .308 with 3 HR's and 14 RBI's in 10 games. That prompted a somewhat earlier than planned recall for D-Mac who made his Angel debut on Monday going 0 for 4 with a strikeout. Against the soft-tossing Jaime Moyer McPherson was given a day off but he should be back in action tonight against Cleveland's Jake Westbrook. Time for McPherson to pick up the slack and offer some much needed punch in the #7 or 8 slot for the Angels.

7. Paul Byrd - The new #5 starter had not rounded into form prior to the Angels 6-1 victory on Monday and I for one was surprised. I expected that Byrd would come in with added velocity thanks to being fully recovered from Tommy John surgery. But Byrd was lit-up for 17 hits and 12 runs in his first two starts, both losses. Byrd also gave up 3 walks in his second start, very uncharacteristic for the 35 year-old right-hander who relies on pinpoint control and deception to get hitters out. Even with his first victory Byrd gave up 11 hits but scattered them and pitched out of trouble. This is what Paul Byrd is all about and so long as he gets offensive support he should be able to easily post 15 wins this season. Also key for Byrd will be a reliable bullpen as he can not be expected to go 8 innings too often. Like Finley and Donnelly though, his numbers are improving and he is moving towards mid-season form.

8. The Bench Players - Going into 2005 most everyone agreed that this Angels team was deep. Especially so in hitting where Juan Rivera, Jeff DeVanon, Lew Merloni, Maicer Izturis and Robb Quinlan were going to provide insurance at each position. But so far none of the bench players has stood out. DeVanon has the most AB's of any bench player, acting as the primary DH as well, with 35 plate appearances. But DeVo has managed just a .200 average and only one extra base hit (a double). Izturis has three hits in 18 AB's but two of those were for triples. Still, with his speed Izturis needs an OBP north of .350 so he can apply pressure on the base paths and set the table for the Angels' big guns. Rivera has probably been the best of the bunch, hitting .259 but with a slugging percentage of .296 his hits have not had a lot of punch. He also has just 2 RBI and 3 runs scored so Rivera needs to be a little more timely with his hitting.

What's Working


1. Vladimir Guerrero - While many have complained about the big money being paid Bartolo Colon as well as the money paid to uber-bust Mo Vaughn, the Angels finally have a big-money player who is earning every penny. The reigning AL MVP is hitting .351 with a titanic .667 slugging percentage thanks to 5 home runs and 3 doubles to open the season.

2. Garrett Anderson - As I have said before, the most important acquisition the Angels could have made in the off-season was a healthy Garrett Anderson. As the Angels clean-up hitter Anderson does not deliver as much punch as Vlad but he does deliver RBI's. He is currently tied with Guerrero for the team lead with 12 and has stroked 4 doubles and 1 HR so far this season.

3. Bengie Molina
- Despite the 15-day trip to the DL we can not ignore Bengie's gaudy numbers during the first few weeks of the season. Hitting .323 with a .581 slugging percentage, Molina's offensive numbers are finally starting to match his defensive prowness. But if his name is going to be mentioned with Pudge Rodriguez, Jason Varitek and Jose Posada then Molina needs to stay healthy for the bulk of the season. Part of that will be Mike Scoscia recognizing how much Bengie's legs can take and allowing him to DH a couple of days per week.

4. Frankie Rodriguez - As advertised, K-Rod has been lights-out as the Angels new closer. 5 IP 7 K 0 BB 0.00 ERA. Can't argue with that line. Two for two in save opportunities as well. If Frankie pitches this well all season he will be richly rewarded with a fat new contract to be the Halo closer for a long, long time.

5. Darin Erstad - Yes, I was one of the disgruntled masses calling for Erstad to be replaced by Casey Kotchman at first -- mainly because he is grossly overpaid at $8 million per year. But Erstad looks to be trying to earn that cake with a .270 average and an inflated .476 slugging percentage. Erstad still does not walk enough and strikes out too much (5 BB compared to 13 K's), especially for a leadoff hitter. But Erstad's 10 runs scored is second on the team to Guerrero (12) and more impressive are his 9 RBI from the top spot of the lineup. Erstad would probably be better served as a #2 hitter but until a better option appears we will gladly take this level of production from Ersty.

6. Esteban Yan - Yan was hammered in spring training and he was shaping up to be the disaster of the year when the Angels broke camp earlier this month. But in 9.1 innings so far this season the veteran reliever has a 2.89 ERA with 5 K's. However Yan's 6 walks are disturbing and he could still blow-up at any moment -- it's really just a matter of time. But for now the Angels can count their blessings with Yan and enjoy his success while it lasts.

7. Scot Shields - Another guy who was poised for disaster. Shields was diagnosed with some sort of shin splints that could lead to a stress fracture of his shin. Shields came out of camp shaky, blowing a save on April 7th but emerging as the eventual winner in that contest. Shields has worked his ERA down from 5.40 on 4/7 to 2.08 with two wins and a hard-luck loss to Oakland on 4/16. His leg still makes me nervous but there are not too many other guys I want to get the ball late in a ball game with a tie score.

The Jury is Still Out...

There are several players who have not decided if they are going to be successful or tank this year. Among them:

Orlando Cabrera - Scioscia moved Cabrera up to the #2 spot in the line-up on Tuesday thanks mainly to a 3 hit game on Monday. Cabrera responded by going 0 for 5, dragging his batting average down to .250. So far this year Cabrera has 1 HR, 1 triple and 3 doubles. But Cabrera has worked six walks as well which has given him a .328 OBP. He won't make anyone forget Ichiro but compared to the rest of the lineup it provides at least a modicum of table-setting for Guerrero & Anderson.

Jarrod Washburn
- The ultimate 'feast or famine' pitcher. Washburn has pitched in three games so far this season. In two he has thrown 14 innings total with 11 hits and 0 earned runs. In the third one (actually sandwich between the other two starts) Burnsie went 5.1 innings giving up 12 hits and 6 earned runs. Ironically, the two games he pitched well in the Angels eventually lost while the Halos came back to edge the Rangers 7-6 in the one-game Washburn stinkfest. This guy remains the biggest enigma on the team. Personally I don't like his attitude and have hoped for awhile the Angels would ship him off but until they get a reliable fifth arm that is not likely. Though Bootcheck and Woods remain interesting they are not ready to be every-fifth-day starters in the bigs. Still, the Angels could make a move to trade for pitching if they can find a taker for Washburn.

Bootcheck, Woods & Prinz -
Bootcheck has been unbelievable in two appearances so far, pitching 5 innings and giving up just 2 hits and no earned runs. He also has a pair of walks and a pair of strikeouts. Like Bootcheck, Woods is 0-0 but he has an ERA of 3.60 after appearing in 4 games and pitching 4 innings. Woods has 4 K's and 2 BB's so far in 2005. Both are very young and raw but initially they are showing promise. Prinz came over in a late spring trade with the Yankees and in his very first appearance gave up a 12th inning home run to Alfonso Soriano that lost the game. After giving up that first run though Prinz has made two more appearances, both against the Royals, and did not give up a run but was placed on the 15-day DL with a sprained shoulder. That injury is what opened the door for Bootcheck who so far is making the most of his opportunity. It is unclear who will get demoted when Prinz returns from the DL on April 26th. All three are interesting players but just what lays in store is anyone's guess.

Bartolo Colon - A 2-1 record with an ERA of 3.66 is not bad by any stretch but as the Angels "Ace" we have to expect more from Bart. He is giving up too many hits (19 in 19.1 IP) but he does lead the team in strikeouts with 14. Certainly this is a better start than last season but Colon needs to pick his game up a notch to lead this pitching staff and go deep into games to rest the bullpen.

Chone Figgins – After starting the season 0 for freaking 15 Figgins is finally starting to put some good wood on the ball. After a three hit performance on Monday Figgins had a double yesterday to raise his average to .245. With Adam Kennedy rehabbing his rebuilt knee in extended spring training it could be weeks or days before he reclaims his second-base job. Figgins will then be spelling infield starters and battling Jeff DeVanon for DH time as he clamors to get at-bats. A week ago I would have said Figgins was in danger of losing his bench spot to Izturis but with 10 hits in his last 7 games (including a rare HR) Figgins should be secure to stay in the bigs. The question is, will he raise his game to become more of a factor later in the season?

At 7-7 and tied for first (and second and third place) the season so far is basically a "do over". The Angels start another of those weird two-game series tonight against a young and aggressive Indians ball club. Colon is matched against Jake Westbrook who threw a 3 hitter (over 8 innings) at the Twins in his last start after a miserable 2 inning, 7 run game against the Tigers in his previous start. The Angels need to beat teams like the Indians in every aspect of the game. While Cleveland has a lot of talent they are nowhere near as loaded as the Angels. While the entire division is scuttling, the Angels need to put together a winning streak that stakes them to a lead in the division. The key will be beating teams they should beat like Cleveland. The Angels have missed a golden opportunity to jump out to a three or four game lead early because they have not beaten teams in their division and they have not consistently beaten the teams they should (ie the Royals). After the pair with the Tribe and three games up in Oakland the fun really starts with roadies in the Bronx following by a trip to the Homerdome.

2 Comments:

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