The Strange Case of the Earth-Bound Angels

Josh Hamilton is among the many Angels who haven't had success so far. (Credit)

There are fans who don’t expect much from their team in the beginning of the season and consequently give up by July when the team has confirmed all of their predictions. There are fans that expect their team to do well and maybe even make the playoffs, but are left distraught by July when they realize it is going to take a “2004 Boston Red Sox” level miracle for their team to make the playoffs.

And then there are fans of the 2013 Los Angeles Angels.

How can you not feel disappointed by a $128 million payroll that built on the additions of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson last season by adding Josh Hamilton, Tommy Hanson, Jason Vargas, and Joe Blanton in the offseason? On top of that, we saw the emergence into stardom by Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo last season, so coming into this season, the Angels' lineup and rotation appeared to be stacked with firepower.

And although it is fun to marvel at what a team has on paper, we have seen time and time again that clubhouses filled with big names do not always equate to a World Series ring. But at the very least, there is an expectation that a team like the Angels would be able to compete at a high level. At 11-20 on May 7 (now 14-22), Los Angeles matched a franchise record for worst start to a season. How did this happen? Should we be surprised? Why does this feel like déjà vu?

For the Halos, like the majority of struggling teams, it all starts with the pitching. They rank fourth to last in team earned run average only beating the Houston Astros, Toronto Blue Jays, and Milwaukee Brewers.

The Angels do have a bit of an excuse, which is that Jered Weaver has been injured since April 8, but even these Angels starters are better than the 2013 numbers are indicating. Tommy Hanson is the only starting pitcher who is not throwing a career high ERA in the early going, and even he has a 3.86 ERA. He was simply more awful last season, posting a 4.48 ERA. In fact, Hanson’s ERA has grown each year of his career from 2.89, to 3.33, to 3.60, to 4.48. If that is not a sign to not give Hanson the big bucks, then I don’t know what is.

The point is that it is unlikely that this rotation will continue to put up horrific numbers like this all season. The addition of Weaver will help because we know he is a shutdown guy, and good pitching is contagious on a staff, so expect an improvement when Weaver is back.

But the rotation is definitely not the only group of pitchers that are struggling. The bullpen contributes to the high team ERA and the Halos' bullpen has certainly pulled its weight. Closer Ryan Madson, Sean Burnett, and Kevin Jepsen are all on the disabled list right now and that is definitely hurting the bullpen. Combining a thin bullpen with a poor rotation is definitely a recipe for disaster. Getting their closer and other key relief pitchers back will be essential for an improved record.

Now, for the biggest mystery of all. What is wrong with Los Angeles’ star-studded lineup? Let’s start at the top with Mike Trout. Trout is off to a slow start, as he hit .261 with only 2 home runs in April. Early slumps like these are common for young superstars who have the weight of reproducing their numbers from the last season. Ken Griffey Jr. batted .264 in April 1991, the season after his breakout year. He finished the season with a .327 average. And Angels fans already have reason for optimism, as Trout hit .350 in May with 3 home runs through his first five games. I have complete faith that he will start to pick it up and produce another fantastic season.

As we move down the lineup, we get to Albert Pujols. We have seen this act before from Mr. Pujols. He had a scary slow start last year, but ended up having a good season, notching 30 home runs, 105 runs batted in, and a .285 average. Those are nice numbers, but they are not Albert Pujols numbers. In fact, he has not hit for a .300 average or 40 home runs since 2010.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m sorry to announce that the greatest hitter of a generation is on the decline of his career. He is definitely still valuable and expect him to turn it around again this season, but there is no doubt that his production is becoming more limited every season. That does not sound like the description of a guy you want to sign for 10 years. Just another poor decision by the front office in LA.

Wait, did someone say poor decision? You mean like signing injury prone and breakdown prone Josh Hamilton to a 5-year, $125 million contract? I’m still not sure what they were thinking on this one. Sure, Hamilton is a once in a lifetime natural talent, but paying that much money means that the Angels are stuck with a guy, who can’t stay on the field and is emotionally inconsistent, until he is 37. On top of that, he had a rough goodbye with Texas, experiencing an anemic second half offensively and coming as close as possible for one player to lose an entire game for a team when he missed Yoenis Cespedes’ routine fly ball in the deciding game for rights to the AL West title and an automatic playoff birth.

With knowledge of Hamilton’s psychological struggles, I’m not sure if I would be willing to spend that much money on a guy who experienced being pretty much booed out of town. He’s a great hitter, but we will see if he is as strong mentally as he is physically. He’s batting .207 with only 4 home runs this season and simply looks lost at the plate. He is constantly swinging at balls and it is apparent that he, along with the rest of the team, has lost some confidence.

Another problem with this team is their lack of depth. Last season they had Maicer Izturis to fill the utility role in case Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, or Alberto Callaspo needed a day off or were injured. He was important because he was good enough to start, so it did not hurt the team as much to be missing their starters. Now that Izturis is gone, Los Angeles replaced him with Brendan Harris, who is batting .271. The Angels sent Aybar to the disabled list this season so they are missing Izturis already in this young season.

Injuries hurt every team, but not many teams deal with as many monumental injuries as the Angels have this early and not many teams have such little depth. When they get healthier, the record should improve, but it is hard to call this team a World Series contender. They will definitely compete for a playoff spot, but with the experienced Texas Rangers and the pesky Oakland Athletics in their division, it will be tough. In the end, I doubt they make the playoffs, but competing for the playoffs is much better than whatever they are doing right now.

As for Mike Scioscia, I’m sure he will be back next season regardless if they make the playoffs or not; if that’s what he wants, of course. But why would he stay? His strategy has been built around great pitching, flawless defense and manufacturing runs. The teams he has had the last couple of seasons have not been built that way. Either he or general manager Jerry Dipoto are gone after this season and I have a feeling Dipoto will be the one unemployed come September. At least Angels fans will be able to cheer about something at that point.

By: Matt Levine
Twitter: @Matt_TFJ

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