Keys to 2013: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

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Starting Pitching Key: Tommy Hanson

Hanson was once a top Braves’ pitching prospect, all but untouchable in trades…then they traded him for a relief pitcher who’d lost his job as Angels’ closer, Jordan Walden. Hanson’s had shoulder problems and back problems and his mechanics are woeful. The Angels’ starting pitching is short and they know what to expect from C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver. They’re hoping for some decent innings from Jason Vargas, but away from the friendly confines of Safeco Park, he’ll revert into the pitcher who both the Marlins and Mets couldn’t wait to get rid of. If Hanson pitches well, the Angels offense will mitigate the back of the rotation; if not, they’re going to need starting pitching during the season and they’re running low on prospects to get it. I supposed there’s Kyle Lohse if they and Lohse get desperate enough. For now, it’s hold their breath on Hanson.

Relief Pitching Key: Ernesto Frieri

The Angels signed Ryan Madson to take over as closer once he’s healthy, but he’ll start the season on the disabled list as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. Frieri replaced Walden as closer last season and racks up huge strikeout numbers. He’s also vulnerable to the home run ball, knows he’s pitching for the job and eventually closer money, so he might press early in the season. The Angels really can’t afford to get off to a bad start in that division; with the hangover from their disappointing 2012; the pressure on manager Mike Scioscia; and the new faces.

Offensive Key: Albert Pujols

Chalk 2012 up to the transition from the National League and having played in the comfort zone with the Cardinals and for a manager he knew in Tony LaRussa. But Pujols’s numbers had declined in 2011 from their absurd heights that he’s reached his entire career. He’s listed at 33 but there has been speculation forever that he’s older. With the inability for aging players to use special helpers—even amphetamines are no longer okay—could Pujols be showing his age, breaking down and returning to the land of mortal men? If so, the Angels are in deep trouble and I don’t care about the intimidating rest of the lineup. Pujols will be an albatross for the rest of the decade if he comes undone.

Defensive Key: Mike Trout

With the extra weight he’s carrying, will Trout’s superlative defense in center field (they’re supposedly moving him to left anyway which is another odd move) be less than what it was? The Angels have Peter Bourjos who’s also a standout defensive center fielder and the talk is that they’ve reached agreement with the Yankees to take Vernon Wells off their hands (I’ll have more to say about this piece of work by Brian Cashman in the coming days. Believe me.) so Trout’s increased size may not be as much of a factor if he’s in left. But he’s not happy about it and the Angels seem to be intentionally tweaking him for reasons that only they know.

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The Trout vs Cabrera MVP Battle Is Over, But The Argument Rages On

All Star Game, Award Winners, Ballparks, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MVP, Players, Playoffs, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

Remember a player named Mike Blowers? He’s a broadcaster now for the Mariners and had a few relatively productive seasons for them in the mid-to-late-1990s. One season in particular stands out. In 1995, the Yankees castoff Blowers posted an .809 OPS with 23 homers and 96 RBI for a Mariners team that came back from 13 games out of first place in August to win the AL West. They bounced the Yankees in the ALDS coming back from 2 games to 0 down before losing to the Indians in 6 games in the ALCS.

That season, you will remember, was shortened by the strike, so Blowers only played in 134 games. Had it been a full schedule, he certainly would have driven in 110+ runs. On the surface, it looks like a solid season. But in reality, was it? Or were his RBI totals cushioned by big games? During that season, Blowers had games with RBI totals of: 8, 5, 5, 6, 4, 4, 4, and 7. Right there that’s 8 games out of 134 where he accumulated 43 of his 96 RBI. Add in that he spent the season batting behind Tino Martinez (.369 OBP); Jay Buhner (.343 OBP); Ken Griffey Jr. (.379 OBP); and Edgar Martinez (.479 OBP), and you wonder why he had so few RBI.

This isn’t to pick on Blowers as a random player, but it proves a point that any stat—not just the old-school ones such as RBI—can be torn apart when they’re examined in depth with an end in mind.

The debate between Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera for American League MVP still rages even though Cabrera was given the award. The Cabrera backers present the following case: he won the Triple Crown; his team won their division; the opposing pitchers said they feared Cabrera more than any other hitter in baseball. The Trout backers point to his 10.7 WAR; his defensive brilliance; his speed; his power; and that the Angels were 6-14 when he arrived and went 81-58 with him in the lineup.

None other than newfound political celebrity Nate Silver made his case for Trout on his Fivethirtyeight.com blog here. Along with the stats such as WAR, Silver uses Trout playing in a “harder division” and other bits of randomness to bolster his case, but it’s not as clear-cut as he implies, nor is Cabrera’s case as clear-cut as the other side implies.

You can use a phantom argument as a means of patting the non-stat people on the head by saying, “Look at their record with him in the lineup and without it,” as if it’s connected on its face. I picture Silver rolling his eyes and thinking, “Here, idiots. Here’s a simplistic number you can understand. Wins.” It’s done as a concession to convince. Because Silver drilled the presidential election doesn’t mean his opinion and calculations in baseball are unassailable. In fact, his history at predicting baseball with PECOTA is quite pedestrian even though it’s promoted for its accuracy. PECOTA is a formula. It’s math and math isn’t the determinative factor with baseball players that it clearly is in the political arena. There’s no variable and no analysis. It’s a sum and when it’s wrong, there’s always an excuse of the faults of human beings in not living up to what was expected.

Does that make it okay to be wrong? To suggest that they would’ve been right if X happened and Y didn’t? If (BLANK) great pitcher didn’t mistakenly groove a fastball to Cabrera so he could knock it into space? If (BLANK) mediocre pitcher didn’t throw the best curveball of his life to strike Trout out with the bases loaded?

If we begin with the premise that Trout’s presence was solely responsible for the Angels rise from that atrocious start, how do we figure where it began and when it ended? How about the acquisition of a reliever named Ernesto Frieri who stabilized the Angels’ atrocious bullpen after they’d demoted closer Jordan Walden? The Angels were 10-17 when they acquired Frieri. Is he suddenly the MVP because they were 79-56 with him on the roster? With the Angels talent—dysfunctional and infighting as it was—do you truly believe they were going to keep playing as badly as they started? The concept of a statistical formula like PECOTA would tell you that it wasn’t going to happen; that they’d get themselves straightened out with or without Trout, but that is conveniently glossed over to promote Trout as the MVP because of his “presence”. Did he show up with donuts every day? Did he smell really good to make the other players happy? The presence argument is fleeting and incalculable before or after it happens and is mitigated by both Cabrera and Trout having positive things said about them. Which is accurate and which isn’t? Which counts and which doesn’t?

The comparison of home runs that were hit to whether or not they would have left a different ballpark is questionable as well. The pitchers pitch differently in a bigger park than they do in a smaller one; they might be more willing to challenge a player like Trout knowing who’s batting behind him (a guy named Albert Pujols) and test the rookie rather than run the risk of putting runners on base for Pujols and the other Angels bashers. Everyone knows the numbers nowadays and applies them to a certain degree. With everyone knowing the numbers, the strategies pitching coaches impart to their catchers as a way of devising a gameplan are contingent on what the opposing lineup does with pitches in various locations. Unless everything—everything—is torn apart to examine when, where, how, and why, WAR or the Triple Crown cannot be the final arbiter of the MVP.

You can’t have it both ways. When lobbying for the Hall of Fame, you can’t say that a player like Ron Santo was far superior to Jim Rice because of his defensive greatness at third base, ballpark factors, and plain factional disputes of arguing for the sake of it and then criticize a Cabrera because he was a bad third baseman, simultaneously crediting Trout because he’s a great center fielder. Rice was playing half of his games in Fenway Park with the Green Monster—a spot more nuanced than reliant on speed and range. He was good at playing that wall. Also he was a prideful and somewhat misunderstood black man playing in Boston in the 1970s which put more pressure on him, pressure that can’t be examined through a statistical lens. Third base is a harder to fill position and, despite his defensive inadequacies, Cabrera was serviceable at the position considering the expectations. He made the routine plays, which was all he was asked to do.

Asked to do.

If you’re asked to do something at work, are you criticized because someone whose duties are totally different from yours; whose skills are in a different category; is working in a totally different department, does their job in a “better” way than you do by metrics that are not in line with one another? That can’t be in line with one another?

No. So why do it with Cabrera and Trout?

With that comes the inevitable question, not of replacing these players with a baseline, invisible Triple A player as WAR does, but with an actual person. The Tigers had no one viable to play third base to take over for Cabrera while the Angels could’ve cobbled it together without Trout had they stuck Peter Bourjos out there (a 4.8 WAR player in 2011) and hoped he reverted to what he was in 2011 after a terrible start in 2012. Does that matter?

This is a tribal debate with the stat people on one end jumping up and down for Trout while shouting about the “injustice” and the old-schoolers gloating that Cabrera won. No one’s going to change their minds. But if this is the way it’s going to be, then it shouldn’t be about the Triple Crown, WAR, team results, aura, or whatever. It should be completely dissected pitch-by-pitch, play-by-play, everything-by-everything. Then there will be a final answer. Until that happens, there will be this endless presentation of supposed facts twisted to suit the purposes of the one arguing, truth and willingness to listen irrelevant and ignored for the sake of the self.

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The Media Vultures Circle The Mets Again

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Since the Mets have come apart after a surprising first half of the season when it was being speculated as to whether or not they’d be heavy buyers at the trading deadline, the same reporters who were so sure that the Wilpons days as owners were numbers just a few short months ago and wrote relentless pieces about the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme and its damage to the franchise have popped up again.

They were silent for a period of time, trying to maintain an aura of credibility that only exists because they’re in the media, as if that matters. Being paid by the New York Post, Newsday, ESPN or whatever other entity you can name doesn’t automatically imply knowing what they’re talking about. No one—no…one—I read speculated on the possibility of a Madoff settlement to save the Wilpons. In fact, the Wilpons might even wind up getting money back after all is said and done. They didn’t get rich being stupid and to suggest that they’re broke and the team is still in danger of being lost to the family is based on the same shoddy speculation that was indulged in months ago and turned out to be wrong.

It’s similar to the same so-called experts who felt that the Mets’ farm system was destitute of prospects. As it turns out, Omar Minaya’s scouting/drafting operation was far better than anyone thought.

Now, as the team has stumbled from their unexpected heights of contention at the All-Star break, the doom and gloom has returned. I’m not talking about from the fans—that’s expected; I’m talking about from the supposedly credible “insiders” in the media. Just the other day it started again about the possibility of David Wright leaving the club after next season. Compared with the Jose Reyes situation, will the Mets let Wright leave as they did Reyes? Are they going to be a stripped down version of other teams that haven’t spent one penny more than the bare minimum? Of course not. Wright’s going nowhere. The two situations were totally different on and off the field.

The Mets front office baseball people didn’t want to spend the necessary money to keep Reyes and wouldn’t have done so even if they had the money to spend and were allowed to run the team as they wanted. Last winter the Madoff trial was hanging over the oraganization’s collective heads like a guillotine. But money or not, GM Sandy Alderson would not want to allocate $100+ million to a speed player approaching 30 who’s had multiple injury problems; and if you look at Reyes in 2012 with the Marlins, it’s trendy to point to his recent hitting streak and solid play after a slow start, but the Marlins exponentially more dysfunctional than the Mets, are terrible and in the midst of a housecleaning that’s put them in a worse position than the Mets. Don’t bet on Reyes being with the Marlins past next season.

Wright’s different. A power bat that walks, is the de facto captain of the team (the Mets should make it official already), and who plays a difficult to fill position is not getting traded, nor is he going to be allowed to leave as a free agent. It’s true that the Mets have a large financial commitment to Jason Bay and Johan Santana next season ($50 million with their contracts and buyouts), but that will free a large amount of money to re-sign Wright and import players for 2013 with either backloaded free agent contracts or via trade. This idea that simply spending money would’ve made a significant difference in 2013 is ignoring that the teams that have spent tons of money on players in recent years haven’t succeeded. The Red Sox were supposed to “challenge the 1927 Yankees” as the best team in history in 2011, but collapsed in September and that collapse revealed disciplinary and personal fissures that resulted in the departure of manager Terry Francona, the hiring of Bobby Valentine and desperation maneuvers to patch over their holes and hope that they’d revert to performances and team-oriented behaviors of the past. Needless to say, it hasn’t worked and the Red Sox are in deep trouble moving forward as long as there are factional disputes and power grabs in the front office and the insistence that they don’t need to substantially alter the personnel.

The Phillies? They had an all-world starting rotation, signed a top-notch closer and had an offense that should’ve scored enough to support that rotation. But they’re old and injuries removed significant names from their everyday lineup and rotation. They’re not getting any younger and have contract commitments that made it necessary to trade Hunter Pence and consider again trading Cliff Lee to re-sign Cole Hamels and hope to have the health and performance they’ve lacked in 2012.

The Angels? Jered Weaver is 15-1; Mike Trout is on his way to winning the Rookie of the Year and the American League MVP; they traded for Zack Greinke; stole Ernesto Frieri from the Padres; Mark Trumbo is having an MVP-caliber season of his own and will eventually hit a ball that will never land; and signed Albert Pujols (this generation’s Joe DiMaggio) last winter, are still hovering around mediocrity and are in serious danger of missing the playoffs. Could the fact that they had too many players for too few positions and a manager, Mike Scioscia, who was used to being totally in charge and found his power usurped with a roster that doesn’t fit his style have something to do with their lack of cohesion and simply looking off?

Importing stars and spending money is not necessarily the answer and with the Mets, who were they supposed to get last winter? Would they be any better now if they’d signed Jonathan Papelbon? First, Papelbon wasn’t signing with the Mets; second, they didn’t have the money. Who else was other there that would fill a hole the Mets had? C.J. Wilson? He wasn’t coming to the Mets. Prince Fielder? Would he take an IOU?

The 1998 Mariners had Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., and Edgar Martinez in their lineup and went 76-85. In 1999, they went 79-83. They traded Griffey for nothing after 1999 and lost in the ALCS in 2000. After that season, they lost A-Rod…and won 116 games in 2001. If you said in 1999 that the team would lose those two stars and win 116 games two years later, people would think you insane.

We don’t know what’s going to happen with prospects; how much luck will be involved; what the future holds. But the Mets have enough young players—especially young pitching—for a bright future.

Madoff was a PR disaster and financial nightmare for the Mets, but what it did was free the organization to let them rebuild correctly. As much as Minaya is savaged for spending money and for the contracts he gave to Oliver Perez, and the soon-to-mature big money deals he gave to Bay and Santana, no one could’ve expected the Wilpon financial empire to come undone. Whether they suspected that Madoff was a fraud or not, did anyone think it would come crashing as it did? Even with the Bay/Santana contracts, they should very well have had some money to spend if things had gone on as they were.

In retrospect, it’s going to be viewed as a good thing that the Mets had to trade Carlos Beltran and got Zack Wheeler; that they couldn’t toss more money at the wall and hope that stacks of cash would fill holes in a foundation that needed what’s being done now: a true rebuild.

If you think that a Mets’ starting rotation in 2013 of R.A. Dickey, Santana, Jonathon Niese, Matt Harvey and Wheeler won’t be able to make a run at a playoff spot if there’s a halfway decent bullpen and a couple of more offensive weapons, then you’re not accepting facts. As for the financial holes, no one knows how much money the Mets have to spend or not. They settled the Madoff case and, much to the poorly concealed disappointment of Howard Megdal, Bob Klapisch, John Harper and Joel Sherman, paid off several of the loans they’d taken out to continue to do business.

And they still own the team.

With the Bay/Santana money coming off the books after next season, Wright will be re-signed. A realistic idea to improve the offense and make Wright more willing to stay and not hold the organization hostage would be to make a serious play for Justin Upton to play right field (signed through 2015 with $38.5 million coming to him from 2013 onward); and pursue his brother B.J. Upton to play center field. B.J.’s not getting the $100 million he’s probably going to want, but would $70 million over 5 years get it done? To play with his brother and Wright, their childhood friend from Virginia? Maybe. And a lineup of Ike Davis, Daniel Murphy, Ruben Tejada, Wright, the Uptons, Jordany Valdespin or Kirk Nieuwenhuis, and a better hitting catcher would score enough runs to support that starting rotation.

It’s doable.

Ignore the media as they’re seeking ways to make up for their inability to write epitaphs for the Mets by writing them pre-death; also tune out the fans who are throwing tantrums as the team spirals. They weren’t expected to be any better than this. The young players are showing promise and things are far more positive than anticipated from December to April. Realistically that’s all the Mets and any organization can ask for when they’re rebuilding from the ground up amid financial catastrophe, declining attendance, media hit squads and palpable fan anger.

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