Are The Cardinals Waiting For Lohse’s Price To Drop?

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The Cardinals are said to be looking at starting pitchers that may be available including Astros’ starters Lucas Harrell and Bud Norris. Both would help. Norris is better than Harrell. Harrell would probably come cheaper in a trade. Before 2013 is over, the Astros are going to trade both.

The Cardinals have the prospects to move and the moderate need in their starting rotation, but the easiest solution for them remains former Cardinal Kyle Lohse.

Lohse, coming off his career-best season for the Cardinals, has been sitting and waiting for a contract that meets his and agent Scott Boras’s desires in terms of length and money. If any player in recent memory has been cornered by the draft pick compensation attached to free agents who were offered arbitration by their previous clubs, it’s Lohse. If the circumstances were different—if the cost was only money—Lohse would’ve gotten at least a three-year contract from someone and maybe a four-year deal. Whether or not he’s worth it or if he’s a creation of the Cardinals former pitching coach Dave Duncan’s Dr. Frankenstein-like skills of taking a pitching corpse and reengineering it into a top-tier pitcher is irrelevant. To moderately assuage that fear, Lohse had his career-best season in 2012 without Duncan, so he’s not attached to him like the hypnotized patient who wouldn’t be able to function without the “doctor” in view.

Conversely, considering the pitchers who blossomed under Duncan—Mike Moore, Kent Bottenfield, Joel Pineiro, Jeff Suppan—and were mediocre to disastrous after leaving his tutelage, it’s understandable that clubs would be reluctant to sign Lohse for a ton of money. Even a one-year contract is a disagreeable pill to swallow for Lohse (he feels he deserves more than a desperation contract to “prove” himself again) and for the club signing him (he’s still not worth a number one draft pick). But the Cardinals fill the bill with knowing what he can do and they don’t have to give up a draft pick to re-sign him. If they trade for Norris, Harrell or anyone else, they’ll have to surrender some players. With Lohse, it’s just money.

And that’s what it comes down to. They might be waiting for his price to drop, letting it be known publicly that they’re looking for pitchers and hoping Lohse gets itchy and tells Boras to make a deal with them. Amid all of that, what is being conveniently forgotten about Lohse is that he has been very good in the past two seasons for the Cardinals. This is not a situation where Boras has had to dig for numbers to validate the blue book of accomplishments he creates for his free agents. Lohse has legitimate credentials to get a multi-year contract for better-than-average starting pitcher money, but the draft pick compensation has him caged.

If Lohse is thinking he’ll sit out to start the season and wait until someone gets hurt, until a club needs a starter, or until after the draft, he’s still not going to get a three-year contract then either. If the Cardinals step up and offer two years with a vesting option based on innings pitched and performance, he should take it. I believe he would.

He and the Cardinals know each other. He can pitch and pitch effectively for the Cardinals because he’s done it in three of the five years he spent with the club. The two in which he was bad, he was hurt. If the sides stop and think about it for a moment and decide to be reasonable, it makes the most sense for them to accept reality and reunite. It’s the best choice for all.

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Kyle Lohse—Free Agency Profile

All Star Game, Award Winners, Ballparks, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors


Name: Kyle Lohse

Position: Right-handed starting pitcher

Vital Statistics: Age—34; Height—6’2”; Weight—210 lbs; Bats—Right; Throws—Right

Transactions: June 1996—Selected by the Chicago Cubs in the 29th round of the MLB Draft

May 21, 1999—Traded by the Chicago Cubs with RHP Jason Ryan to the Minnesota Twins for RHP Rick Aguilera and LHP Scott Downs

July 31, 2006—Traded by the Twins to the Cincinnati Reds for RHP Zach Ward

July 30, 2007—Traded by the Reds to the Philadelphia Phillies for LHP Matt Maloney

March 13, 2008—Signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Cardinals

Agent: Scott Boras

Might he return to the Cardinals? Yes

Teams that could use and pay him: New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Texas Rangers, Philadelphia Phillies, Washington Nationals, Miami Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers

Positives: With the Cardinals, when he’s been healthy, he’s been a very good starter. He’s learned to pound the strike zone, keep the ball down and in the ballpark, and use his defense. Lohse had what amount to a career year in 2012, in part, because of a friendly BAbip of .267. That number was in line with another solid year he had in 2011 of .272. His advanced statistics of hits-per 9 innings; strikeouts-per 9 innings; walks and home runs-per 9 innings were the best of his career in 2012, but he’s been solid with those numbers his entire career. He’s consistent at home and on the road and against righties and lefties.

Negatives: He’s represented by Boras and in 2011-2012 he’s gone 30-11. Boras is going to ask for a lot of money, years, and benefits. Lohse turned his career around with the Cardinals under the tutelage of Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan; he maintained and got even better under Mike Matheny and Derek Lilliquist, but the lingering questions remain as to whether he can transition to another locale and stay this productive. He’s had injuries sabotaging his seasons and is 34-years-old.

What he’ll want: 4-years, $50 million with a partial no-trade clause

What he’ll get: 3-years, $35 million with a vesting option for 2016 at $15 million and a $2.5 million buyout

Teams that might give it to him: Orioles, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Tigers, Royals, Angels, Nationals, Marlins, Cardinals, Brewers, Dodgers

The Orioles need a starting pitcher to give them 32 starts and 200 innings with the stuff to keep the ball in the ballpark. They have money to spend, and are an agreeable location to play and win after their 93-win 2012.

The Red Sox are desperate for starting pitching and have money to burn. The Blue Jays also have money, are trying to win, and are seeking another starter. The Tigers won’t want to overpay to keep Anibal Sanchez and Lohse is cheaper and shorter-term. I wrote yesterday that rather than trade one of their young bats for a starting pitcher, the Royals should delve into the free agent market and Lohse is a reasonable target. The Angels might be desperate if they can’t keep Zack Greinke and Lohse falls into a “next level” category in terms of knowing what to expect, price, and availability. The Nationals might be in on Greinke; have the prospects to trade for James Shields; or could jump in on Lohse as a fallback. They have a sound relationship with Boras and tons of cash.

I mention the Marlins because with everyone in baseball angry at what they did in their gutting trade with the Blue Jays, it’s possible that Jeffrey Loria might want to placate the critics by doing something like signing Lohse. I doubt it will happen, but no one saw that trade coming either.

The Cardinals will make an offer to Lohse and it probably won’t be high enough in dollars or years, but if his market crashes, he could end up going back to St. Louis. The Brewers have money, talent and want to win; the Dodgers can’t be discounted for any free agent and need an arm.

Would I sign Lohse? Not for what Boras is going to want. If he’s on the outside looking in and I could get him for two years with a reasonable option based on performance, I’d sign him.

Will it be a retrospective mistake for the team that signs him? If they acquiesce to Boras’s demands that will reach $45-55 million, they will. I’d keep him out of the American League.

Analysis: If there’s a bigger “we don’t know” in baseball’s free agency this side of Josh Hamilton, it’s Lohse. Which Lohse would a team other than the Cardinals be getting? Would it be the homer-prone mediocrity he was with the Phillies and Reds? The pretty good mid-rotation starter he was at times with the Twins or the highly hittable arm he was at the end of his Twins tenure? The All-Star, innings-eating winner he was for long spurts with the Cardinals or the shaky and injured pitcher?

In my mind, I keep seeing flashes of Cardinals pitchers of the past who’ve fallen apart after they left the winning organization, friendly confines of Busch Stadium, the supportive fans, and baseball-loving atmosphere from a bygone era. The vision tells me to shy away from Lohse.

One example in particular is Lohse’s former teammate Joel Pineiro. Like Lohse, Pineiro’s career was floundering before he got to St. Louis and was willing to listen to Duncan and alter his mechanics, mental and physical approach and become something different from what he was in order to save his career. He rejuvenated and reinvented himself to garner a 2-year, $16 million contract from the Angels when he should’ve stayed with the Cardinals. He started off well in Anaheim, they altered his mechanics from what had been undone and rebuilt by Duncan, and he suffered injuries to his oblique and shoulder. Pineiro pitched in 5 minor league games for the Orioles in 2012 and, barring another comeback, appears to be finished at 34.

It’s a cautionary tale for a club thinking of believing the Cardinals Lohse is the Lohse they’ll get.

Prediction: Lohse will sign a 3-year deal with the Nationals.

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2012 Starts Now For The Blue Jays

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The Blue Jays can and will contend for a playoff spot in 2012 if they make smart personnel decisions this winter.

Here’s what they have to do:

Get a legitimate closer.

GM Alex Anthopoulos is notoriously close-to-the-vest in how he runs his team; there’s no ironclad “strategy” of using stats or scouting; he doesn’t betray his hand and acts stealthily and aggressively in making his moves.

He may or may not care what’s said about him, but he doesn’t allow it to interfere with what he does.

This past winter, Anthopoulos signed two former closers in Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch; he also traded for Frank Francisco.

In the logistical sense, they were all interchangeable and were signed to short-term deals to preclude widespread complaining about not being the closer. But if the Blue Jays want to be taken seriously next season, they have to get someone better and more trustworthy than Rauch or Francisco. (Dotel was traded to the Cardinals at the end of July.)

The market will be flush with established closers via free agency and trade. Heath Bell, Francisco Rodriguez, Jonathan Papelbon (who worked with Blue Jays manager John Farrell with the Red Sox) and Ryan Madson are all free agents or potential free agents. Jonathan Broxton is a probable non-tender; and Joakim Soria is a trade candidate.

All are worthy of consideration and are better than Rauch/Francisco.

Find a veteran anchor for the starting rotation.

The Blue Jays let a future Cy Young Award winner get away.

No. I’m not talking about Roy Halladay. I’m talking about Chris Carpenter.

To be fair, when the Blue Jays non-tendered Carpenter under J.P. Ricciardi’s regime, Carpenter was injured and hadn’t been particularly effective; the talent that made him a 1st round draft choice wasn’t going to be fulfilled until he was streamlined—mentally, mechanically and physically—under Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan with the Cardinals. The Blue Jays wanted to bring him back for less money, but he smartly went to the Cardinals, rehabbed his injury for a year and became a star when he got healthy.

Carpenter has a $15 million option for 2012, but he’s a 10-and-5 player so he can veto any trade; for him to waive it, the trading team would presumably have to give him a contract extension.

The Cardinals are in major flux, but if they’re looking for salary relief and want to bolster a sagging farm system, they could exercise the option rather than pay Carpenter’s $1 million buyout and trade him. This would all have to be done within a rapid series of maneuvers to make it work.

Shedding that $15 million and trading him would give the Cardinals room to re-sign Albert Pujols; re-signing Pujols might be the key to LaRussa coming back for another year; Adam Wainwright will be back next season and they could bring back Joel Pineiro to fill Carpenter’s slot and hope reuniting with Duncan will return Pineiro to his Cardinals form.

The Blue Jays have prospects to trade.

Carpenter leading a rotation with Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow and Kyle Drabek would be superior to most of baseball if the younger pitchers fulfill their potential; Carpenter could teach them how.

Be flexible and think outside-the-box.

They don’t have the cash to go after Jose Reyes and they signed Yunel Escobar to a contract extension; but Brett Lawrie‘s ability to play third and second base allows the Blue Jays to go after a David Wright.

The recently acquired Kelly Johnson is a free agent, but if they offer him arbitration he’d probably take it. An infield of Adam Lind, Johnson, Escobar and Lawrie can mash—whether it’d be adequate defensively for the pitching staff would have to be determined.

The Mets probably aren’t going to trade Wright, but the Blue Jays have a lot of young pitching and outfield bats. Anthopoulos thinks outside-the-box and goes after players who “probably aren’t” getting traded. Sometimes the players who “probably aren’t” getting traded do get traded and extract a major chunk of a trading team’s farm system. (See Ubaldo Jimenez.)

Alter the strategy on the bases and with the lineup.

The Blue Jays run the bases with abandon. If they’re doing it at the bottom of the lineup to try and make something happen, it’s an arguable premise; doing it in front of a basher like Jose Bautista is a mistake.

Without doing any deep statistical research into the matter, there’s no excuse for Bautista to have 37 homers and only 83 RBI.

Before Corey Patterson was traded, he was batting in front of Bautista for much of the season; Patterson steals bases, but has a woeful on base percentage. Escobar also batted in front of Bautista and gets on base at a good clip. Since his arrival, Colby Rasmus has been batting second with Bautista third.

A better plan would be batting Bautista fourth and having Escobar lead off; Johnson would bat second; Lawrie third; and Rasmus and Lind behind Bautista.

The haphazard stolen bases also have to stop.

Temper expectations and idol worship.

There was recent talk of Anthopoulos being a “genius”.

Yah. Well. Billy Beane was a genius once too. So was Theo Epstein. So was Jack Zduriencik.

Are you getting my point?

Listening to sports talk radio on Friday, Jim Mora Jr. was being interviewed about the upcoming NFL season and he subtly hit back at the notion of Patriots coach Bill Belichick being a “genius” saying something to the tune of, “he’s a good football coach; a genius is someone who comes up with life-saving vaccines”.

He’s right.

The Blue Jays have been built the right way so far, but expectations and idolatry have doomed even the smartest people with the most coherent and logical plans.

They’re in a great position now to take the next step, but keeping from doing something stupid isn’t as easy as it sounds.

If they follow some incarnation of the plan I laid out (or something similar), they could be a playoff team in 2012.

If….

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Fantasy Man

Fantasy/Roto

Regarding the title, I mean that in all possible connotations in relation to me.

I don’t play fantasy sports. I don’t get it. People tell me they make money at it, but I prefer watching and analyzing the game for the actual play, strategy and drama; not to interpret the numbers so I can make my own lineups, pitching staffs and whatevers.

Whether or not I’d be any good at it if I did play is hard to determine. I don’t really know the rules; apparently they vary from league to league with certain stats more important than others among many other factors.

With that in mind, here’s a non-partisan list of names who might help you in your baseball fantasy leagues.

And no, I’m not naming Albert Pujols, Joe Mauer, C.C. Sabathia or any of the in-demand players who everyone knows are going to put up numbers.

I’m digging through the muck.

Yunel Escobar, SS—Toronto Blue Jays

It’s not a good sign when the former teammates on the club that traded you—the Braves—stood up and applauded when your replacement Alex Gonzalez walked through the clubhouse doors.

No, Escobar wasn’t popular in the Braves no-nonsense clubhouse and Bobby Cox wanted to murder him; but his talent is unmistakable. He played reasonably well after joining the Blue Jays, but nowhere close to what he was in 2009 when he looked to be an emerging star.

Perhaps the presence of Jose Bautista mentoring him will have a positive affect.

Kyle Farnsworth, RHP—Tampa Bay Rays

You read that right.

It may sound insane, but think about it.

He’s always racked up the strikeouts; he still throws very, very hard; the Rays don’t have a defined closer and a history of rehabilitating failed talents like Grant Balfour and Joaquin Benoit.

Because of the absence of an ironclad “known” closer, there’s a chance that Farnsworth will get a chance to rack up some saves.

Matt Thornton, LHP—Chicago White Sox

He throws gas; like the Rays, the White Sox don’t have a defined closer and Thornton’s a likely candidate. The White Sox don’t have a fear of trying a youngster like Chris Sale in the role, but Thornton, now, is the better option and he handles both lefties and righties.

Billy Butler, 1B/DH—Kansas City Royals

His full name is “Billy Ray Butler”; can he sing?

He doesn’t need to. At least until after his career’s over and he decides to write and record a song like Bobby Murcer did with his “Skoal Dippin’ Man”. Somehow I doubt that would play well today in our politically correct society.

Butler has gotten better every single season he’s been in the big leagues, racks up the doubles, has 15-20 homer power, hits over .300 and gets on base.

The right-handed Butler was far better hitter vs righties than lefties, but that was probably a freak thing for one year and all the more reason he’s going to have a massive season in 2011.

Dallas Braden, LHP—Oakland Athletics

The team behind him is better both offensively and defensively. Just make sure you stay off his mound and remember the way they roll in the 209.

Joel Pineiro, RHP—Los Angeles Angels

I’m going there again.

Much was made of how I told people how Pineiro’s success with the Cardinals was going to translate to the American League and the Angels. The thought was that switching leagues and being away from the protective nuzzle of Dave Duncan and Tony La Russa would revert Pineiro to the pitcher he was late in his time with the Mariners and brief days with the Red Sox.

It was nonsense.

Surface-wise, the numbers back up that claim. In truth, Pineiro’s ERA was blown up by starts in which he got blasted; before an oblique injury sabotaged him, he was on his way to a very solid season. When his sinker’s not sinking, he gets rocked; but if his time with Duncan taught him anything, it’s how to battle his way through when he doesn’t have his best stuff.

He’s a free agent at the end of the year too, which should inspire a healthy, productive season; you just have to be careful which teams you use him against. (That’s how Roto works, right?)

Raul Ibanez, LF—Philadelphia Phillies

Amid all the talk that Ibanez was “done”, it was conveniently missed that for a player who’s “done”, he had 58 extra base hits!

Assisted by a better Jimmy Rollins and healthier supporting cast, he’ll give you your .800 OPS.

Eric Hinske, INF/OF—Atlanta Braves

He might have to play more than is expected. The Braves are going with a rookie first baseman, Freddie Freeman; don’t know whether Chipper Jones will be able to come back and it’s certain he’ll need frequent rest days; they don’t have competent big league backups besides Hinske. When he’s given a chance to play regularly, he always hits the ball out of the park.

Javier Vazquez, RHP—Florida Marlins

Back in the National League and freed from his prison Pinstripes, Vazquez is still young enough that a big year will get him a substantial payday. In a world where Carl Pavano was in demand after everything he pulled, Vazquez will want to have a similar renaissance. And his stuff is far better than Pavano’s.

Jonathon Niese, LHP—New York Mets

With Johan Santana out until the summer and the sudden rise of R.A. Dickey still in doubt, the Mets will need to lean heavily on Niese. Mike Francesa’s expert scouting report that he’s not all that impressed with Niese aside, I am impressed with Niese in stuff and competitiveness.

Mike Morse, OF/1B—Washington Nationals

With the Nationals lack of offense, I have a feeling we’re going to see Jayson Werth playing a lot of center field and Morse in right. Morse is a huge man (6’5″, 230) and had 15 homers in 293 plate appearances last season in his first legitimate chance to play semi-regularly. The Nationals haven’t shown the intelligence with Morse-type players as they repeatedly underestimated the value of Josh Willingham, but they might not have a choice in 2011.

Lance Berkman, RF—St. Louis Cardinals

He’ll be an adventure in right field, but in the Cardinals lineup with Pujols and Matt Holliday, plus looking at another chance at free agency a year from now, he’s going to hit.

Joel Hanrahan, RHP—Pittsburgh Pirates

He’ll get the chance to close and throws bullets. Naturally, being a Pirate, it begs the question as to how many save opportunities he’s going to get, but he strikes out a lot of hitters (100 in 69 innings last season).

Luke Gregerson, RHP—San Diego Padres

I said this a year ago and those who got credit for “holds” thanked me. If the Padres fall from contention this year, Heath Bell is going to get traded and Gregerson will presumably take over as the closer and you’ll get your saves.

Brad Hawpe, 1B/OF—San Diego Padres

He was horrible last year with both the Rockies and Rays, but he consistently batted over .280 with a .380 on base and 20+ homers in the three seasons prior to 2010.

Kenley Jansen, RHP—Los Angeles Dodgers

Barely a year removed from being a minor league catcher with no future in the big leagues, the 6’6″, 220 pound Jansen made it to the big leagues and was lights out with a blazing and moving fastball. Hitters looked frightened when he was on the mound and he’s going to be a key to the Dodgers season.

Brandon Allen, 1B—Arizona Diamondbacks

Allen has put up power/on base numbers at every level in the minors; the Diamondbacks are going to be terrible and have Juan Miranda and Xavier Nady as the first basemen ahead of Allen.

By May, it’s not going to make sense for Allen to be sitting on the bench in the majors or playing in the minors; the Diamondbacks should just play him every day and see what they have.

Tomorrow I’ll have a look at players from whom you should run like infected zombies from 28 Days Later for fear that they infect you with their dreaded disease!!

Mania

Hot Stove

The speed with which we get information today can be a good or bad thing. Many times it’s positive as in cases of Amber Alerts and dangerous occurrences; other times it’s not. From the premature reports of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords’s death to the comparatively trivial injury to Bears quarterback Jay Cutler in which he was accused of giving up and begging out of the NFC Championship on Sunday when he was really hurt, people’s lives and reputations are affected.

It’s reactionary and ill-thought out.

Now we’re seeing the same thing with the Los Angeles Angels and their so-called “desperation” trade for Vernon Wells.

In the immediate aftermath of the deal’s announcement, I too was bewildered at why any team would want to take Wells’s contract from the Blue Jays with negligible relief (said to be $5 million) on the remaining $86 million guaranteed. That the Angels gave up two productive and cheap pieces in Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera made it all the more confusing.

But then I looked at it more deeply.

The trade, after cursory internet reaction, was awful. When examined closely, it made a certain amount of sense. Now, after studying the Angels; their situation; their division; their needs; and what Wells and subsequent additions will provide, it could get them back into the playoffs.

The Angels faded out last season for three reasons: a lack of scoring; injuries; and a bad bullpen.

If the Angels make one more acquisition to bolster the lineup, the scoring problem will be mitigated. The negatives of Wells—apart from his salary—are known and accurate: he’s streaky, doesn’t get on base and is overrated defensively. But for the Angels, he fits into what they want to do.

Affording them the option of not having to rely on a 24-year-old Peter Bourjos to save their season, they can play Wells in center field if necessary. This would free them to do a couple of things. They’re pursuing Scott Podsednik or Vladimir Guerrero.

The Podsednik talk elicits ridicule in stat zombie circles, but isn’t a terrible idea at all. He can still run and play solid defense in left; with a career .340 on base percentage, he’d give RBI chances to the bats behind him. Plus he’d be cheap.

I’d go after Guerrero before Podsednik. Guerrero’s rejuvenation in Texas was not due simply to him being in a hitter’s heaven of a ballpark at home; I think he was healthy again. Guerrero hit well on the road last season and if he returned to Anaheim and provided 25 homers and 90-100 RBI—not absurd requests—the Angels offensive woes at DH are solved.

In addition to that, who can tell how much Guerrero’s absence as a father figure to Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis contributed to their poor seasons? If Aybar and Izturis hit somewhere close to the way they did in 2009, the Angels will have far more scoring opportunities.

The offensive woes were evident in greater detail after Kendry Morales‘s season-ending ankle injury. Right there, the Angels went from having a power hitting first baseman and a rightfully part-time power hitting catcher in Napoli to having Napoli playing every day at first base and the no-hit Jeff Mathis catching.

Losing the big power threat affects everything. Napoli was admirable in an unfamiliar role, but it meant that he was playing every day; that Mathis was playing regularly; and that Bobby Abreu was relied on more than was feasible given his age.

Certain players are better off not playing every day because once they play every day, they’re exposed. This is what happened to Napoli playing first base in place of Morales.

With Wells in and Napoli and Rivera out, the Angels not only have another power bat in their lineup, they’re free to address other needs at either DH or left field.

The Angels troubles were exacerbated by Howie Kendrick‘s poor year accompanying the down seasons from Aybar, Izturis and Abreu. Was Kendrick exposed like Napoli after he was forced to play every day following the free agent departure of Chone Figgins? Considering his career in the majors and minors, I’d say no; he’s been a .300 hitter at every level.

Abreu, despite his age, has been too good for too long to have another down year like he had in 2010. Being left alone in the lineup didn’t help Abreu either. The lineup’s better, Abreu will be better.

So let’s say Abreu gets back to 20 homers, and a .370 on base percentage; that Wells hits 25 homers and drives in 90; that Morales bats .300, has 25 homers and 100 RBI; that they get either Guerrero or Podsednik; that Kendrick, Aybar and Izturis have better seasons—don’t you see how much that will improve their offense?

In addition to losing Morales, the injuries to Joel Pineiro and Scott Kazmir sabotaged the Angels badly in 2010. Pineiro was on his way to a fine season before a strained oblique landed him on the disabled list. Kazmir hadn’t pitched all that well, but he provided innings at the back of the rotation.

Amid all the stories of the failed pursuits this winter—most notably Carl Crawford and Adrian Beltre—it’s forgotten that the Angels made a significant mid-season upgrade in their starting rotation when they got Dan Haren from the Diamondbacks. Replacing the hittable Joe Saunders with Haren gives the Angels two top-tier starters fronting their rotation with Jered Weaver and Haren; right behind them is another very good pitcher, Ervin Santana; then you have Pineiro and Kazmir.

That’s one of the top rotations in baseball.

The bullpen?

Even if you don’t trust Fernando Rodney as closer, they acquired lefties Scott Downs and Hisanori Takahashi. Downs—durable, underrated and able to get out hitters from both sides of the plate—will help a lot. Takahashi was invaluable to the Mets in a variety of roles from starter to long reliever to set up man to closer. He’s fearless and the Angels are presumably going to use him in a similar way as the Mets did. There were many games that Takahashi entered with the Mets trailing by multiple runs; he quieted things down and gave the club time to chip away. The work he did as a closer was impressive.

The Angels have a slight hole behind the plate with the departure of Napoli, but they do have a prospect in Hank Conger to share time with Mathis and Bobby Wilson. Conger has hit at every minor league level—minor league stats.

Manager Mike Scioscia—a tough as nails, defensive-minded catcher as a player—likes his catchers to be able to handle the pitching staff first and foremost. If Conger can do that, he’s an under-the-radar Rookie of the Year candidate.

I’d shut my eyes and play Conger.

As for their competition in the AL West, is it so crazy to think the Angels could emerge from the three team scrum with the Rangers and Athletics?

The Rangers can really hit, but have questions in their starting rotation; their bullpen won’t be as good as it was last season; and their manager Ron Washington is a walking strategic gaffe waiting to happen. They’re the American League champs and will be so until they’re knocked off the perch, but they’re beatable.

The Athletics are a trendy pick (again) because of the aggressive acquisitions of David DeJesus, Josh Willingham, Hideki Matsui in the their lineup; Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour for the bullpen. But their starting rotation is very, very young; young pitchers tend to fluctuate in performance as they’re establishing themselves. It’s not an automatic that Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden will repeat their work from last season.

There’s an eagerness to leap back onto the Billy Beane bandwagon—an overeagerness based on the desire to “prove” Moneyball as having been accurate in advance of the movie even though there’s no connection to what Beane did this winter to Moneyball the book or film.

But I digress. I’ll swing that hammer when the time comes.

Are the Angels, with their success over the past decade, suddenly fodder for ridicule? Isn’t it possible that they calculated the pros and cons of taking Wells’s contract for Napoli and Rivera and decided it was worth it?

Regarding the money, what’s a reasonable amount to pay for the top earners on a club? How much of a percentage is doable? For the Blue Jays, with an $80 million payroll, Wells’s onerous deal, with $23 million coming to him this season, had to go; for the Angels, with a $120 million payroll and substantial money coming off the books after this season, it’s not crazy to handle Wells’s deal without complaint. How much is a viable percentage for a team’s big money players in relation to the club’s payroll? For the Blue Jays, Wells didn’t make sense; for the Angels, he does.

The key for the Angels in 2011 is that they score enough runs to support that starting rotation. With Wells and one more offensive player added, they’ll have achieved that end. In the final analysis, that’s all that really matters in making them a legitimate playoff contender again; and no matter what print and online criticism they receive, they are contenders again because of the acquisition of Vernon Wells.