Jose Arredondo

Jose Arredondo rounds out a solid Angels bullpen

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On Monday night, my Los Angeles Angels begin their quest for a franchise record third consecutive A.L. West title, as they face their northern California rivals, the Oakland Athletics, in the first game of the 2009 season. But after two early first round playoff exits at the hands of the Boston Red Sox in 2007 and 2008, most of my fellow Angel fans are looking for a little more than a division championship this year. A World Series is what many of us have in mind.

As a result of the Angels’ success this decade, the majority of Halo fans are not content with playoff appearances and A.L. West crowns. We’ve tasted a World Series title in 2002, and seven years later, our appetites are begging for another one. On one hand you can call us impatient, but on the other hand, it goes to show you that the Angels are now officially a big market team with high expectations.

But don’t take my word for it. Just ask Forbes. When Angels owner Arte Moreno purchased the club in 2001, it took him just $180 million to acquire the then Anaheim Angels. Now it would take an estimated $500 million to buy the Angels according to a Forbes‘ 2008 report. The fact that the Angels are now the 6th most valuable team in all of baseball, illustrates that this franchise, like the Yankees, Mets, and Red Sox, has now entered big-time. But being a big-time ballclub like those east coast teams comes at a price. You must take home a World Series title. No excuses. That’s the matra for the Halos as they begin the 2009 season on Monday.

2009 Season Preview

Offseason Activity: The Halos got outfielder Bobby Abreu off the discount shelf for a little over $4 million and also signed former Colorado reliever Brian Fuentes to replace record-breaking closer Francisco Rodriguez, who signed with the New York Mets. Along with K-Rod, the Halos also lost Garret Anderson, Jon Garland and Mark Teixeria via free agency.

The Skinny: On paper the Angels don’t look nearly as good as that 100 win team from 2008. There will be no Mark Teixeira at first base, Garret Anderson will no longer roaming the grounds in left field, and Francisco Rodriguez won’t be entering the game in the 9th inning. To make matters worse, the team will be missing its three top pitchers, Ervin Santana (elbow), Kelvim Escobar (shoulder) and John Lackey (forearm), for the first month of the season. But even with these “glaring holes,” as Dodger fans are quick to point out, the Halos have once again positioned themselves to be among the best in all of baseball if you take a closer look.

The new additions to the Angels’ lineup should allow the offense to become one of the better units in all of baseball even without the presence of the “big bat.” Bobby Abreu, who posted 100 RBIs and .296 batting average in 2008, and Juan Rivera, who hit 23 home runs in 2006, should provide an upgrade in the outfield/DH slot over Anderson and Gary Matthews Jr. Abreu bettered Anderson in nearly every statistical category in 2008, and I would find it hard to imagine that any Angel fan is crying for Matthews to get his old starting spot back. An injury-free Vladimir Guerrero and a rejuvenated Torii Hunter should give the Angels one of the deepest outfields in the American League.

But the infield is where the biggest question marks surround. Second baseman Howie Kendrick has proven to be capable of winning a batting title, as evident by his .306 BA last year and his .360 BA in the minors. However, he has had trouble remaining injury free. Last season he appeared in just 92 games as a result of two hamstring injuries.

Shortstop Erick Aybar is renowned for his defensive skills, but his performance at the plate has been shaky at best. Last season he recorded an OBP of .314 that was lower than some players’ BA. But reports from Tempe, Arizona, this past month indicated that Aybar was having one heck of a spring. But will Aybar’s 2009 performance be more like the ‘09 spring or ‘08? While Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis make a solid catcher duo and third baseman/utilityman Chone Figgins remains as consistent as ever atop the Angels’ batting order, the most intriguing aspect of the infield is the replacement for Mark Teixeira, Kendry Morales.

There is a reason that GM Tony Reagins felt confident enough to deal Casey Kotchman last July. It’s Kendry Morales. The Cuban switch-hitter has been one of the Angels’ most highly regarded minor league prospects over the past few seasons. He isn’t as refined defensively as Kotchman, but his bat is just as good or better. While Kotch lacked power, Morales is known for his power and has also proved to be capable of hitting for average as well. His BA in the minors was .332. From all accounts, he has had a solid spring, and while he is nowhere near Teixeira level yet, it’s not out of the question that he could post better numbers than Kotchman.

However, all the problems that threaten the Angels’ 2009 World Series hopes rest in their starting rotation. On paper, things look good with four former all-stars in the past two seasons, Jon Lackey, Kelvin Escobar, Ervin Santana, and Joe Saunders, all occupying spots on the Halos’ roster.

But here is where Angel fans start pressing the panic button. Lackey, Escobar, and Santana, will all open the season on the disabled list. Lackey will miss the first month of the season like last year, Escobar won’t be back until late April, and Santana will be out until at least late April. It won’t be easy to replace those guys when the season begins Monday. While one month isn’t a lot, there is still the possibility that any one of them could experience a setback and miss even more time.

In their absence Joe Saunders will be the team’s clear-cut number one starter, but the cupboard is bare when you get past him. Since his breakout 2006 season, Jered Weaver’s numbers have declined in each of the two subsequent years, and his ERA was up in the sevens this spring. Not exactly what you’re looking for out of your number two starter.

While Dustin Moseley and Nick Adenhart have had solid springs, they have had limited big league experience or even success. In 61 major league appearances and over 150 innings, Moseley has posted an astronomical ERA of 5.52 and a WHIP of 1.55. Adenhart hasn’t fared much better either with a 9.00 ERA and 2.58 WHIP in just three big league starts. Rounding out the rotation is some some guy named Shane Loux. Loux, now 29 years old, has been a minor leaguer for most of his career. Outside of his 16 innings of relief work in 2008, the last time he pitched in the big leagues was 2003 with the 119 loss Detroit Tigers.

But what should help the Angels sustain the loss of their top three pitchers, is a bullpen which is by far one of the best in all of baseball. Despite the loss of K-Rod, there is little doubt that former Colorado closer Brian Fuentes will be able to be nearly as productive. If you can pitch at Coors Field, you can pitch anywhere.

But in case Fuentes isn’t as good as advertised, the Angels have plenty of other relievers, who can pick up the slack. Outside of Fuentes, this is essentially the same Angels’ bullpen crew as the one from last season with Scot Shields, Jose Arredondo, Darren Oliver, and Justin Speier all returning. The bullpen has been the key to the Angels success these past few years, and I doubt this year will be any different. Only Speier had a subpar performance a year ago, and it was his first bad season since 1999, so there is little questioning the ‘pen’s ability.

Forecast: Last year, conventional wisdom said Seattle would seriously challenge the Halos. This year it says Oakland is going to threaten the Angels. Nonsense I say. While the Angels aren’t perfect by any stretch, they are hands down the best team in the A.L. West. Oakland doesn’t have pitching, Texas doesn’t have pitching, and Seattle doesn’t have much of anything. When healthy, the Angels have both bases pretty much covered. I’d be quick to peg the Halos as the World Series favorites if they had signed another bat this offseason. While Bobby Abreu isn’t a big bat in the calibar of a Mark Teixeira or Manny Ramirez, he did post 100 RBIs and score 100 runs last season. If the young guys, Kendrick, Aybar, and Morales, can rake as they did this spring, than the Angels should be just fine offensively. If they can get their pitching staff off the DL, than the Angels could potentially have the top rotation in the league. Losing K-Rod will not be as the naysayers think, and their bullpen, including the up-and-coming Jose Arredondo, will enable the Halos to sustain the loss of three quality arms. Once the pitching staff is in order and with an easier 2009 schedule, I see no reason as to why the Angels shouldn’t be able to win more than 90 games.

Prediction: 93-69, 1st AL West

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