It's approaching 70 degrees in Boston, and while I'm dreading the inevitable snowfall before spring truly springs, sunlight has reminded me about baseball. It's also reminded me that proofreading takes too long, so don't mind the errors.
The Pitching Staff - Starters
The Angels will, out of necessity, lean on Jered Weaver this season to justify his signing bonus and terrible choice in agent. With John Lackey wearing B for "bandwagon," the staff will look to Weaver as a team ace, whatever the hell that means these days. Santana has looked solid thus far in spring training, so I'm hoping he's able to find an attainable middle ground between his 2008 and 2009 seasons. I say "attainable" because I don't want him throwing 75% sliders again and destroying his elbow. For all the sabermetric claims that velocity isn't as important as coaches believe, Ervin Santana is not Ervin Santana with a 90 mph fastball.
Joe Saunders will likely be Joe Saunders-that is, surprisingly effective for his skill level. It's unlikely, in my mind, that we see a sub-4 ERA from Saunders again over the course of a season, as we did in 2007, but I don't think he'll creep beyond 4.50 either. Saunders has a funny way of avoiding prolonged stretches of crappy pitching, and he tends to sandwich them around relatively stellar weeks. Yes, In Play, No Outs, home of non-statistical, gut-feeling analysis.
Scott Kazmir is probably the second biggest question mark behind Santana, and either he's become a completely new pitcher, one who doesn't spend 40 pitches an inning trying to strike out the side, or he's Scott Kazmir. The latter case suggests league average pitching, the former, a return to glory. Hey, Scott? Stop nibbling.
Joel Piniero was a stupid signing and represents another mitake in the same vein as Gary Matthews, Jr. A career year does not a bright future make. The Angels will only have to deal with his likely sub-league average production for two years.
The Pitching Staff - Relief
You know how sometimes you can be watching a game and something just feels off? That's how I felt all season, and I couldn't really figure out why until I saw Scot Shields' name in the box score for a recent spring training game. Shields is the anchor of the bullpen, and if he's able to get back to his healthy, pre-2009 numbers, he's a major contributor for the relief staff. I also like Scot because he signed a multimillion dollar contract and continues to drink Bud Light, although he's more fond of bottles than cans. Shields would make a great college student.
Fuentes and Rodney are both mediocre, and that's why I expect from both of them. Mediocrity. Mediocrity, of course, is better than Jusin Speier/Rafael Rodriguez, so perhaps that's a good thing. Losing Darren Oliver felt like a bad decision, but the guy's old, so I struggle to see him maintain his high level of performance. Bulger probably makes it, but who knows.
Kevin Jepsen is the difference between the Angels having an average bullpen and the Angels having a good bullpen. Jepsen seemed to improve throughout the season and into the playoffs, so barring a sophomore slump, he'll me the 7th inning guy, building the bridge to Shields and then Fuentes/Rodney, depending on who sucks less.
The popular discussion right now is about the left side of the Angels infield. Erick Aybar is likely going to pair with Brandon Wood, and while Aybar had a good season, pundits point to his lack of experience as a leadoff man as proof the Angels will have an inept offense this year. Sure, Chone Figgins was a superb leadoff hitter, but honestly, I don't buy into the philosophy that places high levels of importance on batting orders. Having your first guy get on base is pointless if your 2, 3, and 4 batters can't hit, no matter how many times he successfully steals second. Batting order doesn't mater if your lineup sucks anyway, so a relatively inconsequential change with OBP at the top of the lineup (.353 last season to Chone's career average of .363) shouldn't make a huge difference in run production. Yes, two of the last three years, Chone had OBP's upwards of .390, but Aybar has a similar skillset, so it's not unreasonable to suggest that Erick could move that direction as well.
Brandon Wood. His time is now. He will, if there is any justice in this world, get at least 300 PA's before they even consider benching him. I make no guesses as to his final numbers,but I'd wager he's going to spend a couple weeks wallowing in a sub-.200 average before figuring it out.
And while the popular discussion is on the left side of the infield, I'm more interested in the right side. Kendry Morales had a monster season (4.2 WAR), something I don't think he'll be able to replicate. What I expect is that Howie Kendrick picks up the slack, as Kendrick's been on the verge of truly breaking out for a season and a half now, and really put a hurt on the ball in the second half last year. My heart says he hits .325 with 15 homers and an OBP just south of .400, because come on, Kendrick doesn't walk.
The outfield is frustratingly old, but Rivera, Abreu, and Hunter all had good seasons last year. Defensively, it'll be a mess out there, although some defensive metrics thought very favorably of Rivera last season...I have no idea why. Torii will continue to be the leader of the clubhouse, the closest thing to a team captain the Angels have had since Orlando Cabrera left.
Hideki Matsui is likely to hit well, get hurt a couple times, and generally look a lot like a less-deadlocked version of Vlad. Except that Matsui tends to avoid the double play. So, a net positive, perhaps, depending on how Vlad looks this season with Texas.
Texas, Seattle, and Oakland have all improved. Oakland is perennially two years away, while Texas is probably still a year away from peaking. Seattle is...strange. It's a team constructed primarily on preventing runs, but with lots of offensive potential. Signing Ken Griffey, Jr. for a second run at his farewell tour was stupid, but maybe he keeps Ichiro from punching Milton Bradley in the face after a spirited game of Go, so that could be helpful. I don't think the Mariners or Rangers catch the Angels this season, but with the direction of each franchise fairly well-defined, it's going to be a miserable half-decade for Angels fans, starting as soon as this season, but likely next year.
Division players to watch: Figgins (SEA), Bradley (SEA), Hernandez (SEA), Guerrero (TEX), Kinsler (TEX), Felix (TEX), Duchscherer (OAK), Suzuki (OAK).