We've heard a lot about all the "important" storyline for the Angels headed into training camp. Some of us might've even made fun of those storylines last week. Those annoy me so much because they focus more on what the most intriguing narrative is rather than what will actually have the most impact on the field.
Call me crazy, but I prefer to focus my attention on the matters that will determine whether or not the Angels win ballgames. I guess I'm just old school that way.
I'm also not the type to complain about something without offering a solution. So, to hold up my end of the bargain, here are the stories that I think matter the most for the Halos this spring.
How's the chemistry and should we care?
A story that has been building steam over the last month has been the Angels' quest for chemistry. As I wrote few weeks ago, it is kind of weird that a card-carrying SABR member like Jerry Dipoto would make such a concerned effort to stockpile good clubhouse guys. It would be like Bill Nye deciding to hire a bunch of creationists to serve as the writers for his TV show.
We heard rumblings last year that the Angel clubhouse wasn't exactly a harmonious place, but there was little reason to believe it was such a major point of concern. But when Dipoto goes out of his way to bring in so many leaders and positive personalities, he is tacitly admitting that there was a problem sizable enough that it needed to be addressed. If that is the case, then we have to wonder if bringing in an ancient DH and a bunch of guys who will cheerlead from the end of the bench will actually solve anything.
The bigger question though is whether or not it even matters. My feeling on the team chemistry issue has always been that, save for extreme good/bad situations, chemistry just boils down to whether or not a team is winning as much as it should. The last two years, the Angels haven't won, so it is no surprise that guys might've not got along so well. All they really have to do is not stumble out of the gate this year and maybe everyone will suddenly be the best of friends.
Is there anything that can be done about the defense?
One of the more puzzling aspects of the failure that was 2013 was how bad the Angels were defensively. Like, so bad. On paper, they should have been at least above average., but they weren't. When you can't pitch very well, preventing runs with your fielders can be helpful aid.
Well, the Angels might not pitch very well this season too, so we have to hope that their gloves can lend a helping hand. The problem is that it appears the only way they can get better defensively is with hope. They've gotten worse at third base and worse in the outfield (at least compared to the optimal Trout-Bourjos-Hamilton alignment). They should see some improvement just by having better health from Albert Pujols and Erick Aybar, but ridding themselves of 30+ games of Brendan Harris only helps so much.
The thing is that some of their struggles were fairly inexplicable in the first place. Mike Trout, generally considered a world class defender, somehow had negative ratings in terms of UZR and Defensive Runs Saved. Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar had down season as well. Why? We don't know and that's the problem. How can you fix something when you don't know what was wrong in the first place.
There are multiple wins the Angels could pick up by playing to their defensive potential, so this might be one of the most important under-the-radar storylines, no matter how unsexy defense is.
Is the team too left-handed or left-handed like a fox?
This might just be a personal concern of mine, but on both sides of the roster, the Angels are a bit left-hand heavy. In the lineup, Kole Calhoun, Josh Hamilton and Raul Ibanez are supposed to be key contributors. Hamilton was useless against southpaws last year with a .257 wOBA, Ibanez handled lefties well in 2013 but was utterly helpless in 2011 and 2012 and Calhoun has never had platoon problems, but also has yet to prove that will be the case in the majors. My concern is that they have nobody on the roster to step in and face the tough lefites in place of any of those three when it is called for. Be that someone platooning with Ibanez, making a spot start for Calhoun or pinch-hitting for Hamilton against the Sean Doolittles of the world.
On the pitching side, the Halos are currently set up to have three lefties in the Opening Day rotation. I don't know if that is an actual problem, I haven't done that research. What I know is that few teams have the same situation. The Dodgers will if Paul Maholm makes the rotation. The Rockies, who have no idea what they are doing, will if Franklin Morales makes the rotation. The White Sox, who are terrible and lucky just to field a full rotation, will for sure. The Royals will most likely as well. That just doesn't seem like good company to be in, for the most part.
On the flip side, I get it. The Rangers and Mariners have lefty-heavy lineups, so loading up to match up against two division foes seems smart. Then again, the A's are platoon-heavy, so it might backfire against them (though the same could be said if the Angels had all righties in the rotation). The point is whether or not there is a competitive advantage the Angels are getting or potentially forfeiting.
Who is going to round out the rotation?
The mainstream media guys do get some things right, but some of these just slap you in the face so hard that you can't ignore them. We know all too well that poor rotation performance has been what's really killed the Angels the last two years and cold very easily murder the 2014 season as well.
Realizing that, Dipoto worked hard to acquire Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, but that move could end up being a half measure since neither guy has been guaraneteed a rotation slot. Santiago will probably make the rotation, but there has always been the idea that he wold be better off in the bullpen as a swingman and second southpaw behind Burnett. His lack of starting experience and big gap between ERA and FIP have added to that uncertainty. Given their utter lack of depth, Santiago should be in the rotation now, but we saw last year with Garrett Richards that the team could opt for a more consistent, low-ceiling veteran if they think Santiago can be a weapon in relief. They don't have that veteran right now, but they could still sign one or trade for one mid-season if Santiago gets off to a slow start.
Skaggs is a bit of a different story. Dipoto and Scioscia seem genuinely excited about him, but have both stopped short of promising he'd break camp with the Angels. We know he had mechanical issues last season, but Skaggs is far and away the best bet of any of the young arms to step up and pitch like a front-end starter. That's a gamble the Angels should be dying to take but right now they seem to be hedging despite not actually having a safe bet in their pocket to take Skaggs' spot.
What concerns me most about the staff as the whole is how frustratingly patient management has been with starting pitchers who have struggled. Haren and Santana in 2012, Blanton and Williams in 2013. Part of that has been a lack of depth that would actually allow them to do something about it, but a lot of it has simply been placing too much faith in players to work their way out of it. The Angels have such a thin margin for error this year if they want to make the post-season that they just can't afford another situation where they give a guy two months worth of rope to pull himself out of a deep funk.