By DANIEL BERNSTEIN
College Contributor Network
The Los Angeles Angels were expected to contend for a playoff spot in 2013 because of big names like Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, and Mike Trout, but in truth those stars were merely paper smoothed over major structural flaws. So instead of playing in October, they limped to a 78-84 record despite a payroll of $142 million. However, the ship has changed its course dramatically this season and the Halos are now in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
The first step toward reversing last season's script was to balance the offense-centric roster. Pujols and Hamilton could have hit like Gangnam Style circa fall 2012 and it wouldn't have mattered because the pitching staff was so bad, evidenced by Joe Blanton starting 20 games and posting a 6.04 ERA. Offensive stars (who were supposed to carry the team) also faltered, as the oft-injured Pujols bared little resemblance to the monster that torched the NL Central for a decade, while Hamilton and Mark Trumbo whiffed their way to 342 combined strikeouts.
With money tied up in albatross contracts and a farm system chopped to pieces like the Lorax, the Angels had little means to acquire additional core players. However, through a series of intelligent maneuvers and some good fortune, GM Joe Dipoto significantly improved the team's pitching without damaging lineup production.
2013: wRC+ 109; 4.08
2014: wRC+ 110; FIP 3.53
The bats have produced at an identical level this season by wRC+, a park adjusted metric that compares a player's complete offensive output with league average performance (league average wRC+ is always 100), even though Mark Trumbo moved to Arizona last winter. Meanwhile, the pitchers acquired in that trade – Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago – have played pivotal roles in the rotation's turnaround. Skaggs is out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, but before his injury he started 18 games with a 3.54 FIP – a measure of performance that aims to remove the role of defense and luck from a pitcher's evaluation. The large differential between his impressive FIP and his pedestrian 4.30 ERA suggests that he suffered from bad luck. Skaggs was solid in his time in the rotation, and Santiago has been even better. The lefty has started 19 games so far (and appeared in 24) with a 3.28 ERA and 3.94 FIP.
Skaggs and Santiago have started 37 games for a combined price of about $1 million while Arizona has had to pay nearly $5 million for the worst season of Mark Trumbo's career - he has a -0.8 WAR in only 64 games, which is simply atrocious. It's hard to give too much praise to a GM for getting the best of Kevin Towers (everyone's doing it these days), but parting with an apparent lineup cog to address the pitching staff was a bold yet brilliant decision from Dipoto, and a move that has proved a catalyst to the Angels success.
The stellar play of Kole Calhoun is a major reason why the Angels lineup has remained above average despite offseason adjustments like the aforementioned loss of Trumbo, and the Angels faith in him has been vindicated. An 8th round draft pick in 2010, Calhoun showed signs of promise last year with an impressive .282/.347/.462 slash line in 58 games. However it was unclear if he could play at that level over a longer, more meaningful stretch of time. So far in 2014, the 26-year-old has continued to hit, posting a .278/.331/.454 over a more substantial sample size.
The Angels' rotation in 2013 was heavily criticized, but the bullpen didn't fare much better. Dipoto addressed that unit too, through free agency and via trade. Joe Smith has proved to be a great under the radar signing (2.07 ERA), while Fernando Salas (2.54), Jason Grilli (2.45), and Huston Street (1.00) were all steals in the trade market. It's easy to overlook the moves made besides the blockbuster addition of Street, but nabbing a player like Salas as a throw in to the David Freese-Peter Bourjos deal shows a new-found awareness in how to compose a balanced team rather than accumulating a couple of stars and expecting playoff baseball.
After serving as an example of misused wealth and general ineptitude, the Angels have changed their ways in order to survive a division lined with high caliber talent. Thanks to the work of Dipoto, this is a team now, well-balanced and ready for October.
Dan Bernstein is a freshman at the University of Maryland. He is romantic about the Oakland Coliseum (where he grew up) and Anfield (where he's never even been). Follow him on Twitter: @danbernsteinUMD