Angels' turnaround depends on Hamilton, Pujols
Club has not performed to expectations despite big payroll and high-profile names
Tour these United States and talk to other baseball fans about this year's Angels and usually the topic of how they've gone about these first 15 weeks centers on one three-letter word …
It is with great shock, disappointment and -- in many ways -- amusement that a star-studded Angels team fresh off a second straight offseason splash finishes the first half in grave danger of missing the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year.
How are they here, at 44-49 and 11 games out of first place in the American League West and nine back of the second AL Wild Card spot -- with five teams to jump -- despite one seven-game winning streak and one eight-game winning streak?
Let's count the ways …
1. Josh Hamilton (struggling with new surroundings) and Albert Pujols (hindered by plantar fasciitis) have basically been shells of themselves. They've hit a combined 29 homers -- eight fewer than Chris Davis alone -- while batting .237, with neither ranking anywhere among the top 80 in the Majors in OPS. That in itself is detrimental to a team that dedicates so much of its payroll to these two: Both will make $227 million combined from 2013-17; Pujols will make another $114 million in the four years that follow.
2. The Angels' biggest hindrance in 2012 was the bullpen, and the two biggest reasons the organization felt it shored it up this offseason -- Ryan Madson and Sean Burnett -- have barely pitched. They've combined to appear in 13 games -- all by Burnett, who has made two separate trips to the disabled list -- and it's no guarantee that either will return this season.
3. Starting pitching wasn't necessarily expected to be a strength, but it wasn't supposed to be this bad. The Angels rank 23rd in the Majors in starting pitcher ERA. Joe Blanton, signed for two years and $15 million, is 2-12 with a 5.53 ERA. Jered Weaver, the bona-fide ace, missed over seven weeks with a broken left elbow. Tommy Hanson has a 5.10 ERA while making only nine starts. And Jason Vargas is on the DL with a blood clot.
|MVP: Mike Trout Sophomore slump? What sophomore slump?|
|Cy Young: C.J. Wilson Maybe it isn't saying much on this year's rotation, but Wilson is 5-1 with a 2.04 ERA over his last six starts.|
|Rookie: J.B. Shuck He was let go by the Astros and has exceeded expectations while getting a lot of playing time in Peter Bourjos' absence.|
|Top reliever: Ernesto Frieri In a little more than a year, he's gone from a Padres long reliever few had heard of to one of the game's better closers.|
4. Little things have ailed them, too. The Angels have inexplicably gone from ranking second in the Majors in Defensive Runs Saved (DNS) in 2012 to second-to-last in 2013. They've hit into an AL-leading 94 ground-ball double plays. And they've made 38 outs on the bases, tied for second in the Majors.
5. That Jekyll-and-Hyde stretch that began in mid-May. From May 18-26, the Angels won eight straight games, and it looked like they were starting to make their climb up the standings -- in a similar fashion to how they closed out the first half of 2012. But then they fell off again, losing 11 of their next 15 games. One step forward, two steps back.
"It's a compilation of events, truthfully," Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto said. "We have not performed to our ability in a lot of different ways, and we have a half-season to turn it around."
Looking for a reason for second-half optimism?
Look no further than this number: 26.
Players to watch in second half
|Josh Hamilton You have to figure that at some point, he'll get really, really hot -- and he started to just before the All-Star break.|
|Albert Pujols He isn't healthy, and probably won't be all year, but Pujols has a track record of overcoming.|
|Jered Weaver His ace form started to show leading into the second half, and the Angels will need plenty more of that to make the playoffs.|
That's the number of games the Angels have left against the two teams in front of them, the A's and Rangers. That's almost 40 percent of their second-half schedule, and it'll make up 13 of their first 20 games coming out of the All-Star break.
Don't think that's such a big deal?
Keep in mind that last year the Angels' postseason hopes essentially came down to that. Yes, they started the season 6-14. But there were critical head-to-head matchups -- particularly Sept. 10-13 against the A's and Sept. 28-30 in Texas -- that could've led to a playoff berth had the Angels done better.
"Ultimately it's going to come down to how we play, and it revolves around us," Angels slugger Mark Trumbo said. "But the fact that we do get quite a few opportunities against teams that we're chasing, you couldn't ask for anything more than that. I think you always want to be in control of your own destiny."
The Angels figure to be one of the most interesting second-half teams to watch, because Hamilton and Pujols could get hot at any time, and because one of the best players in the game -- Mike Trout -- is in their everyday lineup.
But, as manager Mike Scioscia said, "We're not going to reach our goal without starting pitching."
The Angels will need a lot of very good starts in the second half to make up their deficit, and they probably won't be very active before the non-waiver Trade Deadline. Their Competitive Balance Tax payroll is still dangerously close to the threshold at which teams are taxed 17.5 percent -- something the Angels don't seem willing to take on -- and they don't have much in the way of trade chips in their farm system.
So, the second half may come down to one question: Do they have enough in-house?
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.