1. How much better are the Angels today than they were on the final day of the 2010 campaign?
Significantly better. The promise of a return to robust good health by Kendry Morales following surgery on his left leg and the acquisition of Vernon Wells from the Blue Jays improves the club by leaps and bounds. Manager Mike Scioscia couldn't admit it during the season -- it would have sent a negative message -- but the Angels were hamstrung offensively after Morales went down on May 29 in that fateful home-plate celebration at Angel Stadium. It certainly was the most costly game-winning grand slam in franchise history.
Morales brings a presence back to the heart of the order that was missing in his absence. He's also a first-rate defensive player. Morales came into his own in 2009, finishing fifth in the American League Most Valuable Player balloting, and he is convinced he can be even better with that experience behind him. He was just starting to find his groove when he fractured his left leg landing on home plate. Wells' arrival, at the cost of Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera, adds another legitimate 30-homer weapon to the middle third of the order, inspiring Scioscia to say "the club is better now than it was at any time last season."
Additionally, the bullpen figures to be deeper and more balanced with a pair of veteran southpaws, Scott Downs and Hisanori Takahashi, joining the relief corps. The Angels missed Darren Oliver's work ethic and leadership, and they feel their young power arms will benefit from the wisdom and experience of the two new relievers. Takahashi, like Oliver, can pitch in any role -- even filling in as a starter if the need arises.
2. Can the offense regain the clout and productivity of 2009?
The return of Morales' switch-hitting thunder will help everyone around him. Wells supports Morales and Torii Hunter, whose OPS (.876) was among the highest of any center fielders in the Majors before his shift to right in August. Apart from Hunter, none of the Angels' hitters delivered to anticipated levels based on past performances, although Howard Kendrick was close.
A return to 2009 form by a handful of position players would do wonders. Essential to the club's offensive chemistry are those at the top of the order -- notably Bobby Abreu, Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis. Abreu and Aybar will be motivated to improve their overall production, while Izturis needs to show he can stay healthy. He's the most underrated component to the offense, capable of hitting anywhere but fourth and producing under pressure.
Jeff Mathis has the potential to hit with more consistency than he has shown. Kendrick can hit .300 with increasing power, while Alberto Callaspo is a versatile athlete capable of hitting first or second. Peter Bourjos, a future leadoff man, has blinding speed and surprising power -- he just needs to continue to develop strike-zone judgment and make better contact. The same holds for Brandon Wood, who should not be written off so quickly. A lot of young hitters with big swings struggle early in their careers.
3. Who will emerge as the closer?
Fernando Rodney's uneven season created questions about his ability to handle the job, but two years ago he converted 37 of 38 save opportunities for the Tigers. If he can return to that level, or close to it, the Angels should be in good hands.
Scioscia loves power arms, and there are few in the game as formidable as Jordan Walden, who has the size and stuff of a young Troy Percival. Walden's September performance was eye-popping. In just 15 1/3 innings, he threw more 100-mph heaters (53) than all but two pitchers in the American League. Walden allowed 20 baserunners while striking out 23 hitters. He could emerge as a dominant closer -- and it could happen soon.
Kevin Jepsen, solid in a setup role, also has the mid-90s stuff and the demeanor to be a successful closer. Jepsen had 27 holds, second in the AL, and held hitters to a .665 OPS. Only Michael Kohn (.616) and Rich Thompson (.516) were better among Angels relievers, but both right-handers threw fewer innings than Jepsen.
4. Who will be the leadoff man?
The Angels did not come close to replacing Figgins' ability to get on base and create havoc in 2010. It was the team's biggest offensive flaw, and it was not corrected.
Aybar (.306 OBP) struggled to handle the role after a superb '09 season (.312 BA, .353 OBP) batting behind Figgins or at the bottom of the order. Scioscia experimented with a number of hitters in the No. 1 slot, and few delivered. The best of the bunch, in limited opportunities, was Reggie Willits, with a .341 OBP.
Izturis is best suited to the role, but a succession of injuries have made it difficult for the versatile infielder to produce consistently. Izturis' 2010 season was unhinged by a shoulder ailment, limiting him to 212 at-bats. He had a .359 OBP and .300 batting average in 387 at-bats in '09, and the Angels would be thrilled with similar numbers.
Abreu, also coming off a disappointing season, has the plate discipline and baserunning talents to be successful in the leadoff role. But Scioscia would prefer to have one of his best run-producers hitting second or third.
5. Can Scott Kazmir rebound as a solid fifth starter?
A two-time All-Star who once overpowered hitters, Kazmir found no consistent rhythm in 2010 and struggled badly, en route to a 9-15 record and a 5.94 ERA. He is undertaking a new offseason conditioning program under the Angels' direction, and Scioscia is encouraged by the reports he has received.
At his best, Kazmir combines a fastball in the 90-94-mph range, with a biting slider and changeup. His ongoing search for the slider was a source of constant frustration in 2009, but his changeup became a decent secondary pitch. If he can't find better command and get deeper in games, Kazmir could find himself dispatched to long relief. Trevor Bell, Matt Palmer and Takahashi stand ready as potential replacements.
6. Can Jered Weaver duplicate his overpowering 2010 season?
Weaver emerged as one of the game's premier starters while replacing good buddy John Lackey as the staff ace, leading the Majors in strikeouts. There is no reason to believe he can't be just as good -- or even better -- in '11. Weaver has refined his breaking pitches to a remarkable level, and the deception of his sweeping delivery makes his 90-mph fastball look five mph faster.
On top of his physical gifts, Weaver is as competitive as any pitcher in the game. He has shown that he's at his best in big games and in tough situations. This is what you look for in an ace. He was fifth in the AL Cy Young Award balloting, largely because of a highly deceptive 13-12 record. The Angels averaged a dismal 3.82 runs in his starts -- with the '09 offense behind him, he'd have won close to 20 games.
7. How does the Angels' rotation stack up overall with the best in the game?
Only the Phillies (with Cliff Lee joining Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton) and the World Series champion Giants (Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Jonathan Sanchez and Barry Zito) appear superior to the Angels' unit of Weaver, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana, Joel Pineiro and Kazmir.
The Red Sox are right there in the mix, while Jake Peavy's return to dominance could lift the White Sox staff to the elite level, too. A healthy Brandon Webb has the ability to lift the Rangers if he is able to recapture his ace form, and Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum give the Brewers a formidable unit. The Reds and Athletics, with exceptional depth and youth in their rotations, must also be considered part of the conversation.
Haren, a midseason arrival from Arizona at the cost of Joe Saunders and three prospects, showed down the stretch that he's still about as good as anybody. Like Weaver, his 5-4 record with the Angels in 14 starts was highly deceiving. His 2.87 ERA and .362 slugging mark allowed were ace-like numbers. Santana was 17-10 and racked up 222 2/3 innings, while Pineiro was on his way to a strong finish when he suffered a strained oblique. He finished 10-7 with a 3.84 ERA. Kazmir is the X factor. He can make this a great rotation.
8. Is Bourjos the answer in center field?
Obviously, he needs to pick up his offensive game. But this kid is a baseball lifer, with a former big league player and current scout as a dad. These types of athletes tend to work diligently on their weaknesses and improve with age. We've already seen growth in Bourjos' plate discipline and bunting ability, and his power can be stunning. It's not as if he has to hit .320 to make an impact. Given his defensive talents, he can be an impact player hitting in the .250-.270 range.
Bourjos' range is, perhaps, without equal. He showed it over and over, and it was reflected in the numbers crunched by the stat mavens. In Bill James' 2011 Handbook, Bourjos had the highest range factor (3.18) of any center fielder in the game in his 51 appearances -- roughly one-third of a season. He had 10 assists, a number exceeded by only Adam Jones (12) and Shane Victorino (11) among center fielders. His plus-minus figure of plus-16 was surpassed only by Austin Jackson (plus-21) and equaled by Michael Bourn. In short, Bourjos was amazing, arguably the best center fielder in the game from August through September.
Yes, he can take the job and hold it for a decade. He will bring an excitement level few players can to the field on a consistent basis. Watching him run the bases is one of the best things about the game. The trick is for Bourjos to be out on those basepaths on a more regular basis. If he does that, he's a future All-Star.
9. Who will be the club's regular catcher with Napoli gone?
Scioscia attaches more importance to defense behind the plate than most fans, who tend to forget that the Angels won 94, 100 and 97 games in consecutive seasons (2007-09) with Napoli and Mathis as their catching tandem.
Mathis' fractured right wrist two weeks into the season was a huge blow, almost as significant as Morales' in terms of total impact. The pitching staff responds to him and respects him. That is half the battle. Yes, Mathis struggled mightily upon his return and has yet to hit consistently in the Majors. But he's an exceptional athlete and he has responded in October. Giving up on him would be a mistake.
In support of Mathis, the Angels have the luxury of a smart, solid receiver in Bobby Wilson and a potential star in Hank Conger. The expectation is that Mathis will catch about two-thirds of the games and Wilson the other third, with Conger on call at Triple-A Salt Lake. But Scioscia could go with three receivers again if Conger backs up his solid work in September with a big spring. A lot of clubs would trade catching staffs with the Angels in a heartbeat.
10. Can the Angels oust the Rangers and return to the top of the AL West?
Ah, where is that crystal ball when you need it? Seriously, yes, it can be done. The elements are in place, but this club has to regain its swagger, its belief, its mojo -- whatever you want to call it. Too often the Angels were a silent bunch in '10, on and off the field. They need to turn up the volume, bring some energy -- maybe even get a little anger and burn to prove that they're champs, not chumps.
If that sounds harsh, so be it. It's a harsh world at times. You can't win a division, a pennant or a World Series without an abiding belief in yourself and your teammates. The chemistry on and off the field has to improve. The Angels need to follow the lead of Hunter, Abreu, Morales, Weaver, Haren -- the veterans who have done it and know how to show others how to do it.
Talent is one thing -- using it properly and driving with a common purpose is another. The Angels have a rotation that can carry them deep into October. It's the other areas of the game -- offense, defense, bullpen -- that have to rise to higher levels to bring this club back to a championship level. And it all starts with attitude.