Young talent helps keep Angels competitive

Young talent helps keep Angels competitive

ANAHEIM -- For the second season in a row, the Angels were thrown a Bert Blyleven curveball. But losing Kendrys Morales again, when his surgically repaired left ankle refused to cooperate, wasn't as devastating the second time around.

Why not? In part, because the Angels had grown accustomed to Morales' absence, and in part, because rookie Mark Trumbo rose to meet the challenge, the Angels weren't knocked cold this time. They have persevered without their most productive offensive weapon.

This is not to suggest they have flourished offensively -- that would be a distortion. But they have played with passion and purpose, and they've put together just enough offense to support superb starting pitching and a bullpen, augmented by free-agent lefties Scott Downs and Hisanori Takahashi, that has been as good as anyone could have anticipated.

"It's really academic, where you are right now," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "If you're not the team you need to be, it's not going to stick. We need to get better."

It wasn't supposed to be this way, but it has evolved into a transitional year for the Angels. With the anticipation of Morales anchoring the lineup, Scott Kazmir in the rotation and Fernando Rodney in the closer's role, they came into the season convinced they had enough to challenge Texas' hold on the American League West.

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But Kazmir had one bad start and was gone, replaced by young Tyler Chatwood. Morales never swung a bat. And Rodney quickly yielded the ninth inning to young Jordan Walden.

Chatwood, 21, expected to spend the season honing his talents at Triple-A Salt Lake. Instead, he became an integral part of the rotation behind All-Star Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and Joel Pineiro.

AT THE BREAK
First-half awards
  1. MVP: Jered Weaver -- The cross-firing right-hander is arguably the best starting pitcher in the AL.
  2. Cy Young: Jered Weaver -- Fifth last year, Weaver is measurably better, with a legitimate shot at winning the award.
  3. Rookie: Mark Trumbo -- Trumbo's power production has helped compensate for the loss of Kendrys Morales.
  4. Top reliever: Scott Downs -- The free agent has been a lefty shutdown artist in his setup role.
Players to watch in the second half
  1. Torii Hunter: A Hunter-like second half would be huge from the team's best player, after injuries have frustrated him.
  2. Vernon Wells: If he gets in a groove and stays in it, Wells can carry the club for a month with his power.
  3. Ervin Santana:If he goes on the kind of run he's had in the past, the rotation goes from good to exceptional.

Rodney's lease on the closer's role was almost as brief as Kazmir's on the No. 5 rotation slot. When Rodney once again fought his command, Walden emerged as a potential Troy Percival, bringing the heat as the new closer.

The Angels suddenly were young, youthful athletes blending in with a nucleus of time-tested veterans such as Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells and Bobby Abreu.

None of the new kids in town was as exciting as the electric Peter Bourjos, whose astounding speed and breaks on balls routinely turned doubles and triples into outs in center field.

While Bourjos played at a Gold Glove level and hit enough to stay in the lineup, and good buddy Trumbo was unloading tape-measure homers, backed by wicked line drives handcuffing infielders, another kid -- Hank Conger -- was sharing catching duties with veteran Jeff Mathis. Bobby Wilson, the third receiver, was straining to be noticed by Scioscia.

Howard Kendrick emerged as an All-Star, alongside Weaver, with consistent offensive production and unexpected defensively versatility. A second baseman by trade, Kendrick handled first base and played the outfield -- moving into left when Wells was injured -- for the first time since high school.

Shortstop Erick Aybar, rebounding from an injury-marred 2010, returned to 2009 form. Scioscia felt Aybar warranted All-Star consideration, with his clutch hitting, quality defense and vastly improved baserunning.

Brandon Wood's unfulfilled promise landed him a new home in Pittsburgh, with Alberto Callaspo and Maicer Izturis handling third base. Izturis continued to produce more than his share of big hits and smooth defense at three positions. After a blazing start, Callaspo, slowed by a pulled hamstring, cooled off.

Hunter, the team's heartbeat, struggled offensively and missed time with rib and hand injuries. Hunter's impact on the lineup can be enormous, if he returns to form as a dynamic presence in the heart of the order.

Along with Wells, Hunter has the ability to give the Angels the power production that has been erratic -- and mute talk of the need to acquire a big bat at the non-waiver Trade Deadline.

Having unloaded a total of six promising players in deals for Kazmir in 2009 and Haren last season, the Angels don't have a wealth of prospects to dangle in trade talks.

Recently promoted outfielder Mike Trout, the Majors' best prospect according to MLB.com, is the player everyone wants. But the Angels would have to be overwhelmed to even consider it -- and that's highly unlikely.

Weaver's brilliance has been, without question, the most compelling story in the Angels' clubhouse.

Starting the season 6-0 with a 0.99 ERA, Weaver was merely normal for a four-start period before regaining his dominance.

Haren, who started the 2007 All-Star Game for the AL, has compared Weaver's performance this season with that of Pedro Martinez when he was mesmerizing hitters with his wide array of deliveries. Weaver isn't overpowering, but his offspeed stuff -- combined with the deception of a crossfire delivery -- conspires to make him a menace to hitters.

Haren would be the lead dog on most staffs. Santana and Pineiro have been better than their records, and Chatwood has been remarkably poised under pressure.

The Angels are banking on their collection of young talent to continue to mature, while veterans such as Hunter, Wells and Abreu put together big second halves, supporting a premium rotation.

General manager Tony Reagins has a history of big in-season moves. But this might be the summer to look in-house for solutions -- especially if the price for an offensive piece puts a major dent in the future foundation.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.