I ended my own personal All-Star Break today. Just as the Angels season began to turn around I had to go incommunicado with work, vacation and youth hockey. Now I am tanned, rested and ready to resume analysis and commentary on the Los Angeles Angels.
The Angels lone representative in yesterday's All-Star Game in Pittsburgh, Vladimir Guerrero, started in right field and hit a nose-high fastball from Brad Penny over the right-field wall to give the American Leaguers a 1-0 lead in the second inning. Guerrero was done after that and the lead was short-lived as the National Leaguers tied the game in the bottom of the inning. From there on it was a very "NL" type game as hitters from the so-called 'Junior Circuit' (perhaps after a 10-year unbeaten streak the condescending nickname can be shelved though I just perpetuated it myself -- OK, I vow to not use that term ever again after this post or at least until I forget I made that vow) to just three hits over the next six innings. AL starter Kenny Rogers gave up a home-run to David Wright in the bottom of the second and then the AL's second starter, Roy Halladay, surrendered a go-ahead run on a wild-pitch with Carlos Beltran at third base. But after that the next five AL pitchers held the Nats hitless with Mariano Rivera slamming the door with a perfect ninth.
All and all a good night for Halo fans seeing Guerrero's early blast followed by him resting the next seven innings. Too bad the Angels could not have had a few more representatives but I have to say letting the crew rest for a few days is only going to help. Forget about breaking momentum, this is still a marathon and staying healthy trumps trying to turn a three game win streak into a five or six game win streak.
Half-way Mark Report Card
Most teams would be happy to have played as lousy as the Angels did and be only 2 games out at the break. But with the expectations that come from winning back-to-back division titles the Angels deserve a 'C' grade and only managed that thanks to the gelling of the starting rotation in the last couple of weeks.
First-Half Heros: Orlando Cabrera (.292 avg, 101 hits and the sixth longest on-base streak in baseball history -- In my mind the team MVP for the first half), Jered Weaver (6-0, 1.12 ERA to start career is stuff of legends), John Lackey (7-5 record does not tell story but 2.88 ERA does. Big John is a second-half kinda guy), Ervin Santana (with 10-3 record leads the team in wins -- May logic: trade this kid for some hitting; June logic: this kid is untouchable!), Vladimir Guerrero (18 HR to lead team and continues to be offensive backbone of the team despite some minor slumps), Mike Napoli (fulfilled the promise of Jeff Mathis hitting .286 with 11 HR and getting better and better defensively), Scot Shields (2.47 ERA anchors back-end of the bullpen), Frankie Rodriguez (K-Rod has quietly put together a nice season with 21 saves in 23 opportunities and a 2.89 ERA -- he just needs more save ops before he starts getting noticed again).
First-Half Bums: JC Romero (6.75 ERA, 1-2 record. We finally got our left-handed assassin but he looked more like a suicide bomber. Good news is he, like the team, finished strong with seven scoreless innings dating back to June 20th. Last 3.1 innings of work were hitless but did allow two walks), Jeff Weaver (helped write Shakespearean drama of younger brother supplanting elder but in the end analysis he just sucked. 3-10 record with a 6.29 ERA. Go back to the NL where mediocre pitchers are cherished), Bartolo Colon (1-4, 4.57 ERA. Big Bart's injury trouble from last October spilled-over into 2006 making him ineffective and 0-4 to start the year and then MIA for two months before returning in mid-June. The good news is he finished very strong with a complete game shut-out of Seattle on July 5th), Jose Molina (basically gave his job away by hitting .214 with 2 HR. Look for Jose to get less and less playing time unless Napoli is injured or implodes), Chone Figgins (his team high 11 errors are a focal point of a team that has seriously degraded defensively. The Angels lead the majors with 58 unearned runs allowed and a good number of them can be attributed to Figgins who had just 10 errors all last season), Darin Erstad (looks like he is finished as an Angel with a .220 avg, 0 HR and 1 SB to go with his gimpy right ankle. Stoneman needs to man-up and cut him now to give younger players a chance to contribute).
First-Half Fence Riders: Kelvim Escobar (6-9, 3.88 ERA -- Yes he has had more than his share of hard-luck starts with little run support but for a guy who is suppose to be our second best pitcher he is not getting the job done), Garrett Anderson (does not resemble the hitter from two years ago but has remained, for the most part, healthy enough to play. Not play real well mind you, but play), Middle Relievers (notably Brendan Donnelly and his 4.32 ERA and Kevin Gregg who is sporting a 4.67 ERA. These guys are both unreliable and have helped turn one of the best bullpens in the majors into one of the most lopsided with most of the talent at the back-end), Hector Carrasco (2-2, 3.81 ERA -- I did not lump him with the other middle relievers because Hector is showing a bit more promise. After a disastrous tryout as a starter, Carrasco is settling into a groove as a reliever giving up just 6 earned runs in the last month and a half while posting a 3.15 ERA in that stretch).
Second Half Prediction: Essentially we get a do-over for the second-half. The rotation is healthy and set for the second half with John Lackey getting the first start on Friday against the Devil Rays. Lackey pitched a perfect game after giving up a lead-off double in his last start and is a big time second-half performer. Following Lackey is Ervin Santana who faces Tampa's rookie phenom Scott Kazmir (whose numbers by the way are not as good as Santana's). Then comes a big start for Bartolo Colon whose continued good health is essential for an Angels resurgence. Jered Weaver and Kelvim Escobar will fill out the rotation and start their second-halves against the Indians in Anaheim.
With that rotation the Angels are in the hunt all the way. The defense can only get better at this point so look for improving numbers from all of the Angel starters with the possible exception of Jered Weaver who can't improve his numbers short of throwing some no-hitters. The bullpen is a source of concern, particularly in games where our starters are out of the game before the 7th inning. The Angels will need to get stronger performances out of Brendan Donnelly and Kevin Gregg or they will need to promote Joe Saunders or another pitcher from the minors.
The hitting has been much, much better in late June and July then earlier in the season. Kendry Morales is doing what you would expect and that is struggle after pitchers have made their adjustments. Now it is time for him to make his adjustments and prove that he belongs in the majors. If not, Casey Kotchman should be ready later this month and if he starts hitting at Triple A look for him to get promoted quickly. Guerrero, Rivera and Napoli are providing the lion's share of power right now but some other hitters need to step-up their game to keep the Angels winning. I do not see us getting additional production from the old guard of Garrett Anderson and Tim Salmon. Salmon has already found himself sitting on the bench more and Anderson could share that fate if the Angels find some hitting in the minors or via trade. Unknown commodities like Tommy Murphy and Howie Kendrick (who has yet to show anyone anything at the major league level) along with Morales, Kotchman and Figgins could be the lynch-pins that propel or derail the Halo offense.
For the first time this team is showing some signs that they may yet be an elite ball club. They are 8-1 so far in July and need to build on that with winnable series' against Tampa, Cleveland and Kansas City over the next 13 games. Then the fun begins with a three game set in Boston to end the month followed by a big divisional home-stand against Oakland and Texas. August is brutal with 10 games against Boston and New York along with more divisional games against Seattle and a make-up game in Chicago. Things won't get easier in September with a visit to Detroit and a six game home-stand against the Blue Jays and White Sox. In other words, we are starting an uphill climb to end the year. But with the team remarkably healthy and playing some good ball right now I think they are better then every other team in the division. That being said, they should win the division in a close battle that will go down to the final week. Unless the hitting seriously improves, I do not like the Angels chances against the White Sox, Tigers, Red Sox or Yankees in the post-season. If I had to face one I would pick the Yanks because, for whatever reason, we own them in October. Pencil the Angels in to win the division but get eliminated early in the playoffs.