There's been quite a bit of hype, a lot of expectations that have followed the Angels into the season. The first week of the season is usually a decent sign of where your team is going to go this season, though as we saw last year these expectations aren't always as solid as we'd like. The first series of the season can at least give you some insight as to how your team will be performing during the first month of the season. It's not expected for a team to be firing on all cylinders right out of the gate, though it does always happen to a handful of teams to start the season.
Once the team is able to get its head firmly on its shoulders is when you'll get to see what they are truly capable of, though the performance throughout the first month usually highlights the problems the team will be facing throughout the season. Just as the Angels had intense bullpen struggles and lacking starting pitching that stretched out throughout the season any serious problems the team has can typically be traced throughout the first series
The Angels have just happened to finish up their first series against interleague opponents and playoff contenders the Cincinnati Reds, and there were quite a bit of happenings this series that are telling of where the Angels are going to. While the Angels didn't look close to the tour de force they've been tagged on this off-season there were plenty of signs showing us why the Angels will work out the kinks and turn into a complete animal this season. Then again, there have been a fair number of signs that this team could be headed in the other direction, back to the Angels of last April. Let's just start with the obvious.
Oh Lord, this Starting Rotation
We've only seen about half of starting rotation perform in this series, but it's quite apparent the Angels will have their fair share of worries through the season. The most worrisome being Jered Weaver's dipping velocity, it's a common fact that pitchers aren't at full strength until after the first month but can Weaver really gain 3-5 MPH back on his fastball in just a month? In the season opener Weaver's fastballs were consistently tagged by the radar gun as sitting between 85-88 MPH, which would put him in a delicate position if he can't regain some of the velocity back. Although his ability to spot his pitches is phenomenal we've all seen that ability fall apart from time to time, even though it always comes back together quickly it is something to worry about. What doesn't get me too worried is Jered Weaver's attitude, his bulldog/leader persona on the mound will forever be fueling his pitching performances, even if his stuff is off his fire and intensity on the mound will ALWAYS carry him through games.
How about that C.J. Wilson by the way? Although he pitched strongly through the first few innings he ended getting hit hard midway through the game. His control fell apart and he issued multiple walks as well as a big blast that put the Angels behind early. Wilson was pretty loose with the walks last year, giving up 91 BB's last year, and the fact that it has continued as soon as his first outing of the season is pretty telling. He's going to have command issues and he's going to have to find a way to work around that, mostly by keeping the big hits off of the board.
Lastly we have Joe Blanton, who happens to be more effective than you might think. We all know he's going to give up plenty of big hits, be it home runs or untimely XBH's; but once he starts giving out walks and base hits like free candy is when we're going to have a serious problem. Blanton's use comes directly from his command, he might not be striking out a million guys a minute but he definitely won't be giving out a hundred free passes like some of our other pitchers. Blanton is gonna get damaged in his starts, we just need him to limit the damage as much as possible. So basically what I'm saying if he gives up 2 home runs in the first two innings and all it amounts to is 2 earned runs, be thankful. If he isn't putting the offense too far out of reach of taking the game then he's doing his job. If he can keep it to at least 1 run an inning we really have nothing to complain about (especially with this offense), this is what is to be expected of him and if you expect any differently then it's on you.
Oh Lord, this Bullpen
I have never been so floored, so flabbergasted by this Angels performance. When was the last time the bullpen took over a game and our collective jaws dropped instead of our stomachs? Garrett Richards has looked phenomenal as the 6-7 inning guy for the Angels. In 2.2 innings pitched he's given up 0 runs, which isn't overbearingly impressive, but it's a strong start. What really gets me going is the fact that Richards and the rest of the bullpen have pitched out of tight spots. Close, high pressure games that would easily been given away by the bullpen have been held together fantastically by the array of relief arms. Sean Burnett looked fantastic as relief, even though he has only pitched 0.2 innings in 2 games his appearances were high-pressure game breaking appearances and he did greatly. This bullpen is a complete flip from the 'pen that burned nearly every appearance they pitched, you could pin the Angels as a playoff team just from the vastly improved look of the bullpen. Even the last minute addition of Mark Lowe has proved to be an effective move for improving this bullpen, literally everything Dipoto has done to this bullpen has improved it by miles. Multiple relievers who can pitch multiple strong innings are a godsend.
Scott Downs contract ran a year too long
As much as a hate throwing all this praise at a bullpen for just one series it bothers me even more to talk down on reliever, they are quite fickle creatures. Scott Downs case is different however, because his horrible Spring Training has bled immediately into his regular season. As a reliever pitching to nearly a 6 ERA in only 7.2 innings is, well it's quite pathetic to say the least. Scott Downs was showing signs of wear late last season, almost as if his age was catching up to him. Where he was the Angels top dog in the bullpen in 2011/2012(first half) his pitching since last year’s All-Star break has been worrying. Not only that but he has also shown to be quite susceptible to injury, which was very damaging to the Angels 'pen of yesterday. I don't know if losing Scott Downs to the DL would be nearly as impactful as it was on the 'pen, the only thing the Angels would be losing is a no longer consistently effective lefty reliever. Downs appearance in Wednesday night’s blown hold is very telling at the kind of pitcher Downs has become. No longer impervious to high pressure outings, no longer a reliever to be trusted.
The offense is going to struggle early on, again
Let's be real for a moment, Pujols and Hamilton are going to have their big-time struggles early on, it's just a fact of life. If you can show me enough current big-power hitters in the majors that start off the season in All-Star break form then I'll admit that their struggles are a massive deal that everyone should view so anally. If they open up the season with a streak of K's, no-hits, and badly hit balls then GET OVER IT. This is what happens with these kind of players, they'll be struggling to get a handle on their game for at least the first couple weeks. Even in the third game against the Reds they showed signs of getting back on track, this isn't something that is going to extend as badly as it did last year so there isn't a reason to become so anal after the first 2 games of a series (literally everything I've heard the last 3 days is "OMG PUJOLS HAMILTON GET IT TOGETHER YOU'RE RUINING US). Now Trumbo, that's a guy that we can all get worried about early on. His struggles have extended from beyond the end of last season, through Spring Training, and into the regular season. He is a legitimate concern and if he doesn't show signs of not being the same constant pop-up/K guy that reared its ugly head in the second half of last season we're going to have something real to worry about.
The offense won't be struggling as badly as you think
Something that I noticed in the series, aside from the final game, is that the offense was carried entirely by the "little guys". When Pujols, Trout, and Hamilton were off Ianetta and Callaspo were getting it done with big hits. Ianetta's early solo shot and extra-inning bases loaded double saved the Angels in the first game; and Kendrick’s solo shot and Callaspo big late inning home run kept the Angels in the game long enough for them to lose by 9th inning walk-off. On top of that, Erick Aybar has shown to be a suitable #2 hitter to follow up Mike Trout in the lineup. Scratch that actually, make it fantastic #2 hitter to follow Trout. While he does have plate discipline problems he has shown he can capitalize off the pressure created by Mike Trout, he can get the ball in play and move the runner over if not score them entirely. His speed puts an added pressure onto the opposition, creating difficult double play and steal situations. Unlike other guys in the lineup, like Kendrick or Callaspo, Aybar is perfect for those "situational" moments during a game. Need a sac bunt? You got Aybar. Bunt hunt? You got Aybar. Need to pull off a hit-and-run? You got Aybar. Double steal? Aybar, again. When the big guys are having serious problems you can count on the little guys to keep this team afloat, and once the big guys are back on their feet this turns into a dangerous lineup as one half will always be supporting the other half.
Scioscia's stubbornness seems to be in check
Scioscia has always had a problem with his lineups, often throwing out vastly different lineups during a short stretch of games. I have to think that his stable lineups through the first series has less to do with him being "less stubborn" and more with the lineup having strongly defined roles for the hitters. Before the only real strong roles were for Trout in leadoff and Pujols third. The Angels, in my opinion, bounced too much between Trumbo and Kendrys at 5th, though Kendrys switch-hitting capabilities and Trumbo's late season struggles make it justifiable. Even the #2 spot wasn't filled until Torii Hunter's mid-season explosion last year, and I don't even want to get started on the bottom half of the lineup. As long as Scioscia can keep the bullpen roles defined to a certain degree without overdoing it the fans should be very pleased, and his judgment lapses' that give away games could be reduced to a minimum.
So there it is, an initial response to the Angels start to the season. I don't know about you, but I'm relatively pleased with the outlook of this team so far. Unlike last year this team is showing strong promise exactly where it needs to, and as long as they can live up to that we'll playoff bound in no time.