Despite talent, depth, Angels off to another slow start
Hitting, pitching and defense all performing below expectations to begin season
They came in, once again, with the resources and the talent to win a division, featuring a deeper bullpen, an explosive lineup, a rotation of innings-eaters and an entire roster decorated with household names. The one thing they hoped to avoid, so many members of these Angels said, was another bad start and another uphill climb.
And yet, here they are.
The Angels have mustered only four wins in their first 14 games, tying the expansion 1961 team for the worst start in franchise history. And starting Friday, they'll host six games against the defending American League champion Tigers and the capable Rangers, with Jered Weaver out until mid-May, Erick Aybar still on the disabled list, Josh Hamilton struggling, Albert Pujols limping and the new starters crumbling.
As one member of the organization said, "The buzzards are circling." The job statuses of manager Mike Scioscia and pitching coach Mike Butcher are already under speculation, and doom-and-gloom is the picture cast on this star-studded team.
But level heads tend to prevail in scenarios like these.
"We're all in this together," Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto said. "The blame starts with me and rolls on down for the start that we've gotten off to, and we will all figure it out together. We have far too much talent to not be good."
As Dipoto pointed out, more than 90 percent of the schedule will remain when the Angels open their tough homestand this weekend. April -- the month when last year's team dug a 6-14 hole it never fully climbed out of -- is only about halfway done, and the current seven-game deficit in the AL West can close considerably with a good week.
But that doesn't mean the Angels are taking this lightly. It doesn't take away from the fact that a team this good is, once again, starting slow.
"It's amazing," center fielder Peter Bourjos said. "It's baffling."
The Angels began the season by losing two of three to the Reds in an opening series decided by a combined four runs. They then dropped two of three in Texas, in a set that featured their only relatively easy win to date, and were swept by the A's at home for the first time since 2001, getting outscored 28-11 in the process. Then they won two of three to an Astros team that's expected to finish last, but just barely - they needed a walk-off by Pujols and were still outscored by a run.
The two losses in Minnesota, coming before Wednesday's postponement, was a perfect snapshot of what ails this team most right now.
Joe Blanton and Jason Vargas gave up a combined nine runs in eight innings, putting the rotation ERA at a Major League-worst 6.07 and marking 13 times in 14 games that a starter has not taken the ball for the seventh inning. That inefficiency has taxed a bullpen that's without Garrett Richards (currently a starter), Kevin Jepsen (strained lat) and Ryan Madson (Tommy John surgery).
"It really starts with the starters," Scioscia said. "If the starters can control the game better than we have, then it's going to give our offense time and opportunity to really start to get on a roll. It's tough coming back every night."
But it isn't just the rotation. The offense is hitting a Major League-worst .155 with runners in scoring position. The bullpen has a 5.70 ERA in the last 11 games. The defense has committed an AL-leading 12 errors. And the Angels as a whole have a minus-27 run differential, tied with the Blue Jays -- of similar expectations -- for lowest in the Junior Circuit.
"I think we're still trying to find our identity a little bit," first baseman/designated hitter Mark Trumbo said. "We've had some good games and we've had some not-so-good games. Our record's probably semi-where it was last year, and I think everyone's just kind of waiting for things to click. And they will."
Perspective can be a funny thing.
Detroit had a 4-10 stretch heading into May of last year, then eventually reached the World Series. Oakland had a 1-10 stretch heading into June, before shockingly winning the AL West.
As Blanton said, "Everything is magnified this time of year," because the numbers directly reflect hot or cold streaks.
And as crippling as April might have been to last year's 89-win team that finished five games out of first, many in the Angels clubhouse will point out that they still had a chance to make the playoffs late in the season.
"We don't want to play like this, either, but it's part of the game," Pujols said. "We just need to keep pushing, keep going, and try to do whatever it takes to come out of whatever we're going through right now."
The immediate solutions -- at least player-wise -- will probably have to come in-house. It's too early in the season to swing a major deal (even the Ernesto Frieri trade of early May last year was extremely difficult to pull off). And the Angels, an industry source said, don't have the financial flexibility to take on much salary. The Vernon Wells trade to the Yankees only got them just below the Competitive Balance Tax payroll of $178 million, a threshold the team would prefer not to surpass, as first offenders are taxed 17.5 percent.
"We put ourselves in this situation," Dipoto said, "and we have to figure out a way to get ourselves out."