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A New Season Awaits

It feels like it’s been forever since the Angels last were on the diamond, but thankfully Spring Training is upon us and Opening Day is within reach for our beloved Halos.

A new season awaits Angels fans with a barrage of questions and a lack of familiar faces to go with it.

Who’s Out

Chone Figgins

Figgy had his eyes on the Emerald City as the Seattle Mariners gave him a healthy 4-year, $36 million dollar contract (no more Gettin’ Figgy Wit It? … this still disheartens me greatly). Losing a lethal run scorer and leadoff hitter who greatly improved his eye at the plate (from 62 walks in ’08 to 101 in ’09) will be a loss the Angels will definitely feel if the streaky and slap-happy Erick Aybar (or whoever may hit first) can’t adequately hold down the top of the order.

John Lackey

The Angels lost 2002 World Series hero John Lackey to the Red Sox when he signed a 5-year, $82.5 million contract back in mid-December. The Halos lost out on a guy who emerged as a workhorse, throwing 200+ innings from 2005 to 2007 until having injury-riddled starts to the 2008 and 2009 seasons. They’re also going to feel the void of a guy with passion on the mound as John was as fierce a competitor as they come.

Vladimir Guerrero

Another fan favorite and an MVP not too long ago, Vladimir Guerrero opted for the great state of Texas as he agreed to an incentive-laden 1-year, $5.5 million dollar deal. The man became the face of the franchise back in 2004 and solidified his spot in Angels lore after putting the team on his back down the stretch and beating out the Texas Rangers to become division champs that same year. Vladdy coincidentally won the MVP that year due in large part to his marvelous final week performance, and was a guy who had .300/30+ homers/100+ RBI potential the rest of the way through his Angels career until injuries started catching up to him.

In those 3 players, the Angels lost their #1 starter, their most versatile player/arguably their best defender, and the fan favorite who, even though he struggled with the bat in ’09 was still one of the most feared hitters in the game.

Not to mention the Angels also lost one of their better relievers in Darren Oliver, who posted a team-best 2.71 ERA in 73 innings of work. Over his 3-year Angel career, DO posted a 15-3 record with 40 holds and only 3 blown saves… not too shabby. Oliver will be going back to the team that he started his career with back in 1993, joining Vladdy in heading to the Texas Rangers.

But in all fairness, it’s not like the Angels were losing guys as they were entering their prime. Lackey is 31, Figgy turned 32 almost a month ago, Vladdy turned 35 earlier this month (but judging by the way he runs it looks like he’s twice as old and needs a walker to get around the bases), and Darren Oliver is 39.

The on-field production will be there, don’t get me wrong, but from a long-term point of view, it’s what had to be done at some point or another.

Oh, and who could fail to mention the unforgettable Gary Matthews Jr.? The Halos shipped him off to the New York Mets not too long ago, but it’s hard to say Matthews will be completely gone since the Angels still have to eat $21.5 of the $23.5 million dollars left on his contract. The ghost of Gary Matthews Jr. lives on! … as does the Angels’ severe case of buyer’s remorse.

Who’s In

Hideki Matsui

The Angels made it back-to-back years where they plucked out a guy off the New York Yankees’ roster, with last year being Bobby Abreu and this year being a man they call “Godzilla” (he also was named the World Series MVP for the Yankees after they took out the Phillies in 6). The Halos signed Matsui to a 1-year, $6.5-million dollar deal, and he will act as the guy who fills Vladdy’s production void. Over his 7-year career in pinstripes, Matsui had 4 years of 100+ RBI and hit .292 over that 7-year span. The Angels let Matsui know that they wanted to give him a chance to play in the outfield, making Anaheim his preferred destination after New York had no intentions of negotiating with him.

Thoughts and expectations:

No he’s not Matt Holliday. No he’s not Jason Bay. But he’s as good a value pickup as there was on the free agent market. Don’t expect the world of Matsui, but what he will bring is a power lefty bat to the order. He hit .274, jacked 28 homers and drove in 90 runs last year for the Yanks, so I’d expect comparable numbers in terms of batting average and runs driven in, but I’d see around 20-25 home runs due to going from the short porch in Yankee Stadium to the big wall in Angel Stadium that will undoubtedly knock down balls that would’ve been home runs if we were still playing in New York.

Joel Pineiro

A former American League West foe (with Seattle from 2000-2006), Pineiro had a bounce-back year with the St. Louis Cardinals in ’09. He compiled a 15-12 record, a 3.49 ERA, and had a career-best 214 innings pitched. His 15 wins were the most since 2003 and his season ERA is also the lowest since he finished ’03 at a 3.78 clip. The Angels inked Pineiro to a 2-year, $16-million dollar deal, as he was the best pitcher left on the market after Lackey left and the Angels missed out on dealing for Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee.

Thoughts and expectations:

I’m not fully sold on him. Was 2009 an aberration or a case of Pineiro catching a 2nd wind in his career? Only time will tell, but what we do know is that Pineiro is a hurler who pitches to contact, resulting in a very low strikeout rate per 9 innings (career-low 4.22 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched last year), but consequently was one of the league’s best ground ball-inducing pitchers. The Angels did what they needed to do, and that was to get another pitcher after Lackey left for Beantown, and Pineiro happened to be that guy. Although not all Angel fans are satisfied with having him over a guy like Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee, the Angels were able to hold on to some important pieces in Erick Aybar, Joe Saunders/Ervin Santana, and up-and-comer Peter Bourjos who the Angels would have had to ship out to get one of those guys in return. While the Angels don’t have the best 1-2 punch in the AL West (the Mariners easily hold that title with Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee), the Angels have the deepest rotation in the division, and adding Pineiro helped bolster a rotation that struggled mightily a year ago. If Pineiro can channel his 2009 stuff, this will be a fantastic addition and a great #4/#5 starter in the rotation, but if he reverts back to his old form, consider this another time the Angels bought up on a player after one good year out of nowhere (reference Gary Matthews Jr.).

Fernando Rodney

The Angels put $11 million into Rodney over the course of the next two seasons, after having been with the Tigers since 2002. Rodney became Detroit’s main closer in 2009, posting 37 saves to only 1 blown save. Rodney is a fireballer through and through, as he’s hit 100 miles per hour on the radar gun plenty of times over his career, but what worries many is the high ERA and porous strikeout-to-walk ratio he has.

Thoughts and expectations:

I really think the Angels could have spent those $11 million dollars a little more wisely. For being a flamethrower, his strikeout rate dropped to its lowest mark in his last 6 seasons (7.26 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched). His ERA was 4.40 last year (that’s 47 points higher than Brian Fuentes’s mark of 3.93 last year… and we all know how many times he nearly gave us a heart attack when he took the mound). He’s only posted a sub-4.00 ERA twice in his career, none of which have come in the last 3 seasons. While his 37 of 38 save conversions is a nice statistic, we all know it’s not the mark of a great closer, considering Fuentes posted a league-best 48 saves last year and was as shaky a closer as there was in all of baseball. I’m not quite certain who is going to be the closer and who is going to be the setup man between Rodney and Fuentes, but one thing is for sure, pitching as Rodney did last year isn’t going to fill the void that the departure of Darren Oliver left. Not even close.

3 Under the Microscope

Last year, the 3 players who to me were the biggest question marks entering the season were Kendry Morales, Erick Aybar, and Juan Rivera. The much-hyped Morales had some big shoes to fill at 1st base, Aybar had a botched suicide squeeze in Boston still in his mind, and Juan Rivera was getting his first chance in a handful of years to get regular playing time in the outfield. What happened? All 3 produced much more than I could have asked of them. Morales finished 5th in American League MVP voting, Aybar (in my opinion) got robbed of a Gold Glove and marked his first season of a batting average over .300 (.312 on the year), and Juan Rivera posted new career highs in hits, runs, home runs, and RBI.

So who are the 3 to look for in 2010? Let’s get to it.

Brandon Wood

If there’s one player to watch this year it most certainly is Brandon Wood. He made more trips to and from Salt Lake that it seemed like Brandon Wood call-ups and send downs were daily occurrences. This year, there’s no more of that. He’s got 3rd base with his name all over it. Chone Figgins is gone, meaning it is finally his chance to prove what all the hype has been about ever since the Angels drafted him with the 23rd overall pick back in 2003. Wood tore up the minor leagues, but once he got to the majors, his bat was non-existent. In his time up in the majors, B-Wood has compiled some pretty miserable statistics… a career .192 hitter in the majors to go along with a .222 on-base percentage. And while his power hitting ability is something that stood out greatly in the minors (hit 43 home runs in 2005), he’s only hit 7 home runs in 224 career big league at-bats. It’s make or break time for Brandon Wood, no ifs ands or buts about it. While he won’t have a Kendry Morales-like impact on the team this year, he doesn’t need to, if he provides the Angels with a .260 average and 20+ home runs, that’s really all I think the Angels can ask of him.

Scott Kazmir

The late-season acquisition of Kazmir proved to benefit the Angels as he posted a 1.73 ERA in 6 starts with the Angels last year. 2009 was Kazmir’s worst as a full-time starter, with a season ERA (4.89) that was more than a full run higher than his previous career-worst (3.79 back in 2005, his first full year as an MLB starter). If Kazmir can find the grip and release point on his slider, he’s got one of baseball’s most devastating pitches in his arsenal. That’s a big if, considering he struggled with it all of last year, hence the ballooned ERA. Kazmir only turned 26 earlier this calendar year, and already has 5 full seasons of MLB service under his belt. Kazmir was an All-Star in 2006 and 2008… the calendar now shows 2010, does this mean he’s bound to be an All-Star again? Let’s hope history repeats itself in this case.

Ervin Santana

Much like Kazmir, his better years came in 2006 and 2008, but Santana’s performance has varied greatly from year-to-year during his Angels career.

Here’s a look at Santana’s last 4 seasons:

2006 (16-8, 4.28 ERA)

2007 (7-14, 5.76 ERA)

2008 (16-7, 3.49 ERA)

2009 (8-8, 5.03 ERA)

Entering a season, you’re either getting good Ervin or bad Ervin, one of the MLB’s better cases of Jekyll-Hyde Syndrome. Santana was fantastic in his 2008 All-Star season, and when the expectations were high for him entering 2009, he struggled all year long. This year, expectations are much lower, and maybe less of a spotlight on him is exactly what the doctor ordered. Like Kazmir, it’s an even-numbered year again, and 2010 will prove to be a big year for Ervin who is entering the 2nd year of a 4-year, $30 million dollar deal that so far has been wasted money. Time to prove you’re worth it, kid.

Not to be Overlooked

The Jeff Mathis/Mike Napoli situation behind the plate.

Not this again. Year after year we’re asking the same question: if you take one, who do you pick? Do you take Mathis with his career .200 batting average and better catching abilities or Nap with his power bat and below average defense? Scioscia can’t seem to make up his mind so he just platoons between both.

Joe Saunders

2010 needs to be a bounce-back year for all of the Angels’ rotation, and after pitching most of 2009 injured, Saunders threw extremely well down the stretch last year, winning his last 7 decisions on the year. He has the most momentum of any pitcher going into this year and is probably 2nd in line behind Jered Weaver for being this year’s Opening Day starter. He has a 33-14 record over his last 2 seasons and is one of the more composed pitchers on the team, and he’ll have to set the tone again this year in order for himself and the rest of the staff as a whole to be successful.

Kendry Morales

Don’t expect similar numbers to last year. Managers are going to know how to approach pitching to KMo this year, and that may mean a healthy dose of curveballs headed his way. While he could turn on a high heater with the best of them, he struggled hitting breaking balls, and until he learns how to sit and wait on pitches, you may be seeing a decline in production after his breakout 2009 campaign.

Spring Training is here and Opening Day is only 45 days away.

Here’s to a successful 2010 season, Angel fans!

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Filed under Angel Stories, Offseason

How Far We’ve Come

angels clinch

As you know, the Angels punched their postseason ticket Monday night thanks to an 11-0 walloping of the Texas Rangers.

This marks the 3rd consecutive year and 5th time in the last 6 seasons that the Angels have won the American League West division.

It has been the Angels’ division to run away with the past few years, mixed in with moderate competition from Oakland, Texas, and Seattle… but there never had been any doubt that the Angels were the clear-cut team to beat in the AL West.

This year started off the same way, but just 3 days and a handful of hours into the season… everything changed.

The Angels organization was rocked after receiving news of the sudden and unsuspected passing of young pitcher Nick Adenhart, a victim of a deadly drunk driving accident that killed 2 others in the car he was in and internally decapitated another.

The Angels went into a tailspin.

They started the season at 6-11, their worst start to a season in 7 years.

Vladimir Guerrero clearly wasn’t his normal slugging himself.

The Angels were without all-star starters John Lackey and Ervin Santana to begin the season.

Signs were beginning to point to the Angels having a long and disappointing season ahead of them.

Being the heavy favorites to win the AL West at the beginning of the year, the Angels had plenty of expectations heading into the ’09 campaign.

But being dealt an indescribable loss of a fellow teammate 3 games into the season just threw any expectations out the window.

Baseball became irrelevant.

It went from an everyday job to an afterthought.

It opened the eyes of many to what was really important in life… family.

Nick Adenhart was buried in his hometown of Williamsport, Maryland on April 17th, a service that drew a crowd of over 1,500 people, all remembering the fallen 22-year-old.

It was a moment that turned the surreal into the real.

The Angels had lost a teammate, but more importantly, the Adenhart family had lost a son.

From that point forward, the Angels were no longer a team.

They were no longer an organization.

They were a family.

A family that banded together, embodied resiliency, and rose above all obstacles to attain a common goal.

The 2009 Angels personify resilience.

Not only did they have to rise above the tragedy of Nick Adenhart to begin the season, but they also had to fill the voids of Vladimir Guerrero and Torii Hunter being injured and missing a month’s worse of time simultaneously midway through the season (with Juan Rivera missing a week and half’s play during that time as well).

Did the Angels throw in the towel and cave in?

No way, no how.

The Angels would win 17 of 20 games with Vlad and Torii out of the lineup, a streak that spoke volumes of the depth and perseverance of the Angels’ organization as a whole.

It also spoke volumes of their manager, Mike Scioscia; the most level-headed manager in all of baseball who regardless of any scenario or situation, would always keep calm and remain on an even-keel.

The 2002 Angels will forever be remembered as the Comeback Kids.

But the 2009 Angels never quit. They had every reason in the world to quit, and no one could blame them for doing so.

They could have packed it up, threw in the towel, and called the ’09 season a wash.

I couldn’t have blamed them if they did. Not after a blow like that to the organization, no way I could even think of blaming them.

But despite all the adversity, they didn’t give up. Not once.

This is a team of heart.

This is a team of perseverance.

This is a team of champions.

From tragedy to triumph, regardless of how the Angels do this postseason, they’ve won it all in my mind.

Tonight, when I saw the entire team walk out to the image of Nick Adenhart on the center field wall (http://www.mlb.com/media/video.jsp?content_id=6901489 for video of that moment)… I realized why I’m an Angel fan.

The reason?

Because this team is a family… and I feel like I am a part of that family.

And family… is loved.

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Filed under Angel News, Angel Stories, September Game Recaps

Kazmir Impressing After First 2 Starts

kazmir

Before the waiver deadline last month, the Angels were hoping to find an arm somewhere in the MLB that could help solidify a struggling Angels rotation.

Scott Kazmir, formerly of the Tampa Bay Rays, turned out to be that guy, despite having a rough year up until the time of him changing scenery.

Don’t look too deeply into the new hurler’s 0-1 record with the Angels after 2 starts, the record misleads Kazmir’s contributions completely.

He’s faced one of the American League’s best pitchers and a potential Cy Young award-winner in Félix Hernández in both of his starts (14-5 record, 2.61 ERA), and has received virtually no run support in return (offense has produced 3 total runs in his 2 starts).

Here are Kaz’s numbers for his first two starts in Halo red:

September 2nd @ Seattle – 6.1 innings/3 hits/2 runs (1 earned)/1 walk/8 strikeouts (loss – 3-0 final)

September 8th vs. Seattle – 7 innings/3 hits/1 earned run/2 walks/4 strikeouts (no decision – 3-2 final)

His numbers combined through his first 2 starts are:

13 1/3 innings pitched, 6 hits, 2 earned runs, 3 walks, 12 strikeouts

He has now gone 6 or more innings in 10 of his last 11 starts.

He has allowed 1 earned run in each of his last 3 starts (best streak of the season).

Despite a rough first few months for the 25-year-old Kazmir, he’s apparently saved his best baseball for when it matters most… crunch time.

It looks like Kazmir seems rejuvenated to be pitching with a contender since the Rays have fallen off in the past few weeks, and you have to love the composure he brought in his first start.

After an error, a walk, and a hit batter (Kazmir’s first 3 batters he faced as an Angel), it seemed like the Angels made an awful decision to bring him in… at first glance.

How would he respond?

3 straight strikeouts to end the inning. No runs. No damage done. Inning over. Whew!

And he’s been sensational ever since. His walk-to-strikeout ratio has been outstanding. His control has been great. And he seems to have garnered a new sense of self-confidence that he hasn’t had since the Rays made their improbable run to the World Series just a year ago.

For better or worse, pitching is contagious. For a decent portion of the year, pitching has been unfavorably contagious for the Angels’ rotation as well as their bullpen.

Now that September has rolled around, and Kazmir has injected a little bit of new life into this Halo rotation, I’m hoping his positive starts can continue to influence Jered Weaver (14 wins entering tonight’s start), Joe Saunders (3 straight wins), John Lackey (17 innings, 1 earned run in last 2 starts), and most importantly Ervin Santana (5 straight starts of 3 or fewer earned runs until his last start).

Hopefully, the best from this Angels rotation is yet to come.

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Filed under Angel Stories, September Game Recaps

More Than an Average Joe?

average joe

2008 was a fluke. There’s no way that guy pitches anywhere near the way he did last year. He’s nothing special.

Those were the grumblings Joe Saunders was hearing entering the 2009 season for the Angels, and I didn’t believe a word any of those critics had to say. For showing great composure and dependability in ’08, I thought they were just plain crazy for saying that.

Coming off of a surprise 2008 season that featured him being selected to the American League All-Star team, the expectations were high for Saunders, who was tabbed as the Opening Day starter for Mike Scioscia and the Angels.

Saunders finished the ’08 season with a 17-7 record and a 3.41 ERA, over 1 run less than his ERA for the 2007 season (3.44).

His Opening Day start against Oakland was nothing short of brilliant. Saunders scattered a mere 3 hits over 6 2/3 fantastic innings of scoreless baseball en route to an opening day 3-0 shutout of the visiting Athletics.

Joe would start the year by winning 6 of his first 8 decisions, while keeping his ERA at a pretty respectable mark of 3.26 through the first two months of baseball.

Then he would hit a prolonged speedbump.

His 6.06 ERA in the month of June was nearly twice as high as his ERA for the month before (3.12).

July would be even worse. His 8.08 ERA over the course of July would be more than 2 full runs higher than his dismal June numbers.

Saunders would hit a streak that ran all the way up to 8 straights starts in which he allowed 4 or more runs in a given outing (4 runs twice, 5 runs 3 times, 6 runs twice, 8 runs once).

His ERA would just about double over the course of three months, and it was starting to seem like Saunders’ critics somehow saw something bad in him that many Angel fans including myself didn’t see.

His August 7th outing would last not even 2 full innings, but Joe would still allow 5 earned runs.

Maybe he was just an “average Joe” after all.

Following that start, Saunders was placed on the Disabled List due to shoulder soreness that had been troubling him for a majority of the season. His tight throwing shoulder wouldn’t allow him to fully extend and follow through comfortably like he normally does with his mechanics, which led to decreased velocity and leaving way too many pitches hanging out over the middle of the plate.

Saunders would come off the DL and make his 1st start on August 26th at home against the Detroit Tigers. He’d throw 89 pitches over a carefully shortened outing that lasted 5 innings, giving up 2 runs on 4 hits while striking out 6 Detroit hitters. The Halos won the game 4-2, with Saunders the winning pitcher.

Joe would stifle the Mariners in Seattle in his next outing, throwing 7 innings of 3-hit scoreless baseball en route to a 10-0 Angels win. Saunders would, obviously, be the winning hurler in this contest.

His last outing against Kansas City would be his weakest ever since his return from the DL, but he’d still minimize the damage incredibly well. Saundo would scatter 2 runs on 10 hits over 5 1/3 innings of work, but would earn the win in a 7-2 Angels victory.

Since he’s come off the DL, Joe’s done nothing but win the Angels ballgames while allowing no more than 2 runs an outing. He’s given up 2 runs or less in each of his 3 starts since coming off the Disabled List. His previous 14 starts would feature only 2 outings where he would allow 2 runs or less.

He now has his ERA below 5.00 for the first time since July 22nd.

As much attention has been paid to the recent acquisition of Scott Kazmir and how he may be the missing piece that can solidify the Angels’ rotation, I think people are continuing to overlook the guy who was the Halos’ Opening Day starter.

Saunders doesn’t have to be the ace of the staff. Jered Weaver‘s had a fantastic year. John Lackey‘s rounding back in to form in a contract year. They can take care of occupying the #1 and #2 starter slots in the 5-man rotation. Saunders, if healthy and pitching the way he has the past few outings, could be a fantastic #3 starter to throw at teams.

It’s been a roller coaster year for the only Virginia Tech alum in all of the MLB, but if he can channel his 2008 style of pitching, rhythm, and composure, Joe will be the missing piece to the Angels’ jigsaw puzzle.

Not “can be”, he will be.

Time to prove the critics wrong one more time.

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Filed under Angel Stories, August Game Recaps, September Game Recaps

Lackey Notches 100th Career Win

lackey 100

It seems like the milestones have come pouring in for Angels players this year.

Vladdy hits home run #400 of his career.

Vlad and Figgy get their 1,000th career hits in their Angels careers.

Bobby Abreu hits home run #250 and picks up career hit #2,000.

The list goes on.

This time, it wasn’t a positional player reaching a noteworthy milestone.

Staff ace John Lackey picked up his 100th career win on Sunday vs. Oakland in typical John Lackey fashion. He fired 8 innings of 1-run ball (the run he allowed was also unearned), scattering 5 hits and punching out 6 Oakland batters in a 9-1 rout in the Angels’ favor.

Lackey became only the 5th pitcher to garner 100 wins with the Angels organization, joining the likes of Chuck Finley, Nolan Ryan, Frank Tanana, and Mike Witt… that’s some pretty good company right there.

Lackey was drafted in the 2nd round back in the 1999 MLB Draft by the Angels out of Grayson County College in Denison, Texas, a team that Lackey helped win the Junior College World Series that same year.

Angel fans remember John Lackey being the young man who Mike Scioscia controversially made the Game 7 starter of the 2002 World Series, at the time he had just turned 24 years of age.

“Big John” threw 5 innings of 1 run ball (like his 100th win, the run was also unearned), helping catapult the Angels to their first World Championship in franchise history. Lackey became the first rookie pitcher to win a World Series Game 7 since Babe Adams of the 1909 Pittsburgh Pirates (roughly 93 years if you’re counting, give or take a few days).

The two seasons following the ’02 championship run would be difficult for Lackey. He was on the losing ended 29 times during the course of the 2003 and 2004 seasons, with ERAs of 4.63 and 4.67 respectively.

But 2005 would be Lackey’s turning point in his career. He went 14-5 with a career-high 199 strikeouts on the year, while getting his ERA to a respectable 3.45 mark.

He would continue to develop into a staff ace through 2006, and 2007 would be Lackey’s best season on the bump. He would compile a 19-9 record with a fantastic ERA of 3.01. He’d throw a career-high 224 innings and strike out a total of 179 batters and walk a then-career best 52. Lackey would finish 3rd in AL Cy Young voting.

The ’08 and ’09 seasons each started with injury troubles for Lackey, but he would remain (and continues to remain) a vital piece to the Angels’ rotation and deep playoff run aspirations.

Congratulations, John. Don’t stop now! (… oh, and even though your contract is up after this year, how about you come on back and keep winning more games!)

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Filed under Angel News, Angel Stories, August Game Recaps