Wednesday, January 29, 2014

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What Have Ya Done for Me Lately?

by Joe Tevelowitz, AngelsWin.com Columnist -

Four years might not seem like a long playoff drought for a team like the Kansas City Royals, who haven't been in the postseason since their '85 Championship run, or the Toronto Blue Jays, with a chilly two decades sitting at home in October (I assume Toronto is chilly in October, because I assume Canada is all the same and cold all the time).  Four years might not even seem that big in comparison to the 15-years between Angels playoff appearances that ended with the 2002 title and (and the complete feeling of "it was all worth it in the end").  And indeed, four years is not a big drought, particularly if all the pieces the Angels have put together, both high-priced and highly prized, finally click this year with a return with another AL West crown to thank all the fans for their "patience."  

Of course, four years only seems like along time because Angels fans have been spoiled over the past 14 years, when a former Dodgers catcher came down the 405 and became an Angels legend.  It's a pretty easy argument to posit Mike Scioscia as the greatest manager in team history. Scioscia's five AL West titles, (ending an 18-year division crown drought) surpass those of all other Angels managers combined.  His 1,155 wins surpass that total for the next three winningest Angels skippers combined.  He is the longest tenured current manager in the league today.  

That last tidbit might be fodder for those who feel Scioscia's seat should be a little hotter this season, believing that maybe the game is changing and the Angels might need a new leader to adapt.  After all. the Cardinals went from Tony La Russa to a rookie manager in Mike Matheny and have had a Championship Series and World Series appearance in the two seasons since.  

While there might not be many new tricks up Scioscia's sleeves, Arte Moreno and the Angels organization obviously believe in the familiarity and foundation Mike Scioscia provides.  With that vote of confidence from the front office here are four areas to watch as Mike Scioscia attempts to silence his critics and make the playoffs in 2014.

1) WORKING WITH THE BIG DOLLAR DUO

While Josh Hamilton was able to turn it around towards the end of the 2013 season, his putrid start stuck the team too far back too early in the season to really be a contender.  However, his second-half surge did quiet those who thought all of Hamilton's best days were far away in a town called Arlington. Hamilton might not be able to recapture all of his MVP glory, but his power should still be there and a move back to his natural fielding position will add some comfort and confidence.  Mike Scioscia, entering year two of his relationship with the slugger, will be in a position to aid that confidence.  Scioscia was stuck in the unenviable task of having to hide Hamilton in his line-ups early in the year and even resort to benching for the old "needs some time to get his head right" medicine.  He will have a better understanding of how to push Hamilton's buttons this year, or who is in the best position to push those buttons.  

That job might very well fall to Albert Pujols.  Since The Big A came to The Big A he's shown glimpses of Sir Albert from his "greatest player of his generation" stretch in St. Louis.  However, the Angels have really yet to experience a full showcase of all Pujols is capable of, particularly thanks to an injury-marred year in 2013.  With enough time to rehab, Pujols should be ready to step back up and into the heart of the line-up.  As important as how he looks at his plate will be, how Pujols  looks in the clubhouse (particularly if he can recapture the compatible relationship between star and skipper he had with La Russa) will be even more important.  Torii Hunter's loss created a void in the clubhouse that has not yet been filled.  A healthy Pujols should be able to take on the mantle of leadership, be a support system for his team mates, and dynamic engine to drive the lineup.  Scioscia has dealt with big contract guys before, and the disappointment when they don't produce.  He'll have to be ready to ride some cold streaks, but his stature with the team and experience with players should help him distinguish a slump from a meltdown.

2) BULLPEN STABILITY

A lot of the success in the first decade of the Scioscia Era coincides with the greatest stretch of relief pitching the team ever had.  Troy Percival made his mark as the greatest closer in Angels history with over 300 saves for the team and closing the door on the World Series title.  Francisco Rodriguez, despite his post-California struggles, set the All-Time mark for saves in a year, won five postseasn games in 2002 and had a four-year stretch as closer that coincided with three division crowns.  And yes, many of the Angels recent struggles can be blamed on the lack of a consistent game-ending option.  

Ernesto Frieri has done his best to try and make Angels fans forget the days of Brian Fuentes and Fernando Rodney since coming over from San Diego.  However, the fireballer might not be best-suited for the end of game situation and might be more useful in the kind of 8th inning bridge the team has been missing since the days of Scot Shields.  I think that must have been the thinking of Scioscia/Dipoto in signing Joe Smith, who could assume either role.  

With no rumblings of adding a true closer for this season, Frieri will probably be leaned on again.  Scioscia and Butcher will both be key in keeping confidence up, but just as important will be the seasons the team gets from the rest of the bullpen.  Dane De La Rosa might decline from last year, but should be able to serve as an important piece.  De La Rosa might see a few save chances, but the more hopeful possibility is that he becomes a dominant 7th inning guy to lessen the need for multi-inning saves.  Scioscia's bullpen worked best when it operated on a consistent conveyor belt getting the ball from the starters to the closer.  More uncertain is what the team can expect from Michael Kohn, post-appendectomy Kevin Jepsen, and a still questionable-health Sean Burnett.  

3) ROTATION ROULETTE

With Tanaka and Garza both off-the-table there are multiple directions that the team could go to fill out its rotation.  As of now, the penciled into the rotation are Weaver, Wilson, Santiago, Richards and Skaggs.  However, three of those players still have options, and all of those three liable to go through a bout of youthful inconsistency.  Therefore, it's unlikely that the Angels are going to go forward without having at least another starting option.  How the Angels and Scioscia decide to proceed with their rotation and with the remaining free agent starters left will go a long way in determining the team's success in 2014.   The Angels probably don't have the pieces to make another move for a true ace, but, if somehow the Angels can swing another #3/4 arm, or sign the right free agent, Mike will have enough to work with for the year.  While the Trumbo trade cost some power and offensive flexibility, the acquisition of Skaggs and Santiago should give Scioscia far more to work with than the Hanson/Blanton stopgap.

4) GETTING ALONG

This is where Mike Scioscia really can make the biggest difference, in terms of change from previous years.  After all these time, nobody is expecting him to really divert from the tactics and strategies on offense that he's employed for years, nor are we likely to see a drastic change in how he manages starters' innings or bullpen fluctuations.  However, he will be working alongside some new faces this year. Don Baylor and Gary DiSarcina should be helpful as new voices at hitting and third-base coach, respectively. Dino Ebel got a well deserved spot as bench coach and should be a trusted figure for the head guy, as will new assistant hitting coach Dave Hansen who has Dodger ties with Scioscia and a D-Back connection with Dipoto.  

It will be the development of the relationship between Scioscia and Dipoto that will probably garner the most media attention.  However, despite rumors of rifts, both men have always seemed respectful of one another and downplayed it.  Moreno obviously believes that putting two great baseball minds together, even when challenging one another, leads to a better product on the field.  I don't think this team is better off losing either one of them.  While it might be easy to suggest a feud between the old stalwart manager and the new, young GM, there's no reason to believe that both can't respect the efforts of the other in building this Angels core, and suffering together through the disappointments of the last two years.  Plus, having Rick Eckstein means you know that David is going to be around more often, and good things seem to happen when David Eckstein is around.  Just ask Mike Scioscia, he's been around for awhile.
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