The first “Arte is angry” rumblings surfaced late last week. If I were Angels owner Arte Moreno, I, too, would have been angry. But mostly, I would have been angry at myself.
It was Moreno who orchestrated the Angels’ mammoth free-agent signings of first baseman Albert Pujols and outfielder Josh Hamilton the past two off-seasons.
It was Moreno who left general manager Jerry Dipoto to rebuild the team’s rotation without right-hander Zack Greinke, and now must live with the GM’s decisions to add right-handers Joe Blanton and Tommy Hanson.
And it was Moreno who signed manager Mike Scioscia to a 10-year contract prior to the 2009 season, apparently overlooking that at some point the Angels might need a new voice.
I’m not sure about the Angels’ chemistry. I’m underwhelmed by their rotation, particularly now that right-hander Jered Weaver is out four to six weeks because of a fractured left elbow. And while I still view Scioscia as one of the game’s top managers, who’s to say that he isn’t the 2011 version of Terry Francona, unable to connect with his players the way he once did?
All of these questions are bubbling underneath the surface with the Angels, which — like all teams — figure to be a work in progress.
The club made a small move Friday, signing right-hander Kip Wells to a minor-league contract, and larger moves are possible. A third party has contacted former Angels reliever Troy Percival about possibly joining the organization in some kind of coaching capacity, according to a major league source. However, it’s unclear whether a pursuit of Percival, if it indeed took place, would be related to the Angels’ struggles.
The bottom line?
If Arte truly is angry, he might want to take a deep breath.
The Angels’ walk-off victory over the Astros on Saturday night could prove a turning point for a team that began the season 2-8. Even before then, the mood around the club was not as tense as it was last season, according to some of the same sources who detailed a rift between Dipoto and Scioscia to me last September.
Dipoto and Scioscia were getting along better, the sources said. The clubhouse dynamic was good. The Angels just needed to win games.
Well, they’ve won two straight over the Astros as they head to Minnesota for three games before heading home to face the Tigers and Rangers. They’re going to hit, that much is certain. The rest of it is less clear.
Pujols and Hamilton are tremendous players, but like most superstars, they’re also individualists. The loss of right fielder Torii Hunter as a free agent arguably left the Angels without a leader. Winning generally solves such concerns. But when a team with high expectations and disparate parts stumbles, the chemistry often goes awry.
The starting pitching, for now, is a more significant issue. I wrote this spring about Dipoto’s rationale for adding Blanton, Hanson and lefty Jason Vargas. The signing of Hamilton to a five-year, $125 million contract left the GM with little payroll flexibility. But the signing of Blanton, in particular, raised eyebrows throughout the game.
Dipoto is signed through 2014, Scioscia through ’18. I reported in September 2010 that Scioscia’s 10-year deal was worth $50 million, and that the final three years were valued at $6 million each. Yes, Moreno would pay dearly if he wanted to dismiss Scioscia, but he just paid the Yankees $28.1 million to take Vernon Wells. If I was Moreno, I’d be more worried about Scioscia resurfacing quickly with the Dodgers.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, 12 games into a 162-game season, with Weaver projected to be back by the end of May.
Let’s see if Scioscia can guide the Angels out of this. Let’s see if Dipoto can adjust the rotation as needed. Let’s see if Pujols, Hamilton and Co. can calm Arte down.
MESSAGE TO M’S: DON’T RUSH ZUNINO
Scouts and executives like to say, “Spring is spring,” when dismissing lights-out performances in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues. The early struggles of two spring phenoms, Twins center fielder Aaron Hicks (.047/.109/.047) and Red Sox left fielder Jackie Bradley (.107/.286/.143), are good reminders of how difficult it is for some young players to achieve immediate success.
Which brings us to the case of Mariners catcher Mike Zunino, who is off to a hot start at Triple A, batting .303/.351/.818 with four homers and 18 RBIs in seven games. Zunino’s performance, while certainly impressive in a small sample, might also be something of a mirage, given the dilution of talent at Triple A.
The Mariners could wait on Zunino to avoid service-time issues, particularly if catcher Jesus Montero builds on his back-to-back two-hit games against the Rangers over the weekend. Frankly, the M’s probably should wait, anyway. Zunino, the third overall pick of the 2012 draft, entered the season with only 190 professional at-bats.
Players need to learn how to fail before they reach the majors. The Mariners should know that, considering their experience with second baseman Dustin Ackley, the second overall pick of the 2009 draft. Ackley had a reasonably strong debut in ‘11, but has been lost ever since.
The M’s need to avoid portraying Zunino as their savior — and that’s exactly how he’ll be viewed if their other young hitters continue to struggle. One kid can’t be asked to save an offense, particularly when that kid is so inexperienced himself.
QUALIFYING OFFER IN GARZA’S FUTURE?
Cubs right-hander Matt Garza is making steady progress in his recovery from a strained left lat, and should be back sometime in May. After that, he could become the hottest starting pitcher on the trade market – provided, of course, that he stays healthy.
At that point, the Cubs would face the same type of decision with Garza that all clubs do with potential free agents. They could trade Garza for the right proposal. Or they could keep him, make him a qualifying offer and secure a high draft pick if he signs with another club.
The Cubs obviously would balance one return against the other, and it’s not out of the question that Garza could accept a qualifying offer, depending upon how he performs.
Let’s say that Garza pitches decently but not great. The Cubs probably wouldn’t hesitate to make him a qualifying offer, and his recent injury history might make teams reluctant to give up a top pick. Then again, the shortage of quality starting pitchers on the open market would work in Garza’s favor, and he doesn’t turn 30 until Nov. 26.
For older free agents, the qualifying offer can be more problematic – players who accept the offer essentially are on one-year contracts with perpetual one-year club options.
Yankees right-hander Hiroki Kuroda, 38; Cardinals right fielder Carlos Beltran, 36 and Yankees infielder Kevin Youkilis, 34, all could fall into such a predicament. The value of the qualifying offer next off-season figures to be between $13 million and $14 million, and they might not get better deals.
Qualifying offers, then, ultimately could prove restrictive to such players, perhaps leading to a future adjustment in the collective-bargaining agreement. The NFL, for instance, allows teams to apply franchise tags to non-quarterbacks twice. If they do it a third time, they must pay the non-quarterback the quarterback franchise tender, according to Pro Football Talk.
GIANTS’ PENCE ON THE UPSWING
Giants right fielder Hunter Pence, a potential free agent, hit four home runs and produced an .866 OPS in his first 13 games, looking like a better hitter than he was after joining the team last season in a deadline trade.
Hensley Meulens, the Giants’ hitting coach, says that the ever-energetic Pence has calmed down his approach.
Pence, Meulens says, had “happy feet” in the batter’s box last season, and his hands also were moving “all over the place.”
“Imagine if you were pitching and don’t know where the ball is coming out each time,” Meulens says. “It’s just like hitting. If you don’t know where your hands are each time, it’s hard to take the barrel to the ball.”
“Slow feet, quick hands” was Meulens’ message to Pence, and the changes seem to be taking hold. Pence is keeping his feet grounded and holding his hands higher but in the same position, Meulens says. He also has a better plan at the plate.
TWINS’ MEYER: A STRONG RETURN FOR SPAN?
The Nationals made one of the best deals of the off-season when they traded right-hander Alex Meyer, a Class A pitcher, for Denard Span, a center fielder under an affordable contract for three years.
The Twins, though, could make out well, too.
The Nats feared that the 6-foot-9, 220-pound Meyer ultimately might end up a reliever, but a scout who saw him in spring training and in his first start for Double A New Britain projects him as a potential ace.
Meyer, 23, throws 94 to 98 mph with a curveball up to 88, according to the scout. The question is whether Meyer will develop his changeup, a pitch he will need to succeed as a starter.
“It’s in there,” the scout says. “It’s his third-best pitch, but it’s in there. I think he has a chance to be a true No. 1. You just don’t see arms like that very often.”
The Twins will not rush Meyer; they generally proceed with caution, and do not even need to protect Meyer on their 40-man roster until after the 2014 season.
Still, GM Terry Ryan is guardedly optimistic.
“He’s got stuff. He’s got the size. He certainly can spin the ball,” Ryan says. “His makeup is quality. He’s starting to feel comfortable with the change in organizations, which is always a concern.
“Everything about him has been as we’ve hoped. Now it’s just innings, repetition, going through the grind.”
AROUND THE HORN
* The raves for Mets rookie right-hander Matt Harvey continue. One scout predicts stardom for Harvey, saying he throws “as good a slider as you’ll ever see.”
Harvey, 24, averaged 90 mph with his slider in his most recent start against the Twins, topping out at 92, according to PitchFX data on Brooksbaseball.net. His fastball averaged 95.4, topping out at 97.65.
* The Dodgers’ pitching will suffer without right-hander Zack Greinke, who will be out two months after undergoing surgery on his broken clavicle. Still, the early signs for the staff are good.
The Dodgers entered Monday leading the NL in strikeout-to-walk ratio. Their overall strikeout ratio was second only to the Cubs’, and their opponents’ OPS was second only to the Braves.
* Depth helps. The Athletics had Chris Young ready to go full time when Yoenis Cespedes went on the DL, and the Diamondbacks, too, are benefiting from their surplus of outfielders.
The D-Backs improved their bench by signing Eric Chavez and Eric Hinske. Once outfielders Jason Kubel and Adam Eaton are healthy, their bench will be even stronger.
* Speaking of the Diamondbacks, their top pitching prospect, right-hander Archie Bradley, is off to a strong start at High A Visalia – 19 strikeouts and two walks in his first 11 2/3 innings.
Bradley, the seventh overall pick in the 2011 draft, throws 94 to 99 mph with a power breaking ball. He’s only 20, but D-Backs GM Kevin Towers compares him to Chris Carpenter.
* The Twins look like they may make out decently in their trade of left-hander Francisco Liriano to the White Sox for infielder Eduardo Escobar and left-hander Pedro Hernandez – particularly since Liriano was a potential free agent at the time.
Hernandez has made two solid appearances, and Escobar had a two-run, game-winning double against the Tigers. GM Terry Ryan says Escobar, who had been in the majors with the White Sox, drew motivation from the Twins’ demotion of him to Triple A.
“I’m sure that didn’t sit too well,” Ryan says. “He came back a different guy this spring. It looked like he had a little urgency to make sure he wasn’t sent out again.”
* And finally, hats off to Braves scout Gerald Turner, who signed two prizes from the 2010 draft – shortstop Andrelton Simmons, the Braves’ second rounder out of Western Oklahoma State College, and catcher Evan Gattis, the team’s 23rd-rounder out of the University of Texas-Permian Basin.