Angels face offseason of upheaval
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are vulnerable.
And the rest of the AL West has taken notice.
A year after losing closer Francisco Rodriguez and surviving, the Angels are now having to prepare for a 2010 season without John Lackey, the ace of the rotation since pitching the Angels to a world championship as a rookie in 2002, and Chone Figgins, the leadoff-hitting third baseman and emotional heart of the clubhouse.
General manager Tony Reagins faces his first real challenge since taking over from Bill Stoneman in an effort to keep the Angels atop the AL West, which they have won in five of the last six years thanks to a foundation laid by former general manager Bill Bavasi and maintained by Stoneman.
This has been the Angels' division, and the expectation was it would remain the Angels' division, but things aren’t working the way the Angels had planned. They entered the off-season fully expecting to retain Lackey and Figgins.
Now look at them. The last two remaining members of the 2002 world championship have left town.
Lackey, who has strung together seven consecutive double-figure win seasons and has an ERA lower than any pitcher except CC Sabathia since the 2005 season, signed a five-year, $82.5 million deal with Boston.
Figgins, who has started at every position except first base, catcher and pitcher in the big leagues and carries a .363 career on-base percentage to complement his .291 batting average, signed a four-year, $36 million deal with Seattle, a rising rival in the AL West.
Reagins did replace free-agent departure Vladimir Guerrero by signing Hideki Matsui, but that doesn't help matters. Matsui, like Guerrero, is basically limited to being a DH, which isn't the way Angels manager Mike Scioscia likes to have his roster put together. He wants versatility so that he can shuffle every day players through the DH role, giving them some rest, but not removing the bat from the lineup.
But that’s not all.
The Angels lost out in their bid for their prime choice to replace Lackey, right-hander Roy Halladay, who Toronto instead dealt to Philadelphia. Then bad got worse for the Angels. After the addition of Halladay, the Phillies sent lefty Cliff Lee, the AL Cy Young winner in 2008 and the Phillies' best pitcher in the past postseason to the Angels' AL West rival, Seattle.
Coming off a surprising resurgence in the first year on the job for general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Don Wakamatsu, the Mariners are ready to reinvest a major chunk of the $50 million they have taken off their season-opening roster of a year ago and are positioned to build on last year’s 85-win season.
They are so enticed by the Angels' off-season of departures that Zduriencik and Wakamatsu decided to take the ultimate gamble, unloading their own major headache, pitcher Carlos Silva and his outlandish contract, in exchange for baseball’s biggest headache, Milton Bradley. Seeing a chance to make a move on the Angels, they needed a run-producing outfielder in the lineup, and Bradley has the ability to fill that need.
The Mariners have convinced themselves that Bradley, who will be with his seventh team in seven years, can find a comfort zone with the guidance of Ken Griffey Jr. and will enjoy a less reactive fan base in Seattle than he faced in Chicago.
But that’s not all.
The Texas Rangers are about to be granted their own bailout program. Financially strapped owner Tom Hicks is trying to work out the details to finally sell the team to a group led by Pittsburgh sports lawyer Chuck Greenberg and Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, the current president of the Rangers. Given financial viability to go with a farm system that is deeper in talent than any other in the American League, the Rangers could quickly emerge as a factor in the division too.
Thank goodness Oakland keeps chasing its tail, unable to regain the command in the division that it enjoyed behind the trio of Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson. The departure of the scouting folks who built the farm system that was a major loss too.
That does create a challenge for the Angels, whose owner Arte Moreno, has shown a willingness to be more concerned with spending money to make the team better than making sure the bottom line is filled in with black ink.
He has not shown an ability to accept rationalizations for failure.
He expects results.
But where are the Angels going to turn to find answers to their glaring questions? The free-agent market is unattractive, particularly in light of the Angels' lack of interest in outfielders Matt Holliday and Jason Bay.
For now, they are talking about allowing prospect Brandon Wood to take over at third base, but still looking for a leadoff hitter, and wondering how they will replace the clubhouse contributions of Figgins.
They have turned to Atlanta in a search for pitching help. First they looked at Javier Vasquez, who has let it be known he isn’t approving any deal to a West Coast team. Now they are exploring Derek Lowe, who has averaged 15 wins the last eight seasons but fits more into the middle of the rotation and the background of the clubhouse than he does as a replacement for Lackey.
Most of all the Angels are looking to Reagins in his first real test of leadership to help find a path out of the uncertainty they face this winter.