The Angels have long resented living in the Dodgers’ shadow in Southern California, but they found a way out of it this year. It’s been easy to follow the Angels’ season because they probably lead the majors in scandalous headlines.
First, Josh Hamilton, one of their $100 million superstars, admitted to a substance-abuse relapse before the season opened, and before he could rejoin the team, he was essentially fired by owner Arte Moreno — given away to a division rival, Texas, after the Angels agreed to pay the great majority of his salary.
Two months later, a feud between General Manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Mike Scioscia burst into the open after an ugly team meeting that ended with Albert Pujols challenging Dipoto. Rumors spread that Scioscia’s status as the game’s longest-tenured manager might be in jeopardy, but it was Dipoto who resigned a week later.
Yes, it’s been an attention-getting season in Anaheim, one that George Steinbrenner would be proud of. Well, except for the keeping-the-manager part. But amid all those distractions and diversions, though, something strange and relatively unexpected has happened: The Angels are winning.
“People have said a lot of negative things about us, but guys have been careful not to let anything happening off the field affect them on the field,” center fielder Mike Trout said at last week’s All-Star Game. “We never got down when the record wasn’t reflecting how hard we’ve worked because we knew we’d turn it around.”
They have. As the Twins arrive for this week’s annual stop in Anaheim, they find themselves facing a first-place team, or at least a potential wild-card rival. The Angels, seven games behind Houston at the beginning of May, won 11 of their final 14 games before the All-Star break and charged into the AL West lead, then won their second-half opener 1-0 over Boston on Friday on Trout’s walk-off homer.
All that with a lineup that, once you get past Trout and Pujols, doesn’t seem very scary. The Angels may depend upon two players more than any team in baseball, with Trout’s all-around brilliance — and a 1.022 OPS — and Pujols carrying an offense that has scored only 369 runs entering Saturday, the fewest among teams with winning records. The Angels, who won 98 games last season largely by feasting on a hapless division, have been held to two runs or fewer 35 times, second-most in the AL.
Catcher Chris Iannetta and left fielder Matt Joyce have been disasters at the plate, third baseman David Freese hasn’t provided the power or lineup support the Angels expected, and designated hitter C.J. Cron has an on-base percentage below .300. Without Trout and the resurgent Pujols, who rank first and second in home runs in the AL, the Angels might be a last-place team.
“We haven’t scored as many runs as we expected, but that’s changing,” Trout said in Cincinnati. And he’s right: After averaging 3.87 runs per game during the season’s first three months, they’ve jumped to 6.09 in July.
This is not the sort of Angels team that Scioscia made famous, the sort that won the franchise’s only championship in 2002. Those Angels were young and fast, using their speed to play great defense and force mistakes by opponents, playing a hit-and-run style.
But under Moreno’s ownership and Dipoto’s tenure as GM, the Angels made a transition to an expensive, slugger-heavy, veteran team — plus Trout, the game’s best player. It hasn’t been a successful formula yet. Now in his fourth season, Trout has yet to win a playoff series, or even a playoff game.
If he gets there this year, it will be on the strength of one of the better trios of starting pitching in the game — C.J. Wilson, Garrett Richards and Hector Santiago — and a bullpen headed by closer Huston Street. And of course, his own talent.
Is it enough? “We’re getting better as the season goes along,” Trout said, “and that’s the sign of a winner.”
At least, it makes for some different headlines.
With the trade deadline less than two weeks away, AL Central teams are mentioned among potential dealers more than in normal years. Here’s what each team is reported to be considering:
Indians: The most interesting case of buyer-or-seller, Cleveland has a starting rotation that could keep it in the race. But should President Mark Shapiro decide to dismantle some pieces, first baseman Carlos Santana, owed just $8.25 million next season with a team option for $12 million in 2017, could be attractive to offense-starved teams.
The Indians presumably would love to unload Nick Swisher’s contract, too.
Royals: A rent-a-player scenario might be attractive, a cheap way to acquire a starting pitcher who could be a critical player in the postseason.
Johnny Cueto of Cincinnati is the most rumored name, but they would have to consider any upcoming free agents such as Scott Kazmir, Kyle Lohse or Ian Kennedy. Class AA shortstop Raul Mondesi gives them a potential trade chip.
Tigers: Normally, a .500 team at the break, with big-name free agents like David Price and Yoenis Cespedes on the roster, would be considered a likely seller. But that hasn’t been the case in Detroit for a while; 85-year-old owner Mike Ilitch has made it clear he wants to win a title and has no patience for rebuilding. So don’t be surprised if the Tigers check in on starting pitchers and setup arms for the bullpen.
White Sox: Jeff Samardzija was supposed to help make them a contender this year; instead, the righthanded starter might be the first salary dumped, especially if a contender helps them restock their farm system.
The worst season of Alexei Ramirez’s career (.226 and only three homers) is sapping his value, but he’s available. And they might need to make a trade to resolve their Jose Abreu-Adam LaRoche logjam at first base.
Batting with two outs in the ninth inning, with your team trailing, “can be pretty intense at-bats,” Joe Mauer said. “You do anything to keep the game alive — nobody wants to make the last out and walk off that way.” Especially on the road, Mauer said, “it can be a fun at-bat, because the crowd is usually into it, on their feet.” Mauer should know — his strikeout against Aroldis Chapman on June 29 to end a game in Cincinnati meant he missed by one day going a full calendar year without making a game’s final out, a streak that began on June 30, 2014. Until Chapman got him, Mauer had gone 3-for-3 with a walk this year when batting with two outs in the ninth of a game the Twins trailed.
Here are the Twins who have made the final out the most times this season (MLB leader: Jason Kipnis, 13):
Trevor Plouffe 7
Torii Hunter 5
Kurt Suzuki 4
Kennys Vargas 4
Brian Dozier 3
Eduardo Escobar 3