Saturday, July 28, 2012

Angels Win Greinke Sweepstakes

When the Los Angeles Angels signed C.J Wilson last December, adding him to a rotation that already featured a formidable big three in Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, and Ervin Santana, I firmly believed LA had the best starting pitching in the Amiercan League, if not the majors.  The Yankees would challenge that title when they surrounded C.C. Sabathia with Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda, and you won't have any trouble making a case for Philadelphia and its exceptional trio of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels

But now with 2009 AL Cy Young winner Zack Greinke on board, it's not even close.  The Halos have used trades, free agent signings and homegrown talent to construct the deepest, most talented starting fives in recent memory.  Maybe ever.  I can't remember a rotation as loaded as this one.  Top to bottom, it's stacked.  Each member is a current or former All-Star with a resume that includes postseason experience, Cy Young consideration, and multiple seasons of above average performance. To provide a snapshot of the caliber of talent that's been assembled here, just look at what these guys did last year:

Weaver: 18-8, 2.41 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 235.2 IP, 198 Ks, 158 ERA+, 6.7 bWAR, All-Star, Cy Young runner-up
Wilson: 16-7, 2.94 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 223.1 IP, 206 Ks, 150 ERA+, 4.4 bWAR, All-Star, 6th place Cy
Haren: 16-10, 3.17 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 238.1 IP, 192 Ks, 120 ERA+, 4.0 bWAR, 7th place Cy
Santana: 11-12, 3.38 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 228.2 IP, 178 Ks, 112 ERA+, 2.7 bWAR
Greinke: 16-6, 3.83 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 171.2 IP, 201 Ks, 103 ERA+, 1.4 bWAR

By my calculations, that adds up to 77 wins, 1,097.2 innings pitched, 975 punchouts and 19.2 bWAR.  Good luck finding a team, real-life or fantasy, that ever got those kinds of numbers from their five hurlers.  It's mind-blowing.  They always say you can never have enough pitching, but it's hard to imagine having more than the Angels do at the moment.

Give credit to Angels General Manager Jerry Dipoto for taking a good thing and making it even better, like adding crispy bacon strips on top of a mouth-watering cheeseburger.  The pitching-rich Angels were already playoff bound, but he wasn't satisfied with merely making the postseason.  He had his eye on that shiny World Series trophy. He believes 2012 is his team's year, and he's all-in.  Dipoto didn't have to sell the farm to secure Greinke, but he did have to get rid of some of his more promising livestock.  The package he sent to the Brewers includes rookie shortstop Jean Segura as well as a pair of righthanded double A starting pitchers, Ariel Pena and Johnny Hellweg. Segura is a 22 year-old speedy, slick-fielding shortstop who has the ceiling of a Jimmy Rollins/Jose Reyes kind of player.  Baseball America ranked him as the Angels' fourth best prospect and rated him #55 among all prospects coming into the season.  Pena, rated the ninth best prospect in the Angels system, is 23 and pitched well in AA with the second most strikeouts in the Texas League. He could be ace material.  Hellweg, a 23 year-old towering bean pole, stands 6'9 tall but weighs just 210 pounds.  His record is an uimpressive 5-10, but he has a solid 3.38 ERA.  Best case scenario, he develops into a capable back-end of the rotation starter.

It happens all the time, but I've never understood the logic behind dealing established major league talent for unproven prospects.  Greinke has built a track record of success, proving he's one of the top hurlers in the game.  We know what he is and what he can do, but have no idea if the prospects will even make the majors, let alone succeed there.  So many prospects never pan out.  It's a total crapshoot, which is why these kinds of trades usually involve multiple prospects--to increase the odds that at least one can achieve at the big league level.  The Brewers were in an enviable position as one of the few teams selling in a market crowded with buyers (the second Wild Card has made so many more teams contenders).  They committed to trading him early on and dangled his name in trade rumors for much of the summer.  With Greinke just months away from free agency and likely to command north of $100 million on the open market, it made sense for the Brewers to squeeze some young talent out of a contender looking to make a splash at the deadline.  Once Cole Hamels signed that massive contract extension with the Phillies, Greinke's value soared even higher.  He was so coveted that GM Doug Melvin could have asked for the moon, and some desperate team woud have found a way to make it happen.   The Rangers were also in the hunt for Greinke, but backed off when they thought Melvin's asking price was too steep.  Now he's working in the same division, pitching against them.  Oh, the irony.  We'll have to wait and see if this mistake comes back to bite them in September and October with playoff games on the line.

I believe the Angels had already surpassed Texas as the best team in the AL West before the trade, even though they're still four games behind the Rangers in the standings. LA is 55-45 entering play today, which doesn't scream "best team ever," but since dropping 15 of their first 22 games/calling up MVP candidate Mike Trout they've gone 48-30 (.615 winning percentage). Maintain that pace for an entire season, and you win 100 games.  Meanwhile, Texas has lost steam and faltered in July, going 8-11 with a minus-17 run differential.  Josh Hamilton hasn't hit in two months, Michael Young and Nelson Cruz are underperforming, and Roy Oswalt has been a profound disappointment.  No wonder Nolan Ryan has been getting antsy.  The Rangers are still a great team, but maybe just not as good as they seemed before the All-Star Break.  Their flaws--mainly streaky hitting and a shaky back of the rotation--have been exposed.

But no team is perfect, and even the best have to slog through a rough patch every now and then. In  my mind these are the two best teams in baseball, and I'd be shocked if one of them doesn't make it to the World Series.  Their relationship is starting to resemble the Red Sox-Yankees power struggle that dominated the baseball landscape for much of the new milennium.  I'd love to see them square off in the ALCS with the Fall Classic at stake.  Texas has the better offense, but you'd have to give the edge to the Angels (in seven) on account of their superior pitching.  My gut feeling is that LA will go all the way, but I could just as easily see the Rangers making a third consecutive trip to the Series.  Stay tuned.
Now the Angels have four aces, and pitching to spare
But I want to talk a little more about that awesome Angels rotation.  For all intents and purposes, they have four number-one starters!  Let's take a deeper look.

Jered Weaver (13-1, 2.26 ERA)
Simply put, he's one of the best pitchers in the game.  The younger Weaver brother is the main threat to Justin Verlander's quest to take home another AL Cy Young trophy  Since the calendar flipped to May, LA has gone 12-1 in Weaver's starts.  If that's not an ace, I don't know what is.

C.J. Wilson (9-6, 2.89 ERA)
The California native has thrived in his Angels debut.  Was especially dominant over a six week period from May 22nd through July 1st, when the Angels won all eight of his starts.  Wilson allowed one earned run or fewer in seven of those outings, maintaining a sparkling 1.35 ERA while limiting opponents to .197/.282/.251 and yielding just one home run in 53.1 masterful innings of work.  Made the All-Star team and his 0.5 HR/9 rate leads the American League. Takes the mound against the Rays today in search of his first win in more than a month.

Dan Haren (8-8, 4.59 ERA)
Since the Cardinals traded him as the centerpiece of a three player package to Oakland in exchange for Mark Mulder following the 2004 season, he's been one of the most consistent and durable arms in the game.  He's made at least 33 starts and completed no less than 216 innings every year, averaging 195 strikeouts per season and 4.3 whiffs for every walk.  His velocity is down a bit this year and he's struggled at times, but his numbers look bad because he tried to pitch through a lower back strain in June before landing on the Disabled List. If you remove that abysmal one month stretch from June 9th through July 3rd his ERA falls to 3.35.  Since returning from the DL he's beaten a pair of tough opponents in the Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Haren is poised for a strong second half and should finish the year with numbers similar to his 2010 statistics. 

Ervin Santana (4-10, 6.00 ERA)
The Greinke deal means Big Erv becomes the number five starter, but on most teams he's be a number three.  When you talk about good pitchers having disastrous seasons--Tim Lincecum, Jon Lester, and  Ricky Romero come to mind--Santana belongs in the discussion. Prolonged struggles are nothing new for Santana, who's been plagued by inconsistency throughout his career.  He's suffering from a servere case of gopheritis this year, as he's already been taken deep 23 times and is allowing nearly two homers per nine innings pitched.  Nearly one in every five fly balls he allows leaves the yard even though he's keeping the ball on the ground more than ever before and has a career best 1.51 GB/FB ratio.  Nothing has gone right for him this year; his walks are up, his strikeouts are down and his strand rate is an ugly 65.5%.  He hasn't shown any signs of righting the ship, either, as he's failed to make it out of the second inning in two of his past three starts.  The Angels mercifully skipped his turn in the rotation when Haren returned from the DL, and when Santana makes his next start there will be a 15 out restriction in effect. That way he won't have to pace himself as much; he can just go out there and throw for five innings. This has been a lost year for him, but hopefully he can rediscover the form that helped him completed more than 220 innings and keep his ERA under four in each of the past two seasons. His velocity and command hasn't changed, and his usage rate of different pitches indicates that he' not attacking hitters any differently. I'm surprised the Brewers didn't take a flier on him and see if he could take advantage of the National League boost.  Hey, if A.J. Burnett can do it, anyone can.  Except maybe John Lackey.
Zack Greinke (9-3, 3.44 ERA)
After a brief hiatus in the Senior Circuit, the one-time Kansas City Royal returns to the American League.  In Milwaukee he was victimized by the brutal Brewers defense, which is why his ERA there doesn't reflect how well he pitched (hence the All-Star snub).  In California he'll benefit from Gold Glovers Albert Pujols and DL-bound Erick Aybar backing him in the infield along with defensive wizards Trout, Peter Bourjos and Torii Hunter patrolling the outfield.  Just as long as he keeps the ball away from Mark Trumbo, he should be fine.

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