Losing both an All-Star leadoff hitter and former league MVP to division rivals, along with your No. 1 starting pitcher to an expected contender, would be enough to deter most teams prior to a start of a season.
The Los Angles Angels are no strangers to adversity, however.
Disaster struck the organization just three days into the 2009 campaign, when promising rookie pitcher Nick Adenhart was killed while traveling as a passenger in a car hit by a drunk driver. The 22-year-old's shocking passing not only left a gaping void in the clubhouse, it further thinned out a rotation that had three projected starters on the disabled list at the start of the season.
Other trials and tribulations, such as injuries to middle-of-the-order stalwarts Vladmir Guerrero and Torii Hunter and reliable reliever Scot Shields, would crop up during the course of the year. Yet the Angels pressed on and overcame the obstacles with a 97-win season that culminated in the team's third consecutive American League West championship. Anaheim then swept the Boston Red Sox in the opening round of the playoffs before falling to the eventual world champion New York Yankees in the League Championship Series.
A new challenge now awaits manager Mike Scioscia and his troops in 2010. The Angels lost several key components through free agency during the offseason, with Guerrero and sparkplug third baseman Chone Figgins bolting for fellow AL West members Texas and Seattle, respectively, and ace John Lackey signing a five-year contract with the pitching-rich Red Sox in December.
Anaheim was able to soften the blow from those departures with a few free- agent moves of its own, bringing in 2009 World Series MVP Hideki Matsui to take Guerrero's place as the primary designated hitter and cleanup man and inking right-hander Joel Pineiro, a surprise 15-game winner with the Cardinals last year, to fill the rotation spot vacated by Lackey.
The Angels still return plenty of thunder from a lineup that ranked second in the majors with 883 runs scored in 2009, with Matsui joining Hunter, right fielder Bobby Abreu and first baseman Kendry Morales to form a formidable heart of the order. Pineiro will be part of a pool of starting pitchers that can match any opponent's in terms of depth, but entered spring training searching for a true top-of-the-rotation guy.
(97-65) - First Place (AL West)
Key Offseason additions
DH Hideki Matsui, SP Joel Pineiro, RP Fernando Rodney, RP Brian Stokes
Key Offseason subtractions
3B Chone Figgins, DH Vladimir Guerrero, SP John Lackey, OF Gary Matthews Jr., RP Darren Oliver, RP Jose Arredondo, RP Justin Speier
The Angels have long been known as a team built on speed and manufacturing runs under Scioscia, but the offense received a welcome power boost via a long-awaited breakout season from Morales (.306, 108 RBI), whose 34 home runs were the most by an Anaheim player since Guerrero belted 39 during his MVP campaign of 2004. The highly-touted Cuban also finished second in the AL in slugging (.569) in addition to playing a solid first base.
Catcher Mike Napoli (.272, 56 RBI) also provided plenty of pop in 2009, slamming 20 homers in only 382 at-bats while sharing time with the light- hitting Jeff Mathis (.211, 5 HR, 28 RBI) behind the dish. While Mathis doesn't possess the offensive capabilities of his counterpart, Anaheim pitchers' had an ERA nearly a full run lower in the games the defensive specialist caught.
While the speedy Figgins now with the rival Mariners, shortstop Erick Aybar (5 HR, 58 RBI, 14 SB) slots in as the Angels' primary leadoff hitter after hitting an impressive .312 working mainly out of the No. 9 hole last year. The talented 26-year-old also delivered a team-best nine triples in his first season as a full-time starter, but it's his excellent defense that Scioscia finds most endearing.
Figgins' departure has cleared a path for top prospect Brandon Wood (.195, 1 HR, 3 RBI) to hold down an everyday role at third base, but the former first- round draft pick will need to improve on his .192 career average in the majors to keep the job. He's looked more comfortable at the plate this spring, however, and has the skills to be an offensive asset if he can put it all together.
Hitting usually hasn't been a problem for second baseman Howie Kendrick (.291, 10 HR, 61 RBI), who owns a .302 lifetime average over four big-league seasons. The unassuming 26-year-old did spend a three-week stint in the minors last year following a first-half slump, but hit a scorching .351 in 51 games upon returning in July.
The Angels return all three regulars from this high-caliber three-man group, with perennial Gold Glove winner Hunter flanking the ever-patient Abreu and unheralded left fielder Juan Rivera.
Hunter may turn 35 in July, but the standout center fielder remains a superlative defender who took home a ninth consecutive Gold Glove in 2009. The three-time All-Star also had one of his best years at the plate, batting a career-high .299 with 22 homers and 90 RBI despite missing nearly six weeks with an injured groin.
Anaheim signed Abreu (.293, 15 HR) to a one-year, $6 million contract prior to last season and received well more than their money's worth, as the veteran right fielder knocked in 103 runs and stole 30 bases as the No. 2 hitter in the order. Annually among the league leaders in walks, the Venezuelan star boasts a career .404 on-base percentage and was wisely retained with a more lucrative two-year deal over the winter.
After years of serving as a role player, Rivera established personal bests of 25 homers and 88 RBI along with a .287 average as a lineup mainstay. He also struck out just 57 times in 529 at-bats, an uncommonly low amount for a power hitter.
All five members of Anaheim's projected rotation have experienced success at the major-league level, with Pineiro and expected Opening Day starter Jered Weaver combining for 31 wins a year ago and the trio of southpaws Joe Saunders and Scott Kazmir and righty Ervin Santana each earning All-Star nods in 2008.
Weaver (16-8, 3.75, 174 K) enters the year as the de facto ace due to his consistency. The lanky right-hander has compiled an outstanding 51-27 record since breaking into the bigs in 2006 and posted a team-leading 20 quality starts last season. He's also an intense competitor who isn't afraid of big games or pressure situations.
Saunders (16-7) has also developed into a steady winner, having notched a 48-22 overall mark over the past four seasons. Although his earned run average rose from 3.41 in 2008 to 4.60 last year as he battled through a shoulder problem, the 28-year-old eased concerns by going 7-0 with a 2.55 ERA after coming off the disabled list in late August.
Santana (8-8, 5.03) also fought through arm woes that limited him to 23 starts in a disappointing last season, but the hard-throwing Dominican has the arsenal to be a No. 1 guy when healthy. He was terrific during an injury-free 2008, winning 16 games with a 3.49 ERA and ranking second in the AL with 214 strikeouts.
Injuries have also sidetracked Kazmir (10-9, 4.89), acquired in a trade with Tampa Bay last August, in the past, and the gifted lefty has been slowed this spring by a sore shoulder that is a cause for concern. Like Santana, he's plenty good when at full strength, as the 1.73 ERA he produced in six starts for the Angels down the stretch will attest.
Pineiro (15-12, 3.49) parlayed a tremendous comeback season in St. Louis into a two-year, $16 million free-agent contract to round out the starting corps. The sinker specialist had struggled badly in stints with AL members Seattle and Boston prior to joining the Cardinals, so it remains to be seen whether or not the team made a sound investment.
Even though free-agent signee Brian Fuentes (1-5, 3.93) led the majors with 48 saves in his first season as the Angels' closer, the side-arming lefty's shaky second half prompted the team to add some competition over the winter. Anaheim brought in ex-Tiger Fernando Rodney (2-5), who converted 37-of-38 save chances despite posting an uninspiring 4.40 ERA last year, to provide a second experienced arm for the late innings and give Scioscia greater flexibility, as Fuentes is the only southpaw among the intended bullpen group.
Those two will be backed by Shields (1-3, 6.62), one of the game's premier setup men in recent years who's returning from knee surgery that cut short his 2009 season in May. The Angels will be cautious with the 34-year-old, which could lead to more crunch-time opportunities for Kevin Jepsen (6-4, 3.94, 1 SV), who performed well upon taking over Shields' customary role after the All-Star break. Fellow right-hander Jason Bulger (6-1, 3.56, 1 SV, 68 K) also figures in the mix after holding enemy hitters to a .209 average and averaging better than a strikeout per inning in 64 appearances.
Brian Stokes (2-4, 3.97), a hard thrower acquired from the Mets in January, and the versatile Matt Palmer (11-2, 3.93) will be ticketed for middle and long relief duties. Palmer was one of the unsung heroes during last year's playoff run, going 9-1 in 13 starts as an injury replacement, and will likely be the first called on if any of the rotation members go down this season.
After striking gold with Abreu last season, the Angels hope to get the same results from a former Yankee with the signing of Matsui (.274, 28 HR, 90 RBI) to a one-year, $6.5 million pact. Although bad knees have limited the Japanese star to being used strictly as a DH, he's still a professional hitter with a knack for coming through in the clutch.
Infielder Maicer Izturis (8 HR, 65 RBI, 13 SB) hit .300 as a semi-regular last season and should once again receive plenty of bats while being sprinkled in at second base, shortstop, and third. The switch-hitter gives the team a capable insurance policy in case Wood struggles.
With Anaheim unloading free-agent bust Gary Matthews Jr. and his bloated contract to the Mets for Stokes, speedy Reggie Willits (.213, 0 HR, 6 RBI) becomes the favorite to take over as the fourth outfielder. He's being pushed in camp by Terry Evans, an out-of-options rookie who belted 26 homers for Triple-A Salt Lake last year.
With the personnel losses the Angels sustained and the expected gains of the other division members, most notably Seattle, there's become a growing train of thought that Anaheim's reign of dominance atop the AL West is nearing its end. Those who dismiss this team should do so at their own risk, however. Led by an extraordinary resourceful manager in Scioscia, the Angels do all the little things (advancing runners, stealing bases, playing defense) as well or better than anybody in baseball, and there's more than enough talent on hand to ensure the offense remains potent. The pitching should be solid as well, provided guys like Santana and Kazmir are able to bounce back and stay off the shelf. Anaheim will be hard-pressed to match last season's 97-victory total, but it shouldn't come as much of a surprise if it's playing October baseball once again.