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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Winding The Wayback Machine: Derek Zumsteg Previews The 2001 Angels

I was poking around at BTF when I saw this thread about Dave Cameron's interesting long guest article at The Baseball Analysts, a history of the post-2003 Mariners' bad (and worse) decisions. Poster Blackadder asked, "Do people remember the pre-season projections for the 2001 Mariners?" That got me thinking about BPro, which has archives dating back at least that far. Yes, the M's were universally picked to finish fourth in the AL West (with no win totals, but let's say they were a bit off). But that, of course, was not what brought me here; it was instead Derek Zumsteg's 2001 Cactus League previews of the Angels, seeing his last game at Tempe Diablo.
Despite being in familiar settings and sitting in good seats, I was uncomfortable waiting for the game to start, because Mickey Hatcher was out by the Angels' dugout before the game, laughing and talking to people he apparently knew while also shaking hands and stopping to talk to little kids. I've said some bad things about Hatcher because he's a big advocate of being an "aggressive" hitter, like Garret Anderson, instead of a being a really good hitter like Troy Glaus. I don't have any evidence that Mickey Hatcher is a bad guy, just like I don't know Cam Bonifay from Adam's off ox, but my dislike for his coaching stance means I hold a low opinion of him that leads to some pointed jabs.
Having only started going to spring training games since 2004, I can't remember a single Angels Cactus League game like this. The players are only slightly more accessible in the spring than they are in the regular season, and I have not one time seen Hatcher hanging out with the rabble before a game. That doesn't mean I disagree with Zumsteg's opinion of Hatcher, not by a long shot.
One of the problems we face as baseball writers is that while it's Hatcher's fault that he's not the best hitting coach he can be, it's really the Angels' fault for hiring him for that position when he's obviously not going to help. Having him stand not ten feet from me, acting like one of the friendliest guys I'd seen in the Cactus League, made me wonder if I'd been too hard on him. On reflection, I don't think I was, but when I saw Al Martin, who last year got into his scuffle with his backup wife in nearby Scottsdale, sitting in the opposing dugout, it gave me pause.

It was a split-squad game, and while the Angels did play a number of probable starters, good and bad (Darin Erstad, Troy Glaus, Garret Anderson, Wally Joyner), the Mariners sent their bad starters (Al Martin, Bret Boone, David Bell) and John Olerud. New Angels backup catcher Jorge Fabergas was there. I don't know why the Angels picked him up, but we coined a new term to describe his play: "Fabergastic." Feel free to use that to describe other low-hitting backup catchers with good arms, like, say, Henry Blanco.

Center field was played by Charles Gipson and Darin Erstad. I'd never seen Erstad in center, and he displayed range and ball-tracking befitting the position. Moving Erstad in center could be the right thing to do for Anaheim, especially considering that Garret Anderson's play out there looked much worse last year than it ever had before. I don't know what happened to him, but unless he's back to his 1999 form Erstad is the clear choice.

Well, we all know how that ended up; Erstad posted all-universe fielding numbers at center, some of the best glovework in modern history.
The day's starters were Paul Abbott, who I really like to cheer for, and Tim Belcher, who I think is too fragile to contribute and should retire with a decent career under his belt. Abbott looked bad after the first inning and was hit hard, while Belcher looked sharp until he ran out of steam in the fourth and got batted around badly.

With Fabregas making the last out, Mike Scioscia himself took incoming pitcher Troy Percival's warmup throws, then walked back to the dugout, laughing and shaking his hand like it really hurt, which it must have. Percival was as good as I've seen him in some time, throwing heat and sitting down a few scrubs (Blake Barthol, Manny Alexander, Scott Posednik) with an easy grace. Two of them watched beautiful pitches go right past them for called third strikes, and I couldn't help but think that maybe Percival will stay healthy and we'll get to see him pitch like he can all year long.

Despite his recovering from a broken finger, a torn muscle in his pitching arm, and an inflamed elbow, Tim Belcher was done; he didn't throw a single inning with the Angels after that spring training, or with any other team, for that matter. Troy Percival recovered from an injury year in 2000 and was in fact healthy in 2001, so much so that Bill Stoneman turned away offers from the St. Louis Cardinals at the trade deadline for his services.
I saw two young pitchers I was interested in (and who I saw pitch against each other in a Triple-A game last year), Mariner Joel Pineiro and Angel Matt Wise, both of who I like a lot. Pineiro looked really bad; his pitches were wild up and down, in the dirt and then head-level, and he gave up three hits and a walk in two innings of work. Wise, who've I've said a lot of good things about and gone as far as making him my BIG FANTASY TOUT for the year to anybody who would listen, was not at all the pitcher I saw last year. He didn't get ahead as often, gave up a lot of hard hits, and, unlike Pineiro, didn't escape without giving up a run, aided by a brutal error by Wilmy Caceres at shortstop. He didn't locate his breaking pitches and his fastball got jumped. The only thing I saw from the Wise I'd remembered was his changeup, which is beautifully deceptive and gets him a strike nearly every time he throws it.
Matt Wise had a strange ailment in an April 12 game against Texas, complaining of a nosebleed, dizziness, and blurred vision; he was sent from the mound after one inning of work, was shipped to the minors almost immediately after being cleared by doctors of any sort of cerebral hemorrhage, something that had happened to Kent Mercker at Edison Field the year before. Wise didn't resurface until much later that year, and pitched 8.1 innings in 2002 with no decisions and a 3.24 ERA. He spent 2003 without throwing a single pitch, and the Angels released him at the end of the season.

After snarking about Gary Johnson (now long out of baseball), he comes upon a subject still near to the hearts of many an Angels fan:

I also got to see David Eckstein, who the Angels picked off of waivers last year, and who is one of the few Angels prospects I like. What really impressed me was how fast he was on the basepaths. He went 2-for-4 with a double to center field on which he tore out of the batter's box and got to second almost immediately. I know the Angels are big on Adam Kennedy, but the injury that will sideline Kennedy for a month may give Eckstein a place to play. He'd be a significant upgrade, offering an average glove and a good on-base bat. Eckstein also warms up in the on-deck circle as vigorously as anyone I've seen, doing quick stretches and drills, swinging the bat back and forth...it's a marked contrast from Garret Anderson, who I saw just stand around, waiting for his turn.
As it turned out, both Eckstein and Kennedy were useful pieces; Matt Wise was on his way out. Percival stuck around and pitched the team to glory in the 2002 postseason. Gipson made the Mariners as a fifth outfielder, a late-innings replacement who saw occaisional pinch-hitting duties. Piniero came up on July 5 as a reliever; five games later, the M's converted him to starting, and after his fifth start on August 12 against the Chisox, he was carrying a ridiculous 0.93 ERA as a 22-year-old. He proceeded to get a little bit worse every year from there, until 2006 when the M's let him go in his walk year.

The point here isn't so much anti-nostalgia or opportunistic hindsight as it is looking back to a time when the Angels were really just on the verge of contending. As it seemingly happened with the Rays this year, it can happen overnight. So can the reverse; the Mariners' 116-win season was the last time they won the division, and though they followed it up with two 93-win seasons, that team was noticeably old, and there wasn't anything in the farm system to replace the aging parts at the major league club. Such was the burden inherited by Bill Bavasi.

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One interesting aspect of that 2001 team is that their record certainly did not befit how good they were. It was supposed to be a team that would compete for a playoff spot with good hitting and young pitching, but then Moo Vaughn got hurt and Salmon took his traditional slow start over the entire season. In addition, they played in the toughest division, possibly ever, with one team winning 116 and another winning 103. The Angels record against the Mariners was particularly atrocious, as was their finish to the season (where they played the A's and M's a lot). Before that last month, they were actually around 5 games out of the wild card.
Remember when you ridiculed my assertion late last year that the Rays had a lot of good "young talent"? Good times....
They certainly weren't playing like it...
They certainly weren't playing like it...

Right. Except for B.J. Upton, Carl Crawford, Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Brendan Harris and Delmon Young.
Pfft. The Rays finished 66-96, four games away from a 100-loss season. What's the difference between last year and this?

1) They're finally getting contributions from some former "potential" trades. Edwin Jackson is major league average instead of a crater. Dioner Navarro is a useful offensive player instead of a reserve catcher masquerading as a starter.

2) Their revamped bullpen is nails. The Devil-in-the-details Rays bullpen last year was 11-20, with only one pitcher sporting an ERA+ over 100. This year, everyone is, fortified, stunningly, by the addition of the seemingly ageless Troy Percival. The only reliever back from last year in regular service is Gary Glover, and he's not seeing much time on the mound.

3) Evan Longoria has improved offense at 3B. Iwanori Akamura was a not-bad guy to be throwing at third, but the position is supposed to be offense-first; the Rays moved a guy slugging .411 for a guy slugging .503 (sample size and early career issues duly noted).

4) The team upgraded at CF by unloading "potential" guy Elijah Dukes and replacing him with B.J. Upton. You could also probably note here that for the first time in a while, Rocco Baldelli's injury status was relatively unimportant.

Yeah, they had some good players, but as a team Tampa Bay wasn't really getting it done in 2007. They made some good draft calls, replaced deadwood, and improved by shuffling the cards they did have.
only thing i'd correct you on Rob in all that is Mickey Hatcher realy is a friendly Okie to fans. i've been around Spring bunches over the years and Mickey is friendly to fans, by far the most outgoing guy on the Angels staff.

Another guy i like from my spring visits who as gets a lot of pointed criticism is Dino. If Mike hangs it up any time soon and another team doesn't grab him first like they did Maddon and Black, Dino Ebel will be the next Angel manager one day.
Yeah, they had some good players,

Right, which was the only original point I was making. You have such a funny way of admitting you were wrong.
Without seeing what it was that I originally wrote, and taking a cue from my own domestic dealings, you were right, I was wrong, you were right, I was wrong, you were right, I was wrong, etc.
Hey, how about a link to that spring training article you're discussing at such length?
Goodness! The one thing I forgot. Thanks for that!

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