Friday, April 04, 2008

Thoughts on Tomorrow's Final Four

I tend to be a pessimist when I'm around optimistic people, and I tend to be an optimist when I'm around naysayers. So there are groups of Bruins fans out there who should probably temper their enthusiasm, but some of the local scribes should probably watch some tapes of UCLA's exits the last two years.

Memphis, like Florida, is long and athletic. They have a great point guard, and come at you with a lot of size. But there are two key differences between the teams that will take the floor tomorrow and the teams that played the last two years:

The first is that there is no Corey Brewer. He was the true matchup nightmare for the Bruins the last two years, and not surprisingly, he led the Gators in scoring in last year's national semi. He was a 6'9" wing player who dwarfed just about any Bruin who tried to guard him. He created all sorts of problems both in the paint and from beyond the arc, going 4-5 from three. Chris Douglas-Roberts will not be easy to guard, and he's the most Brewer-esque player on the Tigers. But he'll likely be guarded by UCLA's best and most athletic defender. And while he'll take the three, he prefers to take the ball to the basket. If Westbrook can slow him down on the perimeter, and funnel him towards UCLA's interior players, they may be able to neutralize him somewhat. They aren't going to stop him, but they may be able to slow him down. And while Memphis is strong inside, they aren't as skilled as Florida was in the paint last year.

The second huge difference is Kevin Love. Last year, Aaron Afflalo was limited by early (questionable) fouls. Without him, the offense essentially relied on Darren Collison and Josh Shipp. Shipp responded with a solid 18 points, and Afflalo chipped in 17, many after the game had already been decided. This year a great deal of the offense still comes from the guards, but the addition of Love provides the Bruins an opportunity to look for easier baskets when shots aren't falling, and keeps opponents from focusing all of their efforts on the perimeter. In last year's game, early in the second half, the Bruins trailed the Gators 32-28 following a Mike Roll three pointer. Six minutes later, they trailed 49-32. In that stretch, they missed five jumpers and three layups. They didn't have an interior threat to turn to when the going got tough on the outside. The balance they bring this year should keep them from going long stretches without scoring.

There are other factors as well. First is the experience the Bruins bring. It's a big week for these kids, and though they're used to being on TV and being hounded by the press, the final four is a bit of a different animal. UCLA's experience with the week and its demands should be a plus. Second, UCLA has time and again found the ability to overcome large second half deficits. There was a sense last year (rightly so) that when Florida went on their run that the Bruins were done for. I'm not so sure that will be the case this year. They seem to find a way to lock down on defense, and slowly chip away at a lead until it's gone. They won't be rattled.

Memphis is a great team, to be sure, and I'm not going to predict a result one way or the other. But I think UCLA is in a much better position now than they were last year.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Angels 5; Twins 4

Another one run game with the Twins, another win, and all of the gnashing of teeth after the season opening loss is forgotten for another day. Matthews, Hunter, and Napoli left the yard. Ervin looked fine, but ran into some trouble in the sixth. Oliver looked a little less than great. Speier appeared to show a little rust as well. Another double for Howie, who has a hit in every game so far this year.

The Angels almost made it out of this series without allowing a home run, while Ervin Santana gave the Angels starting staff their fourth quality start in as many attempts. Everyone wants Lackey back as soon as possible, myself included. And we all want Kelvim back period, but who knows how long that will take. Just the same, it looks like the healthy guys are out to prove that they can hold down the fort until the reinforcements arrive.

Three errors in the series, one on a poor Figgins throw today. Two in yesterday's game, an Aybar bobble and a Mathis heave into center field. But aside from that, and a couple of opening day mistakes in left field, the defense has looked pretty good. They turned seven double plays in the series, and that's one way to increase the number of quality starts.

No one is expecting the Twins to set the world on fire, so it's not as if this 3-1 series win is grounds for a party, but at the end of the day, the Angels are left with four more home games than road games, and they have a nice jump on a good road record.

To sum up, the pitching and defense have been great. The hitting has been adequate. Good power for their first series. Good starts for Figgins, Kotchman, and Kendrick, and Matthews, probably the four most important pieces to the offensive puzzle this year (I'm penciling good years from Vlad and Hunter). An all around nice way to start the season.

Angels 1; Twins 0 - Angels now over .500

Joe Saunders came into Spring not even assured of a starting job, though it's safe to say he had the inside track. A solid spring, and two injuries later, and he slid into the #3 role, where he delivered an ace-like performance. He needed only 80 pitches, 52 of the strikes, to complete eight innings, striking out four while only walking one. Had it not been for an opening two games that hadn't required a closer, he might have been allowed to go the distance. But Mike Scioscia needed to get Frankie Rodriguez some work, and after a brief hiccup to start the ninth, he got a little lucky when Carlos Gomez decided to try a two strike bunt that failed for the first out. He induced a double play grounder from pinch hitter Joe Mauer, the seventh double play hit into by the Twins in the first three games of the season.

Nick Blackburn was the hard luck loser, and no doubt he's being snatched up in fantasy leagues as we speak. He allowed five hits, struck out six, and only walked one. His only mistake came in the seventh inning, when he allowed the Angels to score without the ball leaving the infield. Howie Kendrick reached on an infield single to short, moved to second on Jeff Mathis' sac bunt, to third on Erick Aybar's ground out, and pounced at the opportunity to score on Blackburn's wild pitch.

Torii Hunter delivered his first two hits as an Angel, one of which (8th inning) should have delivered an insurance run, but a cautious Gary Matthews held up at third base, and one batter later, Casey Kotchman grounded into a double play ending the half inning.

So the Angels go for the series victory today, and it would be nice to leave the dome with three victories in hand. It's always a tough place for the Angels to play, and it seems like they've played a very high percentage of close games with the Twins over the last six or seven years. Joe Saunders, for his part, leave town with the highest game score of the young season, and he'll lead the league (tied) in ERA for a few days. Now we'll see how Ervin reacts to a day game (horror) on the road (horror of horrors). He's got a chance to make a statement.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Angels 9; Twins 1

Well, that ought to quiet the chicken littles for at least a day. I actually missed most of this one due to a hockey game, but I breezed through the recording from my DVR to watch the run scoring, which means I didn't take a lot of time to witness the greatness that was Jon Garland. His K/9 right now is 0.00, which means he sucks according to most people I read. Of course, if you can get through eight innings, allowing only six baserunners, two of whom were eliminated via the double play (grounded into by guys you failed to strike out), you'll probably have a good day. Pitchers can control or fail to control three things, so says the theory. They can or cannot strike guys out, they can or cannot not walk guys, and they can or cannot keep the ball in the ball park. Do two of those things well, and we'll let the third thing take care of itself.

On the other side of the dish, every Angel starter aside from Torii Hunter had a hit, and even Hunter reached base safely via the HBP. Mike Napoli and Casey Kotchman both found the seats, Howie Kendrick didn't walk, but did deliver three hits (don't get excited, though, because he doesn't walk so he's not that good). Vlad is becoming Vlad again, with three hits, four total bases, and three RBIs. GA delivered his first three hits of the season as well.

1-1, with 160 to go.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Angels 2;Twins 3

Well, they weren't going to win all of them. Jered Weaver threw too many pitches and struggled to stay ahead at times. The big bats provided absolutely nothing. Garret Anderson misplayed two balls in left field. And that's the kind of thing that happens on opening day.

I'm not really going to worry about this one too much. The Angels have struggled for years against soft tossing junkballers, which is basically what Livan Hernandez has become. He threw only 84 pitches in seven innings, and far too often the Angel hitters got themselves out. On the flipside, Jered Weaver took 106 pitches to get through six and third, 41 of those were out of the strike zone. He did strike out five against two walks (the Angels walked zero times, surprise surprise). Weaver oscillated between sharp and shaky. Add that to the poor defense on the two popups to shallow left, and the Twins got just enough.

There were a couple bright spots. Darren Oliver came in and got two outs on four pitches. Casey Kotchman singled three times, and Chone Figgins added two hits of his own.

Another close one with the Twins. This one didn't go the Angels' way. That's why there's a tomorrow.

Opening Damn Day!

How about I revisit the Spring Training Preview, with new comments in Halo Red:

Brian Ward asked me to put something together about the Angels for his Spring Training blog. They're getting this together for every team. My contribution is below. Feel free to tell me why I'm an idiot. (Please don't call me an idiot). FWIW, I was just on a conference call today where we made plans to go to a client location in Phoenix the first week of March. Spring Training was the first thing that popped into my head. (We didn't get to any games, but I drove past Diablo Stadium like three times a day).

Location: Tempe Diablo Stadium
Pitchers and Catcher Report: February 14th
First game: February 28th

Projected Opening Day Lineup
  1. Chone Figgins (3B)
  2. Howie Kendrick (2B)
  3. Vladimir Guerrero (RF)
  4. Torii Hunter (CF)
  5. Garret Anderson (DH)
  6. Casey Kotchman (1B)
  7. Gary Matthews Jr. (LF)
  8. Mike Napoli (C)
  9. Erick Aybar/Maicer Izturis (SS)
(We'll see about the batting order, but the rest looks spot on. Napoli and Izturis have won the opening day nods at their positions).

Projected Rotation
  1. John Lackey
  2. Kelvim Escobar*
  3. Jered Weaver
  4. Jon Garland
  5. Joe Saunders
*Expected to open the season on the DL.

Obviously Lackey and Escobar are on the DL, possibly for a long, long time in the case of Escobar. But the other four all had solid springs, and if they can weather the storm until Lackey comes back to full strength, they should be fine. I would not expect Escobar back this year.


Long – Ervin Santana
Situational – Darren Oliver, Dustin Moseley, Jason Bulger, Chris Bootcheck
7th Inning – Justin Speier
8th Inning – Scot Shields
Closer – Francisco Rodriguez

Santana clearly moves out of this role and into the rotation for probably the entire season, or until he pitches himself out of it, whichever comes first. Moseley enters the rotation for the beginning of the year. Bootcheck and Shields are hurt. Looks like Rich Thompson and Darren O'Day will fill their slots for the first part of the year. The back end of the rotation stays intact.

Key Battles: The biggest question mark going into Spring Training is clearly at shortstop. The off-season trade of Orlando Cabrera, which brought pitcher John Garland in return, opened up the shortstop spot for a battle between Maicer Izturis and prospects Erick Aybar and Brandon Wood. Aybar appears to be the early favorite based on public comments by Mike Scioscia, who favors the young Dominican for his defense and ability to make contact. Izturis is more of a proven performer at the plate, and is solid defensively, but has never put everything together for a whole season. He also provides the versatility to sub at third base and second base if needed. Wood is a long shot, but if he explodes this Spring, he could force some difficult decisions for the Angels brain trust.

Wood didn't explode. Aybar looked surprisingly good, and I expect him to play a lot, even with Izturis getting the opening day start. Maicer hit .365/.431/.500 in 52 at bats, while Aybar showed good power, hitting .274/324/.532, including four homers. This was probably the best case for the Angels. Both players responded to the competition and they go into the season with both playing well. I didn't see many games, but reports on Aybar's defense were positive as well.

The Cabrera/Garland trade has also created somewhat of a logjam in the starting rotation where, upon the return of Kelvim Escobar, the Angels will have six starters for only five starting spots. Ervin Santana will more than likely start the season in the rotation and remain there as long as Escobar is out. When Escobar gets healthy, Santana figures to be the odd man out, but he could beat out lefty Joe Saunders for the fifth spot. He remains the number one option to make spot starts, or to fill rotation holes should anyone else get injured. Either way, Garland’s addition added depth to an already excellent starting staff.

Who knew they'd really need that depth this early. As it turns out, the deal was very prescient, both because of the need at starter and because of the developments at short. Moseley had a decent spring, giving up four runs in 12 innings, with a solid 1.25 WHIP, but only six strike outs. Still, they'll only ask for six innings and chance to win from their fifth starter until Lackey returns. And hopefully, with Santana still a question mark (4.26 spring ERA in 31.2 IP), maybe Moseley will use this as a chance to make his case for a starting job.

The acquisition of Torii Hunter created the proverbial good problem to have, as the Angels head into the Spring with five outfielders who could start for at least two thirds of the league, and a sixth who could probably start for 6-8 more. Hunter as the every day center fielder seems to be the only lock at this point. Vladimir Guerrero figures to split time between right field and DH, while Garret Anderson will do the same at the left field/DH spot. There are questions about how much Anderson has left in the tank, but after returning to full health he exploded over the last two and a half months of the season, when he put up a line of .350/.409/.650. It remains to be seen whether that was a fluke, or whether he can carry that forward to 2008. Gary Matthews Jr. will play everywhere, depending on who needs a day off, and who is DHing. For the moment, this leaves both Juan Rivera, one season removed from bad broken leg, and Reggie Willits, who exploded at the start of the season before wearing down in the last few months, on the outside looking in. Both figure to be tradable commodities prior to opening day, and a good spring could lead to a deal, perhaps packaged with an arm in return for a big bat. The Angels probably wouldn’t mind moving Matthews as well, but a no trade clause stands in the way.

Six outfielders on the opening day roster. Hunter had a tremendous spring (.345/.367/.707), as did Gary Matthews (.449/.472/.612). In fact, the six outfielders hit a combined .334/.372/.544 in roughly 300 total at bats. That's some pretty solid depth, and it will be interesting to see how Scioscia gets all these guys involved. And with the pitching issues, it wouldn't be a shock to see one of them gone before June.

Waiting in the wings is Kendry Morales, who started to show what he could do at the plate, hitting .323/.343/.462 over the last month of the season. He could see time at first base if the Angels decide to sit Casey Kotchman against tough lefties, but to this point, Morales has been a better hitter from the left side of the plate, so there may not be much platoon advantage there, and the Angels could decide to stick with Robb Quinlan in that role. Both have seen limited time in the outfield, giving the Angels a seventh option should the need arise, though that seems unlikely.

Morales (.385/.484/.558 - 52 at bats) had an excellent spring, as did Quinlan (.317/.333/.439 - 41 at bats). Kotchman was less than stellar, but wasn't really competing for a job. What really stands out are the seven walks drawn by Kendry in those 52 at bats. Pretty incredible for a guy with extremely questionable plate discipline.

A smaller skirmish will take place behind the plate, where Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis will split time. The only question is which one will take over the primary duties. Napoli has the superior stick, with a 109 OPS+ over his first 174 games, while Mathis provides better defense. Napoli struggled a bit at the plate after returning from injury over the last month of the season, but even his .707 OPS over that period was far superior to anything Mathis has been able to put up over any month in his career.

No surprise here. It was Napoli winning the job, although Mathis had a pretty decent spring. They're catchers, so there's going to be plenty of playing time for both anyway.

What To Expect: Aybar will be given every opportunity to succeed at shortstop, but if he can’t cut it, the Angels may back into a better option with Izturis. Expect Wood to start the season in Salt Lake with a mandate to improve his ability to make contact. I’d be a bit surprised if they broke camp with both Willits and Rivera, as neither figures to be in their top four outfielders unless they can find someone to take Matthews and his big contract off their hands. It’s doubtful that all six starting pitchers will be ready to go in the first week, so I wouldn’t expect the fifth spot in the rotation to be decided until a week or two into April.

They didn't back into a better option at short - Izturis won it outright. Wood will start the season in Salt Lake because he was not very good this spring, but he's still young, so I'm not particularly worried. I'm surprised they still have all six outfielders. I don't expect the rotation issues to be settled until mid to late May. But I do expect the Angels to win the division. Oakland second. Seattle third. Texas last. Let's play ball!