When the Angels open the second half of the 2011 season, they'll be doing so as one of the hottest teams in baseball. Since June 13, the Angels have gone 19-6 (.760) and have won eight straight series, going from four and a half games behind the AL West division leading Texas Rangers to one game back. But, the question isn't how have they done it, but rather, can they keep it up?
The Good News
Rebounding hitters: Of all the Angel regulars, only Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar are performing above their career norms. So unless Vernon Wells, Torii Hunter and Bobby Abreu have reached the point in their careers where they are no longer able to put up the hitting stats fans are accustom to seeing, a slight rebound would not be out of the question. One of the turning points in the Angels season was the return of Vernon Wells from the disabled list on June 7. Prior to his stay on the DL, Wells had been trudging along with a .183/.224/.303 slash-line. In 35 games Wells had just eight extra- base hits. Since his return, Wells has put up a respectable .270/.280/.539 while belting 9 home runs. Over the same period, Torii Hunter had tried to carry the load dropped by Wells, and staggered to a .230/.312/.379 line, highlighted by hitting into a whooping 16 double plays. With the return of Wells and a move to the number two spot in the batting order, Hunter has responded by hitting .301/.343/.441, while reducing his GIDP to three over his past 26 games.
Help could be on the way: Angels' general manager Tony Reagins has said the Angels are in a position to add payroll in the right deal, "We're looking to improve this ballclub. We'll have the opportunity to add if we need to add. If the situation is right, we're going to be aggressive in pursuing it. That's been our M.O. since we've been here and will continue to be. If we see opportunities that will make us better, we're definitely going to jump right in there." The question is; is there a player available who can help? The obvious trade target would be a catcher to replace light-hitting Jeff Mathis. However, finding the right peg to fill that black hole may be difficult. Over at NBC Sports, Matthew Pouliot proposed a Garrett Richards for Ramon Hernandez deal made sense for both the Angels and Reds. The Angels may have also looked into acquiring Cubs' third baseman Aramis Ramirez, but Ramirez has stated he is unlikely to waive his no-trade clause. Another option that has circling the rumor mill is Padres' closer Heath Bell. Although Bell would be a nice addition, the Angels have greater needs in other areas.
Strength of schedule: Although the Angels are a game behind the Rangers, the Angels have played a tougher schedule thus far this season, and can look forward to a slightly easier schedule going forward. Both the Angels and Rangers have 70 games remaining on their schedule, however, the Angels will play just 23 games against teams with a winning record, while the Rangers have 35 games against teams playing .500 or better. Also, the Rangers will be on the road 38 times in their final 70 games, a place where the Rangers have had their problems. In 43 games away from Arlington, the Rangers have compiled a .465 winning percentage, while playing at a .633 clip at home. The Angels on the other hand have a .542/.545 home/away split.
The Bad News
Starting pitching: How can the Angel starting pitching be bad news? Especially since each of the five starters have a sub-4 ERA? Although the Angels starting pitching has been fantastic, a slight regression may be in the Angels future in the second half of the season. Jered Weaver and Dan Haren have been a devastating one-two punch accounting for 42% of the Halo victories, but can they continue to dominate at the same pace for another 70-80 innings? Rookie Tyler Chatwood has been more than adequate since replacing disappointing Scott Kazmir in the rotation, yet he has just 75 innings pitched above Single-A prior to joining the Angels rotation this season and has never pitched more than 155 inning in a season at any level. Additionally, in spite of compiling a good 3.62 ERA in 17 starts, his peripheral numbers aren't as good. If Chatwood continues to put runners on base (he is currently tied for first in allowing base on balls), a regression could be in his future.
No help on the way: As noted above, the Angels have stated they will add payroll if the right deal comes along, but finding the right deal may be next to impossible. Todd Helton could be the left-handed bat the Angels need, but who's to say if he'd waive his no-trade clause. The Mets have started dealing away their higher price talent which means switch-hitting Carlos Beltran is probably available, but the Angel outfield is already crowded with 30-something outfielders. If the Angels are going to deal, they'll have to get creative - something this front office may have forgotten how to do. On the flip-side of the trade scenario is the Texas Rangers who have already said they have the payroll flexibility to add help down the stretch. Texas' biggest need is pitching, something that has in the past been much easier to acquire during the deadline.
Relying on rookies: As mentioned above, the Angel pitching staff is relying on Tyler Chatwood to hold down the #5 spot in the rotation - a risky role for an unproven rookie. However, Chatwood's not the only rookie the Angels are relying on to help carry the team into a play-off hunt. First baseman Mark Trumbo leads the team with 17 home runs, but prior to 2011, he has had just 16 major league plate appearances. Jordan Walden has stepped into the closers role with both feet and a hundred mile-per-hour fastball, converting 20 of 26 save opportunities. Peter Bourjos doesn't qualify as a rookie, but with just 193 plate appearances prior to this season, he's certainly not used to the high drama of a September pennant race. Each of these players is being counted on to help carry the team into what's shaping up to be a neck-and-neck pennant race with the Rangers, without any prior play-off experience.
Heading into the second half of the season, the Angels are in a good position to make a run at Texas mainly because of their pitching staff. With the tandem of Weaver and Haren, plus the their solid bull pen of Rich Thompson, improving Hisanori Takahashi, Scott Downs, and Walden, the club should continue its recent success. The key will be how effective the offense can in its rebound from their May swoon.