By Chad Stewart
Every year, Spring Training brings a new found sense of hope and optimism, and this year is no different. Even though the Angels face quite a few questions, I am still as excited for Spring Training as ever.
Billy Eppler started off his first offseason as the Angels general manager with a bang by acquiring the league’s best defender in Andrelton Simmons, and then… well, that was pretty much all of the excitement the offseason would provide, as Eppler was handcuffed by a limited budget. Because of the team’s disappointing offseason, it’d be easy to forget about this acquisition and its importance. Underestimating the impact of Simmons would be a huge mistake. Since his debut in 2012, Simmons leads baseball with 112 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). The next closest in that span is Jason Heyward with 89. Those numbers might mean nothing to you, but the considerable gap should illustrate just how good he is. Oh, and Heyward signed a $184 million contract this offseason, in case you didn’t realize how difficult elite defenders are to come by, and how much value teams place on them.
Of course there’s more to a player than defense, but Simmons provides so much value with his defense that I can look past his sub-par offense. Simmons’ 2013 offensive production certainly looks like an outlier at this point. However, he is still only 26, so it is well within the realm of possibility that he produces similar numbers in the coming years. Regardless, I cannot wait to watch Simmons make dazzling defensive plays every day.
Because it is their most glaring weakness, the left field competition will probably be receiving most of the attention during Spring Training. Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry are the favorites to win the job(s), but it will be interesting to see if another player or two surprise everyone, and seizes the job(s). Players such as Rafael Ortega and Ji-Man Choi have a legitimate chance at seeing regular playing time during the regular season. All it could take is a strong Spring Training performance.
Barring a trade, the Angels will enter Opening Day with eight major league-caliber starting pitchers on the 40-man roster. I would say Garrett Richards, Andrew Heaney, C.J. Wilson, and Jered Weaver are all locks for the rotation. That leaves one spot and four pitchers. Hector Santiago was an All-Star last season, but was inconsistent in the second half. Matt Shoemaker struggled mightily last year (7-10, 4.46 ERA) after finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting in 2014. Nick Tropeano has shown promise in limited major league action, and Tyler Skaggs is coming off Tommy John surgery and will be on an innings limit.
The most likely scenario, in my mind, is that either Santiago or Shoemaker will win the 5th spot in the rotation, and whichever one doesn’t will be in the bullpen. Santiago has experience coming out of the bullpen, as he had success doing so with the White Sox in 2012 and 2013. Shoemaker only has eight relief appearances in the MLB, but his low walk rate and dominant split-finger fastball should help make him a solid middle reliever and possibly an option for the 7th inning. Skaggs and Tropenao would simply provide depth at Triple-A. Or I could be completely wrong, and Skaggs and/or Tropeano could end up in the Opening Day roster. Maybe someone gets traded. These scenarios make the fifth rotation spot an interesting competition to watch in Spring Training.
Watching Andrelton Simmons play is what I am most excited for in Spring Training this year, while I am most interested in watching the development of the left field and starting rotation competitions. There are also plenty of other questions Spring Training might be able to shed some light on. What can we expect from Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson in the final year of their contracts? Will Albert Pujols be able to provide consistent production following another foot surgery? Can Garrett Richards return to his 2014 form and be the ace he can be? Only time will tell.
For better or for worse, Spring Training should be more interesting this year because of all of the questions that don’t yet have answers.