By Chad Stewart
Week four of Spring Training was highlighted by a couple of returns, another setback to the starting rotation, and an offense that continues to impress.
The biggest story line of the week was the long-awaited return of young left-hander Tyler Skaggs. Skaggs returned to the mound for the first time since July 31, 2014, and following a 16-month recovery from Tommy John surgery, pitching the seventh and eighth innings of Thursday’s game against the White Sox. He was excellent, striking out two and allowing an unearned run on one hit. Because of the uncertainty of it, Skaggs is a hugely important factor in the Halos’ starting rotation, and his first appearance was especially encouraging. He was confident, efficient, and had no fear attacking the strike zone. He won’t be ready until shortly after the season begins, but if he performs to his potential this year, he will solidify the rotation and ease any concerns there are with it.
The biggest question mark among Angels starting pitchers is veteran lefty C.J. Wilson. Wilson had elbow surgery last August, and has not appeared in a game this Spring. It was reported last week that he was scrapping his delivery and starting from scratch. As if that wasn’t worrisome enough, he was completely shutdown this week and won’t even begin throwing again until around Opening Day. That makes his expected return date sometime in May. The Angels have the depth to absorb his injury, but Wilson’s consistency will be sorely missed. This development just makes the health and performance of Skaggs even more important.
Right-hander Jered Weaver also returned to the mound this week and was better, but still not great. He started against the Athletics on Friday and gave up three runs on five hits in five innings, striking out two. Weaver’s biggest problem the last couple of years has been his inability to keep the ball in the ballpark, and he has not yet shown that he has fixed that issue this Spring. He allowed two more home runs on Friday bringing his total up to five in 9 2/3 innings. It is always tough to evaluate a pitcher’s Spring Training performance because the ball seems to fly out of the park regardless of the pitcher, and the Cactus League is clearly hitter-friendly, but it is definitely not an encouraging sign. Weaver does not need to be the ace he once was, but if he can stay healthy and provide quality innings, he will still be a vital piece of the rotation.
The most surprising part of Spring Training thus far is how many runs the Angels have been scoring. I’ve written about the success of players like Daniel Nava, Yunel Escobar, and Johnny Giavotella in recent weeks. However, one player I have not mentioned is newly-acquired shortstop Andrelton Simmons. Simmons was acquired for his profound defensive abilities, but his bat has come alive recently. As if his defense didn’t already make him valuable enough, a solid offensive season would elevate that value even more. Simmons is now hitting .306 with a home run, two stolen bases, and just three strikeouts.
Limiting strikeouts has been another notable part of the Halos’ offense. Nava has five strikeouts in 49 plate appearances. Trout also has five in 54 plate appearances. Albert Pujols and Johnny Giavotella each have just two strikeouts in 43 and 60 plate appearances, respectively. And Escobar has yet to strikeout in 52 plate appearances. The Angels are also tied for the highest on-base percentage in the Cactus League. Last year, the Angels were near the bottom of the league in OBP, so the low amount of strikeouts and high contact rates combined with the high amount of walks are a positive sign for the Angels offense. Their offense in 2015 relied too heavily on the production of Trout, Pujols, and Calhoun, and it looks like that won’t be the case this year, as most are at least contributing a solid OBP. If the way they are playing in Spring Training thus far is any indication, the Angels seem to be getting back to the mentality of putting the ball in play and drawing walks that once made them so successful.
The Angels continued playing well this week, going 5-1 and improving to 15-8-4. That’s good for second in the Cactus League. And they’re near the top of the league in most offensive categories. Spring Training is weird.