the angel angle

i haven't seen it mentioned anywhere that the 2006-07 cardinals tracked the 2002-03 angels almost to a tee --- and with a number of the same players. eckstein, kennedy, spiezio, and troy percival all won a world title with anaheim in 2002, then suffered through a lifeless 77-85 campaign in 2003. those angels were 5 games out by may 1, 10 games out by june 1, and 15 games out by early august; they finished 19 games back. they fell into 3d place on april 18 and never rose higher in the standings. the 2007 cardinals stayed closer to the top of the division because it was a terrible division, but their season was just as bad. like the 2007 cards, the 03 angels brought back their title-winning roster almost completely intact; they made even fewer changes than the cardinals, who at least had some turnover on the pitching staff due to free-agent defections and injuries.

it's far from a perfect analogy --- those angels were much younger than the 2006-07 cards (6 of 9 everyday players were under 30), and their title-winning team had a very good overall pitching staff (2d-lowest era in the league), while the 2006 cards finished 9th in nl era and simply got hot at the right time. but there are parallels too --- the angels' offense collapsed in the year after they won the title, large through age- and injury-related attrition, and their starting rotation regressed to a 4.90 era, 4th-worst in the league --- comparable to the cards' 5.04 rotation era, which was 3d worst in the nl this year. there's enough similarity that i though it might be instructive to see how the angels responded to their 77-85 post-championship disappointment --- especially since they bounced back to win the division in 3 of the ensuing 4 years. how'd they do it?

here's a quick summary of their rosters, year by year, with starers' ages and how acquired:

2002
99-63, 2d
2003
77-85, 3d
2004
92-70, 1st
2005
95-67, 1st
2006
89-73, 2d
2007
94-68, 1st
c b molina, 27
homegrown
b molina, 28
homegrown
b molina, 29
homegrown
b molina, 30
homegrown
m napoli, 24
homegrown
m napoli, 25
homegrown
1b s spiezio, 29
free agent
s spiezio, 30
free agent
d erstad, 30
homegrown
d erstad, 31
homegrown
r quinlan, 29
homegrown
c kotchman, 24
homegrown
2b a kennedy, 26
trade
a kennedy, 27
trade
a kennedy, 28
trade
a kennedy, 29
trade
a kennedy, 30
trade
h kendrick, 23
homegrown
ss d eckstein, 27
waivers
eckstein, 28
waivers
eckstein, 29
waivers
o cabrera, 30
free agent
o cabrera, 31
free agent
o cabrera, 32
free agent
3b t glaus, 25
homegrown
t glaus, 26
homegrown
c figgins, 26
homegrown
d mcpherson, 24
homegrown
m izturis, 25
trade
c figgins, 29
homegrown
lf g anderson, 30
homegrown
g anderson, 31
homegrown
j guillen, 28
free agent
g anderson, 33
homegrown
g anderson, 34
homegrown
g anderson, 35
homegrown
cf d erstad, 28
homegrown
d erstad, 29
homegrown
g anderson, 32
homegrown
s finley, 40
free agent
c figgins, 28
homegrown
g mathews, 32
free agent
rf t salmon, 33
homegrown
j davanon, 29
trade
v guerrero, 28
free agent
v guerrero, 29
free agent
v guerrero, 30
free agent
v guerrero, 31
free agent

let's stop there for a moment; we'll get to the pitching in a second. what did the angels do here? after 2003, it took 3 to 4 years for a new crop of prospects to ripen; in the last couple seasons they have installed napoli behind the plate, kotchman at first, and kendrick at 2d, with two other homemade products (erick aybar and reggie willits) starting 162 games between them in 2007. the angels stayed extremely patient while waiting for this group to get ready, using makeshift solutions throughout the everday lineup --- and continuing to win. from 2003 to 2006 they had revolving doors at 3 positions (1b, 3b, and cf); they plugged in some one-year stopgaps (guillen, finley, izturis) and sifted through some so-so-prospects (quinlan, mcpherson). but the sifting did yield one useful homegrown player, chone figgins. the angels' saving grace was the addition of one free-agent superstar, guerrero --- for several years he was to their lineup what pujols was to stl's this year, ie the only guy who keeps it from being a total embarrassment. from 2004-06 the angels ranked 7th, 7th, and 11th in runs scored --- but they still remained competitive in a tough division. above all, they stayed young --- in every season, they had at least 4 everyday players who were younger than 30, and they avoided blockading their farm system with long-term contracts to aging vets. this year, with all the youngsters in place, they rose to 4th in scoring, and they have two pretty good hitting prospects (brandon wood and kendry morales) hovering at triple A. their future looks rosy.

could the cardinals follow a program like this? possibly. they could take the stopgap approach, commit to ryan and ankiel as everyday players in 2008 and live with their limitations (whatever they might be), with lesser prospects such as schumaker and hoffpauir available for bench support and/or everyday duty if plan A doesn't work out. if the cards can get league-average production, or close to it, from those guys, it frees up a huge chunk of payroll to address weaknesses elsewhere on the roster. and there are always the john rodriguez / ryan ludwick types floating around out there, who can provide contributions essentially for free. would that make for a great offense? not hardly; but it'd have a good chance to be league average, which would suffice for a year until rasmus and anderson come up in 2009 to (we hope) offer a boost.

now to the angels' rotation:

2002
99-63, 2d
2003
77-85, 3d
2004
92-70, 1st
2005
95-67, 1st
2006
89-73, 2d
2007
94-68, 1st
sp1 j washburn, 27
homegrown
j washburn, 28
homegrown
j washburn, 29
homegrown
j washburn, 30
homegrown
k escobar, 30
free agent
k escobar, 31
free agent
sp2 k appier, 34
trade
j lackey, 24
homegrown
j lackey, 25
homegrown
j lackey, 26
homegrown
j lackey, 27
homegrown
j lackey, 28
homegrown
sp3 r ortiz, 29
homegrown
r ortiz, 30
homegrown
b colon, 31
free agent
b colon, 32
free agent
jer weaver, 23
homegrown
jer weaver, 24
homegrown
sp4 a sele, 32
free agent
sele, 33
free agent
sele, 34
free agent
p byrd, 34
free agent
jef weaver, 29
free agent
joe saunders, 26
homegrown
sp5 j lackey, 23
homegrown
k appier, 35
trade
k escobar, 28
free agent
e santana, 22
homegrown
e santana, 23
homegrown
e santana, 24
homegrown
cl t percival, 32
homegrown
t percival, 33
homegrown
t percival, 34
homegrown
f rodriguez, 23
homegrown
f rodriguez, 24
homegrown
f rodriguez, 25
homegrown

very interesting mix of strategies here. after 2003, the angels signed two free agents: colon and escobar. colon's was a rich four-year deal, and he delivered one good season on it --- 2005, when he won the cy young. he's been hurt and / or very ineffective in all of the other three years. escobar, however, has been a wonderful buy --- sub-4.00 era's in every year of the deal, although injuries kept him sidelined for 2005, which happened to be colon's lone good season. essentially, the angels paid top dollar for 8 years of pitching and netted 4 good seasons (3 by escobar, 1 by colon). a very expensive proposition, but that's about what pitching costs these days on the free-agent market. the angels got far better returns on the three homegrown pitchers who've joined the rotation, one per year, since 2005 --- santana, jered weaver, and saunders. those guys --- all younger than 30 --- plus the homegrown 20something already in place (ie lackey) have thrown the bulk of the innings on the staff and delivered the most reliable performance. the angels also installed a young homegrown pitcher at closer, and he has been all-star caliber.

this is where the cardinals have to worry --- because the personnel are simply not available for them to execute either of the strategies the angels pursued after 2003. adam wainwright is the cards' counterpart to lackey --- a member of the championship team, already in place when the rebuilding process begins --- and that, frankly, is a huge piece of the puzzle. that's the good news. lackey has been the angels' workhorse for 4 years running, a true staff anchor, and if wainwright can provide the same for the next four years, that eliminates a very large concern for st louis. however ---- there are no bartolo colons or kelvim escobars available on the free-agent market this year (well, colon himself is available, but he's not the pitcher he was then), so that type of approach probably won't work for the cards --- and it didn't really work all that well for the angels, frankly. and in truth, the cards already have a bartolo colon counterpart under contract --- chris carpenter, an over-30 pitcher with a great track record. he has four years to run on his deal, and if he delivers 1 good season within that time frame he will have equaled colon's contribution; if he delivers 3 good seasons out of the 4, then he's the answer to escobar. so now we've got two pieces of this puzzle filled . . . . .

and what of the homegrown pitchers? jaime garcia might be ready in 2009, if he stays healthy and continues to improve --- that would be three years post-championship, the same time ervin santana joined the angels' rotation. by 2010, four years post-championship (when jered weaver arrived in los angeles), we can hope that one of the cards' #1 draftees (ottavino, tyler herron, or clay mortensen) is good to go. and by 2011, who knows?

in the short term (ie 2008) there are obvious problems --- they might be able to add one not-very-good pitcher via free agency or swing a trade for one season of jon garland or matt morris, someone like that. maybe they'll get lucky and one of the upper-level prospects who struggled this year (reyes, hawksworth, thompson) will achieve league-averageness. but they need to improve their run differential by 100 runs just to get back to .500 --- that isn't very likely to happen in a single off-season. longer term, though, i don't think the franchise's prospects are so bleak. they still have pujols in his prime; with some patience and prudence and a bit of luck (you always need that), they may be back in contention by 2009, with 3 years left to run on albert's deal. if it were to turn out that way, i for one wouldn't complain.

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