Sports

Angels determined to show the skeptics they can compete for AL West title

This is the year the Angels have the pitching, hitting and defense to win the American League West, when they stay healthy and play well enough to snap a seven-year playoff drought and send two of baseball’s most transcendent stars, Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout, to the postseason.

To which most Angels fans, hardened by years of rickety rotations, threadbare bullpens, injuries to key players, failed free-agent pursuits and an abundance of overpaid and underachieving veterans, would respond: Yeah, right.

“First of all, I understand the skepticism, absolutely, I do,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “And they have every right to be.”

The Angels are 1,600 miles from Missouri, but they open the 2022 season against the Houston Astros on Thursday night in a show-me state. Until they show they’re good enough and deep enough to contend for a playoff berth, they won’t shed the narrative of negativity that has dogged them for seven years.

Maddon, an optimist by nature, believes this year will be different. He won’t go where Dave Roberts went in March, when the Dodgers manager told sports talk-show host Dan Patrick that his club would win the World Series, but he sees too many encouraging signs for the Angels to stumble through another losing season.

“I think it starts on the mound,” Maddon said. “The six guys we have lined up to start, every one of them has the potential to be a 10-plus game winner with us catching the ball and providing offense.”

The rotation’s success will hinge on the health of Noah Syndergaard and Ohtani, Michael Lorenzen’s ability to transition from reliever to starter and the continued maturation of young left-handers Patrick Sandoval, José Suarez and Reid Detmers.

Syndergaard, the 29-year-old right-hander signed to a one-year, $21-million deal, was limited by Tommy John surgery to two innings in the last two seasons.

The physically imposing 6-foot-6, 242-pounder hasn’t regained the triple-digit fastball that made him so dominant with the New York Mets from 2015-2018, but his heater sat at 95-96 mph in a five-inning, 64-pitch effort in Sunday’s final exhibition start, he looks healthy and he believes there is more in the tank.

Angels pitcher Noah Syndergaard runs to the mound before a spring training game against the Dodgers at Angel Stadium on Sunday.

(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

“As I get more comfortable with my delivery and start getting back to game speed and get that adrenaline,” Syndergaard said, “I think you’re going to see the velocity definitely tick up.”

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Ohtani, the two-way phenom and reigning AL most valuable player, recovered from Tommy John surgery to go 9-2 with a 3.18 ERA in 23 starts on the mound last season. Lorenzen, a former Cal State Fullerton standout, has a five-pitch repertoire that seems well suited for the rotation.

Sandoval, 25, and Suarez, 24, took their lumps in 2019 and 2020 but established themselves as big leaguers in 2021, Sandoval going 3-6 with a 3.62 ERA in 17 games, 14 of them starts, and Suarez going 8-8 with a 3.75 ERA in 23 games, 14 of them starts. Detmers, 22, is the organization’s top pitching prospect.

“The young lefties are gonna surprise everybody this year,” Maddon said. “I like them a lot.”

Angels pitcher Patrick Sandoval throws to the Houston Astros.

Patrick Sandoval, pitching against the Houston Astros on Aug. 13, 2021, had 14 starts for the Angels last season.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Sandoval, who combines a 93-mph fastball with a superb 85-mph changeup, said any pressure the young pitchers might feel will be offset by their motivation.

“Every year, it’s the rotation is kind of a question mark, pitching in general is the big question mark, and we’re tired of it,” Sandoval said. “We’ve heard it for the last four years now. We don’t want to be the question mark anymore, so we’re working our asses off to prove it.”

The bullpen should be more of an exclamation point after the Angels spent $93 million to retain closer Raisel Iglesias and sign left-hander Aaron Loup, who went 6-0 with an 0.95 ERA for the Mets last season, and right-handers Ryan Tepera (2.79 ERA for Cubs and White Sox) and Archie Bradley (3.71 ERA for Phillies).

New York Mets pitcher Aaron Loup throws to a San Francisco Giants batter.

The Angels are hoping Aaron Loup can have a similar season to the one he had last season with the New York Mets.

(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

This group is much deeper and should be more effective than the one that ranked 24th in baseball with a 4.59 ERA, 25th in WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) and converted only 39 of 65 save opportunities last season.

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“In your mind’s eye, you think about the game, the score is even or you’re ahead in the sixth or seventh inning, do you feel comfortable with these guys?” Maddon said. “I say yes.”

A lineup that returns Trout, the three-time AL MVP who suffered a season-ending right calf strain last May 17, and Anthony Rendon, who suffered a season-ending right hip injury in early July, should make opposing pitchers more uncomfortable.

Ohtani, who hit .257 with a .965 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 46 homers and 100 RBIs last season, Trout, Rendon and Jared Walsh (.277, 29 homers, 98 RBIs) give the Angels a formidable foursome at the top of the order.

If young outfielders Jo Adell, Brandon Marsh and Taylor Ward build off their strong 2021 finishes, Max Stassi (13 homers) provides some pop at catcher and shortstop David Fletcher regains his 2019-2020 form, when he got on base at a .356 clip, the offense should score enough to support the pitching.

“We have a deep lineup,” Sandoval said. “There are no easy outs in there.”

As improved as the pitching and offense appear, the bottom half of the rotation and lineup will rely on mostly young and unproven players.

“You’re right,” Maddon said. “But sometimes it’s really cool to get household names before they become household names. It’s our job and the players’ job to make them into that. I think they all have that potential.”

Plenty still has to go right for the Angels to win the rugged AL West, which the Astros are favored to win over the Seattle Mariners, but Maddon likes the raw material he has to work with this season, and he thinks Angels fans — even the skeptics among them — will too.

“Come see us, come check it out, it’s good,” Maddon said. “We’ve got a bunch of dudes out here who you can be really happy to be represented by, because these guys work and the togetherness factor cannot be better.”



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