It has been a nice little run for the Angels since Aug. 23, their 21-8 record before Monday's game against Oakland taking some sting out of another disappointing season, but they can't let it fool them into thinking they can roll into 2014 with this personnel.
If the Angels are to end a four-year playoff drought next season, they'll need pitching, pitching and more pitching.
"There are some fundamental things we need to look at that a good finish will not and should not mask. … It's very clear some things need to be addressed," Manager Mike Scioscia said.
Who does that addressing is to be determined. There has been speculation that Scioscia or General Manager Jerry Dipoto, perhaps both, could be fired. Dipoto, whose contract runs through 2014, seems more vulnerable than Scioscia, who has five years and about $27 million left on his deal.
The team Dipoto and owner Arte Moreno envisioned, one tilted toward offense, flopped for 41/2 months, going 55-71 and falling as far as 181/2 games back in the American League West.
Of Dipoto's five major off-season pitching acquisitions — Jason Vargas, Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson, Ryan Madson, Sean Burnett — only Vargas made a positive contribution. Blanton (2-14, 6.04 earned-run average) was spectacularly bad, Hanson was demoted to triple A in August, and Madson and Burnett were injured.
A team molded more in Scioscia's image — good pitching, defense, situational hitting and aggressive baserunning — has performed much better of late. In their 29 games before Monday, the Angels had an AL-leading 2.99 overall ERA and 2.04 bullpen ERA, second-best in the majors. They were averaging 5.2 runs per game in September.
"We're pitching well with terrific situational hitting, good baserunning and solid defense. That equation adds up to winning," Scioscia said. "Early, we were built around batter's box offense, and when that struggles, it becomes one-dimensional. That's something we need to take a broader look at."
Offense isn't really the problem, though. Before Monday, the Mike Trout-led Angels, despite their injuries and Josh Hamilton's 4 1/2 -month slump, ranked third in the AL with a .265 batting average and .330 on-base percentage, and fifth with 708 runs and a .418 slugging percentage.
If Albert Pujols comes back from a left heel injury, Hamilton finds a happy medium between the .217 hitter he was for four months and the .322 hitter he has been for the last six weeks, and the Angels fill their third base void with a solid hitter, the offense could be potent.
"If everyone does what they're capable of, it's an awesome lineup," said first baseman Mark Trumbo, who led the team with 34 home runs and 98 runs batted in before Monday. "There's a lot of production. It gives your pitching some breathing room."
It also gives the Angels a surplus of hitters to trade. Whom they part with will determine the quality of pitcher they receive.
Trumbo might net the Angels a top young, cost-controlled starter. A package of second baseman Howie Kendrick, more expandable with the addition of Grant Green, and outfielder Kole Calhoun or outfielder Peter Bourjos could net a solid starter. Shortstop Erick Aybar would have more trade value than Kendrick but would be much harder to replace.
Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson and Garrett Richards are the only locks for the 2014 rotation.
The Angels are expected to bid on Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, who is projected as a No. 2 or No. 3 starter, but his market will be robust. The Angels would not have to trade anyone to acquire Tanaka, and his posting fee, expected to exceed $25 million, does not count toward a team's luxury-tax payroll.
The Angels will try to retain Vargas, who is a free agent, but there are few other attractive options in a mediocre pitching market headed by Matt Garza, Hiroki Kuroda, Bartolo Colon and Ervin Santana.
With $125 million committed to 10 players in 2014, including $71 million to Pujols, Hamilton, Weaver and Wilson, the Angels won't have much room below the luxury-tax threshold, which increases to $189 million next year.
But if there's one thing the Angels learned this season, it's that you can't out-hit bad pitching. Even with their recent surge, they started Monday ranked 11th in starting pitching ERA (4.31) and 12th in bullpen ERA (4.06).
"If you look at any team that wins, they're pretty good at controlling the game on the defensive end," Scioscia said. "And that begins with your rotation."
It usually ends with the bullpen, and the Angels need to improve there too. Ernesto Frieri, who had 36 saves in 40 opportunities before Monday, solidified his job as closer after a summer hiccup, and right-handers Dane De La Rosa (6-1, 2.96 ERA in 72 games) and Michael Kohn (1-3, 3.57 ERA in 62 games) had breakout seasons.
The Angels need Burnett, the left-hander who had elbow surgery in August, and setup man Kevin Jepsen, who had a shoulder strain and an appendectomy, to bounce back.
"Any time you add a Sean Burnett, it helps, but does that make you deep enough?" Scioscia said. "When you have a small group of guys doing what you need to do down there, you have to guard against overuse and overexposure. We have some good pieces. Now, we need to add depth."
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