TEMPE, Ariz. -- We know the sun sets in the West. But is it setting on the Angels' Empire?
Coming off their first lower-division AL West finish in eight seasons, the Los Angeles Angels are stepping into their most pivotal summer since Mike Scioscia moved into the manager's office in 1999.
Overdramatic? Not with a team that is getting neither younger nor quicker.
There were legitimate reasons why the Angels last summer stumbled to their first sub-.500 mark since 2003.
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Just as there were legitimate reasons (hint: $$$) why they whiffed on their No. 1 free-agent target last winter when Carl Crawford signed with Boston. And why they swung and missed on Mark Teixeira (Yankees) and CC Sabathia (ditto) three winters ago. And why they bade farewell to Chone Figgins, Vladimir Guerrero and John Lackey two winters ago.
But is regression in the standings mutually exclusive from their recent run of unseasonably cold winters?
The Angels are betting a hard yes on that. Without Figgins and, after slugger Kendry Morales fractured his lower left leg in late May, their offense dipped in the severe, lose-your-stomach manner that the Matterhorn causes its riders at nearby Disneyland.
They were so off-balance that they scored 202 fewer runs in 2010 than they did in 2009. Not only was that the largest drop in the majors, but their 681 total runs were the Angels' fewest in a non-strike-shortened season since 1992. Hello, Luis Polonia.
The fix? With Morales back in the middle of the lineup this summer, the Angels are sure a clogged offense again will flow.
"He's very important," says Jered Weaver, the projected opening day starter. "Obviously, having him go out last year put a damper on our season. Anytime you lose a guy like that, it's tough."
But on opening day, Morales will not be in the field behind Weaver. He instead will open the season on the disabled list. And nearly 11 months following his ankle surgery, that's worrisome.
"One thing we've talked about is that Morales is going to be more important at the end of the season than at the beginning of the season," hitting coach Mickey Hatcher says.
Sleeper ... Erick Aybar: After batting .312 in his first full season in 2009, Aybar stumbled badly last year, hitting just .253. In retrospect, that .300-plus batting average from two years ago looks fluky, but he's a much better hitter than what he showed last season. Aybar has always been a good contact hitter, but he fanned much more frequently, particularly early in the season. Even though he was on base less often, he still upped his stolen base total from 14 to 22. He'll never be much of a power hitter, but with a higher average and 20-plus steals, Aybar will have value as a late-round pick in standard mixed league drafts.
Bust ... Bobby Abreu: Abreu's lowest batting average since his rookie season was .283, but last year he mustered just a .255 mark. Despite the dramatic dropoff, Fantasy owners should not dismiss last season as an aberration. Abreu did manage to hit 20 home runs, but he had to hit a lot more flyballs to achieve the distinction. He is no longer the slashing line-drive hitter who could routinely hit .290 despite a higher-than-average strikeout rate. Abreu might be able to hang onto his 20-homer status, but similar to last year, he will make more outs in the process, paying a price in the form of a lower batting average and shrinking RBI and runs scored totals.
Bounce-back player ... Kendry Morales: Of course, the biggest reason that Morales lost Fantasy value last year was missing the last four months with a broken leg, due to his now-infamous home plate celebration-gone-bad. However, even in the two months he did play, Morales slugged .487, which was 82 points lower than his rate from the year before. His home run power was still there, but astoundingly, he hit just five doubles through 51 games. A lot of strange things can happen after two months, and this appears to be one of them. Morales was hitting line drives more frequently and striking out less frequently, and one has to think that more of those hit balls would have found their way into the gaps later in the year, had he played the full season. Though he could be a little slow out of the gate, the 27-year-old should regain his 2009 form in 2011.-- Al Melchior
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But by missing on Crawford, the Angels' leadoff position remains unsettled (Maicer Izturis and others). And by missing over the winter on Adrian Beltre (Texas), third base likely will remain a revolving door (Izturis, Alberto Callaspo or, ahem, Brandon Wood).
Which puts a target squarely on Morales' back. If the Angels don't want to watch defending champ Texas run away again, or even emerging Oakland, Morales must have two good legs and one mean bat.
When he made that ill-fated leap onto home plate and his leg fractured after smashing a game-ending grand slam last May 29, Morales was leading the Angels in batting average (.290), home runs (11), total bases (94) and RBI (39).
The season before, the switch-hitter who signed with the Angels as a free agent in December 2004 after fleeing Cuba, finished fifth in the AL MVP voting thanks to his 34 home runs and 108 RBI.
His biggest issue now is not running in a straight line, but cutting and turning on the run (such as on the bases or in the field). Depending on his workload, the ankle still swells. Until that stops, and then he gets several at-bats in game situations (most likely during extended spring training or in the minors in early April), you won't see him at the Big A.
Which means the next issue is this: After nearly a year away, is Morales' bat capable of picking up where it left off?
"I think he's got the personality where it can," Hatcher says. "This guy, he's like Guerrero. He loves the excitement, he loves the challenge.
"Anybody else, I'd be concerned. But I'm not concerned about him getting in the box. There may be some times when he looks ugly, but he can still hurt the pitcher."
There were enough ugly moments last year with the Angels' lineup that simply limiting them in 2011 will be an improvement.
"There were a number of components," Scioscia says. "First and foremost was the dynamics of trying to set the table with some guys in front of the middle of our lineup, and Figgy was part of that. And then losing Kendrys, it changed everybody's roles in the lineup to where I think guys were trying to do a little too much. And guys we anticipated, Rivera had a tough first half, Erick Aybar and Bobby Abreu struggled.
"A lot of stuff was related. I don't think it was one thing."
As for 2011, it all starts with Morales' recovery.
"He's fine," Hatcher insists. "There ain't nothing wrong with his hitting."
Maybe not. But few can hit in the majors without two good feet. And the quicker Morales gets to that point, the quicker the Angels will be able to stand tall on their own two legs.