The Daily Jolt is a dose of baseball reality every weekday morning.
The Angels have been able to cruise for a few seasons now. They cruised to the American League West title last year -- the only team in the major leagues to win 100 games and champions of their division by a 21-game margin. Mike Scioscia's bunch has tamed the West four of the last five seasons and missed the playoffs only twice in the last seven, winning 95-plus games three times over that span.
But more and more you get the sense that Anaheim's ride in 2009 could be more Space Mountain than Monorail.
Angels ace John Lackey is going to start the season on the disabled list with an elbow strain, which will likely keep him out of the rotation until May. Ordinarily that wouldn't be reason to panic. Not when an MRI on Lackey's ailing elbow revealed no structural damage. And certainly not when Lackey didn't start a game until May 14 of last year and the Angels still managed to have the division essentially wrapped up by August.
It is serious cause for concern when the team's third best pitcher and 2008 ERA leader, Joe Saunders, a guy suddenly thrust into the ace role (at least in April), is also one of the most likely candidates in all of baseball for a drastic regression after posting the fifth worst strikeout rate among qualified pitchers in the American League. (He's not Derek Lowe, and he doesn't miss bats. It could get real ugly.)
It's a grave worry when you see that Mark Teixeira, who was exceptional down the stretch in 2008, and Francisco Rodriguez, the single-season saves record-holder, are both preparing to bathe in the spotlight of the Big Apple in 2009, instead of toiling in the shadow of Disneyland.
Throw in the loss of the admittedly below average Jon Garland (and the 196 2/3 innings he threw last year) and the fact that the Angels outperformed their run differential by 12 wins in the positive direction, and it's easy to picture fans in Anaheim reaching -- maybe even lunging -- for the panic button with Opening Day just a breath away.
The Halos weren't nearly as good as they seemed last season, they appear to be significantly weaker on paper heading into 2009 and two critical contributors are already going to miss a significant portion of the season.
If a team's 21-game cushion was going to evaporate in one offseason, isn't this the exact set of circumstances under which it would?
To be fair, the sky isn't falling. With a deep roster, an exciting brand of baseball and the financial clout to get an upgrade at the trade deadline, Los Angeles still seems like the favorite in the AL West. But that says nearly as much about the competition as it does about the Angels. The Mariners are at the outstet of a massive rebuilding project and the Rangers are still a year (and several pitchers) away, leaving an overhauled A's club as their primary competition.
Oakland has upgraded all over the diamond -- most notably in left field (Matt Holliday) and at first base/designated hitter (Jason Giambi) -- and should be significantly better offensively after finishing dead last in the league in runs.
The big knock on the A's all winter has been their rotation, but with Lackey and Santana out, the gap between Oakland's and Los Angeles' starting pitchers is much smaller. And with Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill in the rotation, the A's even possess a bit of upside.
All the Angels have is a big problem: The A's are a real threat to their hegemony right now and the the Rangers soon will be.
The rest of the AL West is catching up fast.