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How the 2014 Angels shaped the 2015 Red Sox

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The Angels were one of the best teams in baseball last season and the Red Sox noticed.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

This weekend the Red Sox play the Angels. It was not that long ago that these two wealthy franchises were regular playoff rivals. The Angels won the last of those playoff encounters, eliminating the Red Sox in the ALDS in 2009. Before that, Boston had knocked Los Angeles out of October baseball in 2008, 2007 and 2004. In recent seasons, however, these two clubs have both been up and down in the standings and missed each other's playoff runs by a season or two. In 2013, the high-priced Angels posted a losing record and a third place finish while the Red Sox completed their worst-to-first transformation with a World Series title. Last season, the Angels had the best record in the American League while Boston fell back to the bottom of the AL East.

As these two former rivals meet again for the first time this season, both are underachieving. Boston was predicted to be in the hunt for the AL East title by many experts and projections systems, but at the moment, they are three games below .500, in fourth place. The Angels have been slightly better, at 21-20, but they are not exactly dominating the AL West as expected, sitting 5.5 games behind the Astros. A rebirth of their October rivalry is still very much possible, but both teams will need to solve the same problems for that to happen. They have both been plagued by a lineup that has failed to live up to expectations and starting pitching staff that didn't inspire many to begin with. It is hardly surprising that these two clubs have similar issues. In many ways, the 2015 Red Sox were built in the image of that successful 2014 Angels club, a club which has hardly changed since they lost to the Royals in the ALDS last October.

Entering into the 2015 offseason, the Red Sox had plenty of areas in need of an upgrade. The starting rotation that had carried them to October glory in 2013 was traded away with the season beyond saving in 2014 and Plan-B options like Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa had failed to lock in spots in the final months of the lost season. Boston tried to bring back free agent ace Jon Lester but lost out to the Cubs. With Lester out of the equation, the Red Sox set about rebuilding in a somewhat unexpected manner. Rather than turning their attention to other top free agent arms like James Shields or Max Scherzer or trading from their well-stocked farm for Cole Hamels, the Red Sox took an approach that looks quite similar to what the Angels did in building their 2014 powerhouse club.

To start with, the Angels built a deep and powerful offense. The Halos outscored everyone in 2014. Having Mike Trout certainly helped, but Boston could hardly copy that aspect of the Angels attack. Instead, the Red Sox added Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. The Angels had been a very good offense in 2013, but third base had been something of a black hole for them. Alberto Callaspo saw the most plate appearances at the position for the 2013 Angels and posted a 92 OPS+. The Angels dealt defensive standout Peter Bourjos to the Cardinals for David Freese heading into the 2014 season and Freese was a significant upgrade with a 103 OPS+. Sandoval will almost certainly be an even greater upgrade over Will Middlebrooks in Boston, especially if they can keep him away from lefties.

The Angels could afford to deal Bourjos (and later traded away Mark Trumbo as well) because they had amassed a glut of outfield depth that is reminiscent of the one the Red Sox are still in the process of sorting out. In 2013, the Angels had started the year with Bourjos, Trout and Josh Hamilton as their everyday outfield, an awkward combination of players and skills that was complicated by the emergence of two prospects, J.B. Shuck and Cole Calhoun, along with the occasional appearance from Trumbo. They added additional depth in-season by picking up Collin Cowgill from the Mets. Entering the 2014 off-season, the Angels had seven players vying for roles in the outfield. They dealt two in key trades Bourjos and Trumbo  but the depth proved to be important beyond those deals as well. Shuck would turn back into a pumpkin, but Calhoun proved to be an important part of the lineup with a 122 OPS+ on the year and Cowgill stepped up in a major way in part-time duty.

The Red Sox offense has plenty in common with the Angels of last season, from their many  outfield / first base / DH-types to the upgrade at third to the fluid right field situation between a bounce-back candidate veteran (Hamilton in L.A., Victorino in Boston) and a young up-and-coming player (Calhoun in L.A., Castillo in Boston). But it is the way that both teams went about rebuilding their pitching staffs that really makes the common strategy apparent. After missing out on Jon Lester, the Red Sox shifted their starting pitching strategy to something positively Angels-eque. They built a rotation that was never meant to dominate, but just to hold teams in check while the offense did its damage.

Heading into 2014, the Angels lacked a true ace. Jared Weaver had filled that role in the past, but he was coming off of two seasons of declining peripherals and an injury in 2013. Sound familiar? There is no pitcher quite as enigmatic as Clay Buchholz, but entering 2014, Jared Weaver had many of the same questions around him that Buchholz has right now. Weaver would not prove to be the Angels ace, but he was healthy and posted a league average ERA.

Photo Credit -- Tommy Gilligan - USA Today Sports

The Angels did find an ace, however, and he came from a fairly unexpected place. Before Garrett Richards' 2014 season, he was an intriguing arm with potential, but he was hardly the type of pitcher you would expect to see labeled an ace. He was a prolific ground-ball guy in 2013, keeping the ball on the grass almost 58 percent of the time, but he had uninspiring strikeout and walk numbers to go with that ability and he under-preformed those middling peripherals as well. In 2014, he added two strikeouts per nine innings to his worm-burning style and posted an ERA and FIP of 2.60 before falling to injury in late August.

If the Red Sox were searching for a diamond in the rough with their pitcher acquisitions, the mine they were digging from was the one that gave the Angels Richards. They played their biggest trade chip to land a pitcher who has more than a little in common with the Angels ace, dealing Yoenis Cespedes for ground-ball specialist Rick Porcello. Their trade-deadline move to land Joe Kelly fits the mold as well. Both pitchers have had their struggles early this season, but they have also both added strikeouts to their repertoire in a way that makes the Richards' comparison even more persuasive. With the price of top-tier free agent arms being what it was this past off-season, the strategy of building an ace instead of buying one has to be extremely tempting for everyone. Boston went that way and Richards seems to be the model they are hoping to copy.

What happened when the Angels lost Richards might have been just as important to the Red Sox rotation overhaul as Richards' emergence. In a three-team battle in the AL West, losing Richards looked like a death sentence for L.A. in the final month. Instead, the Angels finished August strong, sweeping the collapsing Athletics in a four-game set and going 15-10 in September to win the West. They did it with Matt Shoemaker and Cory Rasmus filling in for Richards. Shoemaker came up with little or no fanfare and turned out to be a revelation, but Rasmus was the more fascinating of the two, never pitching past the fifth inning in six starts down the stretch despite never allowing more than two runs in an outing. Without Richards, the Angels simply shifted priorities from starting to relief with newly acquired closer Huston Street giving them the depth to handle that extra burden.

The lesson of the 2014 Angels seemed to be that good enough is exactly that when it comes to starting pitching and, for better or worse, the Red Sox adopted that strategy when they missed out on Lester. They even went to one of the 2014 Angels trade partners to find a pitcher of that ilk. In 2014, L.A. sent Mark Trumbo to the Diamondbacks as part of a three-team deal for D-Backs pitcher Tyler Skaggs and White Sox arm Hector Santiago, both back of the rotation types that served the Angels well. Boston dealt Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa to the Diamondbacks for Wade Miley coming into this season and signed Justin Masterson in hopes that the veteran righty might bounce-back.

It was a strategy that was heavily criticized and after some early struggles, those critics have only added ammunition to their stores. The defense of the strategy has essentially been that pitching now dominates the game and building a powerhouse offense is harder than finding arms that can thrive in this new low-scoring age. That theory might not have looked plausible were it not for the Angels' success last year, especially in the days after they lost Richards.

To this point, both the Angels and the Red Sox are underperforming and both teams can blame an offense that has fallen flat for these early struggles. The Angels have a team wRC+ of just 84 and the Red Sox are at 87. For two teams built on the idea of offense-first, not scoring means not winning. The safe bet is that both teams will score more, but that will need to happen soon if they are to become October rivals again this season.  Betting big on offense and patching together a middling rotation might makes sense in the current run environment, but it only works if the offense performs at the same high level as the Angels' did in 2014.

Neither club has been able to do that so far. The risk that comes with the Angels model is that offensive production might not be as stable in this new environment. After all, the same Red Sox team that led the league in runs scored in 2013 was 11th in the AL last season.  If things don't turn around for one or both of these clubs, it might be time to rethink the blueprint that built them both.