What next for the Angels?

Hot on the heels of our great Padres piece, Darius Austin looks to Anaheim and sees reasons to be cheerful…

This might be painful for an Angels fan. Los Angeles just went 74-88 despite having the best player in the game on the roster, which is worth close to ten wins by itself. The team is set to pay more than $25 million a year for the next five seasons to Albert Pujols, a 37-year-old who can’t run, can’t field, and is now merely a good hitter, rather than elite – as he once was – or even great.

The rotation was a mess in 2016, relying on almost 180 innings of a 5+ ERA from Jered Weaver, who was below replacement level, and with young starters Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano forced to undergo Tommy John surgery, the team will now have to rely heavily on Tyler Skaggs, who has just returned from the surgery himself, and Garrett Richards, who opted for rest and rehab rather than surgery on his own torn UCL.

Huston Street: an Avenue where Angels fear to tread

There isn’t much in the bullpen to fall back on either: outside of Cam Bedrosian, who also didn’t pitch in the last two months of the season due to injury, none of the options are particularly threatening to opposing hitters, and long-time major league closer Huston Street was both spectacularly poor (6.45 ERA, 5 home runs given up in just 22 innings) and hurt, with knee surgery ending his season early.

With a major league outlook this bleak, you’d like to think that there must be some talent on the way in the minors, but it’s hard to hold out much hope there either: the Angels’ system was widely rated as the worst in baseball coming into the year, with Minor League Ball’s John Sickels going so far as to say “this may be the worst system in recent memory”.

Should the Angels blow it up and start again, even trading Mike Trout, as many have suggested? This move seems both unwise – it’s hard to conceive that any team could find another Trout in the near future – and impossible to conceive; how do you value a transcendent talent like Trout? Let’s look at this from the opposite perspective instead and figure out how the Angels can get to the playoffs next year.

We start with Trout. That ten-win boost isn’t an exaggeration: here are Trout’s Wins Above Replacement marks for the last five years: 10.8, 9.3, 7.9, 9.4, 10.6. Trout is an exceptional hitter, great baserunner and a pretty solid centre fielder, who just turned 25 in August. There’s a chance that he could be considered the best baseball player of all time in a decade or two; he’s certainly the best baseball player on the planet right now. If the Angels could assemble a league-average cast around Trout, they’d be perennial playoff contenders. So can they?

Shortstop is a strength, where the exceptional Andrelton Simmons is arguably still the game’s best defensive player, and certainly one of the league’s best at the most important defensive position. Simmons lost over a month to a torn thumb ligament in 2016, and he’s never been much of a hitter, but even a passable offensive performance is tolerable with the calibre of fielding Simmons provides. Given a full season, the 27-year-old can be worth close to 5 wins himself, largely on the strength of his glove, and if you have the game’s best player and the game’s best defensive shortstop, you’re off to a good start.

Kole Calhoun is a pretty useful piece too. He’s been worth 3-4 wins in each of the last 3 seasons without doing anything spectacular, simply being average to slightly-above average in all facets of the game. C.J. Cron isn’t a great first baseman, but he seems to be getting better with the glove, and his slash line was actually very similar to Pujols’ last year.

Over at third base, veteran Yunel Escobar will return on a $7 million option: again, he isn’t exciting, but he can get on base and not totally kill the team defensively. If Cron, Escobar and Pujols can all be worth at least 1.5-2 wins with similar levels of offensive performance to 2016, the lineup is starting to look fairly useful around Trout and Calhoun.

So, where are the holes? There was a revolving door in left field in 2016, with nine different players getting at least five starts at the position and collectively producing a dreadful sub-.600 OPS. The Angels have already moved to address this by trading for Cameron Maybin.

MLB: San Diego Padres at Colorado Rockies
Back in South Cali: Cameron Maybin

The 29-year-old has not rated well in centre the last couple of years, but the Angels won’t need him to play there, and GM Billy Eppler’s comments about Maybin’s utility in spacious outfields suggest that they still have plenty of confidence about his glove in a corner. Health has also been an issue for the former first round pick, so this is far from a convincing solution; nonetheless, at $9 million it’s not a big risk and even a barely above-replacement season would be an improvement.

That brings up another important point; with the contracts of Weaver and fellow rotation letdown C.J. Wilson both coming off the books, the payroll is over $30 million less than it was to start 2016. That should provide some flexibility for Los Angeles to address their other issues, most notably at second base, catcher and the rotation.

If left field was bad, second base was hardly an improvement. Johnny Giavotella was essentially replacement level at the position, and Cliff Pennington, who is currently in line to start there in 2017, wasn’t any better. Neil Walker was the best option on the market, but he recently accepted the qualifying offer from the Mets, taking him off the market for another year. Some affordable options who would likely be available on short-term deals include super-utility types like Sean Rodriguez and Chris Coghlan, or veteran Chase Utley. If Escobar can shift over to second, that opens up many more options at third base, including Justin Turner, Luis Valbuena, and perhaps even Ian Desmond.

At catcher, 26-year-old Jett Bandy has less than 300 major league PA to his name, but did flash some decent power and a strong arm, throwing out 40% of basestealers. If the Angels do want to upgrade to a more proven option, Matt Wieters and Wilson Ramos have both hit the market, although the latter will miss a decent chunk of 2017 after tearing his ACL at the end of the season, while Jason Castro and Nick Hundley would be cheaper options with much more major league experience than Bandy.

The remaining major question is the rotation, and the Angels have already made a move to address that, signing Jesse Chavez to a one-year deal. Chavez had a couple of handy seasons in Oakland from 2014-15 as both starter and reliever, but failed to impress as reliever-only in 2016 with Toronto and the Dodgers. Now it seems Chavez will go back into the mix for a starting role. Richards, Skaggs, Matt Shoemaker and Ricky Nolasco seem locked in already, and there’s a whole lot of uncertainty there.

Richards certainly has top-of-the-rotation potential, as he showed in 2014 with a 2.61 ERA and almost a strikeout per inning, but he pitched just 34 2/3 innings last year. Shoemaker’s season ended in terrifying fashion when he took a line drive to the head and needed surgery to stop bleeding on the brain.

He’s expected to be ready for 2017 and has flashed the potential to be elite himself, but he has never topped the 160 innings he pitched in 2016, and much depends on whether he can replicate the gains he made from his drastic increase in splitter usage. Skaggs has prospect pedigree and showed some strikeout upside upon his return this year; expecting him to pitch a full starter’s load of innings when he didn’t even top 90 between the majors and minors seems more than a touch optimistic.

What the moves like the Maybin trade and Chavez signing perhaps indicate is that the Angels have one eye on 2018 as a more promising contention year, with Richards and Skaggs another year removed from their surgeries, and both Tropeano and Heaney back from theirs. The $25-plus million owed to Josh Hamilton will also be paid off by the end of 2017, giving the team even more payroll flexibility. Acquiring these players on cheap one-year deals preserves that flexibility next offseason, while still offering the potential for improvement at the positions which were incredibly weak in 2016.

Ultimately, the Angels having a great 2017 probably depends a little too much on the health of those higher upside starters, and the team finding another couple of good bullpen arms. It’s not too hard to see the average team they need to assemble around Trout, though, and with a good second baseman and a bit of luck, they can definitely contend.

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