Angels Must Now Turn Focus to 2020 and Beyond
With the Angels’ season seemingly done due to a horrendous amount of injuries to what was an already mediocre pitching staff, it’s time that they shift focus to the 2019 offseason and beyond. They’re mathematically still in the playoff race (albeit barely), but at 56-59, and 9.5 games out of a playoff spot, it’s best to come to the realization and move on.
They haven’t sniffed October baseball since 2014 and were in striking distance of a wild-card spot, but the front office stood pat at the trade deadline, which you can argue was the right move to do. They were already on the outskirts of the postseason chase, and no single pitcher or two would have pushed the team from wild-card hopefuls to World Series contenders.
And with Mike Trout locked up for the long-haul, it’s time to stop wasting his prime. Baseball’s best player deciding to stay in Anaheim through the 2030 season doesn’t mean the organization can do what they want at the pace they want. It means he enjoys the team and fans and believes that the franchise is building towards something special.
They have a good core of position players, but this offseason would go a long way to furthering the foundations of what they hope is a World Series contender soon, and that starts with addressing the team’s glaring weaknesses behind the plate and on the mound.
The Angels’ pitching staff has taken after Murphy’s law, with a 24th-ranked 4.99 team ERA that has been the reason for their downfall. From the tragic passing of Tyler Skaggs (RIP) to a decimating amount of injuries, to a lack of quality options, what can go wrong, has gone wrong. And the catcher position hasn’t fared any better, with the light-hitting Max Stassi as their current best option.
But they are in luck that the 2019 free-agent class has players to help solve these issues. All the Angels must do is be willing to spend.
According to Spotrac, they have about $115 million guaranteed to five players in 2020, excluding a $14 million player option for Kole Calhoun. And with Baseball-Reference’s estimates on arbitration figures, that number could reach up to $186.4 million.
But with the team’s top three prospects being outfielders, per MLB Pipeline, and their top blue-chipper (Jo Adell) expected to debut sometime next year, there isn’t a real need to bring back Calhoun at that cost, especially when that money can be best spent elsewhere.
And the Angels get added flexibility beyond 2020, as more money comes off the books, starting with the Albert Pujols albatross after 2021. This means they can make significant long-term commitments to win now, without dipping into their steadily growing farm system.
Regarding pitchers, the likes of Gerrit Cole, Cole Hamels, Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Zack Wheeler, and Rich Hill will most likely be available. Granted, some of them are on the wrong side of 30, while some have worrisome injury histories. But they are still quality pitchers that should age well and provide a significant upgrade over whatever the Angels have right now. And Gerrit Cole should be at the top of the list.
The 6’4, 225-pound right-hander, is just what the doctor would prescribe for Anaheim. He’s a legitimate ace amid perhaps his best season yet and is going to be in the smackdab middle of his prime at 29 when the season is over.
The Houston Astros have unlocked the potential that led the Pittsburg Pirates to take the Orange County native first overall in 2011. Cole has a 2.87 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 3.11 FIP, and 226 strikeouts in 156.2 innings this season, after finishing 2018 with a 2.88 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 2.70 FIP, and 276 strikeouts in 200.1 innings.
He’s going to be the prized arm on the market, with a price tag that should usurp $200 million. But he will be worth the cost because he would fill a dire need for the Angels and give them their first legitimate ace in a long time. A homecoming only makes sense.
Bumgarner will also require a significant payday, although not on the level of Cole, while the 36-year-old Hamels will require a high annual average salary to make up for the lack of years he’ll be offered. And who knows what the market will be for NL Cy Young frontrunner Hyun-Jin Ryu, or if the Dodgers will even let the 32-year-old walk.
If they don’t want to spend big in one place, they can go after not-as-good, but still solid and much cheaper arms in guys such as Zack Wheeler, Wade Miley, Alex Wood, and Tanner Roark.
Wheeler’s 4.20 ERA and 1.22 WHIP aren’t pretty, but it would make him a great buy-low candidate. He has a 3.44 FIP, showing the Mets’ subpar defense has hurt him. Plus, his 2.62 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in his last seven starts (including 15 scoreless innings in his previous two outings) show he may be figuring things out. This after a 3.31 ERA, 3.25 FIP, 1.12 WHIP, and 179 strikeouts in 182.1 innings last year.
He does come with injury concerns, but his fastball velocity is near a career-high in 2019 and is on track to set a career-best in innings thrown. And the durability factor can be leveraged into negotiations to get him for cheaper.
The best-case scenario would be to get Cole and hopefully pair him with Shohei Ohtani to give the Angels a dynamic duo at the top. Then you can supplement them with one or two of the mid-tier arms while hoping Griffin Canning and Andrew Heaney can return from their injuries. And just like that, a mess would turn into stability.
And at catcher, the market will be littered with options, where Yasmani Grandal, with his 19 home runs and .842 OPS, will be the top option.
He turned down a four-year, $60 million offer from the Mets last winter, before taking an $18.25 million qualifying offer from the Brewers, because he felt there was more money out there for him. If Grandal keeps up his play, the Angels may have to get into a bidding war for his services.
But the Angeles don’t even need an elite catcher to improve. They can go the cheaper route and target 30-year-old James McCann, who has a 112 OPS+ and 12 home runs this season, or veterans such as Jason Castro and Alex Avila, who are having strong seasons at the plate, albeit in limited playing time. And there’s also 31-year-old LA native, Travis d’Arnaud, who is having somewhat of a breakout season.
It’s the bullpen that is going to be the hardest to fortify, however. In Ty Buttrey, Kenyon Middleton (hopefully), and Hansel Robles, the Angels have solid options to keep; but they’re far from enough.
And the past few offseasons have shown that spending big money on relief pitching is risky because their year-to-year volatility makes it tough to know what you’re buying. Besides, outside of the aging Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman (who has a player option), the market will be filled with more middling arms at best.
Upgrading in these positions will be vital if the franchise wants to go from mediocre to legitimate playoff and World Series contenders. The upcoming free-agent market has the assets to do so; it’s whether owner Arte Moreno and his front office are willing to spend.
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Featured Image via Flickr/Evan Gearing