Once again, the Angels are coming off a season in which they failed to capitalize on the presence of baseball’s best player, Mike Trout. The Angels, who have gone to the playoffs just once since Trout’s major league introduction in 2011, stumbled to a dismal 72-90 record this year. In fairness, though, the club dealt with adversity that would have been difficult for anyone to overcome. There were myriad injuries (including to the likes of Trout, Shohei Ohtani and Justin Upton), but worse than anything, there was the death of left-hander Tyler Skaggs. A beloved teammate and integral member of the Angels’ rotation, Skaggs passed away July 1, and the Angels never recovered on the field.
The Angels fell way out of contention in the second half of the season, which cost manager Brad Ausmus his job after just one year in the role. They quickly replaced Ausmus with the highly respected and accomplished Joe Maddon, a perennial winner who they hope will help turn their fortunes around in 2020. If not, general manager Billy Eppler could be the next key member of the organization who finds himself on the chopping block. Now on the verge of a contract year, Eppler’s likely facing a make-or-break offseason – one that could see the Angels make an earnest attempt to finally return to the playoffs.
- Mike Trout, CF: $390.5MM through 2030
- Justin Upton, LF: $72MM through 2022
- Albert Pujols, 1B/DH: $59MM through 2021
- Andrelton Simmons, SS: $15MM through 2020
- Zack Cozart, INF: $12.67MM through 2020
- Tommy La Stella – $2.9MM
- Luis Garcia – $2.3MM
- Justin Bour – $2.9MM
- Cam Bedrosian – $2.8MM
- Andrew Heaney – $5.0MM
- Hansel Robles – $4.0MM
- Nick Tropeano – $1.1MM
- Max Stassi – $800K
- Kevan Smith – $1.3MM
- Brian Goodwin – $2.1MM
- Keynan Middleton – $800K
- Noe Ramirez – $1.0MM
- Non-tender candidates: Garcia, Bour, Tropeano, Stassi
- Kole Calhoun, RF: $14MM club option or $1MM buyout
Odds are quite good the Angels’ winter will largely center on acquiring starting pitching, as their rotation has regularly been a below-average unit in recent years. It was especially bad in 2019 (thanks in part to the loss of Skaggs), evidenced by the group’s 30th-place ranking in fWAR and 29th overall ERA. The return of Ohtani, who was unable to pitch at all this year after undergoing Tommy John surgery last October, could be like a major acquisition in and of itself. But it would be foolhardy to count on Ohtani as the end-all, be-all, given that he’s coming off two surgeries (including a September knee procedure) and barely has 50 MLB innings to his name.
If he’s actually healthy, Ohtani may be able to provide the Angels’ rotation front-line production, though the rest of their options look decidedly less promising. Andrew Heaney and Griffin Canning appear to be fine complementary pieces, but the Halos need to aim higher if they’re going to force their way into the playoff race next season. What can they do? The answer’s obvious: Either sign Astros superstar and potential AL Cy Young winner Gerrit Cole or, if he opts out of his Nationals contract, Stephen Strasburg.
Cole and Strasburg stand out as the crown jewels of the upcoming winter’s free-agent pitching class, both are Southern California natives and the Angels have the spending capacity to reel in either. Super-agent Scott Boras represents Cole and Strasburg, which could theoretically serve as a roadblock for an Angels team whose owner, Arte Moreno, has had beef with Boras in the past. However, the Angels are just a winter removed from adding a Boras client, Matt Harvey, as their largest offseason signing. Harvey cost “only” a guaranteed $11MM, granted, while Cole may be on his way to a record contract for a pitcher (at least $220MM, if not significantly higher), and Strasburg should be able to secure something close to $150MM.
However much Cole and Strasburg end up raking in, it would make sense for the Angels to go all-in on one of the two. Deciding to buy low on the likes of Harvey and Trevor Cahill while tiptoeing around the Patrick Corbin market a year ago blew up in the team’s face. Now, it’s all the more evident the Angels need an ace-caliber hurler to join Ohtani near the top of their rotation, and either Cole or Strasburg would fit the bill.
Let’s say the Angels do get Cole or Strasburg. Then what? Well, they’d still need at least one more quality veteran starter. Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Jake Odorizzi are the best of the rest, though each should command paydays of at least $50MM. In all likelihood, any of them would be too pricey for a team with Cole or Strasburg in tow. However, they’d still be able to pick up less expensive help. Competent innings have been hard to come by in recent years for an Angels club that injuries have consistently ravaged, so someone like Dallas Keuchel (if he again encounters a disappointing market), Cole Hamels (if he has to settle for a lesser deal than expected), Rick Porcello, Tanner Roark, Kyle Gibson or Julio Teheran (likely via trade) could make sense as a secondary addition to the legit ace we’re forecasting the Angels sign.
The Angels’ bullpen looks like a less pressing issue than their starting staff, yet it’s still an area they could stand to address. Hansel Robles was quietly one of the surprise relievers in baseball in 2019; Ty Buttrey, Cam Bedrosian, Noe Ramirez and Felix Pena put up respectable years in their own right; and Keynan Middleton should be ready for a full season as he continues to distance himself from May 2018 TJ surgery. All six of those hurlers are in line to return to the Halos next season, which is – for lack of a better word – a relief. They’re all righties, though, so it wouldn’t be a shock for the Angels to at least target a southpaw to complement them. Probably not Aroldis Chapman or Will Smith, who’d cost too much for a team that has to pour so much money into its rotation, but Jake Diekman and Francisco Liriano would make for affordable targets. It’s important to note that Diekman and Liriano are consistent against lefty and righty batters alike – which is a must-have trait for a southpaw with MLB set to implement a three-batter minimum rule in 2020.
As for the Angels’ collection of position players, Trout and Upton will keep occupying two-thirds of the outfield; Andrelton Simmons will continue to hold down short; the underrated David Fletcher will primarily man second or third; Ohtani makes for a more-than-capable DH; and for better or worse, Albert Pujols will stay as a DH/first baseman. But what of the rest of their lineup?
The Halos are likely stuck with another year of Zack Cozart, who could see a fair bit of action at second or third if he’s healthy. Fellow infielder Luis Rengifo had a decent rookie season, while yet another first-year infielder, Matt Thaiss, at least showed some pop. There’s also Tommy La Stella, who was amid an unexpected All-Star year before suffering what basically proved to be a season-ending fractured tibia at the beginning of July. So, it’s entirely possible the Angels will be comfortable with Fletcher, Cozart, Rengifo, Thaiss and La Stella at second and third. If not, free agency may be a route for the club to take. FAs-to-be Anthony Rendon and Josh Donaldson look wholly unrealistic, but that may not be the case for Mike Moustakas/Todd Frazier at third or the slew of low-priced second basemen on the cusp of reaching the open market.
Moving to the outfield, the main question is whether the Angels will buy out solid all-around right fielder Kole Calhoun. It seems likely, as doing so would save the team $13MM to spend on other sore spots. They could easily plug in Brian Goodwin and/or another similarly inexpensive player in right as a stopgap as they wait for one of their top prospects to show up. Angels farmhands Jo Adell – who’s among the cream-of-the-crop prospects in baseball – and Brandon Marsh are closing on the majors, so it seems unlikely the team will allocate a substantial amount of money to right field in 2020.
Aside from the Angels’ pitching staff, the catcher position stands out as their most troubling area. Last winter’s relatively cheap signing of Jonathan Lucroy failed, while in-season pickups Max Stassi and Anthony Bemboom recorded abysmal numbers. The Angels are now left with Stassi, Bemboom and Kevan Smith (who had a passable overall season at the plate but floundered in the second half) as the only backstops left on their 40-man roster. That’s obviously not ideal. Still, it’s up in the air how much money the Angels will spend to upgrade the position. It could depend on how much they use to fix their rotation, which should be the priority. Should a Cole or Strasburg join the mix, it’s likely the game’s No. 1 pending free-agent catcher, Yasmani Grandal (an Angels target last winter), will end up out of their price range. Otherwise, any of Jason Castro, Travis d’Arnaud, Robinson Chirinos or even Austin Romine (whom Eppler knows from the Yankees) look like players who could potentially pique the Angels’ interest.
“Obviously, Arte’s never been worried about spending money,” Maddon recently said of Moreno. That’ll need to prove true in the next several weeks, as the clearest path to properly address the Angels’ most glaring weakness – starting pitching – will be throwing cash at the problem. Whether it’s Cole or Strasburg, it seems imperative for the team to land at least one of them if it’s going to finally crawl out of the muck in 2020. It’s hard to imagine this going down as a resoundingly successful offseason for the Angels if they swing and miss on both of those aces.