It was another disappointing season for the Angels, who missed the playoffs for the seventh consecutive year. Shohei Ohtani took an MVP-caliber step forward, while Jared Walsh became the newest member of the team’s enviable position player core. Yet again, the Angels are tasked with trying to build a passable roster to complement a few of the sport’s brightest stars. The issue, as is seemingly the case every winter: improving the pitching staff.
- Mike Trout, CF: $334.1MM through 2030
- Anthony Rendon, 3B: $190.9MM through 2026
- Justin Upton, LF: $28MM through 2022
- David Fletcher, 2B: $24MM through 2025 (contains buyout of 2026 club option)
- Shohei Ohtani, RHP/DH: $5.5MM through 2022 (remains under team control for 2023 via arbitration)
Total 2022 commitments: $111.24MM
Projected Salaries for Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
Non-tender candidates: Gosselin, Guerra
- Alex Cobb, Raisel Iglesias, Dylan Bundy, Steve Cishek, Juan Lagares, Kurt Suzuki, Dexter Fowler, Scott Schebler, Ben Rowen, AJ Ramos, Franklin Barreto
The first few days of the offseason has made the Angels’ top priority apparent. They’re looking to upgrade the starting rotation, and they’re setting their sights high. Los Angeles general manager Perry Minasian has gone on record a few times about his desire to land external pitching help, telling reporters at this week’s GM Meetings the goal is “to significantly improve our rotation.”
All things considered, this is a pretty good offseason to be on the hunt for high-end pitching. The free agent class offers a handful of hurlers who have top-of-the-rotation numbers in their recent past, and the Angels have already been linked to a few members of that group. They’ve expressed some early interest in a couple of aces coming off injury-wrecked seasons in Justin Verlander and Noah Syndergaard. The Angels haven’t been publicly linked to Carlos Rodón, but the former White Sox southpaw was one of the best pitchers in the league on an inning for inning basis before a late-season IL stint due to shoulder discomfort threw his market into flux.
All three of those players have the impact potential to which Minasian alluded, but health and/or age questions figure to limit the length of any commitment. That might be particularly appealing for the Angels, a team that — despite showing an overall willingness to spend on players — has concentrated their recent long-term investments on position players. Whether that’s happenstance, the preference of owner Arte Moreno or risk aversion on the part of erstwhile GM Billy Eppler isn’t clear. Minasian, a first-time GM hired last November, doesn’t yet have a large body of work to offer much insight into his team-building approach. He was hired out of a Braves’ front office that has generally preferred to offer high annual salaries over shorter terms, though. It remains to be seen if he’ll take a similar approach as his former employer in Anaheim.
If the Angels are willing to make a longer-term investment in a starting pitcher, there are plenty of options beyond Verlander, Syndergaard and Rodón. Robbie Ray, Kevin Gausman and Marcus Stroman are all top-of-the-rotation caliber arms at their best, and all three might top $100MM over a five-plus year term. Eduardo Rodríguez is a tier below those three but could land a significant four or five year deal of his own. And there’s almost nothing a team could do to more significantly upgrade their starting staff in 2022 than sign Max Scherzer, even if that’d probably cost them an all-time record average annual investment.
Free agency offers plenty of potential high-impact options, and the Angels will surely also work the trade market. The Reds might make Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray available; the Marlins are considering whether to trade away someone like Sandy Alcantara or Pablo López; the division-rival A’s are soon to slash payroll, so Frankie Montas, Chris Bassitt and/or Sean Manaea could wind up on the move. Between the healthy supply of starters available in either free agency or trade and the Angels’ obvious desire to upgrade, it’d register as a major surprise if they didn’t come away with at least one marquee pickup this winter.
One high-end starter might be all the Angels need, since they actually have one of their better collection of internal options in recent memory. They’ll obviously want to be careful with Shohei Ohtani’s workload, but he’s a top-of-the-rotation type starter on an inning for inning basis. Patrick Sandoval broke out in 2021, working to a 3.62 ERA over 87 innings with one of the game’s highest swinging strike rates. His year ended early because of a back injury, but Sandoval has a 2022 rotation spot secured if healthy. That’s also true of lefty José Suárez, a ground-ball specialist who looks like a solid back-end type.
Add an impact external pickup to the mix, and four spots in Joe Maddon’s season-opening rotation are already accounted for. Top prospect Reid Detmers got his feet wet at the big league level this past season, and Jaime Barría and Griffin Canning could still compete for spots as well. Every team needs more than five or six starters to navigate a full season, and that’s especially true for an Angels club that needs to be careful in handling Ohtani. They’ve already been linked to mid-tier free agent starters like Steven Matz and Alex Wood, and those players would certainly add some stability. It makes sense to cast a wide net in the early stages of the offseason, but this isn’t a team that needs to build an entire rotation from scratch.
Of course, making multiple rotation additions could be a way to indirectly bolster one of the weaker areas of the roster — the bullpen. Angels’ relievers ranked 24th this past season in ERA (4.57), also finishing in the bottom half of the league in SIERA (4.10) and strikeout/walk rate differential (13.2 percentage points). That’s in spite of an excellent season from closer Raisel Iglesias, whom they could lose to free agency. The Angels made Iglesias a one-year, $18.4MM qualifying offer, but he seems likelier to decline that in search of a multi-year deal as the top reliever in this year’s class.
The Angels could certainly pursue an Iglesias reunion even if he rejects the QO, but it remains to be seen whether they’d want to pay a top-of-the-market price to address the relief corps. They should have the payroll flexibility to be in that mix. Jason Martinez of Roster Resource projects their current 2022 commitments around $130MM (non-tendering Phil Gosselin and Junior Guerra could knock that mark down a few million). That’s more than $50MM shy of the $182MM figure they carried into 2021 (per Cot’s Baseball Contracts), a franchise-record outlay. If Moreno’s willing to repeat this year’s level of spending, then the potential is there for a couple big free agent splashes.
Adding an impact free agent starter would probably account for at least half that available payroll space, though, and re-signing Iglesias on top of that might inhibit their ability to address the position player group. If Iglesias departs, the Angels would stand to recoup a compensatory draft pick after Competitive Balance Round B (around 70-75 overall) and could turn their attention to making one or two lower-cost bullpen pickups.
Other multi-year deal candidates who’d probably cost less than Iglesias include Kendall Graveman, Kenley Jansen, Corey Knebel, Héctor Neris, Mark Melancon and Ryan Tepera from the right side, with Aaron Loup, Andrew Chafin and Brooks Raley among the left-handed options. It seems likely they’ll add multiple arms to the ’pen in some capacity, with Mike Mayers, Andrew Wantz, Austin Warren and José Quijada the only in-house options coming off seasons with 20-plus frames of sub-4.00 SIERA ball.
Much of the position player group is already set. Ohtani will be a middle-of-the-order presence at DH, leaving first base to Jared Walsh. They’ll have to hope for better health from Anthony Rendon at third base, and that’s obviously true of Mike Trout as well. Max Stassi had a breakout season behind the plate and probably earned the lion’s share of playing time at catcher, although the front office could look around for a low-cost complement, preferably one who hits left-handed. The non-tender market could shake out an affordable player who comes with multiple remaining seasons of team control, which could be particularly appealing since Stassi is slated to hit free agency after next season.
The most glaring need is in the middle infield. The Angels are committed to David Fletcher at one spot, although that’s more of a question mark than it’d have seemed a few months ago. By measure of wRC+, Fletcher was the majors’ second-worst qualified hitter after the All-Star Break. That dreadful few months left him barely above replacement level for the season, but he’d combined average or better offense with excellent defense from 2019-20. His track record will earn him another chance, and Minasian said after the season the club was open to him playing either of second base or shortstop in 2022.
The Angels can’t do much but hope Fletcher rebounds at one of those positions, but they’ll probably have to upgrade the other middle spot. Luis Rengifo and Jack Mayfield, the top in-house candidates, are better suited in utility roles. This winter offers an incredible collection of free agent middle infielders, although a run at any of Marcus Semien, Trevor Story or Javier Báez (to say nothing of top-of-the-market superstars Carlos Correa and Corey Seager) would add another huge multi-year investment to the books.
That shouldn’t be out of the question given the Angels’ previous levels of spending. They’re finally off the hook on the Albert Pujols contract, and the Justin Upton deal ends after next season. Trout, Rendon and Fletcher are already accounting for more than $81MM in 2023 and beyond, though, and a splash at the top of the free agent pitching market this winter would probably push their long-term commitments north of $100MM. Would they want to add another huge deal on top of that? That remains to be seen, particularly since they’ll probably earmark some funds for a hopeful Ohtani extension (more on that in a minute).
That could mean another year with a stopgap middle infield pickup. Last year’s José Iglesias addition didn’t pan out, but they could take a similar tack with Freddy Galvis at shortstop or Jonathan Villar, César Hernández or Josh Harrison at second base (with Fletcher sliding over to short). Perhaps the Cardinals and D-Backs would be willing to kick in some money to facilitate a trade involving Paul DeJong or Nick Ahmed, respectively. Neither would be the most exciting addition for Angels’ fans, but they’d at least meaningfully upgrade a defense that was among the league’s worst in 2021, as MLBTR’s Mark Polishuk explored in August.
It’d be a bit surprising if the Angels made a big addition in the outfield, since they have a promising group internally. Trout hasn’t played an inning outside center field since 2013, but there’s a case to be made for transitioning him into a corner spot moving forward. Public defensive metrics have pegged the three-time MVP as average or worse in center over the past couple seasons, and he’s now 30 years old coming off a major calf injury. Trout hasn’t rated disastrously in center field, and the Angels may not want to risk disrupting the future Hall of Famer for the sake of marginally improving the team’s defense. But rookie Brandon Marsh is probably a better defensive player than Trout is at this stage of their respective careers.
Regardless of the specific alignment, Trout and Marsh are probably going to play regularly in some capacity. That’s also true of former top prospect Jo Adell, who’s better suited in a corner. Upton fits best as a role player, although he still offers some power, particularly against left-handed pitching. That doesn’t leave a ton of room for outside help, but it’s not out of the question the Angels move one of Marsh or Adell for pitching. (Speculatively speaking, the Marlins are known to be targeting controllable outfielders and might have interest in either player as part of a deal for one of their starters). If a Marsh or Adell trade comes to fruition, then perhaps the Angels poke around the free agent outfield market.
Hanging over all of the Angels’ potential offseason upgrades is the hope for a long-term deal with Ohtani. The 27-year-old had been a highly valuable, extremely entertaining player in years past, but he’d never put everything together quite like he did in 2021. An AL MVP finalist, Ohtani is coming off a season unlike any we’ve seen in nearly a century. In addition to top-of-the-rotation numbers as a pitcher, he was the game’s fifth-best qualified hitter by wRC+. His 46 homers ranked third leaguewide, while his .592 slugging percentage checked in fourth.
Ohtani’s an unprecedented player, at least in recent history, so there’s of course no contractual precedent for a player like this. He’s already controllable for the next two seasons, guaranteed $5.5MM next year and scheduled for a similarly-unusual trip through arbitration next winter. The Angels would no doubt love to keep him beyond 2023, and Ohtani has expressed some openness to that possibility. As of late September, the two-way star told reporters that no extension talks were ongoing. Neither Minasian nor Ohtani’s representatives at CAA Sports were willing to divulge anything during this week’s GM Meetings about whether negotiations had taken place since (link via Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com).
Whether or not they’ve begun any sort of negotiations, it stands to reason Moreno and Minasian will map out how far the organization is willing to go to keep Ohtani in the fold. Even if nothing gets done this winter, the possibility of future discussions could limit how much payroll the Angels are willing to commit to other areas of the roster for 2023 and beyond.
As is typically the case, it’s shaping up to be an interesting winter in Orange County. The Angels should be among the top suitors for any number of top-of-the-rotation options, and they’re strong candidates to come away with at least one marquee starting pitcher. Add some bullpen and middle infield pursuits and a potential one-of-a-kind extension negotiation, and Minasian should be in for a busy first full offseason leading baseball operations.