The Angels wrapped up the 2021 campaign with a disappointing 77-85 record. That marked the club’s sixth straight below-average season, and their fourth consecutive year finishing in fourth place in the AL West.
General manager Perry Minasian met with the media (including Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com and Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register) this afternoon to lay out some preliminary plans for the upcoming winter. Unsurprisingly, Minasian acknowledged that pitching will be the club’s top priority. That’s familiar territory for the Angels, who have long had an enviable collection of star position players but haven’t found much success on the mound in recent years. That was again the case in 2021, as Los Angeles hurlers finished the season 22nd in ERA (4.68) and 18th in SIERA (4.22).
The starting rotation, in particular, has long been an issue and that continued to be a weakness this season. While Angels’ starters posted middle-of-the-road strikeout and walk numbers, their collective 4.78 ERA was among the league’s ten worst. Some of the fault surely lies with a defense that finished near the bottom of the league by measure of Defensive Runs Saved and opponents’ batting average on balls in play. Nevertheless, it’s clear the rotation could’ve been better, and the impending free agencies of Alex Cobb and Dylan Bundy only thin that group further.
Cobb has already gone on record about his interest in returning, and it stands to reason the front office could have some interest in extending that relationship. Otherwise, the Angels’ in-house starting staff includes Shohei Ohtani (controllable for two more seasons but who himself expressed openness to an extension), Patrick Sandoval, José Suarez, Jaime Barria, Griffin Canning and rookie Reid Detmers. That’s not a group devoid of talent, but it’s lacking in track record of consistent production and/or durability. Minasian suggested Ohtani, Suarez and Sandoval had locked down season-opening rotation roles but noted that the remaining two or three spots are yet to be determined.
The bullpen figures to be an area of need as well. Excluding Suarez, four Angels’ relievers tossed 20+ innings with an ERA below 4.00. Austin Warren and Mike Mayers will return, but Steve Cishek and closer Raisel Iglesias are soon-to-be free agents, with Iglesias likely in line to land the biggest deal of any reliever this winter. Retaining Iglesias or adding some additional veteran stability to the later innings figures to be almost as high on the priority list as bolstering the rotation will be.
That’s made all the more true by the late-season injury suffered by rookie right-hander Chris Rodriguez, who broke into the big leagues with a 3.64 ERA across 29 2/3 frames on the strength of a massive 54.7% ground-ball rate. Rodriguez, who dealt with a serious of health issues during his time in the minors, landed on the injured list in mid-August due to a lat issue. He didn’t return this year, and Minasian told reporters today that it’s unknown if he’ll be ready for Spring Training as his rehab has progressed rather slowly.
There’s less heavy lifting to do on the position player side, since the impending returns of Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon will immediately go a long ways towards reinvigorating the offense. The middle infield stands as the biggest spot to address, as José Iglesias struggled on both sides of the ball, leading to his release last month. Minasian called shortstop an area of need, expressing some openness to moving second baseman David Fletcher to the left side of the infield if necessary.
Fletcher himself finished the season in a terrible slump, ending the year with a .262/.297/.324 line over 665 plate appearances. His solid prior track record will earn him another shot to put those struggles behind him, but it seems reasonable to expect the Angels to at least kick the tires on the star-studded top of the free agent shortstop class. Landing an external addition at short would allow the club to pencil Fletcher back in at a position where he’s already a plus defender and to concentrate on a bounceback at the plate.
There are some clear holes to plug on this roster, with the impact potential of external additions obviously dependent upon payroll. Minasian said he’s not yet discussed the payroll outlook for next season with owner Arte Moreno. The Angels entered 2021 with a franchise-record player budget in the $182MM range, estimates Jason Martinez of Roster Resource. The club already has almost $120MM in guaranteed commitments on the books next season, but the arbitration class is one of the league’s smallest. Only Mayers and Max Stassi figure to land substantial raises, and even those players will probably land in the $3-5MM range.
That’d leave $50+MM for Minasian and company if Moreno is willing to match this year’s spending levels. It would set the stage for a very interesting winter in Orange County, with plenty of opportunity for Minasian and his staff to make meaningful upgrades to a roster that has a few significant deficiencies that need to be addressed.