The Angels are stretching reliever Andrew Wantz out as a starter this spring, manager Ron Washington revealed today in chatting with the team’s beat writers (X link via The Athletic’s Sam Blum). The 28-year-old righty has worked almost exclusively as a reliever dating back to the 2021 season, but the Halos feel they need more rotation depth than they have at present, per Washington.
Wantz has been a frequent contributor in the Anaheim bullpen in each of the past three seasons, posting particularly solid results in 2022-23. Over the last two big league campaigns, he’s totaled 89 1/3 frames and worked to a 3.51 ERA, albeit with more dubious underlying numbers.
Wantz sports a roughly average 23.4% strikeout rate in that time but has walked just under 10% of his opponents and averaged 1.2 big flies per nine frames. He’s had some good fortune on balls in play (.232 BABIP), although as an extreme fly-ball pitcher, he’s more apt to carry a lower-than-average mark in that regard. Fielding-independent metrics like FIP (4.32) and SIERA (4.17) feel he’s been solid but perhaps not quite to the extent his ERA would suggest.
While Wantz is no stranger to working multiple innings — he had 11 appearances lasting two innings in 2023 — he’s never pitched more than 2 1/3 innings in a single big league outing. The transition won’t be entirely foreign to him, given he made 18 minor league starts during the 2019 season, but it’s been a good while since he’s been tasked with working in longer stints.
Of course, if the Angels are truly concerned about their rotation depth, there are some rather straightforward ways to address that need. The free agent market is still rife with options, including top names like Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery, in addition to solid mid-rotation/back-end arms like Mike Clevinger and Michael Lorenzen. There are a handful of rebound candidates who could likely be had on low-cost one-year or even minor league deals, including Eric Lauer, Jake Odorizzi and Johnny Cueto (among others).
From a payroll vantage point, the Angels should be able to accommodate just about anyone — even Snell or Montgomery. After opening the 2023 season with a payroll north of $212MM, they’re projected for a $173.4MM mark, per RosterResource. The Angels are also nearly $50MM shy of the first tier of luxury penalization, so they could accommodate either a long-term deal or a short-term, high-AAV deal with multiple opt-out opportunities, depending on the preferences of Snell/Montgomery. Moving further down the free agent pecking order, someone like Lorenzen or Clevinger could be signed without pushing payroll anywhere close to record levels.
Historically speaking, however, Angels owner Arte Moreno has steadfastly refused to commit long-term deals to pitchers. As shown in MLBTR’s Contract Tracker, last year’s three-year, $39MM deal with Tyler Anderson was the first time the Halos inked a free agent pitcher to a multi-year deal since Joe Blanton’s two-year deal in 2012. You’d have to go way back to C.J. Wilson in 2011 to find the last time the Halos went more than three years on a pitcher.
The Angels haven’t eschewed spending entirely, but they’ve once again focused their free agent efforts on the bullpen. That’s been a familiar trend for the Angels in recent years. Already this offseason, they’ve committed a combined a combined $50.6MM to Robert Stephenson, Matt Moore, Adam Cimber, Luis Garcia, Jose Cisnero and Adam Kolarek. Dating back to the 2021-22 offseason, the Angels have given out 13 big league deals to free-agent relievers — including five multi-year pacts (topped by Raisel Iglesias’ four-year, $58MM deal).
It’s been a questionable strategy for them, given the team’s results over the years. And this year’s group is already off to a somewhat dubious start. As Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register reports, Stephenson — who signed a three-year, $33MM deal this winter — is dealing with shoulder soreness and is behind schedule in camp. The right-hander believes he’ll be able to pitch at some point this spring but might not be ready for Opening Day.
It’s a suboptimal start to his Angels tenure after the team made a weighty three-year investment on the heels of Stephenson’s four-month breakout with the Rays. The hard-throwing righty was long viewed as an interesting prospect and has had flashes of excellence in his big league career. He’d never put together any kind of run like he did with Tampa Bay last year, though.
After being acquired from the Pirates in a trade sending infielder Alika Williams to Pittsburgh, Stephenson snapped off 38 1/3 innings of 2.35 ERA ball with a gaudy 42.9% strikeout rate against just a 5.7% walk rate. Beyond the eye-popping strikeout rate, Stephenson posted a superhuman 28.9% swinging-strike rate (nearly triple the 11.1% league average) and induced chases on pitches off the plate at a stunning 47.2% clip that topped the league-average 31.9% rate by nearly 16 percentage points.
The Angels are surely envisioning Stephenson as a critical part of their high-leverage relief corps, but word of an early shoulder issue that’s slowed his progression is obviously somewhat ominous. To this point, there’s no indication of a serious issue, but given the magnitude of the team’s investment in the righty, it’s understandable if the Halos want to proceed with caution. Stephenson played catch yesterday and felt good after throwing, Fletcher notes.
Stephenson isn’t the only pitcher in camp who’s a bit banged up. Washington also revealed today (via Fletcher) that lefty Jose Suarez hasn’t pitched yet due to a “dead arm” following winter ball. He’s expected to get on the mound at some point this spring and could yet be ready for Opening Day, but that’s not a given.
It’s a tough way to start a pivotal spring for the 26-year-old Suarez. As recently as 2021-22, he looked the part of a controllable fourth starter who could hold a rotation spot in Anaheim for several years. The 2023 season was an unmitigated disaster for the southpaw, however. Shoulder trouble limited him to just 33 2/3 big league innings (plus another 3 1/3 frames of rehab work), and he was shelled for an 8.29 ERA in that time. Suarez served up a massive ten home runs in that small sample (2.67 HR/9), saw his strikeout rate plummet from 22.3% to 17%, and watched his walk rate spike from 7.1% to 12.1%.
A 2024 rebound for Suarez is particularly critical, given that he’s now out of minor league options. If he opens the season on the injured list, that’d actually give the Angels a few weeks to take a look at Suarez in the minors on a rehab assignment, but whenever he’s healthy, he’ll either need to be on the big league roster or else be traded to a team who’ll carry him or exposed to outright waivers.