By Chad Stewart
Fans and pundits alike criticized the Angels and owner Arte Moreno for not making a splash in the free-agent market this past offseason, and rightly so. Left field was a black hole in 2015, and there were four notable corner outfielders available — Jason Heyward, Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Gordon, and Justin Upton — as well as a few lower tier outfielders like Dexter Fowler and Austin Jackson. The Halos elected to pass on all of them, and instead settle for a left-field platoon consisting of Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry. How is that working out, you ask? Well…
Due to injuries, Nava has been limited to just 19 games and 57 plate appearances this year and returned from the disabled list last week. Similarly, Gentry has only appeared in 14 games, has just 39 plate appearances, and is currently on the 60-day DL. Suffice to say that things are not going as planned. Because of this, the Angels have been forced to improvise. Rafael Ortega, Shane Robinson, Todd Cunningham, Jefry Marte, and Ji-Man Choi have all spent time in left field, and, unsurprisingly, none have been particularly effective. Just like last year, the Angels have garnered the worst left-field production in the American League, batting a combined .203/.275/.266 and totaling -0.7 Wins Above Replacement.
But would the Angels be in a much better situation had they signed one of the four big-name free-agents? Probably not.
Heyward reportedly took less money to sign with the Cubs. Gordon returned to the team he had spent his entire career with, the Kansas City Royals. Cespedes returned to the team he was traded to last July, the New York Mets, and signed a contract he probably wouldn’t have signed elsewhere. That leaves Upton as the only one the Angels had a realistic shot at landing. Upton signed a six-year deal with the Detroit Tigers, and it turns out, the Tigers have received the second-worst left-field production in the American League, just ahead of the Angels. The only difference? Detroit is on the hook for $132.75 million over the next six years.
Upton has struck a whopping 92 times this year, good for third-most in baseball and has hit just seven home runs. Upton has been known as one of the more streaky hitters in the league since his rookie year in 2008, but it is now mid-June and Upton is hitting a meager .237 with a .684 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS). I’m sure he will turn it around at some point, but his -0.4 WAR wouldn’t have the Angels in a much better position.
Upton isn’t the only one of those four who is struggling. In fact, Cespedes is the only one having a productive year.
On paper, signing someone like Upton in the offseason would have appeared to put the Angels over the top and turned them into legitimate contenders, but in reality, the Angels probably still wouldn’t be competing this year and would just be left with another bloated contract.
At the trade deadline last year, the Angels attempted to solve their left-field woes with the acquisitions of veteran outfielders David Murphy, Shane Victorino, and David DeJesus. It didn’t work, and they let the trio walk at year’s end. Murphy retired, and Victorino and DeJesus are still free agents.
The reason the Angels were forced to make the moves they did is because Matt Joyce, the player they acquired to man left field before the 2015 season, had the worst season of his career. The Angels gave up reliever Kevin Jepsen, who had been a staple of the Angels’ bullpen for years and was coming off a career year in 2014, for Joyce. Joyce was worse than anyone could have expected, batting a measly .174 with a -1.4 WAR in 284 plate appearances in 2015.
Of course, he is now thriving in a fourth outfielder role with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Joyce looks like a completely different hitter now than he did last year; he has a .417 OBP and an OPS just over 1.000. He already has more home runs this year than last with seven, compared to his five last year. Oh, and that’s in about half of the plate appearances. The Angels not re-signing Joyce was probably the least shocking development this past offseason, but from a fan’s point of view, it is a little frustrating seeing him flourish in a new environment after seeming lost at the plate last year. (Good for him, though!)
While the Halos didn’t spend big on their most glaring need, they did on their shortstop of the future. The Angels handed over their top-two pitching prospects and long-time Angel Erick Aybar to the Braves in exchange for defensive wizard Andrelton Simmons. Like so many other Angels, Simmons had to spend a sizable amount of time on the DL. Simmons was on the shelf for over a month after tearing a ligament in his left thumb on May 8. As expected, his offense has not been spectacular; he owns a tenuous .248 on-base percentage (OBP). Simmons showed power potential in his rookie campaign in 2013 by hitting 17 home runs. However, Hh hasn’t come close to that since, and he has been a below-average hitter throughout his short career.
Normally offensive production like his would be worrisome, but defense is Simmons’ calling card, and he has certainly lived up to the hype thus far, making the impossible look routine on a daily basis. His nine Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) rank thirteenth among all players and third among shortstops. Not bad, right? The thing is, Simmons has done it just 283 innings. Most of the twelve players ranked above him have played over 500 innings.
Simmons’ elite defense doesn’t completely make up for his poor offensive production thus far, but it certainly makes it easier to deal with, and he will probably finish the season with significantly better offensive numbers, as his current numbers are far below is career norms.
It’s also worth mentioning that the player Simmons replaced, Aybar, has been one of the worst players in the league this year. He has a -1.2 WAR, the fourth-worst in baseball and has an OPS of just .515, compared to Simmons’ .531. The offensive production of both has been poor, but Simmons’ defense has been much better. Aybar currently sits at -4 DRS in 400 innings.
Aybar is 32 years old and is a free agent at years end. Simmons is 26 and is signed through 2020. Aybar was a fan-favorite, but it was time to move on, and Simmons’ age, affordable contract, and otherworldly defense should prove him to be a worthwhile investment.
The Angels revamped the left side of their infield with the addition of Simmons as well as third baseman Yunel Escobar. Escobar has done a fine job at the top of the order, finally giving the Angels their much desired leadoff hitter. His .313/.364/.414 slash line is nearly identical to his numbers with Washington last year, which was the best season of his career. But while his offense has been terrific, the same cannot be said about his defense and base running. He has committed the most errors among AL third basemen, tied with Oakland’s Danny Valencia at 11. And according to FanGraphs’ base running metric, he is one of the worst base runners in the majors. He has had his fair share of mental lapses and miscues, but Escobar has undoubtedly provided a spark at the top of the order.
The Halos sent hard throwing reliever Trevor Gott to Washington in exchange for Escobar. Gott made his major league debut with the Angels last year and quickly emerged as one of their best relievers, pitching to the tune of a 3.02 earned-run average in 47 2/3 innings. Gott appeared to be a high price to pay for Escobar, but he currently resides in the Syracuse with the Nationals’ Triple-A team. His current 4.55 ERA in Triple-A makes this deal look like a steal for the Angels.
Escobar took the place of David Freese, who had been the Angels’ third baseman since 2014. Just like Joyce, Freese is now in Pittsburgh. Freese signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Pirates late in the offseason and has proved to be a bargain, boasting his best offensive numbers since his 2012 campaign with St. Louis. Freese is hitting .292 with an .809 OPS — numbers he never came close to is in his two years in Anaheim — in what was expected to be a part-time role with the Pirates. He was originally acquired to be a bench player and a fill-in until their third baseman, Jung Ho Kang, returned from injury, but he has forced his way into the everyday lineup with his stellar offensive production and is even seeing time at first base.
It would have been feasible to sign Freese and move Escobar to second base, where he spent a limited amount of time earlier in his career. However, he hasn’t played there since 2007, so it would have been a risk to commit to him playing there every day. You could also suggest that it would have been wiser to just re-sign Freese and not trade for Escobar, but the Angels traded for Escobar early in the offseason and I doubt the Angels expected Freese to stay on the market as long as he did and for his price to fall as drastically as it did. They also desperately needed a leadoff hitter, and Escobar fills that role perfectly.
Last year, catcher Chris Iannetta had a dismal offensive season in 2015 after steadily improving in each of his previous three years in Anaheim. He was a free agent after the season, and former Angels general manager turned Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto signed Iannetta to a one-year deal in the offseason, and he has returned to his career norms. His .237/.337/.395 slash is markedly better than last year’s miserable .188/.293/.335 and more in line with his 2012 and 2013 campaigns in Anaheim. It’s easy to just look at Iannetta’s 2015 season, and forget about just how good he was with the Angels prior to 2015. However, from 2012-2014, he got on base consistently and provided a good amount of offense at a position normally starved for it. His best year came in 2014 when he got on base at a .373 clip and was a key piece of an Angels’ lineup that led the league in runs scored.
To replace Iannetta, the Angels signed veteran catcher Geovany Soto to a one-year deal. Soto was expected to be the backup to Carlos Perez, who is now in his second year in the majors. When Perez started slowly, Soto began to see more time behind the dish, and for good reason. Soto is hitting .283 with an .821 OPS, but he tore his meniscus on May 18 and has been on the DL since. Perez is now playing almost every day and has been one of the worst hitting catchers in the league, batting a paltry .188/.226/.305.
To fill the utility role vacated by Taylor Featherston, the Angels signed veteran Cliff Pennington. In the time that he has been on the field, he has been productive, but (You guessed it!) he’s currently enduring his second DL stint.
The Angels didn’t make the moves any their fans wanted, but newly appointed GM Billy Eppler did his best to address the team’s many flaws in a cost-effective manner, and, for the most part, he did a quality job. The common theme between all of the newcomers of course is that they have all missed time due to injuries, and you can’t blame anyone for that.