By Chad Stewart
The way the Angels’ 2016 season unfolded made it seem to many like the Angels might be the worst-positioned team in Major League Baseball.
They suffered numerous injuries that other teams may have had no problem overcoming, but their unfathomably poor farm system made it nearly impossible for them to do so.
They don’t currently have long-term solutions at second base or left field, and help is not on the way from the minors.
They still owe Albert Pujols about $140 million through 2021, his age-41 season. And they are still paying Josh Hamilton through 2017 even though he played his last game in an Angel uniform in 2014.
Despite all of that, a World Series-contending Angels team may not be too far away.
Both C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver are now free-agents, freeing up a little more than $30 million, which pushes the Angels’ payroll far away from the luxury tax threshold that owner Arte Moreno has been unwilling to go over. After 2017, the Angels will be freed of the contracts of Hamilton, Huston Street, Yunel Escobar, Cameron Maybin, and Ricky Nolasco, freeing up close to $50 million more.
In addition, the Angels have a stable core of position players to build around, including the best player on the planet.
Kole Calhoun has established himself as one of the better corner outfielders in the game, both offensively and defensively. He won a Gold Glove award in 2015 and continued improving his offensive game in 2016, setting a career-high in on-base percentage while decreasing his strikeout percentage to a career-low. He recently turned 29 years old and is still under team control for three more seasons.
Coming over to Anaheim in a trade that saw the Angels send their top prospect to Atlanta prior to the 2016 season, Andrelton Simmons has yet to disappoint. Despite missing more than a month due to a finger injury, Simmons managed to rack up 18 Defensive Runs Saved, the most among American League shortstops. And while he struggled immensely at the plate in the first half and offense will likely never be one of his strengths, he showed a marked improvement in the second half, batting a respectable .291/.346/.377 with eight stolen bases.
A first-round pick in 2010, C.J. Cron blossomed into a legitimate offensive threat last season, though it was hampered by a hand injury. In 116 games, Cron hit .278 with a .792 OPS and 16 home runs. He also upped his walk-rate on his way to a career-high .325 OBP and cut his strikeout-rate to 16.9%, down about seven percent since his rookie campaign in 2014. According to multiple metrics, Cron improved his defense at first base, too.
Then there’s that Mike Trout guy. He remains the best all-around player in baseball, leading the league in Wins Above Replacement for the fifth consecutive year. He hit .315 with a .991 OPS, and his .441 OBP was the highest in Major League Baseball. He stole 30 bases — more than he stole in the previous two seasons combined — and fell one homer shy of his second 30-30 season of his career. And he’s still just 25 years old and under contract through 2020.
Trout, Calhoun, Cron, and Simmons form a formidable core of position players and are all 29 years old or younger and under control for at least three more seasons.
Furthermore, there is reason to believe their starting rotation’s best days are coming very soon.
After making just six starts in 2016, staff ace Garrett Richards was able to avoid Tommy John surgery and is currently on track to pitch in 2017. Both Tyler Skaggs and Matt Shoemaker finished the 2016 season on the disabled list, but they should also be ready for next season. Of course, Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano both underwent Tommy John surgery last season and will likely miss all of next season.
Come 2018, the Angels rotation will consist of Richards, Heaney, Skaggs, Shoemaker, and Tropeano, assuming all injuries heal as expected. Shoemaker is the only one over 28 years old, and all of them represent significant upside.
Richards followed up his injury-shortened breakout season in 2014 with a solid 2015, posting a 3.65 earned-run average and surpassing 200 innings for the first time. He was not nearly as dominant in 2015 as he was in 2014, but to be able to throw over 200 innings in his first season following a devastating knee injury is an impressive feat nonetheless. And before succumbing to injury in 2016, Richards appeared primed for a season close to as dominant as the one in 2014. In six starts, he notched a 2.34 ERA while elevating his strikeout-rate and decreasing his home run rate closer to where they were in 2014, though he averaged fewer than six innings per start. We have seen his ceiling, and now it is just a matter of reaching it again, which seems inevitable.
In 2012, the Miami Marlins drafted Heaney with the ninth overall selection. He was then rated as the 18th-best prospect in baseball in 2014 by MLB Pipeline. His pedigree led to the Angels trading longtime second baseman Howie Kendrick in exchange for him prior to the 2015 season, and he was impressive in his first extended action in the big leagues. In 105 2/3 innings, Heaney pitched to the tune of a 3.49 ERA. Heaney is only 25 years old, and he certainly has the potential to form half of a daunting duo with Richards at the top of the rotation once he recovers from Tommy John surgery.
Like Heaney, Skaggs was once a first-round pick and a highly-ranked prospect. The Angels drafted him in 2009, and he was included in the package they sent to Arizona in order to acquire Dan Haren about a year later. He was outstanding during most of his time in the Diamondbacks’ minor league system, but was unable to establish himself in the big leagues. Following the 2013 season, Skaggs returned to the Angels as a part of the Mark Trumbo deal.
He quickly became a part of the Angels’ rotation and found limited success, posting a 4.30 ERA in 18 starts before being forced to undergo Tommy John surgery. He missed all of 2015 and finally returned to action late in the 2016 season, nearly two years after the surgery. He flashed his potential once again, making 10 starts and tossing 12 1/3 shutout innings to begin his 2016. However, he succumbed to an injury yet again and finished the season on the disabled list. Much like many of the Angels’ starters, Skaggs has failed to stay healthy, which has made it impossible for him to settle into the big league rotation for an extended period. Still, it is hard to ignore the potential the once top prospect has considering he’s 6-foot-5, left-handed, just 25 years old, and possesses the arsenal to be at least a middle of the rotation starter.
After a brilliant 2014 that saw him finish second in AL Rookie of the Year voting, Shoemaker struggled to regain that form. He posted a 4.46 ERA in 2015 and an ugly 9.15 ERA in April of 2016. But after the rough start to 2o16, he quickly began looking like his old self again. He was effective in May, but really broke out in June when he owned a 2.14 ERA in 42 innings and at one point, went 26 days without walking a batter; he faced 155 batters and struck out 49 of them in that span, the third-most strikeouts without a walk in MLB history.
In 138 innings after April, Shoemaker owned a 3.13 ERA. However, his season came to an unfortunate end when he was struck in the head with a line drive off the bat of the Mariners’ Kyle Seager. Shoemaker is the oldest of the bunch at 30 years old, but he is under team control for three more years and in 2016, he showed that he is still capable of dominating batters like he did in 2014.
Nick Tropeano probably possesses the least amount of upside, but he has already shown that he can be a valuable Major League pitcher. He came over from Houston along with catcher Carlos Perez in a trade before the 2015 season. In 106 innings since joining the Angels, Tropeano has a 3.65 ERA while striking out 106 batters. He does allow his fair share of baserunners, as he struggles with control quite a bit, but he has proven that he has the ability to provide quality innings and that he can be a useful piece of any big league rotation.
In addition to the aforementioned players, youngsters such as Jett Bandy, Carlos Perez, Cam Bedrosian, and Mike Morin figure to factor into the Angels’ future plans.
Now that the Angels have a talented nucleus of young position players and pitchers, they need to work on supplementing the roster around them. They found their everyday left fielder in Cameron Maybin, but he is not a long-term solution, as he is a free agent following the 2017 season. They are also still searching for an everyday second baseman.
Due to the state of their farm system, it will be extremely difficult for the Angels to make any more trades to address the holes in their roster. Therefore, they will likely have to head to the free-agent market in search of smart additions, and because of the $80 million or so coming off the books over the next couple of seasons, Moreno should be willing to open up the checkbook again.
Assuming he declines the Mets’ qualifying offer, second baseman Neil Walker will be available this winter. Walker spent the first five years of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates before being traded to Mets last offseason. The 31-year-old switch-hitter has been one of the better hitting second baseman in the league throughout his career and enjoyed another fantastic season last year, though it ended prematurely due to a back injury. In 113 games, he hit .282/.347/.476 (122 wRC+ where 100 is league average), which are numbers about in line with his career averages.
Last year, the Angels had the third-worst offensive production at second base in the majors, so Walker would represent an enormous upgrade. Adding Walker would also give them one less thing to worry about next offseason when they will be tasked with finding replacements for both Escobar and Maybin, who will be free agents at season’s end.
MLB Trade Rumors projects Walker to sign a 3-year, $36 million deal, which would be in line with the one fellow second baseman Daniel Murphy received a year ago. If they signed Walker, the Angels would also have to surrender their second round pick in next year’s draft due to the qualifying offer system.
The Angels could instead opt for a cheaper, shorter-term option like Steve Pearce, Sean Rodriguez, or Chase Utley, or employ a platoon at the position. However, there won’t be as good of a second baseman available on the free-agent market in the near future, so while there is some uncertainty regarding his health, it would be wise to target Walker this offseason.
If he does accept the Mets one year, $17.2 million qualifying offer, they could always find a veteran fill-in for this season, and go after Walker when he becomes available next year.
As for left field, Maybin is a good stopgap between this coming season and next, as there will be better options available on the free-agent market following the 2017 season, including J.D. Martinez and Carlos González.
Due to the possible 2018 rotation outlined above, the Angels should not sign a starter such as Ivan Nova to a long-term deal, though it might be tempting. The free-agent pitching market is the weakest it’s been in years, meaning teams will likely overpay for the pitchers available. The Angels should avoid that, and instead focus on building depth since — health permitting — they will have a solid rotation in 2018.
It would be easy to write off the Angels for the foreseeable future because their farm system is devoid of top-flight prospects and because their payroll is weighed down by a couple of massive contracts. It would be easy to suggest that the Angels’ only path to contention is through trading Mike Trout.
But that would be a mistake. They have a talented group to build around, and it is easily conceivable that the Angels will be able to take advantage of Trout’s best years.
If they play their cards right, the Angels can begin contending for a title once again in 2018, and their window to win may be much larger than it might have appeared to be earlier this year.