Can—or maybe how will—the Angels keep outperforming their expected records? Is this the year Brandon Wood finally puts it all together in the majors? And how about that farm system?! Temper caution about former Golden Spikes winner Jered Weaver, though; he’s nothing more than a slightly above-average innings eater.
Had you going for a moment there, didn’t I? This year was the first bump in the road for an Angels team that hadn’t suffered a losing season since 2003 before going 80–82 in 2010. This year there will be no attempts at post hoc justifications or to explain the mysteries of the Angels’ success. In short, the 2011 Angels have come a very long way from the iterations of the mid-to-late Aughts. The current Angels’ roster is a middling one with money owed to a lot of pretty bad players, but that doesn’t mean they can’t compete again in 2011—if the money is right.
Let’s start with the outfield. Two-thirds—probably left and right field—of it are filled by a pair of erstwhile power-speed studs now on the wrong side of 35. Combined, the Angels owe Bobby Abreu and Torii Hunter $27.5 million next year. That in and of itself isn’t a devastating fact because Hunter (.289) and Abreu (.288) both posted respectable True Averages last year. In any event, there’s no use crying over spilt cash to those guys any more than there is decrying the $11.4 million the Angels still owe Gary Matthews Jr. next year. That’s almost $40 million on two roster spots, but the picture really does improve from there.
Consider center field an interesting question given the lukewarm thermos of coffee that Peter Bourjos toted to Anaheim this past summer. Prior to his call-up, Bourjos had hit .314/.364/.498 at Triple-A Salt Lake, which looks superficially good until you realize that it translated to a major-league adjusted TAv of just .228 given Salt Lake’s hitter friendliness. When Bourjos came up, he had a .231 TAv (behold the power of Clay Davenport’s fully operational minor-league translations) but supplemented it with plus defense in center field. To the degree he struggled offensively, moreover, it was because he failed to rack up singles at the rate he had in the minors. His major-league triple slash of .204/.237/.381 demonstrates that if he parlays his power (16 extra-base hits in 193 PA) into greater patience, and if his batting average swings back closer to his career .293 minor-league mark, he’ll be a real asset at a bargain price. At that point, the big knock against him will be that he isn’t named Mike Trout, which is fair enough as far as it goes, but Bourjos makes a fine stopgap even if Trout somehow does prove ready by the end of 2011.
Even more than the outfield, the Angels infield carries more questions about cost certainty and personnel. At first base we have a nifty lesson in the CBA’s service time rules. Kendry Morales signed a six-year major-league deal prior to the 2005 season, which has now expired. Now, Morales will become arbitration-eligible for the first time even though he was on the major-league roster for a full six years. Even still, he shouldn’t make significantly more than about $5 million given his injury, which caused him to miss more than half of the 2010 season. If it were me calling the shots, I’d bank on Morales returning to a level somewhere between his 2009 peak (.306/.355/.569) and the glimpses he showed in 2010 (.290/.346/.487), with the difference split in the power department. That’s more than good enough to pay and to play.
Up the middle, the Angels have a pair of once highly-touted prospects (is the lesson here TINSTAAAAP?) in Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar. Both enter their second year of arbitration with a bit of a mixed track record. Neither hits especially well, but both play competent defense at their respective positions. That Aybar plays short is effectively negated by his bleaker offensive pedigree. Ultimately, Kendrick and Aybar suffer from the same malady: they swing at everything. Kendrick has a 3.3 percent (sic) career unintentional walk rate, and Aybar’s is only slightly higher at 4.9 percent. They’ll be OK bets if they’re only making $3 million or so, but next off-season could involve some tough decisions unless the two develop their offensive abilities more. Kendrick is the better option of the two, especially given his superior ability to hit for power.
After the Wood saga ended not with a bang but with a giant whooshing sound, the Angels are left with some deciding to do at the hot corner. Alberto Callaspo is not a good option and ought not to be seriously considered for an everyday gig. That goes double for Maicer Izturis. The problem is compounded because the number of third base free-agent options is severely limited this off-season. That being said, I’d go pretty big in an attempt to get Adrian Beltre back to LA. This is where I’d spend my money because signing a defensively useful outfielder like Jayson Werth or Carl Crawford would likely require much more money over many more years and would put at least one decent defender in the DH spot, which has been crowded enough in recent years. If you could get Beltre for somewhere close to 4 years, $50 million, I’d take the deal. Imagine all the Joel Piñero grounders that infield would gobble up!
That still leaves catcher and DH. Giving Mike Napoli the run-around in April has become a blood sport for Mike Scioscia, but he’s still a very useful player. He’s set to make about $5 million through arbitration, which is still a good value. Even in a down year, Napoli’s .279 TAv was useful, particularly given his ability to play both catcher and first base. By contrast, Hank Conger hit an equivalent TAv of .230 in Triple-A last year, and Jeff Mathis had a truly awful .185 mark in limited time. The best solution seems to me to be to operate under the assumption that Conger and Napoli will split time behind the dish, and that Napoli will play first base if Morales hits any bumps in the road.
Meanwhile, I’d look for another DH option on the cheaper end of the spectrum. There are plenty of these guys: Jim Thome, Carlos Pena, or Adam LaRoche would be best because none would require forking over an additional draft pick. To the degree that each of these players has a one- or two-dimensional game, those dimensions are exactly the ones the Angels could use more of, and their other failings would be adequately hidden at DH. Bonus points if you can limit the deal to one year, which is why I’d steer clear of Adam Dunn. This strategy really only works if you can find someone to take on some of Juan Rivera’s salary through trade, perhaps for a bullpen arm. Otherwise you are left with just one too many interchangeable parts.
The pitching rotation is where things start to get nifty. Dan Haren leads the bunch with a $12.75 million contract, and he should be nothing short of excellent next year. Weaver will enter his second arbitration year with an enviable bargaining position but certainly won’t make more than $10 million or so. Ervin Santana and Piñero both come in at $8 million to flesh out the middle of the rotation and provide solid value.
Before we end up going crazy on a fifth starter or better bullpen options, it’s worth noting that the Angels salary as I’ve described it so far is already in excess of $100 million. That doesn’t include Rivera’s salary, the $5.5 million owed to Fernando Rodney, or the (gasp) $12 million due to Scott “5.94” Kazmir. That’s why I think the rest of the roster has to come cheaply.
I’d keep Kazmir far, far from the rotation. I’d try to reinvent him as a reliever, or a batboy, or PA guy. Something. He’s just not effective any more, and he’s going to need lots of work if he ever wants to be again. The difficulty is that none of the Angels’ pitching prospects have progressed to Double-A and walked fewer than three batters per nine innings pitched. That’s a bit of a problem but not a terrible one. You could always offer a bunch of fringy free agents minor-league deals with camp invites, see which one works for the first three months or so, and hope that someone like Garrett Richards or Fabio Martinez Mesa develops quickly enough to make it to the big leagues by August or so.
In the bullpen, Rodney and Kevin Jepsen will probably handle the late innings. Sure, Rodney struggled with his command, but what exactly did you think you were signing up for with him? In any event, you could always flip the two, though I’m not sure Jepsen would spell R-O-L-A-I-D-S any better than Rodney, at least in the control department. That leaves cheaper options like Jordan Walden, whose future as a starter is at least complicated at this point but whose 100 mph fastball plays well in the bullpen. He may end up getting saves sooner rather than later if Jepsen and Rodney do not impress. After that I’d call around to the various veteran relievers—Chan Ho Park, Jose Contreras, Pedro Feliciano—to try to fill out the roster for a relative bargain.
In short, it would not be wise to pursue a strategy that involved acquiring two of Werth, Crawford, and Beltre. They are already set to exceed their $100+ million salary from 2010 despite losing Scot Shields, Hideki Matsui, and Justin Speier from the books. They lost $10 million last year. I think the Angels are constrained in a real way by their residual contractual commitments, and that constraint manifests itself as a trade-off: Bourjos in center with Beltre at third, or an Abreu-Hunter-Werth/Crawford outfield with Alberto Callaspo at third. I know which one of those I’d rather have.