Winter Report Card: Angels flunk most important task of their off-season
With less than four weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the Los Angeles Angels. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
85–77 (.525), third place in American League West (Hot Stove Preview)
SS Erick Aybar, OF Collin Cowgill, OF David DeJesus*, 3B David Freese*, IF Conor Gillaspie*, RHP Trevor Gott, C Chris Iannetta, OF Matt Joyce*, RHP Mat Latos*, OF David Murphy*, 1B/OF Efren Navarro, RHP Vinnie Pestano*, LHP Cesar Ramos, OF Shane Victorino*
(*free agent, still unsigned; +Rule 5 pick)
Off-season In Review
The 2015 Angels weren’t eliminated from playoff contention until the final day of the regular season, finishing just one game behind the wild-card winning Astros in the AL West. Heading into the off-season, Los Angeles was in an enviable position, boasting an emerging young rotation good enough to make veterans Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson expendable and five more years of control over perennial AL MVP runner-up Mike Trout, who just turned 24 in August.
What the Angels needed to do this winter was upgrade the offense around their superstar centerfielder. Despite Trout leading the league in OPS (.991) and OPS+ (176), Los Angeles finished 12th in the AL in runs scored last year, pushing across just 4.08 runs per game. Remove Trout, and the rest of the team hit a mere .239/.294/.373 on the season. After Trout, the team's second-best hitter was Albert Pujols, who hit .231/.288/.419 after the All-Star break, is now 36 and is expected to miss Opening Day after having right foot surgery in November.
Fortunately for the Angels, they had options to improve the offense: an excess of starting pitching to offer in trades, and a free-agent market flush with impact bats. Leftfielders Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes looked like perfect matches, and failing that, first baseman Chris Davis would have fit the bill—and, as a lefthanded hitter, he would have slotted in nicely between righties Trout and Pujols in the lineup.
No dice. Los Angeles declined even to pursue any of those players, nor fellow outfielders Jason Heyward or Alex Gordon. The reasoning was that owner Arte Moreno didn’t want to incur MLB's competitive balance tax, leaving new general manager Billy Eppler little negotiating room with the game’s top free agents. That’s literally Moreno’s business, but Angels fans should feel justified in being outraged about that decision.
To begin with, the Angels weren’t, and still aren’t, perilously close to the $189 million competitive balance tax threshold. Most estimates have them somewhere between $164 and $167 million in actual club payroll (that is, payroll as it is calculated for the tax, using the average annual value of multi-year contracts). Even the higher number there would leave them $22 million to work with to upgrade the offense beyond the moves they already made. The average annual value of Upton’s contract with the Tigers is $22.125 million; Davis’s deal with the Orioles and Heyward’s deal with the Cubs both have annual values of $23 million; and Gordon returned to the Royals for $18 million a year (in what was admittedly a hometown discount).
Had the Angels not spent $2.375 million on Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry, who project to open the season as the team’s leftfield platoon, they could have signed any one of those players without incurring the competitive balance tax. Even if those payroll estimates are off slightly, the amount of tax incurred would have been negligible given the significance of the upgrade to the lineup. What’s more, with Weaver and Wilson reaching free agency next winter—and with neither needing to be replaced due to the team’s bevy of young pitching—Los Angeles would have gained another $32.5 million in payroll flexibility that would have dropped them back below the threshold, assuming it’s comparable in the new, still-to-be-negotiated collective bargaining agreement due to take effect at the end of the year.
The Angels weren’t totally inactive this off-season. The most significant move was a trade for Andrelton Simmons, the best defensive shortstop in baseball. Simmons is 26 and under contract for five more years, but in acquiring him, Los Angeles had to deal from its considerable pitching depth by trading two prospects, lefty Sean Newcomb and righty Chris Ellis, who were buried beneath those who have already reached the majors (and threw in Erick Aybar’s walk year to off-set the payroll). The Angels then traded two more pitchers, righty reliever Trevor Gott and minor leaguer Michael Brady, for 33-year-old veteran Yunel Escobar, who has a $7 million option for 2017, to replace David Freese at third base.
With last year's starting catcher, Chris Iannetta, now in Seattle, the Angels signed veteran Geovany Soto to back up sophomore Carlos Perez. To replace Gott in the bullpen, they signed Al Alburquerque, who was non-tendered by the Tigers. Los Angeles also fleshed things out around the edges with the likes of Nava, Gentry, veteran infielder Cliff Pennington and a pair of Rule 5 picks who are long shots to make the Opening Day roster. None of those moves, however, accomplished what should have been the Angels’ primary goal: upgrading the offense.
Unfinished Business: Leftfield
It’s too late for the Angels to make a major splash in left, but it’s not too late for them to upgrade at the position, mostly because of just how low they’ve set the bar. Los Angeles' leftfielders hit just .216/.275/.317 last year, a line that none of the prospective leftfielders on the current roster—Nava, Gentry and soon-to-be-27-year-old waiver claim Todd Cunningham—bettered in the 2015 season. There is hope left on the free-agent market, though: Dexter Fowler, who has hit .261/.358/.406 (113 OPS+) in two seasons since leaving the Rockies. A switch-hitter with power (a career-best 17 home runs last year), patience and speed who is not a great defensive centerfielder, he’d be a nice fit in left for the Halos.
Despite those stats, Fowler remains unsigned because he declined the Cubs’ qualifying offer and would require his new team to sacrifice its top draft pick in this year's draft. The Angels, however, are currently in line to draft 20th, and there’s a significant decline in the value of picks in the second half of the first round. Given their failure to this point, that draft pick is a price they need to pay to stay competitive in the division in the coming year. My other suggestion would be to sacrifice their second-round pick to bring back Howie Kendrick to play second base, but that would likely put the Angels up against the tax threshold.
Preliminary Grade: F
The Simmons and Escobar trades were solid moves, but the Angels failed at their most important and arguably easiest off-season task. In the process, they have likely doomed the 2016 team to also-ran status (and possibly Trout to another second-place finish in the MVP voting) as a result.