Winter Report Card: Can Angels' off-season moves get them back to playoffs?
- Thanks to some small yet savvy free-agent additions, the Angels have reshuffled last year's unimpressive roster and look more like potential postseason contenders.
Before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season, acknowledging that there’s still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2016. Next up: the Los Angeles Angels.
74–88 (.457), fourth place in the American League West
C Jett Bandy, RHP Jhoulys Chacin, 2B Johnny Giavotella*, RHP Tim Lincecum*, RHP Jered Weaver*, RHP C.J. Wilson*
RHP Jesse Chavez, 2B Danny Espinosa, C Martin Maldonado, OF Cameron Maybin, OF Ben Revere, 3B Luis Valbuena
(*free agent, still unsigned)
Off-season In Review
Second-year GM Billy Eppler’s most important move for the future of his franchise was not trading all-world centerfielder Mike Trout. Beyond that, it’s just reshuffling for a team that will operate with almost no safety net—as it did last year, when a rash of injuries to the pitching staff sank an otherwise average club—until Eppler can restock the worst farm system in the game. But now that Wilson (who made $20.5 million last year and missed the whole season due to shoulder surgery) and Weaver ($20.2 million) are off the books—and outfielder Josh Hamilton (who will make $26.4 million this year to play for the Rangers) will be as well after the season—the Angels have the flexibility to make moves as the next two loaded free-agent classes become available. And if everyone stays healthy, this winter's moves could sneak Los Angeles into the postseason.
Espinosa—picked up for two pitching prospects after the Nationals’ Adam Eaton trade in December moved Trea Turner from centerfield to shortstop and Espinosa to the bench—will join shortstop Andrelton Simmons to form one of the game’s better double play combinations. The new second baseman’s bat leaves something to be desired, though: Espinosa hit just .209/.306/.378 last year, with his 24 home runs canceled out by his weak plate discipline (174 strikeouts to just 54 walks in 601 plate appearances). Valbuena, signed to a two-year pact, was limited to 90 games for the Astros last year by injury but has cracked 54 homers over the last three seasons. The lefty could pick up some plate appearances against righties at third base, platoon with Espinosa at second or steal playing time from the mediocre C.J. Cron at first base. Together, Valbuena and Espinosa will replace Giavotella (a free agent) and Cliff Pennington, who formed the fourth-worst second base performance in baseball last year with -1.6 WAR.
The Angels cycled through seven leftfielders last year, none of whom was worth more than 1.2 WAR there, so on the first day of the off-season, the team acquired Maybin from the Tigers for minor league pitcher Victor Alcantara to plug that hole. Once a top prospect, the going-on-30 Maybin is marginal offensively (a career .259/.322/.373 hitter) and injury prone—he managed only 94 games last year and has played more than 100 just once in the last four seasons—but along with Trout and perennially underrated rightfielder Kole Calhoun, he will give the Angels a strong defensive outfield. Also added to the outfield mix is Revere, who stumbled badly with the Nationals last year, hitting .217/.260/.300 for a putrid 49 OPS+ and losing his starting centerfield job in late August. Still just 28, Revere will offer speed and defense off the bench on a one-year pact.
Los Angeles will also take a flier on the righthanded Chavez, to whom the team gave $5.75 million (with the chance to make it $8.25 million) for one year. The well-traveled veteran is 33 and worked exclusively out of the bullpen last year for the Blue Jays and Dodgers, posting a 4.43 ERA, 4.49 FIP and 8.5 strikeouts per nine in 25 2/3 innings, but he will be in the mix for a starting spot with the Angels, whose rotation depth is thin. Los Angeles has four starters recovering from elbow injuries or Tommy John surgery, including staff ace Garrett Richards, who chose a stem-cell therapy treatment over ligament replacement.
Gone from that stockpile of starters along with Weaver and Wilson: Chacin and Lincecum. The former posted a forgettable 4.68 ERA and 85 ERA+ in 117 1/3 innings after being picked up in a trade with the Braves; he joined the Padres on a one-year deal. The latter has fallen hard and far from his Cy Young-winning days in San Francisco, getting tattooed for a 9.16 ERA and 11 home runs in 38 1/3 miserable innings after joining the team midseason. Yanked from the rotation in August and banished to Triple A, Lincecum is still looking for work this winter, though his diminished repertoire and poor results aren't likely to land him suitors.
Behind the plate, the Angels swapped catchers with the Brewers in December, giving up club control and upside in favor of pitch-framing reputation. Maldonado, 30, is a modest upgrade over Bandy, 26, and is only under contract through 2018. He’s presumably the stopgap until 2015 first-round pick Taylor Ward is ready to step in at catcher, but that is a risky strategy for a team without a real backup plan.
Unfinished Business: Pitching
It’s all pitching for this team. If Richards, Matt Shoemaker and Tyler Skaggs are effective in their return from injury and if some combination of Ricky Nolasco, Alex Meyer and Chavez can keep the offense in the game the rest of the time, the rotation should be good enough. But there’s almost no depth behind those six, and FanGraphs projects the bullpen—one fronted by aging and increasingly ineffective closer Huston Street, who posted a 6.45 ERA and just 14 strikeouts in 22 1/3 injury-plagued innings—to be the league’s worst. If the Angels are still in it at the deadline, expect Eppler to make a move to bolster either the starting five or his relief corps.
Preliminary Grade: B+
The Angels have spent most of the Trout era out of contention, but this could be the beginning of a turnaround. This season’s team will have a slim margin for error, as any significant injuries could expose a lack of upper-minors depth, but Eppler is beginning to put the pieces in place to compete.