Cliff Corcoran: Angels shrink gap on Rangers by inking Pujols and Wilson - Sports Illustrated

Angels shrink gap on Rangers by inking Pujols and Wilson

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The Rangers finished 10 games ahead of the Angels in the American League West in 2011. On Thursday morning, the Angels made up that deficit and then some by committing more than $330 million to first baseman Albert Pujols (10 years, $254 million) and left-hander C.J. Wilson (five years, $77.5 million), the top free agent hitter and pitcher available this offseason.

The Angels had $31 million coming off the books this winter with their commitments to pitchers Scott Kazmir and Joel Piñeiro and outfielder Gary Matthews Jr. coming to an end, and expect to be flush with cash in the wake of a new local television contract with FOX Sports that could add an extra $100 million annually to their coffers. That means that, even with Vernon Wells' still owed $63 million over the next three years, the Angels and new GM Jerry DiPoto had both the money and, after missing out on Carl Crawford and Adrian Beltre a year ago, the motivation to go big this offseason, and they have.

Pujols, a three-time NL MVP, is obviously the bigger name but, curiously, Wilson may prove to be the larger upgrade for the coming season. Assuming some combination of rookie Garrett Richards and reclamation project Jerome Williams can sufficiently replace the middling performance of 2011 rookie Tyler Chatwood, who was dealt to the Rockies last week in a deal that netted catcher Chris Iannetta, Wilson will be replacing Piñeiro and Kazmir directly, as well as spot starter Matt Palmer. Piñeiro, Kazmir and Palmer combined to make 28 starts and throw 163 innings for the Angels in 2011 and were 2.1 wins worse than a replacement player according to Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement (bWAR).

Meanwhile, Wilson has averaged 4.7 bWAR a year since converting back to a starting pitcher from a reliever in 2010. That's a 6.8-win upgrade that you can round up to seven wins when you consider the other 60 or so innings of borderline-replacement middle relief work that Wilson will eat up in the coming season. Add in the downgrade from Wilson to the newly closer-turned-starter Neftali Feliz in the Rangers rotation and already the two AL West powerhouses are neck-and-neck in the division, and that's before factoring in Pujols.

From 2003 to 2009, his age-23 to -29 seasons, Pujols averaged 9.1 bWAR a year. Over the last two years, however, he has experienced some decline, posting a 7.1 bWAR in 2010 and a 5.4 bWAR this past season. That 2010 figure roughly splits the difference between his peak and his career-low bWAR total in 2011, so let's work with that and call Pujols a seven-win player, realizing that, heading into his age-32 season, he could still easily spike back up to nine wins or more.

Unlike Wilson, Pujols isn't filling a hole as much as he is upgrading on an unspectacular player, replacing Rookie of the Year runner-up Mark Trumbo, who was worth 2.1 wins above replacement this past season. Trumbo's .291 on-base percentage undermined his 29 home runs and .477 slugging percentage to make him no better than a league-average player. That's a five-win upgrade on its face, giving the Angels a 13-win upgrade in two moves. They could, however, be even better than that.

Pujols is replacing Trumbo at first base, but not on the roster. At least not yet. Trumbo might yet be traded for help elsewhere, but DiPoto insisted on Thursday that the Angels aren't shopping him. That means L.A. will retain some portion of Trumbo's value in a job share at designated hitter and in leftfield (I expect their plan to spot him at third base, a position he hasn't played since high school, will be disabused in spring training). In 2011, those two positions were manned primarily by Bobby Abreu and Wells, respectively, who were worth just one win above replacement combined. Due to Abreu's declining power and Wells overall awfulness (.218/.248/.412 in 529 plate appearances), Trumbo was more productive than either veteran in 2011, and entering his age-26 season is more likely than either to improve. That could add another win above replacement to the Angels ledger.

The Angels should also experience upgrades via Iannetta and rookie Mike Trout. Iannetta won't hit for average, but if his power and patience persist outside of Denver (he has hit just .171/.308/.300 on the road the last three seasons), he could be a two-win player and a 2.5-win upgrade over Jeff Mathis, who was finally, mercifully traded to the Blue Jays after costing the Angels an average of a half a win annually over the last six seasons. Trout is widely regarded as one of the top two or three prospects in all of baseball and would be an early favorite for the Rookie of the Year award if he can carve out some playing time in the Angels' crowded outfield, which could further upgrade the Angels left-field/DH situation. In fact, one could argue that handing Trout the job in left and Trumbo the job at DH would improve the Halos at both positions, giving the Angels upgrades at four lineup spots, though Angels fans shouldn't hold their breath for that arrangement with Wells and Abreu owed a combined $30 million for the coming season.

Some of that could come out in the wash with regression from Jered Weaver, who had a career year in 2011 buoyed by a .252 opponent's average on balls in play, and fellow right-hander Ervin Santana, who has been inconsistent in his career and also had better-than-average luck on balls in play this past season. Still, there's potential here for the Angels to be close to 15 wins better than they were in 2011. However, that doesn't quite get them past the Rangers.

If you look at Baseball Prospectus's third-order wins, which go one step beyond Pythagorean record to calculate a team's expected runs scored and allowed based on their component parts (hits, walks, outs, etc.) and then calculates their expected winning percentage from those expected runs, the gap between the Angles and Rangers in 2011 wasn't 10 wins but 21. The Rangers had the major league's best third-order record in 2011, playing at the level of a 104-win team compared to the 83-win Angels. Adding those 15 wins to the Angels' total and shaving a couple of wins off the Rangers' total to account for the downgrade in the rotation to Feliz (but assuming Joe Nathan will be a sufficient replacement for Feliz as closer), brings the Angels within shouting distance, but still leaves them a handful of wins short. Still, on Wednesday, the Rangers seemed likely to waltz to their third straight division title in 2012. In the wake of the Angels big moves on Thursday, however, their margin for error is all but gone.