The investments took a bit longer to pay off than expected, but the Angels finally justified the free-agent expenditures of recent winters and returned to the playoffs in 2014. They announced their return to championship contention with unexpected authority, riding Mike Trout’s first MVP season to the best record in baseball (98–64) despite the devastating late-season loss of emerging star Garrett Richards to a knee injury.
A disappointing first-round playoff flop against Kansas City took the shine off the Angels’ season. The concern now is whether those big-money investments in declining stars Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton and one of the most fallow farm systems in baseball threaten to slam the window shut in the next few years. Trout offers a franchise cornerstone, and GM Jerry Dipoto has tried to keep the window open by retooling the pitching staff with younger, affordable arms.
Nothing is more valuable in baseball than young, cost-controlled pitching. Dipoto has collected enough of it behind veterans Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson that a rotation that was once a problem area could grow into a strength in the next few years. Much of that hinges on the two young righthanders who emerged in 2014 — Richards and Matt Shoemaker. The hard-throwing Richards looks like a future ace. He went 13–4 with a 2.61 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 26 starts before a torn patellar tendon in his left knee ended his season in late August. Richards, 26, might not be ready to go at the start of the 2015 season but is expected to make a full recovery. Shoemaker, meanwhile, was one of the most pleasant surprises in recent memory for the Angels. He rose through the Angels’ system with barely a ripple on the prospect watch lists then stepped into the Angels’ depleted rotation last year, going 16–4 with a 3.04 ERA. With little else coming from within, Dipoto has managed to pluck young starters off the trade market each of the past two offseasons. He added lefthanders Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago to the rotation mix a year ago. Skaggs is likely to miss all of 2015 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. This past winter, Dipoto made two more trades for another pair of young pitchers with upsides — righthander Nick Tropeano from the Astros (in a deal for catcher Hank Conger) and lefthander Andrew Heaney (in a deal for second baseman Howie Kendrick). Tropeano and Heaney will compete for a spot in the back of the rotation with the potential to move up.
Dipoto did a remarkable job last year rebuilding the Angels’ bullpen on the fly. Gone from the 2014 pen are Ernesto Frieri, Kevin Jepsen, Michael Kohn and Scott Downs, not to mention failed free-agent pickups Sean Burnett and Ryan Madson. In their place is a more reliable group led by closer Huston Street (acquired from the Padres last July) and setup man Joe Smith (signed as a free agent) with options like Fernando Salas (acquired in a trade with the Cardinals), veteran Vinnie Pestano (another trade pickup), Mike Morin, lefthander Cesar Ramos and former first-round draft picks Cam Bedrosian and Cory Rasmus.
For the first time since 2007, Kendrick and Erick Aybar will not be the Angels’ men in the middle infield. Aybar remains a defensive anchor at shortstop and complementary piece of the Angels’ offense. The 31-year-old has never turned into the top-of-the-order performer his speed would imply, due to a lagging on-base percentage. But manager Mike Scioscia has used him all around the lineup, and Aybar knocked in a respectable 68 runs in 2014. But the deal for Heaney cost the Angels Kendrick and leaves them looking for Josh Rutledge (acquired from the Rockies), Johnny Giavotella (acquired in a trade with the Royals) and/or Grant Green (a former first-round pick whose luster dimmed in the A’s organization) to fill what could be a significant void.
It’s a measure of how far the three-time NL MVP has sunk that last year was considered a bounce-back year for Pujols. The Angels knew they would be getting the worst years of his Hall of Fame career when they signed him as a free agent three winters ago. But they probably didn’t realize they would be getting them at the front end of his massive, 10-year contract. Pujols turned 35 in January, and the Angels are faced with paying him another $189 million as he continues to age — and most likely not age well — over the next seven seasons. His legs were healthier in 2014 and his numbers improved over the previous season. Still, his .272 average and .790 OPS were far cries from the numbers that made him the best hitter in baseball during the 11 years he spent in St. Louis. Across the diamond, the Angels will cross their fingers and hope for better from third baseman David Freese, who continues to decline from his 2011 World Series MVP and 2012 All-Star peak.
After two years as runner-up, Trout won the AL MVP award for the first time in 2014 — with a season that was the worst of his first three. His average dropped nearly 40 points (to .287), his OPS nearly 50 (.939), and he led the American League with a troubling 184 strikeouts. Nonetheless, his status as the best player in the game at age 23 is almost universally accepted. When he disappeared in the ALDS against the Royals (1-for-12), so did the Angels. On one side of Trout, left fielder Kole Calhoun emerged as a catalyst in 2014, batting .272 and scoring 90 runs in just 127 games. On the other, the mystery of Hamilton’s disappearance remains unsolved. In two years with the Angels, Hamilton has looked lost, batting .255 with only 31 home runs and 123 RBIs. And Hamilton’s woes don’t stop there. Not only is he recovering from shoulder surgery in February, he could be facing discipline from MLB due to a reported relapse involving substance abuse.
It is not easy satisfying Scioscia’s defensive demands of his catchers and still contributing offensively. Chris Iannetta has done it as well as anyone since Bengie Molina left town. His .252 average and seven home runs in 2014 don’t sound like much. But his .373 on-base percentage is critical to turning over a lineup. Backing him up this year will be veteran Drew Butera, who offers little offensively or defensively. But the Angels gave up on Conger, shipping him to Houston in the deal for Tropeano that also brought Carlos Perez (the Angels’ new catcher of the future).
When Dipoto acquired Matt Joyce from the Rays in December, he proclaimed him the Angels’ primary DH for 2015 — a label that should be slapped on Pujols soon. C.J. Cron figures to be a right-handed complement at DH and first-base relief for Pujols. He offers more offensive upside than Joyce and provides hope for an infusion of youth to the every-day lineup in the near future. Joyce and Collin Cowgill will see more time in left field, depending on Hamilton’s timetable for his return.
Following a disappointing 2013 season, both Dipoto and Scioscia had little job security with impatient owner Arte Moreno, and there was talk of a lack of shared vision between the two. However, Dipoto and Scioscia have developed a better working relationship, the coaching staff was rebuilt, and Moreno seems to have stepped back, allowing Dipoto more of a free hand to make over the roster. A successful 2014 has reinforced the wisdom of that structure.
Their first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the Royals was disturbing. But the Angels returned to prominence in 2014 with their sixth division title in the past 11 years. They are once again the best in the AL West and should stay that way for some time if the young pitchers acquired over the past two years can be supplemented by a reborn farm system.
2015 Prediction: 1st in AL West
LF Kole Calhoun (L) Had a .281 average and .336 on-base percentage after settling in to the leadoff spot at the start of June.
SS Erick Aybar (S) Did his best work lower in the lineup last year, but Angels might try this again in order to bat Trout third.
CF Mike Trout (R) Trout, Mickey Mantle only two to have finished MVP runner-up in consecutive seasons, won it in the third.
1B Albert Pujols (R) Managed to drive in 105 runs last year despite a career-low .256 average with runners in scoring position.
RF Josh Hamilton (L) Angels led baseball with 773 runs in 2014. Imagine what the offense could do with 2012 vintage Hamilton.
3B David Freese (R) With Howie Kendrick gone, the Angels will look to Freese to turn around a three-year slide.
DH Matt Joyce (L) The DH spot figures to be a revolving door with Joyce getting most of the at-bats.
C Chris Iannetta (R) His batting average (.252) and OPS (.765) last season were the best of his three years with the Angels.
2B Josh Rutledge (R) Lost the starting 2B job in Colorado in 2013 but should get another chance to be an every-day player.
C Drew Butera (R) Made strong case as worst hitter in NL last year — .188 average, more strikeouts (41) than base hits (32).
1B C.J. Cron (R) 8 HRs in first 40 games last year were followed by .216 average from July on.
INF Grant Green (R) Opportunity for 13th player taken in 2009 draft to show why he was so highly regarded coming out of USC.
OF Collin Cowgill (R) Fractured his right thumb and nose on the same play in mid-July when he was hit in the face by a pitch.
1B/OF Marc Krauss (L) Waiver pickup was Jerry Dipoto’s second-round draft pick as GM in Arizona five years ago.
RH Jered Weaver Has been a constant at the front of the Angels’ rotation for almost a decade.
RH Garrett Richards Torn patellar tendon in late August ended his breakout season, but power stuff points to bright future.
RH Matt Shoemaker Strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.17 was seventh-best in the American League
LH C.J. Wilson Down year ended with a dismal showing in the ALDS against the Royals when he lasted only six batters.
LH Andrew Heaney Ninth overall pick in 2012 was the 18th-ranked prospect in baseball last year, according to MLB.com.
RH Huston Street (Closer) Converted 17 of 19 save situations after trade from Padres.
RH Joe Smith Set or tied career-bests in ERA (1.81), wins (seven), innings (74.2) and strikeouts (68).
RH Fernando Salas Held lefties to .188 average, .510 OPS in 2014 — very valuable in a bullpen that leaned to the right.
RH Vinnie Pestano Nearly unhittable after the Angels acquired him in August — five hits and 13 strikeouts in 12 appearances.
LH Cesar Ramos Was a college teammate of Jered Weaver and former Angels pitcher Jason Vargas at Long Beach State.
RH Mike Morin Is there such a thing as a righty specialist? Held right-handers to a .181 average last season, lefties hit .283.
Beyond the Box Score
The babysitter Josh Hamilton’s well-chronicled troubles with drug addiction led the Texas Rangers to hire an “accountability coach” to help Hamilton stay clean during his days with the Rangers. Johnny Narron served in that role for Hamilton’s first four years in Texas before moving on to become hitting coach with the Milwaukee Brewers. Shayne Kelley was Hamilton’s “accountability coach” during his last season in Texas (2012) and first season in Anaheim. Hamilton lacked that support in 2014, but Narron is now back in the same organization with him. The Angels hired Narron as the hitting coach at Triple-A Salt Lake for 2015.
Tough break Of all the injuries suffered on major league fields in 2014, none was more bizarre than the fractured right femur suffered by Angels hitting coach Don Baylor before the home opener at Angel Stadium on March 31. Baylor went into a crouch to receive a ceremonial first pitch from Vladimir Guerrero. Baylor’s leg snapped as he tried to handle Guerrero’s pitch and rise from his crouch. In 2003, Baylor was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a cancer that weakens the bones. He returned to the Angels in midseason.
The right Carlos When the Angels traded catcher Hank Conger to the Houston Astros, they got right-handed pitcher Nick Tropeano and a catching prospect named Carlos Perez in return. But they had better make sure they got the Carlos Perez they really wanted. Perez, 24, played at Triple-A Oklahoma City last year. But he has a younger brother, also named Carlos Perez, who is a catcher in the Chicago White Sox system — and an older brother, also named Carlos Perez, who was a catcher in the Chicago Cubs system.
Stadium talk On the eve of the Angels’ Division Series against the Kansas City Royals, owner Arte Moreno broke off talks with the city of Anaheim over a new stadium lease. An Angels spokesman says the team has not eliminated Anaheim as its long-term home but is exploring “all of our options.” That apparently includes the nearby city of Tustin. Tustin officials have had numerous meetings with team officials. The Angels can opt out of their current lease as soon as 2016 with a three-year window to make that decision.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Sean Newcomb, LHP
The Angels had a first-round pick for the first time since 2011 and grabbed Newcomb out of the University of Hartford with the 15th pick. Newcomb, 21, immediately shot to the top of the Angels’ prospect list in a system ranked last by most evaluators. The sturdy lefthander (6’5”, 240) is expected to justify that ranking with a fastball that touches 98 mph and a pitch mix scouts have compared to Jon Lester’s. Newcomb’s pro debut consisted of a combined six starts at the Arizona Rookie League and Low-A. He went 0–1 with a combined 6.14 ERA but struck out 18 and walked only six in 14.2 innings. He is expected to move quickly through a depleted farm system.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Andrew Heaney, LHP (23) Cost the Angels their second baseman (Howie Kendrick) in a trade, so look for him to spend the summer in the Angels’ starting rotation.
2. Sean Newcomb, LHP (21) Was the highest draft pick out of the University of Hartford since Jeff Bagwell was taken by the Red Sox in the fourth round of the 1989 draft.
3. Nick Tropeano, RHP (24) Had a 4.57 ERA in four big-league starts for the Astros last season and could open 2015 in the Angels’ rotation with Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs injured.
4. Ricardo Sanchez, LHP (17) Top international talent out of Venezuela signed for $580,000 and made his pro debut in the Arizona Summer League just two months after his 17th birthday.
5. Cam Bedrosian, RHP (23) The only one of the Angels’ three first-round picks in 2010 to be heard from since, Bedrosian touched the big leagues last year and could be back at some point in 2015.
6. Alex Yarbrough, 2B (23) A natural hitter, Yarbrough was the Texas League MVP in 2014 and led the Double-A league in hits (155) and doubles (38) while finishing second in RBIs (77).
7. Carlos Perez, C (24) With his third organization after trades from Toronto to Houston to the Angels, but future could be bright with Chris Iannetta headed to free agency next winter.
8. Victor Alcantara, RHP (21) Tamed control issues in Low-A enough last summer to earn a trip to the All-Star Futures Game in Minnesota.
9. Chris Ellis, RHP (22) Helped pitch Ole Miss to the College World Series last year, then taken in third round by the Angels.
10. Joe Gatto, RHP (19) It took a $1.2 million signing bonus to convince him to pass up on his commitment to the University of North Carolina.