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The window might have closed on the Angels. The task for GM Billy Eppler is to pry it back open.
After leading the majors in wins (98) and runs scored (773) in 2014, the Angels were quickly swept from the playoffs by the Kansas City Royals, presaging a season of dysfunction in 2015. Angels owner Arte Moreno reacted angrily to troubled outfielder Josh Hamilton’s relapse into substance abuse. An acrimonious parting resulted in Hamilton being dealt back to Texas for nothing.
Entrenched manager Mike Scioscia has not been able to win a playoff game since 2009. But he won a power struggle with GM Jerry Dipoto, who resigned his position in midseason and eventually landed with division rival Seattle. Eppler replaced him, becoming the fourth GM in the past 10 years to try and function between the twin powers of Scioscia and Moreno.
Eppler inherits a team saddled with at least $40 million owed to Hamilton in the next two seasons, an aging Albert Pujols and one of the weakest farm systems in baseball.
Buoyed by the generational talent of Mike Trout and a sound pitching staff, the Angels will contend — but it might be in spite of themselves.
Dipoto did the Angels a favor before he left, rebuilding the pitching staff and leaving the team with a deep reserve of young starting pitchers. The Angels have eight starters with major league experience, a group that includes six who are 28 years old or younger. Garrett Richards, the team’s 27-year-old ace, leads that group. One of the hardest-throwing starters in the majors, Richards bounced back from a devastating knee injury to make 32 starts in 2015. He went 15–12 with a 3.65 ERA, but his WHIP was higher and strikeout rate lower than during his breakout 2014 season. Richards could get even better this season as he moves farther from that knee injury.
Tyler Skaggs is coming off his own injury but should strengthen the Angels rotation when he returns from Tommy John surgery, joining fellow 20-somethings Andrew Heaney (5–0 in his first six starts last year), Matt Shoemaker, Hector Santiago and Nick Tropeano. Veterans Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson — both making $20 million in the final year of their respective contracts — are the question marks in this group. Wilson is coming off elbow surgery, and Weaver had a down year that featured a disturbing loss of velocity.
Dipoto’s makeover of the starting rotation was preceded by a bullpen rebuild two years ago. The key pieces of that reconstruction project are still in place — closer Huston Street and lead setup man Joe Smith. In the midst of converting 40 of 45 save chances last season, Street was signed to an affordable two-year, $18 million extension. Smith didn’t match his 2014 dominance (1.81 ERA, 0.80 WHIP) but remains a reliable eighth-inning option. The trade for Yunel Escobar cost the Angels young reliever Trevor Gott, but a handful of alternatives (Fernando Salas, Mike Morin, Cory Rasmus, Ramon Ramirez and lefthander Jose Alvarez) remain for Scioscia to sort through.
The Angels have moved on from the Erick Aybar-Howie Kendrick era up the middle. Eppler’s first big personnel move as Angels GM was to complete the break by dealing for shortstop Andrelton Simmons. In the 26-year-old Simmons, the Angels get one of the most dynamic defenders in baseball — and a player who is under contract through 2020. It’s questionable how much Simmons will be able to provide offensively, however. Second base remains a work in progress for the Angels, who dealt Kendrick away a year ago (also, like Aybar, a season before free agency). Johnny Giavotella and veteran Cliff Pennington also figure to see playing time there; Giavotella hit .272 in 124 starts there last season.
Pujols is coming off his first 40-home run season since 2010 and has driven in 200 runs over the past two years. The Angels have to be happy with that and try to milk it for as long as they can by gradually increasing Pujols’ time at DH. The right foot surgery that could sideline Pujols at the start of the 2016 season is just the latest red flag that should prompt Scioscia to put those two letters — DH — next to Pujols’ name in the lineup even more often this season. The opposite corner has been a sinkhole for the Angels since Troy Glaus made the All-Star team in 2003. Dallas McPherson, Brandon Wood, Chone Figgins, Maicer Izturis and Alberto Callaspo have all come and gone. David Freese wasn’t the answer, either. The Angels moved on after two years and just 24 home runs from Freese, trading with the Washington Nationals to acquire Escobar, who is not likely to be anything more than a short-term answer either.
Trout continued to be the modern personification of Mickey Mantle, setting a new personal best with 41 home runs in 2015 and leading the AL with a .991 OPS. He gained a running mate in Kole Calhoun, who emerged as a Gold Glove outfielder while hitting 26 home runs and driving in 83 runs last season. The dropoff in the Angels’ lineup was cataclysmic when those two didn’t produce. Angels left fielders in 2015 combined for just nine home runs, a .317 slugging percentage and .592 OPS — all the lowest in the majors at that position. The apparent plan to plug that hole with a platoon of Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry (rather than a costly signing of Yoenis Cespedes, Jason Heyward or Alex Gordon off the winter free agent market) offers only marginal hope.
The Angels began handing over the catcher’s job — never an easy one under the exacting standards of Scioscia, who spent his playing career behind the plate — to Carlos Perez late last season. Acquired from the Houston Astros last winter, the 24-year-old Perez essentially became the Angels’ primary catcher over the final two months of the 2015 season, supplanting Chris Iannetta (who left as a free agent). The young Perez hit .250 overall and threw out 38 percent of basestealers in his 75 starts behind the plate, one of the best rates in the American League. Veteran Geovany Soto was signed to support Perez.
Only his own limited athleticism and Pujols’ reluctance to DH keeps C.J. Cron pigeonholed as a DH at such a young age. But the 2011 first-rounder has shown signs of growing into the kind of run producer the Angels sorely need to add depth to their lineup — whether he’s at first base or DH. The rest of the bench offers little with platoon pieces from left field and second base taking up spots. Pennington adds some versatility.
Peace and harmony reign in Anaheim — for now. Scioscia has embraced the arrival of Eppler and staff changes that brought former members of his coaching staff (Bud Black and Ron Roenicke) back to the organization. The longest-tenured manager in baseball, entering his 17th season with the Angels, Scioscia had the option of opting out of his contract but elected to return. That stability is a plus for the Angels. The front-office churn and a 10–22 record in playoff games since the 2002 championship are not.
When the Angels changed GMs in the past, Moreno allowed (forced?) them to splurge on free agents in their first winter. For Tony Reagins, it was Torii Hunter. Dipoto went big for Pujols and Wilson. Eppler didn’t get the same access to Moreno’s checkbook — despite the team’s glaring need for a Heyward, Cespedes or Gordon to drop into the 2016 lineup. That frugal decision (based primarily on Moreno’s reluctance to exceed baseball’s luxury-tax cap) will likely leave the Angels an unbalanced team with Trout, Calhoun and Pujols forced to carry an inadequate offense.
Prediction: 3rd AL West
RF Kole Calhoun (L)
3B Yunel Escobar (R)
CF Mike Trout (R)
1B Albert Pujols (R)
DH C.J. Cron (R)
LF Daniel Nava (S)
SS Andrelton Simmons (R)
C Carlos Perez (R)
2B Cliff Pennington (S)
C Geovany Soto (R)
OF Craig Gentry (R)
INF Johnny Giavotella (R)
INF Rey Navarro (S)
RHP Garrett Richards
LHP C.J. Wilson
RHP Jered Weaver
LHP Andrew Heaney
RHP Matt Shoemaker
RHP Huston Street (Closer)
RHP Joe Smith
RHP Fernando Salas
LHP Jose Alvarez
RHP Mike Morin
RHP Cory Rasmus
LHP Hector Santiago