Examining the team's MLB season ahead.
The state of the Angels is evident in the popularity of a debate that should be unthinkable: Would they be better off trading Mike Trout to jump-start a rebuilding effort?
Already a two-time MVP and just 25 years old, Trout is the best player in baseball, a generational talent just dipping into the heart of a likely Hall of Fame career. But the talent around Trout is pedestrian and the roster thin. A series of costly decisions on the free-agent market has left the Angels with the weakest farm system in baseball, $20 million in obligations still to pay for the ill-advised Josh Hamilton dalliance and a potential millstone in the aging Albert Pujols, who had foot surgery again in the offseason and, at age 37, is still owed $140 million over the next five years.
The Angels did take baby steps in GM Billy Eppler’s first year to address the organizational shortcomings. There is hope for the future, but it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel at this point, and there’s no telling how old Trout will be when the Angels emerge as contenders once again.
There is something to be said for quantity being as important as quality in starting pitching given the challenges of a 162-game schedule. The Angels certainly learned that last year when injuries gutted their starting rotation. A year later, it is quantity they have — even with longtime fixture Jered Weaver gone. As many as 12 pitchers could be considered candidates for the 2017 starting rotation. It’s a group that includes uninspiring veterans such as Ricky Nolasco and Jesse Chavez, others returning from injuries such as Tyler Skaggs and Matt Shoemaker and faded prospects such as Alex Meyer and Brooks Pounders. The Angels’ one shot at a high-quality starter, Garrett Richards, comes with reservations. They figure to proceed cautiously with the young ace, who appears to have avoided Tommy John surgery with stem-cell therapy.
Shortstop Andrelton Simmons was everything the Angels hoped for defensively last year and improved some offensively, batting .281 (his highest full-season average) with a .690 OPS (his highest since his first full-season in 2013) — though his pop has all but disappeared since an aberrational 17-homer debut in 2013. After making do at second last year, Eppler went back to the trade market this winter and acquired a displaced Danny Espinosa from the Washington Nationals. A shortstop in D.C., Espinosa will move to second base in Anaheim, pairing with Simmons to give the Angels exceptional defense up the middle.
Eppler addressed an annual issue in Anaheim when he acquired Yunel Escobar from the Nationals in December 2015. Escobar has joined a long line of players who have taken up temporary residence at third base for the Angels. Anyone remember Dallas McPherson, Brandon Wood, Chone Figgins, Maicer Izturis, Alberto Callaspo and David Freese? But Escobar has given them adequate defense and filled the leadoff spot with a .304 average in 2016. That was enough for the Angels to pick up his contract option for 2017. With Pujols appearing to enter the full-time (or nearly so) DH phase of his career, former first-round draft pick C.J. Cron got his chance to establish himself as an everyday player. The young first baseman did hit 16 home runs last season, valuable support for Trout, Pujols and Kole Calhoun on a team that finished 13th in the American League in slugging percentage. But Cron will likely lose playing time to Luis Valbuena, who was signed to a two-year deal in late January. The nine-year veteran hit a career-high 25 home runs in 2015 with Houston, but injuries limited him to just 90 games last season. A left-handed hitter, Valbuena figures to get most of the starts at first against righties, and he also can fill in at third.
The outfield is in good hands — even more so now that the acquisition of Cameron Maybin has given the Angels a legitimate left fielder. Maybin (career-high .315 batting average and .801 OPS for the Tigers last season) fills what has been an absolute black hole in left field the past two seasons. He can’t help but do better than the .592 and .584 OPS Angels left fielders combined for in 2015 and '16, last in the majors both seasons. Trout and Calhoun remain the heart of the Angels’ everyday lineup in center and right, respectively. Trout won his second AL MVP last season, somehow managing to get even better in his fifth full season. He matched his career-high in OPS (.991), set a new high in on-base percentage (.441) and raised his batting average back over .300 (.315) for the first time since 2013.
A year ago at this time, the Angels were ready to hand their catching job over to Carlos Perez. By midseason, however, Perez was back in the minors and the Angels had turned to Jett Bandy instead. Bandy is gone, traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for a more established catcher, Martin Maldonado. Maldonado, 30, has never started more than 66 games in a season but will be the Angels’ primary catcher with Perez backing him up. Maldonado is a good defender with above-average pitch-framing skills, giving the Angels plus-defenders at every position up the middle.
Pujols’ deterioration continues. He had foot surgery again in December, possibly delaying the start of his season, and has become a one-dimensional hitter, still able to drive the ball for home runs but posting a .266 average and sinking OPS in his five years with the Angels. Ben Revere was signed to a one-year deal to be the team’s fourth outfielder; the Angels hope he can bounce back from a dismal season in Washington. Depending on who is at first, Cron and Valbuena figure to be the power bats available in the late innings.
Things seem to have stabilized in Anaheim after recent years clouded by the power struggle between manager Mike Scioscia and former GM Jerry Dipoto and the ugly divorce between owner Arte Moreno and Hamilton. Eppler seems to have been given the kind of free hand his predecessors didn’t have to tug the Angels into the 21st century. The longest-tenured manager in baseball (now entering his 18th season in Anaheim), Scioscia was never the New Age Luddite he was portrayed to be at times during the Dipoto regime. But he is more willing now to use the new tools a modern front office can provide.
From 2002 through 2014, the Angels won at least 90 games seven times, won six division titles, reached the ALCS three times and won the franchise’s only World Series championship in 2002. This is a much different era. Though Eppler defiantly says the Angels “intend to contend” in 2017, the road to fourth place is paved with good intentions.