By Robert Cunningham, AngelsWin.com Contributor -
Sigh, the offseason is near.
What a bitter disappointment this year was, without a doubt. Missed opportunities abound mixed with some signs of hope. Just not nearly enough to get us into the playoffs that have been absent from our lives since 2009.
However, just as every October ends, a new April is shortly around the corner. The time in between can really make a difference in the look, feel, and confidence of a team and can dramatically improve or degrade a team’s chances of success in the following season.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the Angels, their current state, and where we hope they will be when the regular 2014 season starts in late March/early April.
The Here and Now
As it stands the Angels may be facing some rough waters.
With all of the disruptive talk about Scioscia and Dipoto, combined with our glaring pitching deficiencies; it would seem like a daunting task ahead as this horrible season comes to a close.
Cases can be made for either one or both of Scioscia and Dipoto to be fired in the off season.
The prevailing sentiment, especially in light of some of the stories about Moreno’s meddling in the acquisition of both Pujols and Hamilton, is that Scioscia should be fired and/or traded and that Dipoto should be given a second chance to really run the show.
Rather than rehash the points and counterpoints let’s assume that both men stay. The decision probably won’t affect how the Angels approach their off season, since it is clear that pitching is, and should be, the priority for any GM who runs this team.
Per MLB Past and Future Payrolls, the Angels will have approximately $125,000,000 in secured contracts entering the 2014 pre-season. Most of that money is invested in five players, one of which is no longer even on the team (Mr. Vernon Wells).
That leaves approximately $35,000,000 and we haven’t even included arbitration cases yet. Hanson, Williams, Bourjos, Trumbo, Jepsen, Gutierrez, and Frieri are all arbitration eligible.
A rough estimate, if all six players are retained, might be about $14,500,000 give or take. Bourjos, Hanson, and Jepsen have seen their playing time reduced, due to injuries; likely making their arbitration raises less.
Williams, Trumbo, Gutierrez, and Frieri had full seasons but all three saw their overall performance levels decline, to varying degrees, and that may result in less robust raises as well.
Additionally you have to remove the players making league minimum which is about another $4,000,000 out of the budget.
If you figure that the team would want to keep some salary in reserve for any mid-season trades, on the chance that the Angels return to form and are in the hunt for a playoff spot, it would appear that a budget of $160-170 million would be the maximum that Arte Moreno would approve for off season acquisitions.
So sticking with that ballpark guess the team now has approximately $16,700,000 to work with heading into the off season. This brings us to the next chapter on how to reconstruct the Angels roster in order to more effectively compete in 2014.
As everyone is painfully aware (not that you haven’t already been reminded twice) the Angels off season needs to focus primarily on adding quality pitchers to the rotation and to the bullpen. The other very important thing is extending Mike Trout.
Taking our budget considerations and the lack of strong free agent starters into account, the most feasible solution to our pitching issues is through trade.
So in order to get you have to give and it is important to identify the trade chips that are might be in play. Below is a brief list of the remaining players on our 40-man roster that have limited no-trade clauses or none at all:
Some of the names above have very little or negligible value in trade. Others, however, like Kendrick, Trumbo, Aybar, Bourjos, Calhoun, Iannetta, Conger, Richards, and Frieri do have real value and could potentially bring back pieces we need to contend next year.
The real problem with the list above is who, among them, can we really afford to trade away? Who do we want to trade and why?
Since pitching is the problem you can effectively eliminate Richards and possibly Frieri off of the list.
So, it really comes down to the fact that we have a sufficient amount of infielders and outfielders in the system (or available in free agency) which makes it so we can afford to sacrifice someone like Kendrick, Trumbo, Aybar, Bourjos, and Iannetta to help acquire pitching.
Out of this group it seems more likely that Kendrick and Trumbo are the more expendable pieces.
For Kendrick’s case we have four different players (Green, Lindsey, Field, and Romine) who could fight it out in Spring Training for the 2B position, making Howie a more expendable trade chip.
Trumbo has been cycling through the 1B, RF, and DH spots but, with Hamilton in RF and Pujols at 1B, he doesn’t have a regular playing spot.
On top of that we have players like Kole Calhoun who could replicate Mark’s overall production (not his home run power of course) who also plays 1B and the OF and even someone like Hank Conger who could DH more to get his bat (and power) into the order more often.
The bottom line is that although we would miss Kendrick’s consistent bat and Trumbo’s home run power, the overall, potential, loss in production would be made up, completely, by their replacements and the pitchers we acquire to boost our rotation and bullpen.
Realistically those two, and Aybar, have the most value to us in trade right now.
Recent rumors and speculation had Kendrick going to the Dodgers for Zach Lee and Chris Withrow which seemed like a pretty reasonable return (young, cost-controlled starter and solid MLB-ready relief pitcher). This is probably what we should expect in a Kendrick based trade.
It seems Aybar is a little more likely to stay at least one more season as our shortstop options are not as plentiful or deep as the front office would like them to be (basically Field and Romine). However, Aybar could also bring in a Kendrick-like return.
Trumbo’s value is a little less but 30+ HR hitters don’t grow on trees no matter what their OBP is. It still seems reasonable that Mark would bring back a young, cost-controlled, front of the rotation starter, like Howie, minus the extra piece(s). Additionally at least three teams (Diamondbacks, Giants, and Phillies) have openly expressed interest in a corner outfield power bat, so the market for Trumbo looks strong.
Bourjos, due to his injuries, may have hurt his trade value and, because we would be selling low, it would seem illogical to deal him unless the offer was substantial. However, Trout could take his place manning center if the offer was right.
Finally, someone, like Iannetta, could be traded to a team that needs more patience at the plate. Hank seems ready to take over the primary catching duties and we could probably sign a right-handed hitting free agent to back him up for a similar price that we paid to Iannetta and obtain a high quality Minor League relief pitcher in return for Chris.
Overall, it appears that the goal of the front office has been, and continues to be, getting the team younger and more athletic.
This is why it is unlikely that players like Kole Calhoun, Hank Conger, Grant Green, et. al. will be traded in the off season. It would be a surprise to see any of these players moved unless they were a make or break piece in a larger trade.
Having a young core of talented high quality players, signed at league minimum salaries will make a big difference in our payroll obligations moving forward and allow us to free up our resources as we move out beyond 2016.
Dipoto realizes the importance of quality depth and proper roster construction so if he does stay I’d expect to see some of the veteran’s (Aybar for instance) depart over the next two years as he retools the Minor League system and the 40-man roster.
Based on these general ideas, here is how the extended 40-man roster might look heading into the 2014 season:
And this might be a sample of our 25-man roster to start the season (when we need the extra reliever as the starters get stretched out over the first month):
What is important to notice is how there are opportunities to create solid depth in not only our rotation but in our bullpen.
If you make these hypothetical trades it allows you to begin with a starting core of five in the rotation plus Williams as a possible backup in long relief, giving you a base of six starters.
Resigning Vargas and signing another free agent right-handed pitcher (Kuroda, Hernandez, Tanaka, Burnett, et. al.) would add some stability to the rotation and allow the two near-MLB ready starters acquired through trade to continue sharpening their skills at the AA/AAA level in preparation for a late-season call up.
Those two young starters would bring the total depth number up to eight which is an improvement over last season. This does not even consider any of the young starters that are currently in our Minor League system that might enter the depth discussion (Maronde for instance).
Additionally, by signing a free agent right-handed relief pitcher you create a deeper late-inning corps that also includes Frieri, Burnett, De La Rosa, and possibly Kohn. Williams acts in a long relief role while Sisk and Gutierrez can handle spot appearances and mop up duty.
On top of that the Kendrick and Iannetta trades could produce two more quality relief arms that are near-MLB ready and could be placed on the 40-man roster as relief depth.
Looking deeper into the system you have several options in the Minors that includes Roth, Berg, the aforementioned Maronde, Coello, Taylor, and Boshers who are all on the hypothetical 40-man roster and can provide quality depth in relief if an injury occurs.
It also wouldn’t surprise me to see Dipoto shop Hanson and Blanton (the latter requiring us to eat most if not all of the contract). There are many teams in need of a 5th starter and would take a flyer on either one of them in the hopes they return to form (especially if it costs them very little in dollars). There is absolutely no reason why we couldn’t acquire a quality Minor league player for both Tommy and Joe instead of designating them for assignment.
This overview doesn’t include or consider additional prospects that might rise through the system over the next year, which could put them on the radar in this depth conversation.
Finally the money situation would balance itself out.
The approximate $15,000,000 saved from dealing Kendrick, Trumbo, and Iannetta would be added to the remaining $16,700,000 budget which, in turn, would be spent on two free agent starters (Vargas and ?), a free agent right-handed relief pitcher, and a free agent backup catcher.
The starters would both cost about $20,000,000 and the reliever and catcher would eat up the other $10,000,000.
This method provides some neutral payroll balance and leaves the Angels front office approximately $18-20 million below the luxury tax.
It can also make enough room to sign a long-term contract extension with Mike Trout.
Virtually everyone agrees the Angels should extend Mike Trout. How much and how long is the real question. Although a good chunk of the remaining budget would be eaten away (reducing our options at the trade deadline) locking Mike up is paramount for the Angels long term success.
If you go the short extension route you want to lock him up through his remaining arbitration years plus one or two free agent seasons. It is really hard to place a price on this but I would guess that, based on previous arbitration cases, 6 years/$100 million would be in the ballpark or at least an approximate starting point.
This is comparable to the first six years of Buster Posey’s contract that started in 2013. Mike could make a case for more, based on his performance, so anywhere from 6-7 years and $100-130 million would probably make sense for both sides.
Mike is a franchise player (if not the franchise player) and it would seem to make even more sense to lock him up to a record breaking contract that would make him an Angel for life.
The kid is so good that a 15 or even 20 year contract for $300-500 million wouldn’t be that crazy in this very special case (the Angels would end up buying insurance anyway).
The important thing is for the organization to extend him, period. The contract could be back loaded so that the first three years (2014: 10 million, 2015: 15 million, 2016: 22 million, etc.) pay him less and then the remaining years pay him more.
In 2017 money starts to come off the books which would increase payroll flexibility to accommodate this extension. Once we get out past the Hamilton years the only real money being spent is on Pujols (and hopefully Trout).
Whatever happens and whomever our manager and general manager turns out to be, there is good reason to believe that the 2014 Angels can not only compete but can survive multiple injuries through comprehensive team depth across all positions.
If Albert Pujols goes down who takes his place? Kole Calhoun? Maybe even someone like Hank Conger when he isn’t catching.
What happens if Peter Bourjos is injured again? No problem, as Trout slips into center field and either J.B. Shuck or Kole Calhoun mans left field.
This can be repeated over and over. If Weaver gets hurt again who takes his place while he is on the mend? Williams could step in or even one of the newly acquired starters down in AA/AAA.
Depth cannot be overstated. We saw how thin we were in 2013 because the team did not have enough depth and too much risk was built in to the plan.
An example would be the reliance on Ryan Madson returning successfully from Tommy John surgery to anchor our bullpen. A short incentive based contract for a relief pitcher of Madson’s pedigree is smart by any standard.
However, our lack of relief depth was amplified when Madson’s recovery stalled and failed. To compound the situation we lost Sean Burnett early on and had to scavenge the waiver wire for live arms (Gutierrez for instance) that weren’t necessarily ideal choices.
This off season and moving forward should be about building an elite farm system, identifying the players we want to keep and extend as building blocks, building quality depth at all positions, and doing our best to mitigate the types of problems that occurred in 2013.
In David Saltzer’s interview with Jerry Dipoto, JD referred to this overall plan as the “moving window of contention” that every team would, ideally, like to consistently achieve. This off season is a real opportunity to take a bigger step towards that goal.
But we always have to be careful regarding the nature of baseball. Just when you think you’ve found a consistent approach, the game makes adjustments and your ability to quickly adapt is what determines if you are an elite player or an elite organization.
It seems like the Angels are only a few steps away from becoming an elite organization again.