Friday, November 5, 2010

By Jonathan Northrop, Contributor

Now that the World Series is behind us, we can start focusing on what truly matters in baseball: the Angels and, better yet, Hot Stove season! After the worst Angels season since 2003, Arte Moreno and Tony Reagins will be focused on returning this team to competitiveness in 2011. The question is, how to do this? Is the best approach to stand pat and let the farm system feed the big club and hope that underperforming, injured, and young players improve enough to complement the stellar rotation and improving bullpen and at least come within spitting distance of 2009’s offensive performance? Or should the Angels reload with a big name free agent or two like Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth, Adam Dunn, and Cliff Lee? Or should they merely tinker a bit, add a lefty reliever and maybe an aging Lance Berkman off the bench?

We’ll have months to discuss, but let’s start with the biggest name of all, or at least the most talked about: Carl Crawford. It seems that every Angels fan wants to see him in left field next year, no matter what the cost, and the cost will be immense—certainly the largest contract the Angels have ever paid out. Given the current market, I think we can start with Torii Hunter’s 5-year, $90 million contract as a base and go up from there to somewhere below Matt Holliday’s 7-year, $120MM contract. Let’s split the difference and say that Crawford will require approximately 6 years, $110 million, maybe a bit more, maybe a bit less – but somewhere in that vicinity.

Let’s get the obvious questions out of the way: Is he worth it? Of course not, but what big free agent is? Would he improve the team? Of course he would—he hits for average with a bit of pop, steals 50 bases a year, and is a very good defender in left field.

But here’s the harder question: should the Angels sign him? The answer is not so clear.

First, let’s take a look at the current Angels in the outfield. CF and RF are pretty much set, with defensive whiz Peter Bourjos and aging star Torii Hunter, respectively. Bourjos is under club control for the next half decade and, barring an inability to progress to at least adequate offensive levels (say, a .700+ OPS), he’ll be the defacto center fielder until Mike Trout arrives, and even then Bourjos’s defensive prowess may move Trout to LF. Hunter has two more years as an Angel and then will probably return to Minnesota to finish up his career.

So for the next two years, CF and RF are set. The Angels also have Abreu signed for two more years (his 2012 option will almost certainly vest), and Juan Rivera for 2011. I think it is safe to say that if Rivera is back in 2011 or beyond, it will be in a limited role. Depending upon what the Angels do with Mike Napoli this offseason, Abreu will be playing in LF and/or DH.

And then there are prospects Mark Trumbo, Tyson Auer, Jeremy Moore, Chris Pettit and Mike Trout all coming up in the rearview mirror. Auer is likely the heir apparent to Reggie Willits and will be a 4th-5th outfielder and pinch runner as soon as later this year. Pettit missed all of 2010 with an injury so will start the year in AAA and have to work his way back into the conversation. Moore, who with a strong year in AA and and excellent performance in the Arizona Fall League, is now a solid prospect and will be headed for Salt Lake in 2011 and probably spend the bulk of the season there. Trout will be headed for AA Arkansas and is at least a year away from Anaheim, maybe making a September appearance in 2011 but certainly not in the starter mix until 2012 or 2013.

Mark Trumbo is a man without a position, or rather his position is held by the Angels’ best hitter, Kendry Morales. There are questions as to whether Trumbo’s big swing will translate to the big leagues, but his plate discipline has improved and his stellar AAA numbers deserve at least a shot at the major league level. But where to play him? LF? 3B? DH?

Beyond the near minors and LF we have power-hitting but free-swinging Randal Grichuk, who is at least three years away from the majors, the talented but raw Angel Castillo, and a few college players in the low minors: Travis Witherspoon, Andrew Heid, and Brandon Decker. One projected scenario is that in 2014, the Angels starting outfield will be comprised of two 22-year old corner outfielders in Mike Trout and Randal Grichuk and by then multiple Gold Glove-winning 27-year old Peter Bourjos in CF.

2014 is a long time away; what about 2011? And back to the original question, should the Angels sign Carl Crawford, and for the approximately 6 years/$110 million it will take?

It is hard not to get excited about the defense of an outfield comprised of Crawford, Bourjos, and Hunter. Imagine the runs that would be saved; fly-ball pitcher Jered Weaver is definitely salivating at the possibility of what it might do to his ERA (and future contract).

Crawford is a complete player: in addition to his defense, he regularly hits over .300, has a bit of pop (15-20 HR) and steals 50+ bases every year. He doesn’t walk a lot, but his ratio is just a bit below league average. He is a good bet to hit .300/.360/.480 with 50 stolen bases and excellent defense. Crawford is just the type of player Mike Scioscia likes: He can do a lot of things, bunt, hit for extra bases, steal a base, and is not an “all or nothing” type. He would bring the zing back to the offense that has been missing since Chone Figgins left. What is not to like?

Finally, when you look at the outfield prospects in the Angels minor league system, there is only one truly elite player that cannot be blocked, and that is Mike Trout. Here is a (not exhaustive) list of Angels minor league outfielders, in grade categories of potential. A Grade A prospect is a potential star, a definite future major league starter; a Grade B prospect has a chance to be a star but will more likely end up as a decent regular or platoon player; a Grade C prospect is decent, could make it to be majors in some way or another, but could also flame out or attain that dreaded label “minor league journeyman.”

Grade A: Mike Trout
Grade B: Peter Bourjos, Randal Grichuk, Mark Trumbo, Jeremy Moore, Travis Witherspoon
Grade C: Angel Castillo, Tyson Auer, Michael Wing, Chris Pettit, Andrew Heid, Brandon Decker

Crawford is a sure thing, while none of the above players are except for maybe Trout. Why worry about blocking players that might not even pan out in the major leagues?

While Crawford’s career high .851 OPS last year and peripheral skills (speed and defense) are nice, what the Angels need most is a big bat, a .950 OPS type bat. Furthermore, the last thing the Angels need is yet another player that doesn’t walk a lot.

With Bourjos in CF and Hunter in RF the defense in LF is less important, at least in terms of range. If Crawford isn’t signed, the Angels can play Bobby Abreu there with a few at-bats of Juan Rivera, and maybe even work in Jeremy Moore, Tyson Auer or Chris Pettit. Another option would be to have Mark Trumbo shag a few hundred fly-balls in spring training and see how he looks. Regardless, the Angels have ways to fill the position until Mike Trout arrives.

Furthermore, signing Crawford does one of two things: It puts off Mike Trout’s arrival until 2013, after Torii Hunter leaves, and/or it necessitates a trade of Bourjos (or Hunter) if Trout is ready in 2012. It also blocks a whole group of moderately talented players in Moore, Trumbo, Auer, and Pettit. In particular, the Angels would like to see how Moore continues to develop in AAA this year, as he could eventually take over from Hunter in RF.

Finally, we’re talking about a contract that will take Crawford into his mid 30s, either 34 or 35 (if he manages to get seven years, which is possible). While Crawford’s current performance may warrant a big contract, there are no guarantees in terms of how long he maintains his abilities. $18-19 million a year for a .300/.360/.480 hitter with 50+ stolen bases and Gold Glove caliber defense is one thing, but that kind of money for a player hitting .270/.310/.400 with 15 SB and deteriorating defense is quite another (remember, Bobby Abreu won a Gold Glove in 2005!).

So should the Angels sign Carl Crawford? This may sound like a cop-out, but I could honestly go either way. If I wake up to check the headlines and read “Angels ink Crawford” I will be excited – there is no doubt that this would greatly improve the team, at least for the next few years. But if they don’t sign him I will not be disappointed and will look forward to seeing how Scioscia fills LF. Carl Crawford is a very good player, probably the fourth best LF in baseball right now after Josh Hamilton, Ryan Braun, and Matt Holliday. Is that worth the kind of contract that he’s likely to get? As I said earlier, probably not. But it wouldn’t be the worst money ever spent and would definitely make the Angels a better team.
Love to hear what you think!

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