Sunday, November 4, 2012

By Jonathan Northrop - Columnist

Just over a year ago Jerry Dipoto was named the Angels’ General Manager and within a couple months made his mark, culminating with the “Big Splashes” of the 2011 December GM meetings, netting the top free agent hitter and pitcher, Albert Pujols and CJ Wilson. Over the course of the rest of the offseason he made a variety of moves, including shipping overrated prospect Tyler Chatwood to Colorado for Chris Iannetta, a solid all-around catcher that would fill a major hole. Dipoto seemed like the answer to all of our woes after Reagins' blunders and so we all overlooked that his dubious solution to the 2011 bullpen woes was signing Latroy Hawkins and Jason Isringhausen.

Fast forward to early in the 2012 season and Dipoto makes another excellent trade, acquiring Ernesto Frieri from the Padres for Alexi Amarista and Donn Roach, both of whom are solid players but probably no more than future role players or average regulars; meanwhile, Frieri, who was a strong reliever for the Padres, gave the Angels their best closer since Francisco Rodriguez. Finally, before the trade deadline, Dipoto pulled off another doozy: trading three of the Angels' best prospects—Jean Segura, Ariel Pena, and John Hellweg—for Zack Greinke, one of the best starters in baseball.

In Dipoto the Angels seemed to have what they had never had: A GM who wasn’t afraid to make trades but didn’t make stupid ones. Bill Stoneman was a master at developing the farm system but became something of a hoarder, and in the end the Angels were left with a ton of prospects, most of whom never panned out. Tony Reagins, on the other hand, made moves but will forever be known for what is certainly one of the worst trades in major league history that brought Vernon Wells and all $84 million of his contract to the Angels. Dipoto was not afraid to trade away prospects, but in return—and through free agency—he was able to net some premier talent.

That said, not all of those moves have turned out all that well. Albert Pujols had a disappointing season and, if he doesn't turn it around in a big way in 2013, the Angels could be looking at an A-Rod-esque albatross in a couple years. While Pujols is probably the third greatest first baseman in baseball history after only Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx, we must remember that he’ll be 33 in 2013 and is coming off two sub-par seasons in a row. Without a quick turnaround, it will look like Dipoto’s evaluation of Pujols was off the mark.

CJ Wilson was good for the first half of the year but terrible in the second half, leading to questions as to how he'll perform for the next few years. Even Iannetta missed much of the year due to injury and while Frieri was good, he was relatively erratic late in the year and wasn't enough to fix Dipoto's offseason neglect. Furthermore, he wasn’t enough to shore up an inconsistent bullpen and Dipoto never made the to adequately address the team’s Achilles Heel, a bullpen that was, for the second year in a row, tied for the third highest blown save total in the major leagues.

To compound all of that, Dipoto just traded Ervin Santana for a 27-year old career minor league reliever and, after a near-miss Dan Haren-for-Carlos Marmol trade (which we can be glad didn’t go through given Marmol’s 7.3 walk rate), did not pick up Haren’s option. Certainly Dipoto could know something we don’t know about Haren, but given Haren’s stellar track record and the uncertainty of Greinke resigning, taking the option on Haren looked like the smart thing to do. With Zack Greinke a free agent with no guarantee of being re-signed, the Angels’ rotation is on the verge of mediocrity.

Remember where the Angels were a year ago: They had just signed one of the greatest ballplayers ever, a fourth pitcher with #2 ability, and filled their gaping hole at catcher. They were predicted by many to be the team to beat not only in the AL West but in all of baseball. Yet they finished the year 89-73 and missed the postseason for the third year in a row. A starting rotation that looked to be one of the best in baseball turned out to be average; the Angels finished with a 4.02 team ERA, just a hair below the AL average of 4.08.

Right now the Angels are at a crucial point, and Jerry Dipoto is at a bit of a watershed moment. He has painted himself into a corner: Re-sign Greinke or face an even more dismal 2013. Right now the rotation stands at Weaver, Wilson, Jerome Williams, Garret Richards and…Nick Maronde? Brad Mills? Matt Shoemaker? Not the worst choices in the world - but that's just it: The Angels have an ace, a pitcher who looks more like a #3-4 starter than the #2 they signed, and a bunch of #5s. Richards could make the jump to a legit mid-rotation starter with the potential to be more, and Maronde has similar upside, but neither can really be relied upon yet; Richards has been inconsistent and Maronde probably needs at least another few months of minor league seasoning.

The above is not a championship caliber rotation. Dipoto is now in the situation where he must re-sign Greinke. If he doesn't, he's going to be scrambling all offseason to sign and/or trade for at least one starter, probably two - and the Angels farm system is already depleted, easily in the bottom third in all of baseball.
So here we are, a year later, and Dipoto is at perhaps the most important point in his GM career, at least on the Angels. He was given a blank checkbook a year ago and it didn’t work out. Now he has to re-assemble a starting rotation and patch together not merely an adequate bullpen, but one that won’t blow 22 saves. He also has to figure out what to do with Vernon Wells and the $42 million owed him – whether to continue to block better, younger players in Peter Bourjos and Kole Calhoun, or see if he can find someway to at least take a few million off what’s owed in a trade.

Let’s be brutally honest: None of Dipoto’s big moves have panned out, at least not yet. Pujols and Wilson both had disappointing seasons. Greinke cost the Angels three very good prospects and may bolt for a bigger paycheck. One could envision a worst-case-scenario in 2013 where Greinke signs elsewhere and neither Pujols or Wilson have better years. The flip-side is that it ain't over yet: Pujols and Wilson have a chance to turn it around in 2013 and Greinke hasn't signed elsewhere yet.

For most of the last year, Angels fans have been (perhaps rightfully so) raving about Dipoto: In Dipoto We Trust. So far this offseason Dipoto has let go of his #2 and #4 starters with no clear road forward or obvious contingency plan if Greinke doesn't resign. At least, we can say, he isn’t hesitant to make moves – but what moves he makes over the next month or two will determine not only the fate of the Angels next year, but perhaps his own long-term fate as the Angels GM. If I’m Arte Moreno I wouldn’t give up on Dipoto yet – far from it – but I wouldn't tolerate a second disappointing year in a row, not with the money that Dipoto has had to play with.

Let’s hope that Jerry Dipoto gives us reason for hope. He did last year, and we cannot lay all the blame on his feet for 2012’s disappointments. But when you look at the total picture, things just didn’t work out – and who has the most power and responsibility to craft the performance of the ball club? Again, the offseason is young. Dipoto has pulled rabbits out of the hat before so we can assume that he’s got something up his sleeve. Re-signing Zack Greinke is the first, and most crucial, step, but he’s got his work cut out for him. At the least, it should be interesting to see what he does.

Let us hope, then, by Opening Day 2013, we can once again say: In Dipoto We Trust.
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