Friday, July 12, 2013

By Jonathan Northrop, Columnist - 

As we approach the July 31st trade deadline, conversations are swirling about what the Angels will, won’t, should and should not do: Should/will they buy, sell, or stand pat? If they buy (or sell) who goes and who comes in? And more so, how does what they do now impact the future?

To approach this question we have to look at two areas: the rest of 2013 and 2014 and beyond. Let’s take a look at both.

2013: “So you’re saying there’s a chance!”
For 2013 it is quite simple and revolves around the question: Do the Angels have a reasonable shot at making the postseason? And, if so, what do they need to 1) increase the likelihood that they do and 2) improve their chances of going deep in the playoffs? A third question is, what can they do that wouldn't damage 2014 and beyond?

At this point, heading into a three game series versus the Mariners before the All Star Break (which is awfully late this year, after 93 games), the Angels are 44-46, 9 games out of first place in the AL West and 7.5 games out of a Wild Card spot with five teams ahead of them. That might sound grim but it’s a lot better than it was a few weeks ago.The Angels were probably at their lowest point on May 17th when they finished the day 15-27, a .357 winning percentage. Since then they've gone 29-19, a .604 pct. They've been playing particularly well of late: winning 11 of their last 14 and 17 of their last 25. 

The Angels have 16 games left before the end of July, the trade deadline. At that point they’ll have played 106 games and only have 56 left. Given their current place in the standings, there’s no clear answer to the question above. They certainly have “a shot” at making the playoffs but is it reasonable? Right now, considering how many games are left (72) and how they've been playing, the answer is yes. If you look at the teams ahead of them, they’re probably better than Cleveland, which leaves the Yankees, Orioles, Rays, and Rangers (or Athletics). They only need to out-play three of those teams.

As we will discuss shortly, the Angels offense is doing quite well right now. The pitching staff is holding its own, but is the obvious area of upgrade. The biggest way that the Angels can improve their chances of making—and succeeding in—the playoffs is by acquiring a quality starting pitcher, one better than Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson, Jerome Williams, and Garret Richards.  Whether they do that or not depends a lot on how they play during the next two weeks, so stay tuned. Even so, if they continue to play very well and gradually gain ground, Jerry Dipoto might be tempted to sit pat and play with what has been working. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That said, it’s a scary thought making the postseason with one of the above being your fourth starter and you’re second best starter being CJ Wilson or Jason Vargas.

In the end it will come down to whether or not Dipoto can acquire a pitcher better than the “Crappy Quartet” above for a reasonable cost, or a more expensive cost but with a guaranteed multi-year contract. I’m not sure that pitcher is out there, and that its worth the cost in the few remaining prospects that the Angels have.

2014 and Beyond: Rebuild or Retool?
For 2014 and beyond, the question is a bit more complex but actually rather similar: How to remain competitive and rebuild a weak farm system? The Angels have committed a ton of money to four players over the next three years:

2014: Pujols ($23M), Hamilton ($17M), Weaver ($16M), Wilson ($16M) = $72 million
2015: Pujols ($24M), Hamilton ($25M), Weaver ($18M), Wilson ($18M) = $85 million
2016: Pujols ($25M), Hamilton ($32M), Weaver ($20M), Wilson ($20M) = $97 million
2017: Pujols ($26M), Hamilton (32M) = $58 million for two players
2018-2021: Pujols ($27M, $28M, $29M, $30M)

What we can clearly see above is that there’s a 3-4 year plan – through 2016, the last year of Wilson and Weaver’s contracts – and a plan for 2017 and beyond. We’ll focus on the short-term because we can hope that, by 2017, the Angels’ farm system will be strong and vibrant again.

It should go without saying, but any plan for the future centers around Mike Trout. As I wrote just recently, not only is Trout a great player, according to Fangraphs’ WAR he’s been the best player in the history of the game through this point in his career. If he continues at his current pace he will surpass Mel Ott for the most WAR through his age 21 season – a remarkable feat. Trout is eligible for free agency starting in 2018, but we can hope that Jerry Dipoto will give him a mega-contract well before then, possibly as soon as this offseason. But whatever monster contract he is given will probably start kicking in big time after Weaver and Wilson come off the books.

Beyond Trout the Angels have a strong core of position players, most of whom will remain in their prime during the next few years. Erick Aybar is signed through 2016 and Howie Kendrick through 2015, with two of the best prospects at second base in Taylor Lindsey and Alex Yarbrough. Peter Bourjos and Mark Trumbo remain under club control through 2016, and the emerging Hank Conger through 2017. While top prospect Kaleb Cowart, who is penciled in as the third baseman of the future, a position that the Angels have struggled with since the departure of Troy Glaus, has struggled this year, he should still be ready by the time the steady Alberto Callaspo departs in 2015.

So again, the core lineup is set for the next few years – and should remain strong throughout.

The Angels have a notoriously weak farm system, one of the worst in baseball, in particular due to recent trades for Dan Haren, Scott Kazmir, and Zack Greinke that saw them lose Patrick Corbin, Tyler Skaggs, Alex Torres, and Jean Segura among others. The farm is just starting to show signs of life, but it is generally at the lower levels and there are still no truly standout prospects, and an alarming lack of decent arms. But given the above, the Angels don’t need any position player replacements – except for perhaps bench – for the next few years, other than third base and second base in 2016, and they have strong prospects at both positions. 

So even if the Angels wanted to throw all of their chips into that 2014-16 window, they don’t have many chips to work with. Certainly the outfield is crowded, so they could trade one of Trumbo or Bourjos, and one or more of Kole Calhoun and Randal Grichuk, not to mention one of two second basemen Alex Yarbrough or Taylor Lindsey. Unless the Angels trade Mark Trumbo, first baseman C.J. Cron is also expendable. Even then, if Albert Pujols is good to his word – he insists that he’ll be playing first base next year – both Trumbo and Cron could be traded, if the right scenario came up. But again, none of these players – with the possible exception of Trumbo and Bourjos – have the cache to bring in the type of pitchers that the Angels need.

And that’s the main weakness now and going forward: pitching. The offense, as of this writing (July 12) is finally firing on (almost) all cylinders. Even with a greatly reduced Albert Pujols, with Josh Hamilton being closer to the player they invested $133 million on, in addition to Mike Trout and a strong complementary cast of Kendrick, Aybar, Trumbo, Bourjos, and the Conger-Iannetta duo, the Angels can score some runs, and will continue to do so for the next few years. 

But the pitching? Well, a bullpen can be pieced together. It takes some Bill Stoneman-esque savvy, but it can be done without investing a huge amount of money or trading away good talent. But a starting rotation is more difficult.

The good news is that Jered Weaver seems to be back to his old tricks, with an improved velocity and his typical excellent command making him, if not a Cy Young contender, in the next tier down. C.J. Wilson has been erratic, but good overall. He continues to oscillate between a #2 and #3 starter, but seems to be gradually improving as the season goes on (his 3.37 ERA is the lowest its been since the 4th inning of his first start on April 3rd).

It is after those two that it gets tricky. Jason Vargas is injured but has been a passable #3 or a strong #4 starter. Joe Blanton has pitched very well of late, but got rocked recently. He’s signed for another year but is no more than rotation filler, which is the same with Tommy Hanson and Jerome Williams. The Angels seem to have given up on Garret Richards, who is stuck in middle relief, neither improving his trade value or learning how to be a major league starter.

So if we take the premise that the lineup is basically set for the next few years, with a possible tweak here or there, and that the bullpen can be cobbled together year-to-year, the key to the 2014-2016 window is improving the rotation. Joe Blanton and Jerome Williams aren't the answer, neither seemingly is Tommy Hanson. Jason Vargas is a nice player to have as your #4 or #5 starter on a championship rotation, but he shouldn’t be your third best starter, at least not if your second best is the erratic CJ Wilson. Garret Richards needs time, but Scioscia seems to lack confidence in him.

Starters are often broken down into five types which follow the #1-5 format, but I’m going to use three. The first category is the staff ace – a pitcher that you look to for your big game, someone who is a true #1 or #2 starter, with have an ERA around 3.00 or lower and can win games for you. The second category is your workhorse – the type of pitcher that has an ERA in the mid to upper 3.00s and will keep you in most games, giving the offense a chance to win almost any game. These are the type of pitchers a good team has in the #3-4 slots. The third category is filler – either young guys learning the ropes or mediocre pitchers trying their best to give the offense a chance to win. These are the type of pitchers who fill the #5 slot and don’t pitch in the postseason, except in long relief.

A championship caliber rotation generally has at least two aces and two workhorses, or at least one ace and three to four workhorses. In the above formulation, the Angels have:

Ace: Weaver
Workhorse: Wilson, Vargas
Filler: Blanton, Hanson, Williams, Richards

So the answer is simple but, of course, easier said than done: at least one of those filler starters needs to be swapped out for an ace, and/or two filler starters swapped out for a workhorse or two.

Easy, right? Well, aces don’t grow on trees and, according to MLB Trade Rumors, there are none available via free agency next year. The best starters on that list are all workhorses – Bronson Arroyo, Hiroki Kuroda, Matt Garza, Josh Johnson, Ervin Santana, etc.

So the Angels are left with two choices: 
1) Trade for an ace, and/or
2) Trade for or sign two or more workhorses

It seems clear that the first order of business would be to sign Jason Vargas. Blanton and his $7.5M contract for 2014 aren't going anywhere, so he’s either a filler or a long reliever. Hanson and Williams are expendable and unless the Angels think that Hanson can someone rebuild himself, both can either go or be resigned for peanuts and depth.

One big question mark is Garret Richards. He has the potential to be a workhorse, but how is he going to actualize it? The Angels need to get him starts, which probably won’t happen this year unless they fall far out of contention. Even so, they need at least one more starter this offseason.

The above convinces me that things aren't quite as dire as they might seem, given the terrible first half. The offense should be very good for the next few years and the pitching staff can be worked with. But there is a clear need for at least one, preferably two, more good to very good starting pitchers.

The problem, though, is that there’s no clear route to building a truly championship caliber rotation. Barring some unforeseen trade for an ace, the best the Angels can hope for is a staff of Weaver, Wilson, Vargas, another workhorse type, and a host of fillers that includes Blanton, Richards, and possibly Hanson or Williams.  It seems unlikely that they would sign two workhorses, unless they don’t extend Vargas. 

Now obviously Jerry Dipoto is capable of surprising us – he’s done so before (for better or worse) and will likely do so again. But I think it is clear that the focus of whatever machinations he and his staff are working on right now, is starting pitcher, both for the short and long-term. It is the obvious, even striking, hole on this team both in 2013 and the future. Expect him to deal from the team’s few areas of depth – outfield and middle infield – and reel in a quality starting pitcher or two. I’m not sure it will happen this year, but that’s the route I think he should, and will, take.

But again, things aren't as bad as they seemed to be about a month ago, especially in the future. The Angels are one or two starters away from being a contending club for the next few years, and beyond that…well, they have time, and they have Mike Trout.
Love to hear what you think!

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