Wednesday, November 5, 2014

By Greg Bearinger, Columnist -  

I have hacked into the Angels intra-office network and discovered the top secret plans for the Los Angeles Angels off-season. Many favors were called in, and people risked their lives to get this critical information. The following list may astound you, but be assured it is very real:

1) Sign a stating pitcher

Ok, so it's never that simple. It is true that the shortest route for Jerry Dipoto to take to a successful off-season is to simply sign a mid-level starting pitcher (who can cover for Garrett Richards and push Hector Santiago to the bullpen), shuffle around the bullpen, and acquire some AAA depth. In fact, recent trades for  Nick Tropeano and Cesar Ramos are pretty much in line with this type of thinking.  This wouldn't be a bad plan at all.  However, there are some legitimate concerns for the future of this team, and just enough scuttlebutt to imagine a (slightly) busier off-season for the Halos.

For one thing, this team isn't terribly young. Their best rookie last year was a 27-year-old pitcher. Of course, they do have the best young player in the game in one Mike "What is my nickname?" Trout, but this is a team that could get old in a hurry. And even though their rotation is in good shape, CJ Wilson and Jered Weaver are at that age when pitchers can slowly (or not so slowly) begin to backslide. 

This team is also not very cheap. Their top-ten paid players will make an astounding $128.5 Million dollars without even counting their arbitration players. Assuming they don't resign Gordon Beckham or Wade LeBlanc and do keep David Freese, that's another $19.7 Million dollars (per MLBTR). That $148.2 Million dollars for 18 players. Add on about $10 Million for various signings and what not, and you are at $160 Million dollars easy.That leaves about $29 Million dollars before hitting the luxury tax. That doesn't seem so bad until you consider two very important things: first, that the bloating salaries for Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, and Mike Trout will eat even further into future spending ability; second, that the Angels don't have many prospects (outside of the bullpen) that are ready to make an impact next year. That latter point is a long way of saying: the Angels ain't giving up no first round picks for no free agents*. While the Angels take satisfaction from the under-the-radar-to-smashing-success stories that are Kole Calhoun and Shoemaker, that is no way to build a team for long term success.  Jerry knows this.  

The most underrated moves of Jerry Dipoto's career with the Angels are the twin extensions for Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar. Those moves have given them two excellent trade chips (and a pretty good tandem to boot). Howie seems the most logical candidate to be traded, having been mentioned in a much-discussed trade to the Dodgers merely a season and a half ago. Also, a tandem of Grant Green and "defensive whiz du jour" would be a pretty good option at second. While he's not exactly going to pull in 3-4 four a-list prospects, Kendrick should be worth a good young starter and a wildcard prospect or two. Given the absolute paucity of decent shortstops, Aybar would bring in a pretty good haul himself... except that trading him would create an opening at shortstop without any obvious replacements.

Which teams could the Angels target? There is some evidence that the Rays have thought about Kendrick deals in the past, but that seems like a low probability. Depending on how they view their chances, the Mets have a pile of young, "at-least-middle-of-the-rotation" arms, though no real need for a second baseman. They desperately need outfielders, though, and Howie has played there before. Not a great fit. The Nationals need a 2nd-basemen; perhaps the Angels could pry away Jordan Zimmerman... or, back in reality-land, prospect AJ Cole. If the Cardinals decide Kolton Wong isn't the future, they also have a number of young pitchers that would be decent options The Braves could make sense, as could the Blue Jays, Royals and Giants. Who says no: Josh Hamilton and Howie Kendrick for Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum (Admit it: you thought about it for 12 seconds before regurgitating breakfast)?

I expect Jerry Dipoto to do one thing, and that is get his defensive utility infielder by hook or by crook. Gordom Beckham is not a bad option, though certainly not at his predicted arbitration salary. Emilio Bonifacio is going to be over-signed by someone; let's hope it doesn't come to that. On a side note, the all-purpose middle infielder is not a bad thing to have, what with bullpens being so large these days.  

One thing this off-season will tell us: what the Angels think of CJ Cron. His production, while very good during certain stretches, left a lot to be desired. With Albert's recent injury history and the Josh Hamilton Saga, don't be surprised we hear about the Angels sniffing around Mike Morse or Adam LaRoche. Should this occur, feel free to add CJ Cron to the "Trade Chip" pile. Of course, they could always play Grant Green as a DH, but that is something I will never stop clamoring for.

One piece that could easily go is CJ Wilson. While injuries played a fair part in his sub-par 2014, the fact that the Angels did OK with his average performance last season might signal the end. Given that he makes 39 Million (!) over the next two seasons, the Angels may elect to eat a bit of salary, pick up a trade piece, and replace him with a more appropriately-paid hurler. 

Of course, if the Angels think that CJ Wilson is due to bounce back, they could always simply add a wild card for the first few months while ace Garrett Richards recovers from his knee injury. Brett Anderson, Justin Masterson, and  Brandon Morrow could all catch fire while Richards is out, and they all could battle for a rotation spot or even move to the bullpen after his return. Of course, signing any of them is a bit like lighting the fuse on a cartoon bomb: at some point, it's going to blow up, leaving you as a set of eyeballs resting on a pile of ash. Still, if any one of them could remain healthy enough for 10-15 starts over the course of the season, it would help the Angels. After all, they all belong to that exclusive club: "better than Wade LeBlanc". If these signings didn't work out, they could always explore a Kendrick trade early next season.

After all this, the simplest route for the Angels to take is to sign a pitcher without a qualifying offer. They could could go for any of the usual suspects: Mr. Unspectacular (Jason Hammel), Mr. Value (Brandon McCarthy), The Grizzled Vet (Jake Peavy), The Immortal One (Hiroki Kuroda), The Guy With The Jewelry (Ryan Vogelsong), The Big Blah (Aaron Harang)  or even The Mistake (Edinson Volquez). 

The Angels are a very good team already, and that is not a bad position to be in (especially with the A's seemingly set to take a step back). However, Dipoto doesn't strike me as the type to stand pat, and his "controllable young pitchers"  battle cry from last year may extend to the whole team. While this team only needs some tweaks, don't be surprised if Dipoto takes a gamble to do more for this team's chances next October. 

 *With the triple negative, that actually does work.
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