By Jonathan Northrop, AngelsWin.com Columnist -
After last night's loss the Blue Jays, completing a three-game blow-out sweep in which the Angels were outscored 10-36 and saw them drop from 2.5 games behind to 5.5 games behind the first place Astros, and out of 2nd place into 3rd. After the Josh Hamilton debacle earlier in the year and the “Dipoto drama” of a couple months ago, the team is in a dark place, circling the drain of the 2015 season. Certain the Angels have fallen far from their glory days of the Aughties, a decade that saw them win a World Series and make the postseason in seven out of nine years from 2002 to 2009. Diehard fans are left asking, in angry or sad bemusement, how did we get here? How have the Angels fallen so far? Well, let's take a look.
2002-09: The Golden Age of Angels Baseball
I want you to think back for a moment, about a decade. Let's be a bit more exact and go back exactly ten years, to late in the 2005 season. The Angels had won an improbable and first World Series just three years before. After a disappointing follow-up 2003 campaign, new owner Arte Moreno opened his pockets and General Manager Bill Stoneman built a formidable 2004 team, including signing superstar Vladimir Guerrero. The Angels had a strong 2004, finishing 92-70, although going out in the first round in a sweep from the team that became their mid-Aughties nemesis, the Boston Red Sox.
2005 proved that the 2004 team wasn't a fluke. Ten years ago today (August 24) they were 20 games over .500 and in first place and on their way to another division title and 90+ win season. To put that in context, it was only the second time in franchise history that the Angels had back-to-back 90-win seasons, the other being 1985-86, and 2005 was only the 7th 90-win season in what was then a 45-year franchise history.
But even in 2005, there were glimmers of future problems, perhaps symbolized by Arte's name change, which wasn't horrible in and of itself (although the awkwardness of the “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim” was a tad embarrassing), but it displayed for perhaps the first time Moreno's signature combination of business-minded focus and an almost petulant willfulness to do things his way, clearly intent on competing in the southern California market with the Dodgers and desiring to appeal more fully to the Hispanic population of Los Angeles.
But in 2005 the organization was flying high. The memory of a championship was fresh, even if the 2005 team was very different from the soulful grittiness (if less talented and admittedly more fluky) 2002 cast; the team had a legitimate superstar in Vlad Guerrero, and a farm system that was considered one of the best in the sport, with a handful of “can't miss” prospects like Dallas McPherson, Casey Kotchman, Jeff Mathis, Kendrys Morales, Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, and of course Brandon Wood, who had an unbelievable season, hitting .321/.381/.667 with 101 extra-base hits mainly in A+ ball as a 20-year old.
Even though the Angels missed the postseason in 2006 due to a poor first half, they were so good in the second half—going 54-29 from July on—that it seemed like a glitch. And sure enough, the team rebounded and won the division every year from 2007-09, or five out of six years total from 2004-09.
All in all, 2002-09 was the Golden Age of Angels baseball. Even if we take out 2002, the 2004-09 six-year span saw the team average 94.5 wins per season, and five out of six years making the postseason. Younger fans don't remember that the Angels only saw the postseason three times (1979, '82, and '86) before 2002, and were one of the worst franchises in baseball. 2002 was a dream-come-true for long-time fans, made even better by the fact that for most of the Aughties the team was one of the best in baseball. Yet there were problems, which grew increasingly evident.
Three Problems Leading to the Fall
Problem #1: Postseason Flop. After leading the team to that improbable world championship in 2002, Mike Scioscia seemingly bought himself a decade and more of invulnerability; he has guided the franchise ever since. Yet from 2004-09, he was 2-5 in postseason series, or 10-19 in postseason games, never making it past the ALCS and back into the World Series. Whatever worked for the Angels in the regular season just didn't last into the postseason – perhaps at least partially due to the fact that the rest of the division was generally quite weak during those years.
Problem #2: Lack of Balance. The team never seemed to be good in all ways. In most years the pitching staff was strong and the offense just adequate. In one or two years it was the other way around. Even the 100-win 2008 season saw an AL 3rd ERA coupled with an AL 10th OPS and Runs scored. Yet somehow Scioscia led the team to numerous wins, notoriously out-performing the team's Pythagorean record. But the lack of balance became accentuated in the postseason when they faced stronger competition, which takes us back to the first problem.
Problem #3: An Overrated (and Declining) Farm. Ten years ago, Angels fans dreamed of a future infield of Jeff “almost as good as Joe Mauer” Mathis, Casey “California Helton” Kotchman, Howie “Future Batting Champion” Kendrick, Brandon “Future 40 HR” Wood, and Dallas “Troy Who?” McPherson – not to mention back-up plans Kendrys Morales, Erick Aybar, and Sean Rodriguez. But of those players, only Kendrick and Aybar had substantial careers as Angels, and even Howie couldn't shake the feeling that he was a disappointment, especially when you consider his Hornsby-esque minor league numbers (.360/.403/.569 in 399 minor league games) that never translated to the majors.
Prospect after prospect underperformed expectations – and not just fan expectations, but those of analysts. Bill Stoneman was known for hoarding prospects, including his infamous refusal to trade away players like Mathis and Kendrick for then-24-year old Miguel Cabrera. Yet his hoarding didn't lead to wealth; the farm began to dwindle, only spiking briefly when a certain kid named Mike Trout was drafted in 2009. But all in all, the talent level plummeted from one of the most highly regarded farms in the mid-00s, to one of the very worst over the last few years.
2010: End of an Era
After another disappointing postseason in 2009, a year that started with the tragic death of young pitcher Nick Adenhart, the Angels decided to shake things up. They let much of the team's core go: spark-plug Chone Figgins, staff ace John Lackey, an aging Vlad Guerrero, and their closer Francisco Rodriguez, bringing in only Hideki Matsui as a notable free agent in the offseason. Perhaps the moment that figuratively, if not quite literally, ended the Golden Age of Angels baseball was on May 29 of 2010, when the team's best hitter Morales hit a walk-off 10th inning grand slam and then broke his ankle in a celebratory jump on home plate. Morales didn't play again for over a year and a half and has never been the same since. The Angels let him go to free agency and the Mariners after 2012.
The team plummeted from 97 to 80 wins, with perhaps Brandon Wood's complete failure being the hallmark of the year. Wood hit .146/.174/.208 in 243 plate appearances. His average was the worst by a major leaguer with 200+ PA since Ray Oyler hit .135 in 1968. Inexperienced GM Tony Reagins then fumbled what turned out to be the first in a series of truly awful offseasons. Refusing to give Adrian Beltre, who reputedly desperately wanted to be an Angel, a fifth year, and then (thankfully) missing out on the Carl Crawford sweepstakes, Reagins panicked and sent Mike Napoli to Toronto for Vernon Wells and almost all of his $89 million owed over four years.
The team improved a bit in 2011, but still missed the postseason leading to Reagins' “resignation” in late September. Another unproven young GM in Jerry Dipoto was brought in. Dipoto conspired with Moreno and made the “big splashes” of the Winter Meetings in what was seemed like a coup at the time, signing mega-star Albert Pujols and rival Rangers ace CJ Wilson, the top free agent hitter and pitcher. Angels Nation ignored the subtle feeling of dread at the 10-year contract Pujols was given despite the fact that his numbers were down the year prior, dreaming of a return to greatness for Pujols and the Angels.
But it wasn't to be. Over the last four years, Pujols and the organization as a whole have mirrored each other. Pujols started his first year as an Angel terribly, not hitting his first home run until May 6, still hitting below .200 as late as May 14 and hitting .213/.258/.331 through 45 games on May 23. But then he caught fire and it seemed that if we weren't getting vintage Pujols, we were getting at least his 2011 performance level. But then in 2013 he was injured. He bounced back a bit in 2014, but it was a much reduced Pujols; he played his best month or so stretch as an Angel earlier this year, but his overall numbers are similar to last year, and after almost four years of relatively consistent play, it is time to accept Pujols for what he is: an above average player, but no longer a star let alone the superstar he was in St. Louis. Through August 24 of this year, he's hit .269/.328/.483 and 9.0 fWAR in 531 games as an Angel. To put that in context, since joining the Angels, according to fWAR Pujols has been the 84th best position player in the game, just ahead of Andre Ethier and behind Alcides Escobar. His 9.0 fWAR is about one-quarter of Trout's 35.7 in the same span of time.
When Dipoto and Moreno signed Pujols to a ten-year contract, they knew they weren't going to get ten years of peak Pujols, but they probably assumed they'd get several years of peak, then several years at a high level, with a few years of decline. All we've really seen is the last phase, with short glimmers of the Pujols of old. It will certainly go down as one of the worst contracts in baseball history.
To make matters worse, Dipoto and Moreno—unsatisfied with the team's 2012 performance—did not bid against the Dodgers for Zach Greinke and instead made a surprise grab of Josh Hamilton, allegedly far out-bidding all competitors. I won't belabor the details of which are well-known, but in short the Hamilton contract has been disastrous and will remain a “gift that keeps on giving” for a couple more years. But perhaps more than anything, the Hamilton Debacle represents the state of the organization.
The 2013 season was perhaps a low-point, as what should have been a powerhouse offense led by Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton only scored a modest 733 runs (6th in the AL), with sub-par performances from Pujols (.258/.330/.437, 17 HR, 112 wRC+, 0.5 fWAR) and Hamilton (.250/.307/.432, 21 HR, 105 wRC+, 1.9 fWAR) – despite Trout's best year as an Angel so far (.323/.432/.557, 27 HR, 176 wRC+, 10.5 fWAR). The 2013 team also “featured” Joe Blanton and Tommy Hanson in the rotation, both of whom were terrible, as well as a declining Jered Weaver and a CJ Wilson who wasn't quite as good as his Texas incarnation.
2014: A Return to Greatness? Or...
After three years in a row of big acquisitions leading to bigger disappointments, the Angels took a more moderate approach after 2013. Perhaps they were hesitant to repeat the Wells-Pujols-Hamilton mistakes, but regardless Dipoto's were more modest. Despite an unpopular trade that saw fan favorite Peter Bourjos and first round draft pick Randal Grichuk shipped to the Cardinals for David Freese and Fernando Salas, Dipoto made what were the best transactions as the Angels GM: One, he turned Mark Trumbo into Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago, and two, he traded a few decent but unspectacular prospects for Huston Street.
The 2014 squad won an improbable 98 games, but exhibited the problem that Scioscia's teams tended to have. After winning 10 in a row and 25 of 31 games, the team took their foot off the gas in mid-September and coasted into the playoffs where they faced the red-hot Kansas City Royals and were swept in three quiet games that saw the team bat .170/.248/.311 against the Royals' potent pitching staff, including a 3-37 (.081) batting line from Hamilton, Pujols, and Trout.
2015: ...It was a Dead-Cat Bounce
GM Jerry Dipoto was markedly quiet in the offseason, both because the Angels payroll was virtually maxed and and perhaps because the front office thought that they could only tweak a few things to repeat their strong 2014. But whatever they did, it hasn't worked. The 2015 season has been an unmitigated disaster. It began with the Josh Hamilton drama, then saw the team coast for the first few months, standing at 37-37 on June 26. Despite a second massive drama that saw Jerry Dipoto quit over a power dispute with Mike Scioscia, the team caught fire in late June and went 17-3 over their next 20 games. But then it all fell apart. From July 23 to August 23, the team has gone 9-21, dropping from a brief stay in 1st place all the way down to 3rd place and out of even the 2nd Wildcard slot. While there is still a lot of baseball left, it would take a truly remarkable transformation to see this listless team into the postseason.
Summary: The State of the Organization
Right now the Angels are an organization in crisis. Their saving grace is that they have the best player in baseball, at least for a bit more than five years. Beyond Trout there are some lesser glimmers of light: Kole Calhoun, and several of the pitchers. But the major league roster—especially the lineup—is lacking in impact talent, and there isn't a lot on the farm. Despite Arte Moreno's desire to compete with the Dodgers, the Angels have been unable to do what the Dodgers due so well: develop homegrown talent, mainly from Latin scouting. The Angels have seen a series of solid player graduate to the majors, but not enough to fuel the organization back to the inner circle elite.
So there you have it: A magical 2002 season followed by a Golden Age from 2004-09, then steep decline and floundering since. When Jerry Dipoto signed on he talked about a plan that would see the Angels both strengthen their farm and future, but also remain competitive year-to-year. We have not seen that plan come to fruition.
Addendum: Where to From Here?
But wait a minute...let's not call the franchise dead, kaput, game over, man. There must be a way forward, right? In this last part we will look at what (I think) the Angels need to do to return to perennial contention, another Golden Age if you will.
The immediate problem is the lack of lineup talent. The Angels have one megastar in Trout, but then a big drop to two players who aren't really stars, more like above average regulars or borderline stars at best, in Kole Calhoun and Albert Pujols. After those two, well, the drop is precipitous. Erick Aybar is erratic and still a solid player, but is having an off year. Cron has been a bit better but is hardly an impact bat, at least yet. Iannetta, Giovatella, Freese, and the motley crew that is left field, are all poor to average at best.
And there's very little help on the way. The only potential impact (meaning above average) hitters in the minors are several years away, and there really aren't any “can't miss” hitting prospects at any level. One bright spot this year has been the reemergence of Kaleb Cowart as a legitimate prospect and the team's potential future third baseman. After a couple years of floundering in AA, Cowart was sent back to high-A ball where he started slow but then improved. When the Angels surprisingly promoted him to AAA, he took off. He just hit his first major league hit out of the park, albeit in his fifth game. At this point we can be cautiously hopeful that he'll at least turn out to be a solid major league regular.
I do think the Angels can tweak here and there while focusing on farm development – the Dipoto Plan of remaining in competitive while building from within. But the bottom line is that the organization really needs an overhaul, and patience from the management and fans. The team is burdened by a number of albatross contracts in Pujols, Hamilton, Wilson and Weaver, who will be making over $90 million next year. After 2016, Wilson and Weaver come off the books; after 2017, so does Hamilton. But even so, the team needs to put their focus on developing the farm, on scouting international talent and maneuvering the draft so that they get better picks, and making savvy trades that will bear fruit later on. But this requires a degree of patience that Arte Moreno might not have.
This offseason we'll probably see the Angels go after one of the big three outfield free agents available: Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, or Jason Heyward. I personally think Heyward is worth going after hard; he is an excellent defender, a good hitter still with some upside, and only just turned 26. But he'll be expensive; he'll probably get 8 years at $20-25 million per year. Still, if Moreno was willing to spend that kind of money on an aging Pujols and problem child Hamilton, why not Heyward?
The Dipoto Plan is still a good one, but in order to actualize it the Angels will need to acquire more offensive talent. There are a few ways to go about doing this, and probably all are necessary: signing a big bat like Heyward or Cespedes via free agency, trading someone like Santiago or Tropeano for a prospect or two, and praying that someone like Kyle Kubitza, CJ Cron, and/or Kaleb Cowart works out better than hoped.
Right now the biggest holes in the lineup are left field, third base, second base, and catcher. Left field will likely be a free agent or trade; third base will probably be filled from within, either Cowart of Kubitza; the Angels will probably try to acquire a catcher, someone like Matt Wieters, as the potential Perez-Bandy tandem is unproven, although we shouldn't expect that Moreno will pay for both a premier outfielder and Wieters – it is likely one or the other. As for second base, Giavotella is what he is: a replacement level player who has kept the position warm enough. Supposed future second baseman Alex Yarbrough has struggled in AAA this year, and Grant Green is just never given a chance. The Angels could use an upgrade at 2B, but if they improve elsewhere then they could probably carry Gio for another year.
The farm system is like a barren field that is just showing signs of new life, little sprouts here and there showing up, but nothing substantial. It will likely be a few years before it is thriving again, if it is tended properly. And again, that is the key. Arte needs to realize that the Dodgers are successful largely because of their farm system, which has developed star talent like Yasiel Puig, Joc Pederson, Clayton Kershaw, and Kenley Jensen, and according to John Sickels' midseason Top 75 prospects, includes two of the top three prospects in baseball in Corey Seager and Julio Urias, and five total in the top 34. Again, the key for the Dodgers has been scouting – their system was weak a few years ago, but has returned to elite status on account of an increase in scouting dollars.
So Bill Stoneman, or whoever takes his place as the Angels GM, has his work cut out for him. Given the amount of work that it will take to rebuild the lineup, the Angels will be either forced to trade big, make substantial trades, or just ride out several years in which the team will be around .500. One deadline to keep in mind is that Trout is signed through 2020. It would be nice to see the Angels assemble a strong club around him before then, both so that the franchise's greatest player has a chance of shining in the postseason, but also so that he is inspired to finish his career as an Angel.
All of that said, it isn't completely hopeless. There is a core group of young players to build from in Trout, Calhoun, and perhaps Cowart, as well as a nice handful of young pitchers in Hector Santiago, Garrett Richards, Andrew Heaney, Tyler Skaggs, Sean Newcomb, and others. But it will require a combination of smart signings, savvy trades, and patient nurturing of the farm system to get there. If nothing else, this offseason will be very interesting in that it may very well determine the direction of the organization for years to come.