Tuesday, November 1, 2016

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By Jonathan Northrop, AngelsWin.com Columnist - 

The Angels were 74-88 in 2016, although with a somewhat more promising 80-82 Pythagorean record. But as DocHalo pointed out here, we shouldn't be too optimistic about that Pythagorean record. But we should also remember that the Angels' pitching staff was devastated, losing the staff ace (Garret Richards), two other promising young starters (Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano), and closer (Huston Street) to injury, not to mention a slower recovery time from Tyler Skaggs and that gruesome late injury to Matt Shoemaker. In other words, the Angels were so bad at least partially due to just horrible luck, and hopefully can expect better next year. Hopefully.

Given that the Rangers played way over their heads last year on route to 95 wins, and second place Seattle won 86 games, the mediocre AL West in 2017 could be won by 90ish wins. Simply being above .500 should keep a team in contention deep into the year, and thus be eligible for mid-season trade upgrades. In other words, the Angels could win the AL West next year simply by playing average or better for the first half of the year, then making a few tweaks and going on a hot streak. The point being, it only takes fielding a .500 plus team to start the year to have a legitimate shot at the postseason.

So how to get there from here? And how to do so without busting the bank (Yoenis Cespedes) or trading away the few good prospects the Angels have (Jahmai Jones, Matt Thaiss, Michael Hermosillo, etc)? It actually isn't that hard; or, at least, it isn't that difficult to understand a path towards contention, and in five (easy?) steps! 

1. Stay Healthy
This is the hardest and, unfortunately, the most difficult part. The key players--aside from Trout, whom we will never mention in relation to injury...ever--are Richards and Skaggs. Together they pitched 16 starts for a combined 1.4 fWAR. Let's also throw in Alex Meyer, who pitched 5 starts for 0.3 fWAR. That gives us a grand total of 21 starts and 1.7 fWAR, which is a cumulative mid-rotation performance (roughtly 2.5 WAR for 32 starts). If we assume roughly the same performance in total from those three as a baseline, and then reduce all three to 25-30 starts to account for babying, then we get 75-90 starts, or about 60 more than they pitched in 2016, which would lead to a gain of approximately +5 fWAR. Those 60 starts replace the 47 starts and -1.6 fWAR from Jered Weaver, Tim Lincecum, David Huff, and Daniel Wright, plus Tropeano's 13 (+0.1). In other words, just by being relatively healthy and performing at the same level as 2016, those three starters should give the rotation a swing of around +6.5 fWAR, or a broader range of roughly +5 to +8 fWAR.

OK, I will say something about Trout. There is no team in baseball that's success relies more upon a single player. That is a huge problem, and very different from, say, the 2002 World Champs who were a team of good to very good players, but no clear stars; the highest fWAR on that team was David Eckstein's 4.5 (!), but the lineup had eight players of 2.5 fWAR or higher. But there are numerous roads to Rome; the current team has Trout, who is better than any combination of two players on the 2002 squad. Meaning, everyone else on Trout's Angels doesn't have to be quite as good as the cast of 2002. But the point is, for the Angels to be vaguely decent Trout has to be healthy unless, of course, the rest of the lineup is really good--which is hard to imagine happening in the next year or two. So any conceivable path to the playoffs involves a healthy Trout.

Other than the starters, we need good health all around but it isn't as dire as the starters--namely, Richards, Shoemaker and Skaggs--and, of course, Trout. We need basic health from the major supporting cast: especially Simmons and Calhoun, but also Cron, Escobar, Bandy, Pujols, etc. But if any of those guys go down, the Angels can theoretically find a way to plug the whole.

To put all of that another way, you could rank the Angels in terms of tiers by importance of health:

Apocalypic: Trout
Crucial: Richards, Shoemaker, Skaggs, Calhoun, Simmons. 
Important: Nolasco, Meyer, Bedrosian, Street, Cron, Pujols, Escobar, Bandy.

Recommendation: Pray. Knock on wood. And hope to (whatever deity or divine or otherwise force you believe in) that “biomechanics,” or whatever it is, bears results.

2 and 3: Improve Weakest Lineup Spots: 2B and LF
These two go together because they're very similar. A couple years ago I was one of the many who was happy with the Kendrick-for-Heaney trade. Howie was his usual self in 2015, but he really struggled in 2016 so that despite only seeing all of 19 starts from Heaney so far, with none likely in 2017, the trade doesn't look so bad and still promises to turn out well in the long-run. But it has left a massive whole at 2B which Gio only adequately filled in 2015, not so adequately in 2016. Left field has been similar but even worse, with the Angels unable to replace Josh Hamilton's mediocre production with the motley likes of Matt Joyce, David Murphy, David DeJesus, Shane Victorino, Colin Cowgill, Daniel Robertson, Kirk Niewhatshisfuck, Efren Navarro, Rafael Ortega, Daniel Nava, Craig Gentry, Shane Robinson, Nick Buss, Ji-Man Choi, and Todd Cunningham. The overall result has been a total and utter disaster, especially considering that left field is one of the easiest positions to fill with at least adequate production.

Now there aren't a lot of even decent options, especially at 2B where Neil Walker is the only plus player available and is likely to be very expensive. Walker is not a star but about as consistent as you can get; from the time he broke into the majors in 2010 he has accrued 19.5 fWAR, or an average of 2.8 per season including a career-high 3.7 last year.  He is the definition of “good ballplayer,” not a star, but a very consistent above average player. The question is, how much is that worth for a player who turns 32 at the end of next year? 

An intriguing in-house option is Kaleb Cowart, who should be able to be a plus defender. The big concern is his bat, which has been downright Woodsian so far (.176/.210/.267), albeit in limited play (139 PA). It is probable that Cowart wouldn't be much better than replacement level in 2017, with poor offense and plus defense. Assuming the Angels don't go after Walker, their best bet might be to sign a solid role player like Stephen Drew and platoon him with Cowart.

As for LF, it seems that Eppler doesn't consider Jefry Marte to be a full-time solution. Despite Marte's plus power, he's probably right and Marte should continue as a platoon player, getting plenty of starts at the infield and outfield corners. But there are plenty of decent options in the outfield, with the best--Yoenis Cespedes--likely to be way too expensive, and the next group--Josh Reddick, Ian Desmond, Mark Trumbo, Jose Bautista--likely to be over-priced and not as good as their price tag. Dexter Fowler is an interesting option who would give the Angels another pretty good OBP in front of Trout. 

Given that they want to hold the spot for Jahmai Jones in 2019 or 2020, they could take an unconventional approach and offer soon-to-be 40-year but still productive Carlos Beltran a one-year contract with a vesting option, or sign someone like Jon Jay, Michael Saunders, or Nori Aoki who would, at the least, provide solid performance and plug the gushing torrent of suckiness that has been LF the last two years. Or you could take a risk on Carlos Gomez and hope he re-captures his 2014 form. 

The other option is a trade, but the Angels don't have a lot to offer. 

Anyhow, probably the single free agent who would represent the largest upgrade for the Angels is either Walker or Cespedes, either of whom would represent a +4 to 5 swing at one position—at least in the short term. Both represent substantial risks because of their age. Plus Cespedes has “future hotdog” written all over him; it is easy to imagine a scenario where he “did a Hamilton” and declined rapidly. I personally would prefer Fowler to Cespedes, who would probably cost $10M less per year but not be far behind in WAR. But the point being, even getting one of these biggish names would be a huge upgrade and turn a gaping hole to a positive—and thus be the single largest improvement possible. With money spent on one, the Angels can go the cheap route on the other.

Oh yeah, one more thing. How about a fifth outfielder with speed? Someone to pinch run and steal bases late in the game? The Royals employed this tactic so well a couple years ago—decimating the Angels in the 2014 ALDS—that I'm not sure why every team hasn't adopted this approach You don't need a guy who can hit, just run, steal bases, and play defense—and there are a bunch of these guys lying around in AAA.

Recommendation: For 2B, it is tempting to go after Walker. If it somehow possible to get him to sign a three-year contract (unlikely) or possible a four-year contract (possible) for the right price, I say go for it. If he wants five years I'd stay away. There simply is no way to improve the team as drastically in one move. If his price tag gets out of hand (say, more than 4/$60M) then sign Stephen Drew and platoon him with Kaleb Cowart. For LF, I would consider Fowler and Gomez. If the latter can be had for a one-year “prove myself” deal, go for it. I believe that Gomez doesn't require a lost draft pick, as he was traded mid-season. If he too gets too expensive or if someone swoops in and offers him a multi-year deal, Fowler is the better bet for something like 4/$56M. If that doesn't work, sign one of the solid players—Aoki, Saunders, Jay—to tide us over until Hermosillo and/or Jones is ready in a couple years. But stay away from Cespedes and the five-year, $25-30M per year contract he is going to try to get.

4. Sign a Top-shelf Reliever, and one or two ones with good upside
Cam Bedrosian was easily the best reliever on the club, with Deolis Guerra, Jose Alvarez, Mike Morin, JC Ramirez, and possibly Andrew Bailey showing solid value as middle relievers, but none are irreplaceable. The problem with the Angels bullpen is that there is only one truly good reliever in Bedrosian, at least without Huston Street finding his pre-2016 form. The rest are essentially run-of-the-mill middle relievers; some—Fernando Salas, Cory Rasmus, Greg Mahle, AJ Achter, Jose Valdez, and Bret Oberholtzer—were varying shades of mediocre to terrible. 

Going into 2017, Bedrosian is a lock, and presumably Street will be back, although I see him gradually transitioning to a setup role as Bedrosian takes over closer. Guerra has earned a spot on the roster, and Alvarez and Morin—and possibly Bailey or Ramirez--provide decent middle relief depth. What the Angels lack is another reliever with lights-out stuff to pair with Bedrosian. Perhaps this could be Manny Banuelos, who a few years ago used to project as a #3 starter for the Yankees, or Alex Meyer if the Angels sign a starter. 

But there are some really good options on the free agent market, including marquee closers Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen, both of whom will likely set records for reliever contracts; some are predicting nine-figures for Chapman (!). There's also Greg Holland of the Royals, who was supplanted as their closer by Wade Davis. Holland was great in 2014-15 but struggled last year and could be a really good buy. Mark Melancon is another top tier closer option but won't come cheaply. There are many other options, but those are the best of the crop and what the Angels really need is someone very good.

Recommendation: It is a bit risky spending big money on a reliever, so I'd probably stay away from Chapman and Jansen, and Melancon will also likely be quite expensive, but Holland would be a great option, in addition to someone like Neftali Feliz and bringing Andrew Bailey back. Ramirez and Morin can be stuffed in AAA with Banuelos. The Angels could enter the year with a bullpen of Bedrosian, Holland, Street, Guerra, Alvarez, Bailey, and Feliz. Not bad.

5. Sign a Mid-Rotation Starter
Richards, Shoemaker, Skaggs, and Nolasco are locks; Weaver, Chacin and Meyer are not. It sounds like Weaver won't be tendered a contract, not with his continued decline (his ERA grew for the fifth straight year, finally breaching the 5.00 mark in 2016 and showing no signs of going down, as his 5.62 FIP attests). Chacin makes a decent “sixth man” or mopup guy so could be re-signed, and Meyer could end up as either the fifth starter or transition to a flame-throwing reliever.

There is a viable if unlikely scenario in which the Angels have a strong rotation without making a move. In this pipe-dream, health abounds. Richards returns to 2014 form, Shoemaker continues where he left off with before being beaned in the cranium. Skaggs finally finds his health and potential, Nolasco continues his 2016 performance with the Angels, and Meyer finds command and consistency. All of a sudden you have a legit staff ace and four bonafide mid-rotation starters.

But it is highly unlikely that everything goes right, and chances are Eppler will at least want to build more depth in case of a Meyer meltdown and/or an injury to one of the others. Probably the choice with the highest floor, but also biggest contract, is Jeremy Hellickson – who is a solid #3-4 type, but not exactly sexy. 37-year old (in March) Rich Hill is a popular mention around these parts after he produced a very sexy 2.12 ERA and ridiculous peripherals (10.52 K rate and 2.69 BB rate) in 20 starts, but chances are other teams are salivating over the chance to snag him on the cheap and thus he won't go cheap. Other possibilities aren't as good: The talented by oft-injured Brett Anderson might be a nice gamble and could probably be had for an affordable one-year contract, the ever-disappointing Andrew Cashner is another buy-low candidate who could bounce back, or don't be surprised if the Red Sox opt out on Clay Buchholz who fits a similar mold. Ivan Nova has a higher floor but lower ceiling than these guys and would likely be another #4-5 type like Nolasco.

Recommendation: My personal preference would be to go hard after Hill. If the Angels can get him for something like 3/$45M, then they should do it. He'll be 37 and presents some risk but has few innings on his arm and is the best of the bunch by a long-shot. Unlike Hellickson, if he bombs then it is a shorter sunk investment. Hellickson is tempting but will probably require a Wilson/Weaver-type 5/$80M contract and I'm a bit leery of his 2016 contract year 3.71 ERA performance after three prior years of 5.17, 4.52, 4.62 ERAs. Hellickson is a #4 starter who will be paid as at least a #3.

So if Hill doesn't happen, why not take a chance on one of Anderson, Cashner, or Buchholz? All of these guys can probably be had for a “I want to prove myself” one-year deal, so the risk is low. They can compete with Meyer and Banuelos for a rotation spot and, assuming they win it, give the Angels better depth and potential converted power relievers in Meyer and Banuelos.

Extra Credit: Upgrade at 3B
One more option worth considering is letting Escobar walk and going after Justin Turner, who has quietly been a very strong performer at third base for the last few years, posting a .275/.339/.493 line with 27 HR and 5.6 fWAR last year for the Dodgers. But Turner, despite being 32, won't come cheaply. 

Summary: My Recommendations
- Sign Neil Walker (4/$60M) to play 2B.
- Sign Carlos Gomez on a one-year deal ($15-20M) or Dexter Fowler (4/$56M) to play LF.
- Sign Rich Hill (3/$45M) to start.
- Sign Greg Holland (3/$30M) and Neftali Feliz (2/$15M) to add to the bullpen, plus give Andrew Bailey a one-year contract.

2017 Lineup and Pitching Staff
3B Escobar
2B Walker (or Drew at #8 in lineup)
LF Gomez (or Fowler at #1 in lineup)
CF Trout
RF Calhoun
DH Pujols
1B Cron
SS Simmons
C Bandy

Rotation: Richards, Shoemaker, Hill, Skaggs, Nolasco (with Banuelos, Meyer and Smith in AAA)

Bullpen: Bedrosian, Holland, Street, Bailey, Guerra, Feliz, Alvarez (with Morin and Ramirez in AAA)

And yes, I know I added $60M months more of payroll. This after seeing only Wilson and Weaver's combined $40M coming off the books. This would bring them right up to around the luxury tax threshold of last year ($189M), but maybe with a few tweaks the Angels can stay under. But the above team can win 90+ ball games, especially in the Walker variant. It has depth, variation, and would be a lot of fun to watch.

And yes, I realize that the above almost certainly won't happen, or at least not all of it. But the goal here was to show how to make a viable Angels contender in 2017. I started with the idea of relatively small tweaks to bring the team up to an 80-85 win level so they would be just a tweak or two and a hot streak away from the division title, but ended up building a much stronger team. My revised view is that just basic health and only small tweaks puts this team back to the 80-85 range, but with some strong moves—like those suggest above—this team could be a legit contender again.
Love to hear what you think!

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