Over the weekend, the Angels picked up Huston Street from San Diego, and we’ll get to that in a second. This isn’t just about the trade, though. It’s about the relief group that Street is joining. On March 30, the Angels announced their Opening Day roster, with a seven-man bullpen that looked like this:
- R — Ernesto Frieri
- R — Kevin Jepsen
- R — Michael Kohn
- L — Nick Maronde
- R — Fernando Salas
- R — Matt Shoemaker
- R — Joe Smith
Today, at least for the moment, they have an eight-man bullpen, and it looks like this:
- R — Jason Grilli
- R — Kevin Jepsen
- R — Mike Morin
- R — Cory Rasmus
- R — Fernando Salas
- R — Joe Smith
- R — Huston Street
- L – Joe Thatcher
Frieri was awful, and now he’s in Pittsburgh. Kohn couldn’t find the plate, and now he’s in Triple-A. Maronde couldn’t do much of anything, and now he’s with Cleveland. Shoemaker is in the rotation, and while he may return when C.J. Wilson comes off the disabled list, it may be Hector Santiago instead. Since Salas missed almost a month with a sore shoulder, that makes Jepsen and Smith the only two Angels relievers to be active and on the team all season long. In between, the Angels have had 25 different relievers, from Jarrett Grube and Cam Bedrosian to Drew Rucinski and Josh Wall, easily the most different relievers any team has had this year, and within shouting distance of the American League record of 29, set by the 2012 Blue Jays. (They probably aren’t touching the all-time record of 33, set by the 2002 Padres of Eric Cyr, Doug Nickle and Brian Tollberg, unless things go terribly wrong.)
All of which means that full-season stats for the Angels bullpen aren’t particularly useful, because they’re including numbers from guys who are long gone or buried in the minors. That’s good for the Angels, of course, because those full-season numbers are ugly. By WAR, 25th. ERA, 21st. FIP, 23rd. xFIP, 23rd. Obviously, that’s not the kind of group you want when you think you have a real shot at the playoffs.
So GM Jerry Dipoto went about changing that, starting in late June when failed closer Frieri went to Pittsburgh for failed closer Grilli, continuing in early July when Thatcher (and backup outfielder Tony Campana) arrived from Arizona for minor leaguers Zach Borenstein and Joey Krehbiel, and continuing on Saturday when Street and minor leaguer Trevor Gott came to town for prospects R.J. Alvarez, Taylor Lindsey, Elliot Morris and Jose Rondon.
Whether or not Grilli rediscovers his Pittsburgh magic — he’s off to a good start in his first 10 games as an Angel, and more importantly, he isn’t Frieri — it’s clear that this is a much improved group from the one that started the season. Street is having the best season of his life, getting more strikeouts and grounders; rookie Morin and his outstanding change has been a surprise performer; Thatcher has a 17/1 K/BB against fellow lefties this year. Added to mainstays Smith and Jepsen, and suddenly the Angels have a reasonably effective quintet in their bullpen. Though Street has only appeared once so far, the new Angels bullpen has been miles better over the last month, even with obvious small sample size caveats. It’s not the only reason they’ve won 27 of their last 37; it’s not unrelated, either. What was a clear weakness is now, if not a strength, at least not a glaring issue, as the newcomers have pushed incumbents either to lower-leverage roles or off the roster entirely.
Street can’t be guaranteed to continue like he has been, of course — dig that 1.06 ERA against a 2.93 xFIP, .200 BABIP and 100% LOB — and so there’s the question of whether the Angels “overpaid” for him. The answer is yeah, probably, they did. There’s only so much impact a single one-inning reliever who isn’t quite on the Aroldis Chapman / Craig Kimbrel level can have on a few months of a season. It’s likely that the quartet the Padres received will give San Diego more value over their years of team control than Street will over his 1.5 years in Anaheim (assuming the Angels pick up Street’s $7m 2015 option, which seems like a total no-brainer).
Entering the season, Lindsey and Alvarez were two of the Angels’ top four prospects from Baseball America; Rondon, one of the youngest players in Single-A, wasn’t, but certainly would have been this year, and this trio very possibly would have been the team’s top three. This wasn’t a great organization before, and now it’s desolate. If Street even adds one win above replacement to the Angels this season, it will be a lot — again, not because he’s not useful, but because there’s a limit to what a one-inning pitcher can provide. To give up some real talent for that is not an insignificant price.
Of course, it’s there where we need to remember that an individual team’s “top prospect list” is all but useless when evaluating a deal, because even though Lindsey was the “No. 1 prospect in the Angels system,” he was also a borderline top-100 player. In a system like that of the Cubs, Lindsey may have cracked the top 10; that he was the best player in a bad system doesn’t make him a better player than he was. Did the Angels hurt an already mediocre system for Street? Without question. Did they give up anyone they’ll ever really miss? That part is far less certain.
For most teams, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. But the Angels aren’t most teams, and they’re in a position where every win is just so, so valuable. Mike Trout still isn’t 23 for another month, but Jered Weaver, Albert Pujols, Wilson and Josh Hamilton aren’t getting younger. Every year with that quartet that isn’t a successful one is an expensive misfire; Erick Aybar, Chris Iannetta, David Freese and Howie Kendrick are all also at least 30. Despite all the press the Athletics have received for their outstanding season, the Angels are only a game out in the loss column and still have 10 more head-to-head games against Oakland. They’re both basically locks to make the playoffs — these two teams have the most wins in baseball — but in the world of two wild cards, winning the division carries with it an incredible amount of value. No one wants to be the team in the one-game playoff, welcoming the Mariners or Orioles or Indians into town, knowing that a one-game playoff is essentially a coin flip, and that even if they advance, they may have had to burn one of their better starting pitchers to do it. If you’re looking for a win-now situation, especially if you think the Rangers disaster is a one-year thing and that the Astros are coming, this is it.
So yeah, maybe cashing in these prospects for what is a relatively small gain doesn’t seem worth it. Maybe Rondon and Lindsey become the San Diego middle infield of the future, providing years of value, while Alvarez is closing games off. We won’t know the answer to that for many years. What we do know is that none of these players are looked upon like they’re Addison Russell or Byron Buxton or Kris Bryant, and if Street and the rest of the new Angels bullpen helps get them past the A’s and into a home game to start ALDS without needing to win the wild card playoff, it’s certain that nobody in Anaheim will be regretting it.
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