How To Improve The Angels

Was there a bigger disappointment in 2013 than the Los Angeles Angels? Perhaps the Washington Nationals or the Toronto Blue Jays are in the conversation, but to suffer 84 losses after spending on Josh Hamilton and being an overwhelming preseason playoff pick was nothing less than a crushing blow for Arte Moreno’s heavily-hyped team.

Coming off their terrible season, the Angels find themselves in something of a difficult position headed into 2014. Once likely arbitration cases are figured in, they have approximately $140 million in contracts on the books, including four different players — Hamilton, Albert PujolsJered Weaver and C.J. Wilson — making at least $18 million, and that limits their flexibility to improve.

The good news is that after starting out at 17-27, they were above .500 (61-56) from late May through the end of the season. As we saw with the Red Sox, a team with star talent can make a quick turnaround, and since the Angels already have an expensive payroll with big names, they are motivated to go for it all in 2014. Here’s how they can turn it around.

Any accounting of what the team must do has to begin with what they have, and the Angels aren’t without their share of positives. That starts, of course, with Mike Trout, who is just about unarguably the best player in baseball even if he won’t be the Most Valuable Player. Trout made just less than $1 million total over the past two seasons while giving the Angels more than 20 WAR.

Unfortunately, more help isn’t coming from within the organization. The team’s consensus top prospect, third baseman Kaleb Cowart, hit only .221/.279/.301 at Double-A, and everyone else in their top 10 is either low impact or several years away, with only relieverNick Maronde perhaps likely to impact the 2014 team.

That’s what will happen when you haven’t had a first-round pick since 2011 thanks to your free-agent signings. With the state of the system being what it is, the Angels really can’t afford to give up yet another top pick by signing a player who comes with a qualifying offer, or they’ll never right this ship. That means expensive free agents like Shin-Soo Choo orRobinson Cano can’t really be considered, even if they did fit into the budget.

Pitching, pitching, pitching

The Angels really didn’t have a terrible offense last year, finishing seventh in runs scored and fourth in wOBA, though no doubt skewed somewhat by just how obscenely good Trout is. Their downfall came instead on the mound, where the team finished 23rd inFIP and 24th in ERA, which is no way to build a winning team. That’s especially true in the rotation, where only Wilson was healthy and effective all year long.

While Jered Weaver was fine after returning from an early-season broken left elbow that cost him nearly two months, his declining velocity is a huge red flag, and he can no longer be seen as the ace he once was. With the back end of the rotation in shambles — Joe Blanton and Tommy Hanson were disasters, Jason Vargas can be a free agent and Jerome Williams should be a long reliever or emergency starter only — the Angels need at least two starters to go with Weaver, Wilson and Garrett Richards.

Depending on how wide Moreno is willing to open the checkbook, Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka is a perfect fit here, because he’ll provide badly-needed talent without costing a draft pick — and his posting fee won’t count against the luxury tax. Unfortunately for the Angels, that’s the exact same rationale that will make him so attractive to suitors like the Yankees and Dodgers. But if Moreno is motivated to take some of the spotlight back in Southern California, that’s how you do it.

Be active on the trade market

Peter BourjosHowie Kendrick and Mark Trumbo have heard their names in trade rumors for most of the past year, and now is the time to move one or more of them to add more pitching. Bourjos is a sublime defensive outfielder who has had trouble staying healthy, and may find himself without a spot if 2013 surprise Kole Calhoun proves he’s worthy to start next to Trout and Hamilton. Trumbo’s obvious on-base deficiencies are somewhat masked by the fact he has plus power (95 homers in three years) in a game where that’s increasingly difficult to find, and he’s already been linked to clubs like San Diego, Kansas City and Pittsburgh.

Kendrick is an interesting case because while replacing him with Grant Green or an inexpensive alternative like Mark Ellis (assuming the Dodgers decline his option) would be a step down, his talent and contract — due $18.9 million over the next two years — make him a valuable asset in an extremely thin second-base market. Assuming Cano returns to New York, it’s easy to see contending teams with excess pitching and room to improve at second base (Baltimore, Detroit if Omar Infante leaves, Atlanta, perhaps Kansas City or Washington) being willing to send starting pitching value in return.

Pray for Hamilton and Pujols

The sad truth, however, is that the Angels absolutely need their two highly-compensated stars to start giving a return on their investment. There’s almost no hope at this point that either one will actually be worth all of the money they’re receiving, but it’s important to remember that this isn’t another Wells situation, at least not yet. Hamilton was of course a mess in his first season in California, but still managed roughly league-average production with 21 homers and 1.9 WAR. It’s also worth noting that he was much better in the second half (.344 wOBA) than in the first (.302 wOBA), so it’s not unreasonable to expect better production in 2014.

Pujols is more of a concern, because while he had a .329 wOBA in a league that averaged .318, if you compare him only to designated hitters, he’s below average (.335). This is quickly looking like one of history’s all-time worst contracts, but the hope is that after eight full months of rest (he didn’t play after July 25), his troublesome left foot will allow him to at least be a mild asset in 2014.

The Angels won 78 games despite the fact Hamilton struggled and Pujols and Weaver missed much of the year. With healthy seasons from all three and the continued excellence of Trout, that’s the core of a winning team. With a few shrewd moves, they can compete with the A’s and Rangers.

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or
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As bad as their starting pitching was the bull pen was worse, so some work needs to be done there also unfortunately.