We’re continuing with our “Three Needs” series, in which we take a look at the chief issues to be addressed for clubs that have fallen out of contention. We’ve already focused on the Mariners, Tigers, White Sox, Marlins, Rangers and Pirates. Now we’ll turn to the Angels. Despite the presence of the transcendent Mike Trout, they’ve posted their fifth straight non-playoff season and their fourth sub-.500 campaign in a row during what has been a year filled with adversity.
1. Pour Significant Resources Into The Rotation
Let’s be fair to the Angels right off the bat: Their rotation (and their franchise as a whole) is still reeling from the passing of left-hander Tyler Skaggs back in July. Not only was Skaggs a beloved teammate to those on the club, but he was one of the Angels’ top pitchers. That’s an irreplaceable combination, though the Angels have no choice but to carry on and try to improve their starting staff heading into 2020.
The good news for the Angels is that two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani should return to the mound next year. He threw just over 50 innings as a rookie in 2018 and then couldn’t pitch at all this season as a result of Tommy John surgery. Ohtani recently underwent another procedure – a left knee operation – but it shouldn’t prevent him from rejoining the Angels’ rotation at the beginning of the season. The flamethrowing Ohtani, Andrew Heaney and Griffin Canning (who enjoyed a respectable rookie season, albeit one that ended in August because of elbow issues) give the Halos’ starting staff at least a few legitimate reasons for hope heading into 2020. It’s harder to find obvious causes for optimism otherwise, though, evidenced in part by the AL-worst ERA and fWAR Angels starters have recorded this year.
In clear need of starters, the Angels figure to aggressively target help during the offseason. General manager Billy Eppler already spoke on the upcoming free-agent starter market back in August, saying, “I’m sure we’ll be sitting with [free agents] and seeing if something can be worked out.” Furthermore, although the Angels haven’t won any recent high-priced bidding wars for starters, Eppler didn’t close the door on bucking that trend.
So … enter Gerrit Cole? Not necessarily, but the Houston Cy Young candidate, Southern California native and pending free agent looks like a plausible target for the Angels. While the 29-year-old Cole could command $200MM–plus on his upcoming contract, the Angels have shown a willingness to make sizable long-term commitments under owner Arte Moreno (deals for Trout, Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Justin Upton spring to mind). And Cole would give the Angels’ injury-laden, underperforming rotation something it desperately needs: a workhorse ace who can provide 200 innings of top-line production.
It doesn’t have to be Cole or bust for the Angels, though he should be the franchise’s No. 1 target going into the offseason. If they can’t get him, though, there will be other worthy starters available in free agency. Stephen Strasburg (if he opts out of his Nationals deal), Madison Bumgarner, Zack Wheeler, Dallas Keuchel (whom the Angels pursued last winter), Jake Odorizzi and Kyle Gibson represent several other possibilities. The Angels could also explore a trade(s), but whether Eppler will want to make notable subtractions from a farm system he has focused on improving over the past few years remains to be seen. Either way, the Angels have to perform far better than they did in free agency a year ago, when they spent a combined $20MM on one-year contracts for starters Matt Harvey and Trevor Cahill. Those pacts proved to be miserable failures for the team.
2. Upgrade Behind The Plate
The Angels went the one-year deal route to try to bolster their rotation last winter, and they did the same behind the plate. But the $3.35MM guarantee for Jonathan Lucroy went down as yet another regrettable move, as he struggled before the club released him in August. Lucroy, Max Stassi (who needs hip surgery), Anthony Bemboom, Kevan Smith and Dustin Garneau (who, like Lucroy, is out of the organization) have combined for negative-0.4 fWAR this year, making the Angels just one of five teams whose backstops have registered a minus number in that category.
It’s time for the Halos do better at the position. To their credit, the Angels at least made an attempt last offseason, courting the likes of Yasmani Grandal and Wilson Ramos before those two went elsewhere. Grandal will be back on the market this winter, but the Brewer should do a lot better than the one-year, $18MM-plus guarantee he raked in during his previous stay in free agency. Would the Angels make such a commitment? It could depend on how much they dole out on starting help. There’s only so much money to go around, after all.
Free-agent options beyond Grandal are much less enticing. However, the likes of Jason Castro, Travis d’Arnaud and Robinson Chirinos could be upgrades over the catchers the Angels have leaned on this year. And Yankees backup Austin Romine might be a name to watch as a soon-to-be free agent who shouldn’t cost much. Eppler was in New York’s front office for the early stages of Romine’s major league career.
3. Determine Kole Calhoun’s Future
The Angels are facing a tough decision on Calhoun, a career-long Angel who has been with the franchise since it spent an eighth-round pick on him in 2010. Now 31, Calhoun has evolved into a defensive standout who also offers capable offense. He has been solid in both regards this year en route to his fifth season with at least 2.0 fWAR, but that doesn’t mean the Angels will welcome him back in 2020. They could pick up Calhoun’s option for $14MM or buy him out for $1MM. For an Angels team with major issues to address elsewhere, it may be tempting to wave goodbye to Calhoun and spend the $13MM they’d save on him to address other areas of the roster. The club has a potential short-term replacement on hand in Brian Goodwin, who could occupy right field until super prospect Jo Adell is ready for a promotion next season.