Few teams in the major leagues have had as rough an offseason as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The team once aspired, perhaps with stars in their eyes, to sign both Carl Crawford and Adrian Beltre this winter. After a flurry of moves during and shortly after the Winter Meetings left the Angels seemingly alone in the marketplace with Beltre, they seemed certain to get at least that consolation prize.
Not so. The Rangers swept in as the Angels dragged through negotiations, and Beltre signed on for five years and $80 million to play in Texas. It's nearly impossible to imagine that the Angels can now enter the season as a favorite in the AL West.
Understanding that the team has some great pieces already in place, though, there is no reason the team cannot compete with the Rangers in 2011. Read on for 10 things the Angels need to do between now and Spring Training in order to shift the balance of power in their division back toward southern California.
The easiest way to do this would have been to sign Beltre; other good options were out there for a good stretch of the season. Having missed out on those players, though, the Angels must now find someone more competent than Maicer Izturis or Brandon Wood to play the hot corner.
Howard Kendrick can move to third base if the team has a better opportunity to improve at second, and they may want to explore doing just that. The best remaining free agents at those positions are guys like Felipe Lopez and David Eckstein. Ultimately, though, the team may be well advised to pursue a trade to fill this need.
If there was any upside to the injury suffered by Kendry Morales midseason in 2010, it was that the incessant and irritating controversy surrounding Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis temporarily abated. Napoli started 67 games at first base and Mathis was able to labor happily behind home plate on a regular basis without getting criticized for his uselessness at the plate offensively.
Now, however, Morales will be back, and either Juan Rivera or Bobby Abreu will be the designated hitter on a regular basis. Napoli, then, will be re-inserted into the offense-defense platoon Scioscia has employed for a few years. That is unacceptable. The man is an .831 career OPS hitter. He launched 26 home runs in 510 plate appearances last season.
He is not a great, or even a good defensive catcher, but Napoli deserves a starting role at catcher, first base or DH for someone. Unless the Angels intend to give him a solid 500 plate appearances again, they should trade him this winter for what would surely be a strong package.
Listening to Scioscia defend his insistent use of Mathis over the past three seasons, it would be easy to imagine that this guy is among the truly elite defensive catchers in the past 10 years. He is so comically bad at the plate that in order to justify a place on a big-league roster, much less regular playing time, he needs to be exceptional at handling pitchers, blocking balls in the dirt and throwing out runners.
He isn't. In fact, all things considered (and dismissing whatever nebulous and dubious mental advantage pitchers might derive from having him back there), he is a shade below average as a defender. Add that to his utter offensive impotence and he simply has no place in a big-league lineup. Hank Conger did not look great in a very small sample in 2010, but he has a sky-high ceiling and should be the one sharing time with Napoli behind the plate in 2011 and beyond.
The arrival of center fielder Peter Bourjos, which displaced Torii Hunter to right field, took a lot of opportunity away from Bobby Abreu and Juan Rivera for 2011. The two might otherwise have had an even share of the two corner outfield spots, but now must split time in left field and at DH, when Napoli is not there.
Since Abreu bats left-handed and Rivera bats right-handed, and since the two are similar defensively, a platoon makes some sense. It may be that Napoli will settle in as the full-time catcher, which would allow each man to play full-time as either an outfielder or as the DH. If not, though, the Angels need to determine which player has higher utility, and seriously explore trading the other man.
It may well be that Trout, who will not even turn 20 until Aug. 7 and has not yet risen above Class-A Rancho Cucamonga, is a full year away from the big leagues. Peter Bourjos is a fine place-holder in the meantime, a tremendous athlete and defender who saved the second-most runs among center fielders in 2010 despite playing fewer than 450 innings there at the big-league level.
Still, Trout is on the way, and the Angels need to rid themselves of one of their outfielders in anticipation of his arrival at the big-league level, which could come at or around the trade deadline.
Torii Hunter is a trade candidate, even with two years and $36 million left on his deal. Abreu could fetch a solid return, too. Bourjos might bring the most in return, although his defensive superiority should give the team pause before trading him when Trout is still at least a few months from the Majors.
The Angels starting pitching might be very good in 2011, as they will bring back solid contributors Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana and Dan Haren at the front of their rotation. They lack a bit of depth, though, with their best pitching prospects still a year away and with the rather inconsistent Joel Pineiro and Scott Kazmir at the back of their current staff.
Trading an outfielder, or even Napoli, could fetch them a solid pitcher to solidify that staff. Even if they opt not to trade one of those guys, though, they should be able to acquire someone in the vein of Dodgers starter John Ely, an underrated finesse guy with a devastating change-up. Ely has no place with the loaded Dodgers pitching staff, but is at least as good as Pineiro or Kazmir figures to be. He is just one option, an example, but picking him up would not be a bad idea.
This is the wild card that makes a smart observer hesitant about the Abreu-Rivera-Napoli situation. Trumbo's prodigious bat—he hit 36 homers in his first season at Triple-A in 2010—might force all of those three to find someplace else to get their plate appearances.
Trumbo will never develop into a fielder worthy of playing any position at the big-league level, but he hits the cover off the ball, and that always has value. The Angels should bring him into Spring Training with the understanding that a strong showing could earn him the starting designated hitter spot on Opening Day.
Fernando Rodney is the incumbent and presumptive closer for 2011, even after the team added two good arms to its bullpen this winter. Still, Rodney is not the best of even the 2010 Angels relievers, and as long as teams continue to insist upon designating a closer to lead their bullpen, they ought always to make that guy the best guy in their pen.
Kevin Jepsen is Rodney, only better. Rodney keeps the ball on the ground really well, but Jepsen does it even better. Rodney throws hard, but Jepsen throws a tad harder. Both men struggle with walks on about even footing. The huge difference is that Jepsen is able to consistently miss bats and get strikeouts, a crucial consideration in high-leverage situations, much more often than is Rodney.
The Angels' second-best prospect, after Trout, is a second baseman named Jean Segura. To help make room for him, and really just because they have too many similar players, they should trade one of their many highly thought of, underachieving middle infielders. Kendrick could be the guy; so could Alberto Callaspo. Even Erick Aybar or Maicer Izturis might fetch more than they are worth to the club at this point, as the team needs a solid defender and strong hitter at third base and none of them provide that.
The Angels have thus far opted not to engage Jered Weaver in negotiations for a long-term deal, even as he moves ever closer to free agency. He will eligible for arbitration for the second time this winter, so the team essentially has control for two more seasons. Still, they should extend him this offseason.
He is among the AL's elite pitchers. His best comparables are either Justin Verlander or Felix Hernandez. Reagins might be wary of paying him the way those two younger men got paid—each got five years at roughly $16 million per annum—but Weaver will get more than that if the team lets him inch any closer to free agency. They should lock him up now, at the same rate, and take their chances on the eminently durable Weaver, with whom they were very smart and who faces a very low risk of injury going forward.