Last year's Angels were one of the more disappointing teams of the past decade. Despite a myriad of high-profile free agent signings, and the presence of one Mike Trout, the 2013 Angels managed to win just 78 games, as injuries and poor performances decimated a squad many predicted to challenge for the World Series.
The Angels come into 2014 with somewhat of a new look. Casting off two-fifths of last year's Opening Day rotation this winter (plus two other 2014 starters in Jerome Williams and Joe Blanton), the Angels have overhauled their staff with a focus on youth, while the offense has gone in the opposite direction age-wise. The Angels look a whole lot better coming into Opening Day this year compared to last year, but the team still needs things to click in order to enable a playoff return.
3B David Freese, OF/DH Raul Ibanez, IF John McDonald, RHP Brandon Lyon, LHP Hector Santiago, LHP Tyler Skaggs, LHP Brian Moran, 3B Ian Stewart, OF Brennan Boesch, RHP Josh Wall, LHP Jose Alvarez, LHP Wade LeBlanc, LHP Clay Rapada, RHP Fernando Salas, RHP Joe Smith
The Angels were quite busy this offseason, as they revamped over 30 percent of their 25-man roster, plus a plethora of smaller deals that netted plenty of depth that the Angels can stash in Salt Lake City.
The most prominent move the Angels made this offseason was easily their dealing of slugger Mark Trumbo to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for a pair of young lefties in Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs. Both figure to slot into the Angels' rotation immediately, and the team controls each of their rights through the 2018 season (and in Skaggs' case, through 2019).
Skaggs particularly is a significant acquisition. Originally drafted by the Angels in 2009 and traded to Arizona for Dan Haren the following year, Skaggs possesses the type of upside that the Angels haven't had in a young arm in quite a while.
In the starting lineup, the Angels replaced Trumbo with another power-oriented, low-OBP bat in the 41-year-old Raul Ibanez, who has experienced a bit of a renaissance the past two years, hitting .241/.307/.471 in 921 plate appearances with the Yankees and Mariners. He figures to slot in as the team's primary DH, with the possibility for the occasional start in the outfield, as bad as he may be. Limiting him to a bat-only role should keep his value in the net positive range with the potential for his first 1.0 WAR season since 2009.
When the Angels dealt Alberto Callaspo to Oakland last summer, a vacancy was left at third base. The Angels went ahead and filled that hole this winter, acquiring David Freese as the key piece in the Bourjos trade. The former World Series hero brings with him All-Star caliber upside, but he is coming off a disappointing 2013 season in which he hit just .262/.340/.381 with a 106 wRC+ and 0.2 WAR. Freese's drop in power production last season is particularly worrisome since he is nothing special in the field or on the basepaths. If Freese can return to his 2012 performance level (.293/.372/.467, 133 wRC+, 4.0 WAR), then the sacrificing of Bourjos could be justified.
A key part of the Angels' undoing last season was their horrific bullpen that ranked 25th in baseball in reliever's FIP. In hopes of shoring up their underwhelming 'pen, the Angels went out and acquired a number of suitable bullpen arms this winter that should play crucial roles from the get-go. Fernando Salas, the other half of the return for Bourjos, has proven that he can be a core contributor to a championship-caliber bullpen, and if he can finally perform up to his peripherals (4.36 ERA over the last two seasons versus a 3.60 FIP), the Angels may have found themselves an elite late-innings option. Rule-five pick Brian Moran could prove to be a valuable lefty-specialist when he returns from elbow inflammation. 34-year-old right hander Brandon Lyon is also expected to make the Opening Day roster despite coming in as a minor league free agent. The recently acquired Jose Alvarez has a chance at starting the season with the team as well, and he currently projects to serve as the team's 6th starter/swingman.
The Angels' biggest bullpen acquisition was former Indians' set-up man Joe Smith, who signed a three-year, $15.75 million deal with the team back in November. Smith has been among the elite relievers in baseball over the past three seasons, averaging a 2.42 ERA and 1.7 WAR in 66 innings pitched per season. The Angels are counting on Smith replicating those numbers, and if he can, they should be well-set when it comes to eighth-inning options.
The Angels were also plenty active on the minor league free agent market. Along with the aforementioned Lyon, the organization also signed Josh Wall, Clay Rapada, and Wade LeBlanc to serve as minor league bullpen fodder. Mark Mulder also would've been included here, though that short-lived experiment ended tragically.
Position player-wise, the team added quite a few names including Ian Stewart, Brennan Boesch, and John McDonald. Yorvit Torrealba and Carlos Pena were also signed to minor league deals, though both have since been released. McDonald is the one guy here who has a real chance at contributing at some level in 2014, since he was recently named to the Angels' Opening Day roster as a reserve infielder.
LHP Jason Vargas, IF Andrew Romine, RHP AJ Schugel, OF Mark Trumbo, IF Chris Nelson, RHP Jerome Williams, RHP Tommy Hanson, OF Randal Grichuk, OF Peter Bourjos, OF Travis Witherspoon, RHP Joe Blanton
As I mentioned above, the Angels eschewed much of there starting rotation from last year, letting Jason Vargas sign with the Royals and releasing the trio of Tommy Hanson, Jerome Williams, and Joe Blanton. While none of them will be particularly missed (sans Blanton for the simple amusement he brings with him), the Angels could wind up using a reliable veteran such as Vargas as they head into the season with three starters who have yet to spend a full season in a major league rotation.
Peter Bourjos and Mark Trumbo were essential pieces for the Angels over the last four years, but simply put, they were expendable. Trumbo more so than Bourjos. Bourjos' speed and otherworldly defense will be missed, but it's time the Angels gave Mike Trout the reins in center field and the club were eager to finally give Kole Calhoun a shot. Likewise, Trumbo just wasn't needed due to their outfield depth and the presence of Albert Pujols at first base. Plus, the downgrade from Trumbo to Ibanez isn't as notable as some may think.
Among the other departures, Andrew Romine and Randal Grichuk are the only ones worth mentioning. Romine has been a reliable source of infield depth over the past few years, but his trade is easily justified by the team's need of pitching and surprising surplus up the middle. Grichuk doesn't project to be an impact player at the big league level, but because of the lack of depth in the Angels' minor league system, his absence appears much more notable than need be.
Players to watch
The most pivotal player on the 2014 Angels is likely to be Garrett Richards. Once lauded as one of the best pitching prospects in baseball, the Angels have yet to let Richards just pitch, instead shuffling him from the bullpen to the rotation and from the rotation to the bullpen, impeding his development along the way. He has proven that he can be effective if left alone, as suggested by his 3.72 ERA last season from late-July to the end of the season, a time period which he spent entirely in the rotation.
Richards will finally get his chance this season, as he is slated to open the season as the team's third starter, and the Angels will need him to produce to make their rotation more than just CJ Wilson and Jered Weaver. The importance of Richards turning into a reliable starter can't be overstated.
Along the same lines as Richards, Tyler Skaggs will also be plenty important in the Angels' 2014 outcome. The lefty has plenty of upside, but questions remain about just how ready he is for the majors. Skaggs' brief big league appearances in 2012 and '13 were mired in disaster, as he put up a 5.43 ERA over those 13 starts. That certainly is a small sample size, but it does demonstrate the potential downside with him. The Angels have reportedly cleaned up his mechanics, which supposedly caused his slide with Arizona, and scouts have been generally much more optimistic about him this spring. Skaggs shouldn't be expected to pitch 200 innings or post an ERA under 3.50, but the Angels are hoping for 160-180 innings of ~3.75 ERA ball.
Outfielder Kole Calhoun quietly hit .282/.347/.462 in a 222 plate appearance sample last season, and he should finally receive a full season's worth of playing time as Bourjos' replacement this season. The 26-year-old Calhoun was never highly regarded as a prospect, but he has hit at every stop since joining the Angels' organization as an 8th round draft pick in 2010. The owner of a career .317/.402/.541 minor league batting line, Calhoun has impressed the Angels so much this spring that the team is considering having him bat lead-off despite his inexperience at the highest level. While Calhoun lacks the upside to be more than an above-average big league contributor, he has proven that he is ready now, and his presence could go a long way in making up for the offense lost with Trumbo's departure.
Best Case Scenario
The Angels are probably one of the more enigmatic teams in baseball coming into the season. They could very well win the AL West, but there is also just as good a chance of them coming in third and missing out on the postseason altogether.
In the absolute best case scenario, the Angels finally get healthy with Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton living up to their deals, and Mike Trout being Mike Trout. The bullpen would be adequate and the additions of Santiago and Skaggs, as well as the presence of Richards (and another regression-less season from Weaver), would place the Angels' rotation in the top half of baseball.
Of course, most of those things won't happen, but there is enough talent for this team to reach 90 wins, and it really isn't too much of a long-shot to envision 95.
Worst Case Scenario
Joe Blanton. Joe Blanton. Joe Blanton
What.... He got released? *crowd bursts into applause*
In all seriousness, what could go wrong for the Angels this season are the same issues that destroyed this team last season. If everyone gets hurt, your expensive investments don't produce, and your pitching just isn't good, not even Mike Trout can save you.
The Angels will be a really fun team to watch this season between their young starters, aging superstars, and, of course, Mike Trout. Still, there are plenty of things that could go ugly, and while I foresee a win total in the 85-90 range, that is far from a guarantee.
Without a doubt, the Angels got better this winter, but so did everyone else. In a hyper-competive AL West, the Angels are going to need to pull it together to reclaim the division crown.