The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim wrapped up their 2015 campaign with just one fewer loss than the division-rival Houston Astros, getting edged out of the postseason. With a win-loss record of 10-19 in August, even a 20-11 streak to close out the season couldn't save their playoff hopes.
Objectively, this must have been a really tough season to watch for Angels fans. The Mike Scioscia/Jerry Dipoto feud came to a head, their pitching was underwhelming, and Mike Trout wasted another MVP-caliber season. The Angels couldn't take advantage of a potential renaissance season from Albert Pujols, and then there was the whole Josh Hamilton thing.
That isn't to say the Angels's chances in 2016 are diminished, however. While the AL West likely won't get easier next season, Billy Eppler will have a great talent base to work with and arguably the best player in baseball to build around.
Where they stand: 2016 payroll obligations
According to Cot's Contracts, the Angels have $130 million in payroll already tied-up for 2016. That includes almost all of Hamilton's full salary, in spite of the fact that he'll be playing for the Rangers. It's unclear exactly how much responsibility the Angels retained for paying him, how much the Rangers will cover, and how much Hamilton himself forfeited. Multiple sources seem to agree that the Rangers are on-hook for $15 million and the Angels are said to have saved $20 million. That leaves the Angels paying Hamilton something in the neighborhood of $18 million next season to play against them. That reduces estimated payroll to roughly $114 million. Hamilton is currently the fourth-highest paid Angels player and he suits up for the AL West champion Texas Rangers.
Other than a player not on the roster, the payroll will largely go toward paying for Pujols, C.J. Wilson, Jered Weaver, and Trout. Joe Smith and Erick Aybar are also signed but are by no means payroll burdens. Considering Wilson and Weaver represent $40 million in salary, the Angels are paying a hugely disproportionate amount of their rotation to potentially be injured and ineffective. Of course, that pill becomes easier to swallow when you realize Trout will earn barely more than the qualifying offer next season.
If payroll is expected to get back up to the 2015 Opening Day mark, the Angels will have roughly $40 million to spend this off-season. Where it gets invested is still difficult to tell but the rotation -- fifth-worst by xFIP -- could be where Eppler sways.
Pending free agents
David Freese, Chris Iannetta, and Matt Joyce are all eligible for free agency following the conclusion of the World Series. Freese, who is fresh off of a $6.4 million one-year deal that avoided arbitration, is becoming a free agent for the first time. The 32-year old third baseman is coming off of his best season since 2012. While all four of his seasons in a Cardinals uniform were better, Freese couldn't have timed his return to form better. Retaining him might not be easy, but with Grant Green and Kyle Kubitza -- who haven't looked particularly ready -- as the best alternatives, Eppler's hand might be a bit forced. Iannetta is in a similar situation except he's coming off his worst season since 2007.
Joyce on the other hand had a below-replacement level campaign in 2015. With Collin Cowgill as the easiest replacement, the Angels could look for help elsewhere. The outfield very conceivably could become where Eppler focuses on the most this off-season.
Other payroll obligations: Arbitration
Only six players are under contract going into 2016 and only four are becoming free agents, so the overwhelming balance of the Angels roster is either arbitration or pre-arb guys. Relief pitchers Fernando Salas and Cesar Ramos will go into their final years of arbitration, but neither should be worth any long-term offers. Cowgill, Garrett Richards, Hector Santiago, Vinnie Pestano, and Kole Calhoun will also become eligible for arbitration. Richards was the Angels's best starting pitcher this past season so it will be interesting to see how that arbitration is handled. He is coming off of a $3.2 million deal that avoided his first year of arbitration and will definitely seek a raise. Santiago is in a very similar situation coming off of a $2.3 million deal that avoided arbitration, but didn't pitch as well as Richards.
Calhoun is another must-retain player for the Angels and, going into his first season of arbitration, it should be easy to do so. Calhoun has been one of the best hitters on the Angels for the past two seasons and markedly improved his defense in 2015 as well.
On top of Kubitza, the only other player that could be ready to replace Freese is Kaleb Cowart. The 23-year old prospect isn't especially adored by scouts -- ranking 11th in the Angels system by MLB.com -- but performed well defensively when called upon. Cowart's wOBA in AAA-Salt Lake was a very promising .390 so it will be interesting to see if he breaks camp in Spring. In his 34 games with the big club, the offensive production waned considerably, but the 2010 High School Baseball Player of the Year Award-winner will look to bring his offensive abilities with him the next time he gets a shot in Anaheim.
Other than that, the Angels prospect depth revolves largely around pitchers that aren't major-league-ready. Perhaps Eppler has a plan to use them in some sort of deal to make a push for 2016.
Where do the Angels go from here?
There are an awful lot of options for Eppler going forward, and hopefully he can have a better working relationship with Scioscia than Dipoto did. With the Astros and Rangers looking ready to contend for the foreseeable future, and the clock on Trout's affordability ticking, the Angels have their work cut out for them. There's no reason this team can't bounce back to be the best in 2016, but it certainly won't come easy. With question marks in the rotation (Weaver? Wilson?), outfield (Joyce?), and the infield (third base? second base?), Angels fans will hope that Eppler knew what he was getting into.