Angels searching for pieces to build around core in '14
Plenty of offseason questions linger, but the club's biggest stars are all set to return
ANAHEIM -- After a fourth consecutive playoff absence, capped by a season mired in baseball irrelevance for most of the summer, the Angels' roster calls for a lot of tweaking. But with more than $125 million already tied to the roster for 2014, there's only so much that can be done.
The biggest improvements need to come in-house, where the highest-paid core guys -- namely, Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Jered Weaver -- need to perform to their track record in order for the Angels to get back into contention.
"There's a championship core there," Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto believes. "And now we have to figure out, amongst ourselves, as we collaborate throughout the offseason, what are the moves that we can make that will improve this."
The major question, though, is who will get to do that?
The prevailing sentiment around the organization, and a subject widely speculated upon over the last few weeks, is that the chance both Dipoto and long-time manager Mike Scioscia return next season is unlikely. At least one of them, several national reports have indicated, will be dismissed by owner Arte Moreno. Moreno has been coy, but a resolution is expected soon.
"You're always evaluating," he said in his most recent comments, with MLB.com in mid-August. "If you're not in a situation where you're trying to improve, then there's something wrong. It's not like there's some miracle formula."
If Pujols hadn't been limited to 99 pain-stricken games due to plantar fasciitis, or if Weaver (broken left elbow) and Jason Vargas (blood clot) hadn't missed a combined 18 or so starts due to fluky injuries, or if Sean Burnett (torn flexor tendon) and Ryan Madson (Tommy John) had contributed, or if Hamilton hadn't struggled so much in his first year removed from Texas, perhaps the Angels would have been in contention down the stretch.
But that doesn't cloud the obvious: They need to address their starting pitching.
With $126.5 million already tied to their payroll for next season -- a figure that includes $18.6 million for Vernon Wells, but doesn't include their eight arbitration-eligible players -- they must find a way to bolster a starting rotation that crippled the Angels until the very end, when they finally got some consistency out of a staff with Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Garrett Richards, Vargas and Jerome Williams.
That's where Dipoto and Scioscia -- or perhaps somebody else -- will have to get creative.
"Early, we were built around batter's-box offense, and when the batter's-box offense struggles, it becomes one-dimensional," Scioscia said. "I think we need to have a broader look at that."
Arbitration-eligible: CF Peter Bourjos (first time), CL Ernesto Frieri (first time), RH Juan Gutierrez (second time), RH Tommy Hanson (second time), RH Kevin Jepsen (second time), 3B Chris Nelson (first time), 1B/OF Mark Trumbo (first time), RH Williams (second time)
Free agents: LH Vargas
Rotation: The late-season emergence of 25-year-old right-hander Richards was a major boost to the starting rotation, which will no doubt be the primary focus for this club in the winter. That gives them three legitimate starters alongside ace Weaver and left-hander Wilson. If they can re-sign Vargas -- they'd love him back at a reasonable cost, but will go elsewhere if his price tag gets too high -- that's four.
But they'd still need more.
Even if they do bring back Vargas -- and especially if they don't -- they'll look to part ways with some offensive pieces in exchange for young, cost-controlled starting pitching. Because it's not just five starters that they need. As Wilson said, "We don't have a guy like Jose Fernandez to come up from Triple-A and all of a sudden just be awesome." This year, they couldn't stomach missing a combined 18 or so starts from Weaver and Vargas. Next year, they need more depth -- quality depth -- beyond the five-man rotation.
Hanson could be non-tendered. Williams could be, too, but may be brought back on a less-expensive deal. And even if Blanton -- with $8.5 million left on his two-year contract -- isn't released over the offseason, they know they can't count on him after a nightmarish 2013. Through trade, and what little money they have left in their payroll, the Angels will do all they can to shore up this area.
Bullpen: If priority Nos. 1, 2 and 3 is the starting rotation, then No. 4 is the bullpen. Early on, with starters struggling to provide any length, this area was exposed. Down the stretch, though, they were among the best in the game -- even with Burnett only appearing in 13 games and Madson never coming back from Tommy John surgery.
Burnett, among the best lefty relievers in the game when healthy, is expected to be 100 percent for 2014 after surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon. He'll join a bullpen that has a solid closer in Frieri and several power right-handed options in Michael Kohn, Dane De La Rosa, Jepsen, Gutierrez and Cory Rasmus (acquired from the Braves for Scott Downs ). A couple of different looks, perhaps also another veteran lefty to take Downs' place, would be a major boost.
Catcher: Together, the right-handed-hitting Chris Iannetta and the switch-hitting Hank Conger made a nice pairing behind the plate, catching basically every inning, giving Scioscia favorable matchups depending on the opposing starter and doing their best with a pitching staff that was in a flux for most of the year. Iannetta, signed to a three-year extension last October, walked at a high rate all year and slugged much better in the second half. Conger, still a year away from arbitration, got over his brief throwing yips in Spring Training and continues to evolve defensively. The Angels had a big problem shutting down the running game this season, but that had more to do with pitchers' times to the plate than it did their catchers' throwing ability.
First base/DH: The Angels are expecting a fully healthy and dominant Pujols in 2014, after a season that was limited to 99 games because of plantar fasciitis in his left foot and occasional swelling of his surgically repaired right knee. But how confident are they in the production they'll get from Pujols moving forward? Is it enough to make Trumbo available via trade? That's the major question, because Trumbo holds more value in the market than any other position player the Angels are willing to offer. In a one-for-one deal, he'd bring back the best starting pitcher. But he's also of great value to the Angels, because of his production and because of the insurance he provides for Pujols and Hamilton.
Second base: Howie Kendrick was on his way to a career year before a sprained left knee on Aug. 5 relegated him to the disabled list for five weeks. The Angels are hopeful that didn't sour other teams' evaluation of the veteran second baseman. Kendrick was dangled prior to the non-waiver Trade Deadline and is expected to be their most available position player in the offseason, when his no-trade protection whittles from 12 teams to six. Organizationally, second base is by far their deepest position. And the Angels are hopeful that Grant Green, acquired from the A's for Alberto Callaspo on July 29, can continue to develop and be an everyday option for them as soon as 2014.
Third base: The aforementioned trade makes this a difficult to position to pin down for 2014, especially with top prospect Kaleb Cowart coming off a rough season at Double-A and still needing more time to develop. Do they count on Nelson or Luis Jimenez to be an everyday option here? Do they wait and see if Green can become adequate enough defensively at the hot corner? Or do they try to acquire another option over the offseason? The latter seems like the least likely, considering the lack of available funds remaining and their pursuit of -- yes, that's right -- pitching.
Shortstop: The Angels were unlikely to part ways with Erick Aybar in July, and that will probably be the case again this offseason. Aybar can't block any deals and would garner interest from several teams, but the Angels would have a hard time filling his position organizationally (now that, you know, Jean Segura isn't around). They love his defense and his fire, and though he could always draw more walks, they like how his bat fits in their lineup. Still, they'll listen.
Outfield: In a year when Hamilton and Pujols were paid exuberant amounts of money for non-performance, Mike Trout was paid half a million dollars for being the best all-around player in baseball. Kind of balances it out, right? OK, maybe not. But still, the Angels deploy by far the best bargain in all of baseball in their outfield in Trout.
Question is: Will he be a left fielder or a center fielder in 2014?
That will revolve around another decision the Angels will have to make: Do they keep Bourjos after an injury-riddled season that limited him to 55 games, or do they trade him, while knowing they won't get true value for him because J.B. Shuck made his case for the American League Rookie of the Year Award and Kole Calhoun was an RBI machine down the stretch?
That will all depend on what kind of pitching the Angels can get back. And all of that pales in comparison to the most important element of their outfield: Hamilton reverting back to his original form. Like Pujols, the Angels can't really go anywhere if a player absorbing so much of their payroll is not producing. The left-handed hitting outfielder showed some positive signs down the stretch. But even when at his best, his trademark power was mostly absent. And in the end, his numbers were unsightly.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.