The Los Angeles Angels made a huge splash in December signing free agent third baseman Anthony Rendon to a seven-year/$245 million deal. But did the Halos improve enough this offseason to contend in 2020?

Before digging into the moves made by Angels GM Billy Eppler, a look back at 2019 is appropriate. It was a campaign influenced by ineffectiveness, injuries, and tragedy.

Looking Back

In July, pitcher Tyler Skaggs died suddenly sending shock waves throughout baseball and devastated the Angels organization in ways I can’t comprehend. Out of respect to the Skaggs family and his team, I won’t be referring to Tyler after this point.

On the field, the Angels’ losing ways continued for a fourth consecutive season. Since 2016, the team has a .472 winning percentage – worst in the AL West. Meanwhile, run production was league-average.

2019 Offensive Production & MLB Rankings

Mike Trout continued his march towards Cooperstown winning a third MVP award. The seven-time Silver Slugger slashed .291/.438/.645 with 45 home runs, while pacing the majors in adjusted on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS+) for a third straight year.

Two-way player Shohei Ohtani didn’t pitch due to Tommy John surgery, but did play designated hitter beginning in early-May. The 25-year-old’s bat proved potent with 43 extra-base hits, including 18 home runs in 106 games. Ohtani also led the team in triples (5) and stolen bases (12).

David Fletcher led the team in games played (154) and doubles (30) with only Trout having a higher AVG/OBP. The 25-year-old also demonstrated exceptional position flexibility with 20-plus starts at second base, shortstop, third base, and left field.

Knee and toe injuries limited left fielder Justin Upton to just 63 games and an anemic .215/.309/.416 slash-line. It was the 32-year-old’s worst production since his 2007 rookie campaign.

In Upton’s absence, Brian Goodwin played a career-high 146 games. The North Carolina native rewarded the team with personal bests in doubles (29), home runs (17), and OPS+ (109).

Tommy La Stella had a breakout season earning selection his first All-Star selection. Unfortunately, a fractured tibia in early-July sidelined the 30-year-old until the last week of the season.

While the offense was average-ish, the pitching staff ranked near the bottom of MLB.

2019 Pitching Numbers & MLB Rankings

The rotation failed to deliver quantity or quality. No starter lasted the entire season in the rotation or eclipsed 100 innings. Andrew Heaney led the way with 18 starts and 95.1 innings.

Los Angeles received just 22 quality starts from its rotation last year – fewest ever recorded by a team in any season. This includes campaigns shortened by work stoppages.

For context, the major-league average for quality starts by a team last season was 51 with the Astros leading MLB with 89. To take it a step further, six pitchers recorded more quality starts than the Angels did.

More Quality Starts Than Angels
26Justin Verlander / Gerrit Cole
24Zack Greinke / Patrick Corbin / Shane Bieber
23Jacob deGrom
22Los Angeles Angels

Three of the six Angels starters recording those 22 quality starts in 2019 return this year – Griffin Canning (6), Heaney (4), and Dillon Peters (3).

The bullpen was mid-pack last year, which is commendable considering the workload thrust on it by a rotation with short legs. Hansel Robles became closer after the club released Cody Allen in June. Cam Bedrosian and Noé Ramírez were solid. Ty Buttrey started strongly, but regressed after the All-Star game.

Offseason Action

A year ago, the Angels committed approximately $26 million to four players, who delivered a combined -2.2 bWAR – Jonathan Lucroy, Trevor Cahill, Justin Bour, and Matt Harvey.

Yes, that’s a negative sign before the 2.2.

These signings follow the team committing three years and $38 million to Zack Cozart in 2018. Cozart played 96 games in 2018-19 slashing .190/.261/.296 with five home runs.

To improve payroll flexibility, Eppler dealt Cozart and 2019 first round pick Will Wilson to the Giants. Essentially, San Francisco absorbed the remainder of the Ole Miss alum’s $12.2 million to “buy” a prospect.

Notable Departures
Trevor Cahill
Kole Calhoun
Kevan Smith
J.C. Ramírez
Justin Bour
Luís Garcia
Nick Tropeano
Parker Bridwell
Zack Cozart
Luis Rengifo

This offseason, management initially pursued big names rather than adding fringe contributors as they’ve done in recent years.

The milestone acquisition was Rendon, who set personal bests in multiple categories including doubles, home runs, AVG/OBP/SLG, OPS+, and WAR. Because of his outstanding play, the 29-year-old finished third in NL MVP voting.

The team courted other marquee free agents, including Gerrit Cole. But Rendon was the only A-list name signed. For this reason, the second most newsworthy addition was veteran manager Joe Maddon, who replaces Brad Ausmus after just one year. Maddon guided the Cubs to the postseason in four of his five seasons in the Windy City.

Just today, the Angels acquired outfielder Joc Pederson from the Dodgers in exchange for infielder Luis Rengifo. Pederson hit 36 homers and .249/.339/.538 last year. His 127 OPS+ would’ve ranked second on the Halos. The 27-year-old is a pending free agent.

After whiffing on high-profile pitchers, the team signed lower-tier free agent Julio Teheran and acquired Dylan Bundy from the Orioles in a trade.

Teheran, who had 15 quality starts with Atlanta last year, has been a durable, consistent innings-eater. Since 2013, the right-hander has made 30-plus starts in every season. Only three other pitchers can make the same claim – Jose Quintana; Jon Lester; Mike Leake.

Injuries plagued Bundy early in his career, but he’s been rock-steady recently averaging 30 starts since the beginning of 2017. Although the 27-year-old’s 4.83 ERA during this period was one of the worst in the majors, we should consider his team and its location.

Since Bundy regained his health, the Orioles have been the worst defensive team in baseball. Furthermore, the team plays its home games at hitter-friendly Camden Yards. That’s a lethal combination bound to negatively affect any pitcher’s stats.

To help determine Bundy’s potential effectiveness with the Angels, let’s turn to expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA). Since xwOBA relies on quality and quantity of contact and excludes defense, we can get a better sense of his capabilities than with ERA.

Since 2017, Bundy has a .320 xwOBA. That’s the same as Jeff Samardzija and Marco Gonzales and slightly better than league-average xwOBA for starters (.324).

The team also acquired Matt Andriese from the Diamondbacks last month and plan to use him in the rotation in Spring Training. The 30-year-old began his career as a starter, but served as a full-time reliever last year and proved to be an effective performer in Arizona’s bullpen.

Notable Acquisitions
Anthony Rendon
Joe Maddon
Julio Teheran
Dylan Bundy
Jason Castro
Joc Pederson
Matt Andriese
Mike Mayers
Kyle Keller
Parker Markel

To help behind the plate, the team signed free agent Jason Castro. Last season, the left-handed hitter platooned with Mitch Garver in Minnesota with each player starting approximately 45-percent of games. It’s worth noting Castro’s career .553 OPS versus southpaws is significantly lower than righties (.750).

Castro has proven to be a solid defender and pitch framer; particularly important to a team with a high number of inexperienced starters.

Looking Forward

Trout has averaged just 129 games annually since 2017 due to injuries. Am I suggesting the New Jersey native is about to regress? No, but periodically losing the three-time MVP places a strain on a club that’s been relatively unproductive with him.

Rendon’s presence helps the lineup and likely permits Fletcher to settle in at second base. That said; La Stella could challenge Fletcher for playing time.

Gold Glover Andrelton Simmons returns at shortstop after a lackluster offensive season marred by injury. The Curacao native is entering his walk year.

Albert Pujols returns for his ninth season with the Angels and likely splits time between first base and designated hitter, depending on Ohtani’s availability. Now 40-years-old, Pujols has delivered below-average production since 2016. It’s possible the future first-ballot Hall of Famer receives reduced playing time.

A player who may see first base time is La Stella, who’s capable of playing all around the diamond. The Coastal Carolina product played 30-plus games at second and third base last season, but Fletcher and Rendon own those two spots respectively. Other first base options include Matt Thaiss and Jared Walsh.

Despite the addition of Rendon and the expectation of a full season of Ohtani’s bat, the Angels sorely need a bounce back campaign from Upton. With three years/$72 million remaining on his contract, 2020 is a pivotal season for a player on the wrong side of 30.

Highly touted prospect Jo Adell appears to be the right fielder of the future, but the club may start the 20-year-old in the minors this season. The Pederson acquisition permits management Adell more time to develop, if deemed necessary.

If Adell is ready sooner than later, Pederson can play left field or center field, although he only played five innings at the latter in 2019. It’s worth noting the California native started 19 games at first base last season. Perhaps the five-year veteran spends more time there with his new team.

The late-breaking Pederson news likely pushes Goodwin into a fourth outfielder role. Another depth piece is Michael Hermosillo. He too can play anywhere in the outfield and is just 24-years-old. Hermosillo has a minor-league option remaining.

As we discuss position groups and roster competitions, bear in mind that minor-league options influence a club’s roster decisions. If all else is equal, a player without options may get the nod over a player with options remaining.

Players With No Options Remaining
Brian Goodwin
Max Stassi
Hansel Robles
Cam Bedrosian
Noé Ramirez
Mike Mayers
Dylan Bundy

Max Stassi likely serves as Castro’s backup. Stassi is a strong defender coming off a down season and currently recovering from hip surgery. If the California native isn’t ready for Opening Day, Anthony Bemboom is the third catcher on the 40-man roster.

Bemboom made his MLB debut last year at age-29 and appears destined to serve as organizational depth. The left-handed hitter is a solid defender with two minor-league options remaining.

As it stands, the primary rotation contributors project to be Ohtani, Teheran, Bundy, Heaney, and Canning.

Ohtani’s return to the mound will be a boost, but team-driven innings restrictions likely reduce his value to the rotation this year. Adding to the intrigue, his light workload leading up to the TJ surgery.

Shohei Ohtani’s Recent Innings Counts

Realistically, Ohtani’s potential workload for 2020 remains unknown. Eppler has previously suggested the team could delay the 2018 AL Rookie of the Year’s return to the mound until May.

Right-hander Jaime Barría and southpaws Patrick Sandoval, José Suarez, and Peters figure to vie for a sixth spot the team likely uses to manage Ohtani’s innings tally.

During limited auditions in three seasons, Peters hasn’t found firm ground in the majors. The 27-year-old’s ERA and xwOBA both fell into the bottom 10-percent among pitchers facing 250-plus hitters.

Similarly, Suarez (21), Sandoval (23), and Barría (23) struggled last season. Considering their young age, they’ll continue receiving opportunities to start.

Suarez and Sandoval were rookies in 2019. Meanwhile, Barría was only a year removed from making 26 starts and posting a 3.41 ERA during his freshman campaign with the Halos. All three have options remaining and will likely shuttle between the majors and minors.

In six seasons, Heaney has made 20-plus starts just once – 30 with Los Angeles in 2018. Last year, elbow and shoulder problems sidelined him. When healthy in 2019, the former Oklahoma State Cowboy was inconsistent. The Angels need a repeat of 2018, although banking on it is risky.

Félix Peña, recovering from August knee surgery, could factor into the rotation mix when he returns. The Dominican Republic native logged 96.1 innings in both roles before tearing his ACL in August. Still, Peña’s .308 xwOBA as a reliever was significantly better than as a starter (.370).

Key relievers returning to the bullpen are Robles, Buttrey, Bedrosian, Ramirez, and perhaps Peña.

Other potential contributors include Kyle Keller, Justin Anderson, Luke Bard, Taylor Cole, and Parker Markel. Right-hander Keynan Middleton could also be a factor after having Tommy John surgery in 2018.

Unfinished Business

With so much uncertainty surrounding Ohtani, adding a front-line starter would seem practical. Trade rumors frequently mention Robbie Ray of the Diamondbacks. But we should note Teheran and Ray were statistically similar in 2019.

Robbie Ray & Julio Teheran 2019 Numbers

Other names tossed around the rumor mill are Detroit’s Matthew Boyd and Cleveland’s Mike Clevinger. Ironically, Clevinger is a former Angel prospect traded away in 2014 for reliever Vinnie Pestano.

It’s worth noting there are no left-handed relievers currently on the 40-man roster. This suggests southpaws will surface as bullpen candidates by Opening Day.

Increased organizational depth at catcher depth would be advisable. Perhaps a veteran receiver capable of mitigating any potential setbacks in Stassi’s recovery.

If the Angels were to unexpectedly fall out of contention early, the team could consider trading several pending free agents to help get a head start on preparations for 2021.

Pending Free Agents
Andrelton Simmons
Julio Teheran
Jason Castro
Tommy La Stella
Joc Pederson

All five names listed above could pique the interest of potential suitors next July, assuming the players are delivering normal production. Then again, if all goes well for the Angels, the club should be the buyers this coming summer.

Even if the Halos are still in the hunt, moving Simmons may make sense. Especially if management doesn’t project him staying past 2020. The team could move the four-time Gold Glover and slide Fletcher over to shortstop.

A contender trading its starting shortstop at the deadline may sound ludicrous. But the Red Sox did it during the 2004 season sending pending free agent Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs. Boston subsequently won the World Series.

The notion of dealing Simmons is probably crazy talk on my part. Then again, Eppler may find himself on the hot seat, if his team starts slowly. In that scenario, he may need to be an aggressive dealmaker this summer.

Especially after ownership committed so much money to Rendon this offseason.

(Photo of Anthony Rendon – Alex Gallardo/AP)
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