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Examining the outlook for the Los Angeles Angels’ offseason

The Angels will focus on pitching this winter, as they look to get back into contention under the leadership of new manager Brad Ausmus.

Guaranteed Contracts

Arbitration Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)

Free Agents

Mike Scioscia’s 19-year run as the Angels’ manager officially ended after the team’s last game, leaving the team with an immediate bit of business to handle. Immediate speculation focused on Ausmus and Triple-A manager Eric Chavez, though the Halos reportedly considered up to 10 names for the job, including such popular managerial candidates as Brandon Hyde, Joe Espada, Rocco Baldelli and Omar Vizquel.

In the end, the team stayed in-house by hiring Ausmus, giving the 49-year-old his second crack at running a Major League team. Ausmus posted a 314-332 record over four years as the Tigers’ manager from 2014-17, winning the AL Central in his first year in Detroit but ending his tenure on the sour note of a 64-98 season that prompted the Tigers to enter into a rebuild. Ausmus received some mixed reviews during his first managerial stint, though it didn’t stop him from being considered for several other openings — he interviewed with the Reds this month and with the Red Sox last season, and also received interest from the Mets and Phillies for their managerial vacancies in 2017.

Ironically, Ausmus now finds himself in a similar situation to the one he faced upon his initial hire with the Tigers. He’ll again be taking over a team with several veteran stars on large contracts and an expectation to win immediately. The catch is, Ausmus inherited a perennial contender in Detroit, whereas the Halos have just one postseason appearance in the last nine years and haven’t even cracked the .500 mark since 2015.

This being said, Los Angeles is facing quite a bit of urgency to get back into contention in a very tough AL West. Only two seasons remain on Mike Trout’s contract, and while the club is expected to discuss an extension with the superstar outfielder, one would think Trout would need to be firmly convinced that the Angels are on an upward trajectory before he even considers another deal with the team. Trout has repeatedly spoken of his desire to win, after all, and he has only three postseason games (and zero wins) to show for his time in L.A. despite posting numbers that have already generated “best player ever” buzz.

A Trout extension would be by far the biggest achievement for the Angels this offseason, though looking at things from Trout’s perspective, it would probably be more logical for him to see how the 2019 season plays out before deciding about his long-term future. He’d have more of a chance to evaluate Ausmus, see how the team’s forthcoming offseason moves play out and perhaps simply see if the Angels already have a roster that is capable of winning if it can just stay healthy. Of course, it’s also possible that Trout will prefer to test the open market and at least explore a move back to his native east coast after the 2020 season.

Another potential factor in Trout’s decision, and also a matter of much broader import to the franchise, is the rather surprising recent news about the Angels opting out of their lease at Angel Stadium. We know the Halos will still be in Anaheim in 2019, though it remains to be seen if the opt-out could lead to stadium renovations, an entirely new ballpark or perhaps even a move to a new city whether it be elsewhere in the greater Los Angeles area or maybe beyond. This situation will certainly bear watching in the coming months and could potentially end up being one of the offseason’s bigger subplots.

Turning back to the roster, Trout is coming off yet another superlative season, hitting .312/.460/.628 with 39 homers over 608 PA and contributing 9.8 fWAR to the Angels’ cumulative 24.4 fWAR for position players. Of the club’s returning players, Andrelton Simmons (5.5 fWAR), Justin Upton (3.1 fWAR), Shohei Ohtani (2.8 fWAR only as a DH) and rookie David Fletcher (1.9 fWAR) combined with Trout for 23.1 fWAR, giving you some idea of how top-heavy the production was within the Angels’ lineup. The team didn’t receive much from the catcher position (Martin Maldonado was traded to the Astros in July), and Kole Calhoun, Zack Cozart and Albert Pujols were all replacement-level or worse in 2018.

There likely won’t be much change to the position player core, as the outfield will again comprise of Upton, Trout and Calhoun, with the Halos hoping that Calhoun can build on a much-improved second half. Simmons will again be the infield’s cornerstone at shortstop, while Fletcher and Cozart will handle second and third base, though it isn’t yet clear who will handle either position. Fletcher’s emergence was a nice positive, and it gives the team flexibility in deciding the best spot for Cozart over the last two years of his contract. Cozart’s first year in Anaheim came to premature end in June due to shoulder surgery, and the veteran infielder is hoping for better health to rebound from this lost season.

After undergoing Tommy John surgery earlier this month, Ohtani almost certainly won’t pitch for the Angels in 2019, though he will still be able to contribute as a designated hitter for the bulk of the season. Depending on his rehab, Ohtani may not necessarily be ready for Opening Day, and the team might choose to not play Ohtani every day when he does return from the DL for the sake of his long-term conditioning. At this point, the plans have yet to take shape.

Even if Ohtani doesn’t receive many more than the 367 plate appearances he received in 2018, however, he still projects to be a huge part of the L.A. lineup. Among players with at least 350 PA last season, Ohtani’s 152 wRC+ ranked eighth in all of baseball. That was despite some rather drastic splits (1.043 OPS against right-handed pitching, .654 OPS against left-handed pitching) and, of course, the wholly unique factor that Ohtani spent half his time as a pitcher.

The Angels are likely to give Albert Pujols some DH time when facing a left-handed starter, as the veteran slugger can’t be an everyday option at first base given his history of injuries (including knee and elbow procedures this season). After his second consecutive negative-fWAR season, there’s little evidence to suggest that Pujols should still get any sort of regular action, and a case could be made that the Angels would be better off eating Pujols’ remaining $87M in salary rather than continue to use a roster spot on such a limited player.

Until we get hints that the Angels are considering a release, however, Pujols will continue to be penciled in for a timeshare at first base and DH. Owner Arte Moreno recently stated that the club’s offseason to-do list includes “a left-handed bat with some power to play first base,” though such a player would be used “just to fill in.”  Free agents like Lucas Duda, Matt Adams, Adam Lind, Pedro Alvarez or Logan Morrison could fit this description if Los Angeles truly is looking for just part-time help. On the trade front, a slightly more versatile first baseman like Eric Thames could help at first and also provide corner outfield depth. In a recent outline of Justin Smoak’s trade market, I cited the Angels as a longshot choice due to Pujols’ presence, though the switch-hitter is an affordable short-term option ($8M in 2019) who has crushed righty pitching over the last two seasons. Adding a player limited to first base, of course, would make for quite an awkward roster arrangement. Optimally, the lefty bat would come from a player who can also line up elsewhere in the infield. A player such as Asdrubal Cabrera could theoretically make some sense, though it’s unclear how much the club can spend on this need.

If the infield mix could use a boost, it’s equally true that the club will be interested in finding a complimentary piece to put alongside Calhoun.That role fell flat in 2018, as Young struggled with injuries and wasn’t effective. Presumably, the club will pick up a different right-handed-hitting outfielder for the season to come. Among free agents, players such as Cameron Maybin, Carlos Gomez and Matt Szczur could receive consideration. There’ll surely also be plenty of possibilities on the trade market.

Looking elsewhere at the bench, the Angels will be open for business in looking for additional depth, likely in the form of veterans on minor league contracts. After all, there are some other worthwhile internal names to consider. Jose Miguel Fernandez, Michael Hermosillo, Taylor Ward and Luis Rengifo are some of the young in-house options, and MLB.com’s Maria Guardado recently opined that the latter two players could potentially challenge Fletcher for a starting gig. Top prospects Jo Adell and Jahmai Jones both reached Double-A in 2018 and could factor into the big league roster later in the season.

The catcher position looks like the Angels’ clearest opportunity for an offensive upgrade. Jose Briceno and Francisco Arcia handled the bulk of the work after Maldonado was traded, and the likeliest course of action would be that the two rookies compete in Spring Training for the backup job or potentially a platoon role, depending on who Los Angeles brings into the mix. There are quite a few known veteran options available in free agency (Kurt Suzuki, Jonathan Lucroy, Brian McCann, Matt Wieters or Maldonado himself) who could fit into a timeshare if the Angels still intend to see what they have in Bricano or Arcia.

The team is no stranger to a big free agent splash, however, so Yasmani Grandal and Wilson Ramos figure to land on the Halos’ radar screen. Of the two, Grandal is younger, a better pitch framer and has a less troublesome injury history, though he is also going to require a bigger contract (and could cost a draft pick, if the Dodgers extend a qualifying offer and Grandal rejects it). The Angels will probably at least check in with the Marlins about J.T. Realmuto, though L.A. will be hesitant to part with the prospects necessary to land the All-Star catcher.

An improving farm system does give the Halos some notable trade chips to work with, though creating a sustainable future will require discipline. A high-profile trade, then, may not be terribly likely. It’s fair to wonder, though, whether the Angels have the budget space for at least one big new salary. The team’s Opening Day payrolls have topped the $166M mark in each of the last two seasons, and Moreno has shown a clear willingness to spend in his time owning the team, with the caveat that the team has always remained under the luxury tax threshold. The Angels have roughly $146M on the books for 2019, factoring in the $4.3M saved in the form of the likely non-tender candidates. Adding one major salary would likely mean increasing the spending line. With a current CBT threshold of $206M, perhaps that’s a real possibility.

The bulk of the team’s spending this winter, however, is very likely to be directed towards pitching. Eppler has said that the Angels will be looking at both starters and relievers as they look to augment a unit that has been crushed by injuries in recent seasons. In 2018 alone, the Halos saw Ohtani, Garrett Richards, Keynan Middleton, Blake Wood, John Lamb and J.C. Ramirez all undergo Tommy John surgeries, while Nick Tropeano battled shoulder problems all year and Jake Jewell was sidelined after fracturing his right fibula.

Andrew Heaney’s first full season back from a past Tommy John surgery saw the southpaw toss 180 innings, which was one bright spot for the rotation. Heaney and Tyler Skaggs are the two pitchers who already have a claim to starting jobs, while the group of Jaime Barria, Matt Shoemaker and Felix Pena will compete for at least one of the remaining spots in the starting five. Tropeano, Parker Bridwell and another returning TJ patient in Alex Meyer will be in the mix at least as depth options, and prospects Griffin Canning and Jose Suarez aren’t too far away. Ramirez could also factor in as late-season depth if he isn’t non-tendered, and while Richards isn’t expected to pitch in 2019, the Angels could try to re-sign him on a relatively cheap two-year deal with the bulk of the money coming when he’s healthy in 2020.

There is plenty of room here for a proper ace, an innings-eating workhorse or both as the Angels do their offseason shopping. Expect L.A. to be active in trade talks for any available arms, while Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel are the two top names currently leading the free agent pitching market. Gio Gonzalez and J.A. Happ are more durable, less-expensive options with Happ delivering better recent results for the Yankees and Blue Jays.

The most earth-shaking move, particularly within the Los Angeles baseball scene, would be if the Angels could convince Clayton Kershaw to leave Chavez Ravine for Anaheim. Kershaw can opt out of the remaining two years on his Dodgers contract after the season and would instantly become the biggest target in the pitching market if he did enter free agency. It still isn’t clear if Kershaw will exercise his opt-out clause, though it be logical for him to at least explore his options, even if he does ultimately want to remain with the Dodgers.

The Angels will certainly be in touch with Kershaw if he does test the market, though they surely won’t be a favorite to land him. They could also consider another Dodgers starter in Hyun-Jin Ryu, though Ryu comes with another checkered injury history. The Dodgers have not shied away from loading up on pitchers with questionable health histories, so that could be a strategy the Halos attempt to emulate. There are several other hurlers on the market who’d come with quite some risk. Most intriguing, perhaps, is Yusei Kikuchi, a top Japanese hurler who hails from the same high school as Ohtani.

The Halos bullpen posted middle-of-the-pack numbers last season, though they will boast a host of young arms even with Middleton sidelined. Blake Parker or Ty Buttrey are the top internal choices for the closer’s job, and there are lot of experienced ninth-inning names available in free agency ranging from rebound candidates (i.e. Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland) to the top of the market (i.e. Craig Kimbrel, David Robertson, Jeurys Familia). With all of the injuries and durability issues within the Angels’ pitching staff, there’s also room for the club to explore using some of their recovering arms as swingmen or extended long relievers, perhaps with an “opener” in the first inning to take a page from the Rays’ book.

Even a moderate amount of pitching stability could’ve helped the Angels at least vie for a postseason berth in each of the last two seasons, as the team is coming off consecutive 80-82 records. With better health and another solid arm or two, it isn’t a stretch to imagine the Angels getting back into contention, considering that world-class building blocks like Trout, Simmons, Upton and (even as only a hitter) Ohtani are already in place.

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