By Marc Normandin
The Angels are understandably frustrated. They spent big heading into 2012 in order to close the gap between themselves and the division-winning Rangers, and ended up even further back in the standings despite the emergence of Mike Trout. They spent once more before the 2013 season, but are fighting with the Mariners to stay out of fourth place in the West rather than contending. It's gotten to the point where said frustration is starting to leak out to the press, with reports that longtime manager Mike Scioscia and general manager Jerry Dipoto are dealing with a rift, while owner Arte Moreno publicly says he has to evaluate everyone, including himself, in order to change things.
How much can the Angels actually change, though? The 2013 payroll is just over $137 million, the third-highest in club history, and that's brought them to a 59-71 record entering play on Wednesday. They have very little room opening up in 2014, as they have $126.5 million in guaranteed money already allocated -- that's before you account for raises for eight players who are owed arbitration payments instead of near-league-minimum salaries. The Angels can certainly spend more than they have, but there is only so much available on free agency, and only so much room to work with to fix some serious issues.
A few of those issues are under contract and unlikely to go anywhere. Josh Hamilton is in the first year of a five-year pact, and the 32-year-old outfielder has hit .236/.295/.423, below the necessary requirements for right field even when you consider his pitcher-friendly home park. He is owed another $107.6 million over the next four years, and carries a significant average annual value of $25 million. If his struggles were contained solely within 2013, it would be one thing, but they date back to June of 2012 -- he's still got power, as you can see by his line, but everything else has started to fade. Then there's Albert Pujols, whose second season with the Angels ended prematurely due to a plantar fasciitis issue he couldn't, for once, play through. Pujols hasn't been as bad as Hamilton, hitting .258/.330/.437, but that's little consolation considering his AAV of $24 million and a contract that doesn't end until the 2021 season is complete.
The Angels could miraculously find takers for one or both of these players, at least in theory: the Red Sox shed Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and a quarter-billion in future contracts to the Dodgers in the Nick Punto Trade last August, and the Marlins hit reset on their free agent spending by sending Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and assorted other to the Blue Jays. Both teams gave up something of value for the privilege, though: considering the insane contracts for first basemen these days (see: Pujols), Gonzalez's deal was something of a bargain despite its considerable length, while the Jays ended up dealing prospects in order to get their Win Now pieces from Miami.
If the Angels wanted to dump Pujols, Hamilton, or both, it would cost them a significant piece or pieces. They don't have much in the way of help on the farm, so it would have to be someone in the majors, meaning they would need to, like the Red Sox and the Marlins, take a few steps back in order to take steps forward. Someone like Mark Trumbo or Peter Bourjos would likely need to go, as well as a very large check to help pay for the post-30 millionaire sent packing, but even they likely don't have the kind of value necessary to make this move. No, it's far more likely that the Angels are stuck with their purchases, and that, for good or bad, Hamilton and Pujols are part of future Angels' teams for quite some time. So, what to do?
Little in the lineup should change. Erick Aybar hasn't been great at short, and maybe you'd like less J.B. Shuck in your lineup, but these are minimal concerns: the Angels offense ranks third in the American League with a 110 OPS+, in spite of below-average performances from those two combined with the dual disappointment that is Pujols and Hamilton. It's the pitching that's been the problem, and will continue to be the problem, without a serious overhaul.
C.J. Wilson has been fine, even with his $15.5 million AAV considered: his ERA+ of 111 this year is one of the only bright spots in an otherwise dim rotation. Jered Weaver hasn't been bad, but he's been well off his ace-like pace of the previous three years, and has missed time with injury. After those two, there is no happiness to be found: as a club, their starters own a 4.42 ERA, and that's with their home games in a stadium that's been designed to keep that sort of thing from happening. Joe Blanton (61 ERA+), Jerome Williams (78 ERA+) and Tommy Hanson (67 ERA+) have all been horrific, while Jason Vargas, brought in as the return for Kendrys Morales in this off-season's trade with the Mariners, has been average as expected. It's not a bad thing when your third-best pitcher is average, but it doesn't leave a lot of room for problems elsewhere, and the Angels have faltered with top-end pitchers that aren't quite good enough, and back-end arms that have done little but fail.
Blanton is under contract for 2014 at $7.5 million, with an $8 million option (and $1 million buyout) for 2015. Hanson, mercifully, is in his first year of arbitration, so the Angels aren't locked into him if they decide to cut bait with a non-tender with the hopes of reworking things -- even if they can't, at least he's not that expensive, not after the season he's had. Williams can similarly be non-tendered if the need arises, though his salary shouldn't climb much past the $2 million mark it's at, and depth is necessary. Vargas, the only one of the bunch who has pitched even half-decently, is a free agent at year's end.
So, let's assume the lineup is at least as good as it's been, and maybe better, depending on how Pujols does after some time to heal. The rotation still needs a ton of work: Weaver needs to bounce back, because there is no ace pitcher available to sign, and even if there were, the Angels might not have the room in the budget. Wilson is fine as is in the second slot. After that, it's all up in the air.
Blanton has been booted from the rotation already, in favor of 25-year-old Garrett Richards. The right-hander has been better than Blanton, but he's a back-end option, and probably not much more -- he can help plug a hole, but he's not a solution. The Angels need to concentrate on fixing those third and fourth spots if they are to have any chance of turning things around and attempting to get a return on what are supposed to be the good years of Hamilton, Pujols and Wilson.
A.J. Burnett is a quality free agent arm who could work in that park, much like he has in PNC the last couple of years since the Yankees traded him away. Bartolo Colon could look good in a return to the Angels on a one-year deal that presumably would fit within the Halos' budget. Given his second-half surge, Dan Haren could be another reunion worth exploring. Ricky Nolasco won't save the staff by himself, but he could fill the role of Vargas well, and keep innings away from the lesser arms that have ruined the Angels' season. There are potential low-cost options who have dealt with injuries that would be worth looking into, like Tim Stauffer, Gavin Floyd and Josh Johnson.
The Angels could also attempt to move a bat -- one that other teams might actually want, I mean -- for a young pitcher who can give the rotation some upside, but it's a little too early on the calendar for that discussion. There are options, though, and the Angels are going to need to shop them a lot more effectively than they did a year ago in order to change things.
Frustration seems to be a problem for these Angels, and it's understandable. If they can just fix the backend of the rotation, it might not even matter that Hamilton and Pujols are a collective -- and expensive -- drag. That's going to have to be the focus, though: not a big splash, not another bat, and if there's to be any hope for the Angels, not another Joe Blanton.
Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.