By Marc Normandin
The 2014 season is a new year and all that, but for some teams, things might not have changed very much. The Angels are one club where this is a possibility, in part because of what they committed to in the past. They finished at 78-84 in 2013, and while there is potential to improve with the few moves they have made, it's difficult to say they're going to take the leap forward necessary to surpass the Athletics or Rangers, the clubs who finished in front of them at the end of last summer.
The Angels didn't sit on their hands all off-season, as they identified their most obvious big-league issue -- starting pitching -- and traded the one thing they had plenty of -- hitting -- to acquire some. That's how Mark Trumbo and his team-leading 34 homers ended up on the Diamondbacks, with the Angels bringing in young arms Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago in the process. They also swapped out Peter Bourjos -- an outfielder they don't necessarily have room for with Mike Trout in center -- for third baseman David Freese, and signed 42-year-old designated hitter Raul Ibanez in the hopes he'd be as useful for the Halos as he was for the Mariners, when he blasted 29 homers and 51 extra-base hits overall. Other than that, it's been a quiet winter.
If Ibanez can keep it together for another year, and Freese is closer to his career numbers than his 2013 line, the Angels won't miss Trumbo. Trumbo had phenomenal power, but he also failed to reach base often, and actually differs very little from Freese in terms of offensive value, according to OPS+, where Freese is at 115 and Trumbo 114. This was a smooth pair of moves by the Angels to keep the offense relatively close to where it was in 2013, when, despite disappointment from the most expensive players on the roster -- Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols -- the Angels tied for second in the American League (and the majors as a whole) in OPS+. If they can hit like that again, and pitch a little, too, they might be able to make some noise in the Junior Circuit.
That's a huge "if", however. Despite home games in a stadium designed to help pitchers, the Angels ranked 11th in the AL in ERA, and posted an ERA+ 11 percent worse than the league average as well. And hey, while we're sticking with a theme, they also used 11 different starting pitchers over 162 games. Only C.J. Wilson made over 30 starts, with Jerome Williams -- a pitcher the Angels non-tendered early in the off-season -- finishing second in both starts and innings. Jered Weaver missed time, and wasn't his usual self, but his down season doesn't entirely explain the pitching problems. Joe Blanton was signed last winter to a two-year deal with an option, and threw 132 innings of terrible baseball afterward, finishing with a 6.04 ERA despite the aforementioned pitcher-friendly home environment. Jason Vargas did his usual thing with average-ish pitching, but he was meant to bolster the back-end of the rotation, not be the third-most reliable starter on the club.
C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver are still in the 2014 rotation, and they'll be joined once more by the 25-year-old Garrett Richards, who made 17 starts and posted a below-average (once his park is taken into account) ERA of 4.18 in 103 innings. He can probably do that once again, which will be fine, so long as newbies Skaggs and Santiago can improve the middle. It shouldn't be difficult to do so -- see Blanton's bloated numbers above if you need reassurance -- but that doesn't mean it's an automatic, either.
Santiago will also be 26, and has had a solid 27 career starts over two years. He's struck out just under a batter per inning in that stretch, and posted a 3.30 ERA over 150 innings as a starter - the Angels could use that exact kind of pitching in the middle of their rotation. It's worth pointing out, though, that Santiago has had some trouble with walks in his career, issuing 4.5 per nine innings, and could run into trouble as a full-time starter over the long run. It's not a definite, but neither is succeeding in the role.
Skaggs might have the more significant question marks, though, despite having far more love behind him from his prospect days than Santiago did. To be fair to Skaggs, he'll be all of 22 in 2014, so it's difficult to ding him too much for his career 5.43 ERA with the Diamondbacks over 13 starts and 68 innings, but that in conjunction with scouts' concerns that Skaggs doesn't attack with his secondary stuff well enough does raise an eyebrow. Throw in that his fastball dipped from the low-90s into the high-80s in 2013, and you have to wonder if there is a problem here. Again, though, he's just 22: a summer of being knocked around might also serve to knock some sense into his game plans, and cause him to be more aggressive with his secondary offerings, erasing doubts from the minds of those who watch him. Like with almost everyone else in this rotation, though, we'll just have to see how things go.
There is absolutely potential here for a highly productive staff. C.J. Wilson has shown himself capable of being a decent number two starter, and Jered Weaver, when he's right, is one of the game's best arms. Santiago and Skaggs both have mid-rotation potential, and even if all Garrett Richards becomes is a fifth starter, that beats the hell out of more Joe Blanton, and will be better than what the Angels got out of their second most oft-used starter in 2013, too. If it's not enough, though, what then?
The Angels will shed some payroll in a year, as they will no longer be responsible for any of Vernon Wells' contract: The Halos are paying him $18.6 million this year to, at present, sit at home and watch baseball, thanks to the Yankees releasing the outfielder. That's the only real money coming off of the books, though, as Raul Ibanez is the only free agent whose deal ends, and he's making under $3 million guaranteed in 2014. They might not be able to move Pujols or Hamilton if they don't get right this campaign, as Pujols is owed $212 million over eight years (with full no-trade protection), and Hamilton has another four seasons at $98 million of his back-loaded contract left: we're not talking about something like the Tigers moving Prince Fielder here, as Fielder's down season still produced a high-quality season, unlike the injured Pujols and the ineffective Hamilton. It's hard to say any contract is immovable in baseball these days -- Vernon Wells says hi, twice -- but these two look about as close as you can get, so there's likely no help coming through that route.
So, if the pitching still doesn't work with the addition of Skaggs and Santiago, the Angels will have to dip into free agency with the little bit of money opened up by the end of Wells' deal. Luckily for them, there are tons of mid-range pitchers available on next winter's free agent market, like Gavin Floyd, Brandon McCarthy, Jake Peavy, Wandy Rodriguez, and possibly Chad Billingsley, depending on if his option is picked up. That's going to be where they need to look for assistance, since the farm system is still impossibly barren, and the lineup can only see so many pieces removed before it's no longer the significant strength it currently is.
That's a problem for next year, though. The Angels didn't have much financial mobility, nor did they have many assets to move, but they put themselves in a position where their rotation could be exponentially improved. There is still serious risk in it, but unlike a year ago, they seem to be in a position to make some noise in the AL West. If they can hit like they have the past two seasons, and the starting pitching avoids any such memories, maybe the Angels will get involved in a playoff race like fans and analysts have been expecting them to do after much louder winters.
* * *
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.