By Robert Cunningham, AngelsWin.com Senior Writer
For the Angels starting rotation, 2019 was not a kind year.
Unfortunately, the Halos starters were last out of all 30 MLB teams in total Wins Above Replacement (WAR) with a measly 3.3 WAR. Other peripheral indicators support the poor performance. For reference, the Nationals led all of baseball with a total 21.4 WAR.
So what do the Angels do to fix this situation?
For reference, the table below shows a leader board of qualified starters, sorted by Wins Above Replacement on a per G (WAR/G) basis, over the last three seasons:
If Moreno is serious about increasing payroll and making this team more competitive, as the hiring of Joe Maddon suggests and by his very own words, the Angels will need to invest a majority of their off-season payroll into starting pitching.
It is the general consensus of the baseball community that the Angels will be in, heavily, on free agent ace Gerrit Cole or possibly Stephen Strasburg. Not only is Gerrit the agreed-upon available top starter, he throws 95+ mph heat, has an arsenal of wicked off-speed pitches, and took his team deep into the post-season this year. Strasburg helped carry his Nationals to a World Championship over Cole's Astros. Both are high-caliber options.
Cole will cost a lot of money, likely something on the order of 30M+ average annual value (AAV) and $230M+ in total salary commitment over, probably, a 7-8 year deal. Strasburg will probably require a 5-6 year, $150M-$180M ($30M AAV) deal to secure his services. Either of these outlays will result in the Angels exceeding last years starting payroll number, thus the clear need for Arte to open the wallet if the team truly wants to contend in 2020.
In the Finances article of the Primer Series we argued for a payroll increase to make significant improvements. The current starting point is approximately $162M for 2020 Club Payroll and $151M in Actual Club Payroll (AAV) and, in order to make big moves with Simmons and Cozart still on the books, Moreno will be forced to approach or, more remotely, exceed the Competitive Balance Tax (CBT) threshold barring an unexpected trade of Andrelton or Zack.
Thus, if the club can acquire one or more game-changing stars (and it should be stressed that Arte would only exceed the CBT threshold for a high-end player), the author believes Moreno could possibly approach or exceed the CBT threshold of $208M and potentially go as high as the 1st Surcharge threshold of $228M, where the penalty is minimal (20% tax on the difference between AAV and the threshold of $208M, so no more than a $4M surcharge tax fee for 2020). Again, to reemphasize, this would only happen if Arte allows it and the player or players in question are first-rate acquisitions, so this is a low probability outcome that should be discussed but not expected.
As a large market team the Angels have not significantly played in the payroll clouds (Luxury Tax) before, so this would be a complete break from previous seasons despite the fact that doing so now, in the new era of Mike Trout, could pay dividends across the board, particularly with the available slate of quality free agents this year and a complete dearth of them in next years market.
In the end, though, Moreno has consistently authorized high payrolls but, rather than believing in the dream scenario, Angels fans should temper their expectations that the Opening Day payroll will exceed $208M and in all probability will be no more than $190M-$195M, give or take. It is the latter we will focus more on in this article and the remainder of the Primer Series.
So, as MLBTradeRumors.com discussed, the Angels are likely to acquire a free agent front-of-the-rotation starter such as the aforementioned Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg. For the purposes of this article, the author is going to assume that the Angels acquire one of them at $35M or $30M Average Annual Value (AAV) for Cole and Strasburg, respectively. Assuming a back-loaded contract ($20M-$25M in 2020), this puts the Angels 2020 Club Payroll and Actual Club Payroll (AAV) at $182M-$187M and $181M-$186M AAV respectively, without any other transactions taking place to start 2020.
Grabbing a top-shelf starter to compliment Ohtani and lead this rotation is a must-have in the author's opinion. A 1-2 punch at the top will help win more games and increase overall team confidence that, on any given start, the Top 2 starters will get the job done.
Based on previous seasons, the Angels would be really smart to create solid depth here. Bringing in 2-3 starters from free agency and/or trade will allow Eppler and Maddon to build not only a strong rotation but also a very deep pitching bench. Depth has been a crippling issue over the last handful of years and it is high time the Angels address it directly with the application of a payroll increase and/or creative trades to add more at the top and in the middle of the rotation and supplement and perhaps even trade (no more than 1-2 starters) off of the back-end supply they currently have.
Andrew Heaney, coming off a sterling peripherals season (28.9% K% rate, which is approaching elite-level), will make a fine #3 type behind a Top 2 set-up. Adding another free agent or trade acquisition such as Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner, Cole Hamels, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Jon Gray, Dylan Bundy, or Robbie Ray, would create a very competitive Top 4 and the Angels could easily round out that starting five with an in-house candidate such as Griffin Canning, Jaime Barria, Jose Suarez, or Patrick Sandoval for example.
Rumors have placed Wheeler's projected salary at 5 years, $100M ($20M AAV). This seems high because when you look at a recent comparable, Nathan Eovaldi, Zack is a year older and enters his free agent year with a 3.96 ERA versus Nathan's walk-year where he had a more pristine 3.33 ERA and signed a 4-year, $68M ($17M AAV) contract. ERA certainly isn't an insightful tool but results matter and Wheeler's fatigue near the end of the season may add a touch of doubt to his market.
However, in terms of velocity, Wheeler throws about as hard as Cole and Nathan and is only about one year older, albeit with his Tommy John Surgery (2015) in the rear-view mirror. Gerrit is likely to pull in a 7-year deal, so would teams be willing to throw in a 6th year for Zack to bring the offer to nine figures? Seems really unlikely but there is a broad market for his services.
All that being said, Eovaldi may have taken a slight discount to go to the Red Sox, and this market appears to be highly competitive, but it appears that Wheeler will get that fifth, or maybe even sixth, year and climb to $100M or more. The author expects Zack to pull in a 5-year deal worth anywhere from $90M-$100M ($18M-$20M AAV) which may, if Arte spends above the tax threshold, be a plausible acquisition behind Cole/Strasburg. If a sixth year is attached, it could possibly inch over $100M (think 6 years, $102M, $17M AAV for example).
Realistically, the other mid-tier free agent starters like Bumgarner, Ryu, and Hamels will probably command contracts with an AAV range of $15M-$18M per year, give or take. Including Wheeler, all four of them may be priced out of the Angels budget simply because a Cole or Strasburg acquisition automatically puts the Angels, as mentioned above, in the $181M-$187M range. Adding one of the above, would vault next year's payroll into the $195M-$210M realm and Moreno may not be willing to stomach the ticket price.
It may be more practical for the Angels to snag one of Cole or Strasburg and then trade for a lower-salaried front or mid-tier starter and then shop in the lower-end of free agency or trade for a third back-end piece.
If the Angels go this route, available trade targets might include names like Jon Gray, Jake Odorizzi (in trade, now that he accepted the Qualifying Offer, although this is unlikely), Dylan Bundy, Jose Quintana, Danny Duffy, Jose Urena, Matthew Boyd, Daniel Norris, Jakob Junis, Robbie Ray, Jeff Samardzija, Chris Archer, and Joe Musgrove, among many others.
On the free agency side, names like Homer Bailey (93 mph FB), Andrew Cashner (94 mph FB), Rich Hill (Approximate 21% K%-BB% rate over last three years on limited innings pitched each of those seasons), Dallas Keuchel (Career 58.9% GB% rate), Matt Moore (touched 94 mph in 10 IP before knee surgery cut his 2019 season short), Martin Perez (50% GB% rate and 94 mph FB), Michael Pineda (18.7% K%-BB% rate but serving Performance-Enhancing Drug Suspension to start the 2020 season), Tanner Roark (14.8% K%-BB% rate), Michael Wacha (93 mph FB), Alex Wood (Career 49% GB% rate), Gabriel Ynoa (93.5 mph FB), and/or Brett Anderson (56.8% GB% rate) might have some level of appeal, particularly in terms of salary fit.
So, as an example, say the Angels sign one of Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg and then trade for a lower-salaried, controllable starter like Jon Gray or Dylan Bundy (each will make approximately $5.5M-$6M in arbitration for 2020) and then sign someone like Homer Bailey, Matt Moore, Rich Hill, or Alex Wood in the $5M-$10M range on a one to three year deal. This would push 2020 Club Payroll and Actual Club Payroll up toward the $200M mark which is high but still below the CBT threshold of $208M.
The Angels would still have room for one or two low-level moves (such as an inexpensive catcher for example) but this would allow the team to spend significantly (as Moreno indicated was possible) while still sliding under the Luxury Tax at least up until the Trade Deadline where more information will be available to determine if the Angels should go further in improving the 2020 squad for a playoff push (which may then result in an overage over the CBT threshold).
Rebuilding the rotation this off-season, by acquiring an ace, will set the stage for a more stable starting five, along with corresponding quality depth, for a long time to come. Strategically it will allow the Halos to enter a new window of contention immediately.
Prioritizing starting pitcher additions for 2020 and beyond is the greatest need Eppler must address and, in fact, may be the only area he seriously deals with based on how far Moreno extends the payroll leash.
Likely Outcome: Angels will sign one of Cole or Strasburg and then trade for a mid-tier type such as Gray, Bundy, Ray, or Boyd. From there they may sign a third starter such as Moore, Pineda, or Bailey but that will be dependent on payroll space.
If three starters are acquired, this will allow the Angels to trade off one, or maybe two, of their back-end starters in trade with the likely candidates being Barria, Sandoval, or Suarez. The remainder of those candidates, not traded, would line up with the rest (Canning, Madero, Peters, et. al.) as quality rotation depth in the Minors and that depth does not even consider high Minor League players not on the 40-man roster like Chris Rodriguez, for instance.
Hypothetically, if the Angels miss out on one of the Big 2, they can go to the backup plan of signing two of the remaining Tier 2 starters such as Wheeler, Bumgarner, Hamels, or Ryu and still trade for a mid-tier type as mentioned above. That won't be quite as strong but it will still improve the rotation considerably.
Author's Choice: Gerrit Cole is a must have signing from my perspective. Nothing is promised in the off-season but Cole strikes me as a similar comparable to Scherzer and speculatively it feels like Gerrit will provide a lot of value over his next contract. Additionally, if Moreno extends the payroll leash, signing Zack Wheeler would be a huge plus, too.
Beyond that, trading for one of Jon Gray, Matt Boyd and Robbie Ray would be a solid acquisition. Signing Matt Moore has some dangers but his velocity was great before his injury so that is a gamble I would like to see the Angels take but Pineda, Hill, or Bailey (in that order) would be perfectly fine outcomes as a third pickup, if wanted and/or needed.
Assuming the Angels acquire three starters as speculated at, above, I would like to see a trade executed involving one (or possibly two) of Jaime Barria, Jose Suarez, or Patrick Sandoval (in that order, probably) as shown in the two independent examples below:
Angels send MIF Zack Cozart, SP Jaime Barria, 3B/1B Matt Thaiss, 2B/OF Jahmai Jones, OF Orlando Martinez, and OF D'Shawn Knowles to the Orioles in exchange for 1B/COF Trey Mancini and LHR Tanner Scott
The Orioles are in a full rebuild and need to hoard prospects and players with multiple years of team control. By taking on all of Cozart's 2020 salary they get not only the veteran shortstop they are looking for, they also obtain a young starting pitcher in Barria, to add to their rotation with 5 years of team control. In addition they get Thaiss who can play the infield corners, a high quality prospect in Jones, and two upside OF prospects in Knowles and Martinez. Buying prospects through a salary dump is rare, but not unprecedented, as seen here and here.
For the Angels, in this particular season with the situation our payroll is in, the ability to shave Zack's salary, based on his negative surplus value, would be a huge help in navigating this off-season, if Eppler can manage it. Additionally, a move like this, would give the Halos a tested, and possible breakout, bat in Mancini (his 2019 peripherals point to significant improvement) who can play first base and the corner outfield positions in a pinch for at least 2020 and possibly the succeeding two seasons based on how high his arbitration cost rises. Acquiring Trey lowers total team production risk, by allowing Walsh to develop further (and act as quality depth at 1B) in the Minors, while adding another power option to the lineup behind Trout. Finally it would also give the Angels five controllable seasons of a powerful lefty bullpen arm in Scott who would improve the bullpen's potential to close out games in the later innings of a game.
Angels trade LHP Jose Suarez, OF Trent Deveaux, and RHP Cooper Criswell in exchange for LF/1B Kyle Schwarber
The Cubs reportedly need to trim payroll and Schwarber represents a potential $8M savings that can be replaced internally by Bryant or Happ for example. Certainly Chicago would miss his bat in the lineup but by all accounts cutting dollars is important for them this off-season. It allows the Cubs to bring in one Major League ready young, controllable left-handed starter, a prospect outfielder with upside and another right-handed pitching prospect, all while shaving the aforementioned salary and giving up the final two years of arbitration control over Kyle.
For the Angels it would bring in a left-handed power bat (more so versus RHP) they can place at 1B and serve as a depth option for Upton in LF. Assuming Schwarber does well they could retain him for one more season in 2021 or potentially extend him if that is Eppler's desire.
Conclusion: The Angels have no choice but to take two routes here in the author's opinion -
- Sign or trade for two starters, one of which is an ace-level pitcher like Cole and Strasburg, with the other a mid-tier type like Gray, Ray, or Boyd, or
- Sign or trade for three starters, two of which are upper (like Cole or Strasburg) or mid-tier (like Wheeler, Archer, Bumgarner, Gray, Ray, or Ryu) types and one additional mid-tier or lower-tier guy.
In the first scenario the Halos can get by with a rotation of, for example, Strasburg, Ohtani, Heaney, Boyd, and Canning. The second scenario might be a rotation of Ohtani, Wheeler, Heaney, Ray, and Pineda, which isn't as strong at the former but is still a greatly improved starting five. Both options would improve bench depth.
As fans we work with really imperfect information regarding the free agent and trade markets. If Eppler receives real interest in some of his back-end starters (Barria, Sandoval, Suarez, et. al.) the Angels would probably best be served by acquiring three starters and then trading one off for other areas of need, otherwise two rotation pieces, one an ace, is the most likely path. The former, spending more for three starters, will allow the Angels to more effectively open additional doors to address other concerns and will build natural depth all around the diamond (through the aforementioned trades).
Again everything will rest on how much of the proverbial yacht fuel Moreno is willing to sacrifice in pursuit of these targets. If he does not commit to significant spending, Arte may find himself setting sail on the 2020 season rather than pulling into the playoffs port for the first time in a long while. If the rumors of Texas' interest in Anthony Rendon are true, the A.L. West is about to get really competitive across the board, so the Angels need to position themselves as a contender in the Division by taking an aggressive posture now.
This off-season all eyes are on the moves Eppler makes for the starting rotation, as it is the crux of our success in 2020.