The Angels have made incremental moves all summer, adding relief depth on the peripheries of their roster and acquiring two catchers in Anthony Bemboom and Josh Thole who are at triple A. They did not deviate from that humdrum norm ahead of Wednesday’s trade deadline, acquiring catcher Max Stassi from the Houston Astros for minor league outfielders Rainier Rivas and Raider Uceta.
The transaction did not fill the void in the Angels’ starting rotation, a need that became even more apparent when rookie Jose Suarez lasted only 4 1/3 innings in a 9-1 loss to the Detroit Tigers at Angel Stadium.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. The Angels were aggressive in pursuing pitchers with multiple years of control. General manager Billy Eppler said the team assembled a few packages of players they believed provided enough value in return for them, but none were accepted.
He attributed part of his team’s lack of success in the market to the short supply of available starters. The number of National League teams jockeying for playoff positioning drove up the price and effectively eliminated the Angels from consideration.
“We were open to moving” prospects, Eppler said. “Just about every one of them, but one, was talked about in some form or another.”
In a way, the Angels eliminated themselves from contention in a tough market. They started the month 12-6. They gained ground in the wild-card race in the wake of Tyler Skaggs’ death on July 1 by sweeping the last-place Seattle Mariners, splitting a four-game series with the Astros and taking two from the Dodgers a week ago.
With the lowly Baltimore Orioles and Tigers awaiting them at home, making bigger strides in the wild-card picture seemed inevitable. They instead went 2-5 against the Orioles and Tigers, falling to six games behind the Oakland Athletics in the wild-card race after their loss Wednesday.
The playoffs all but out of reach, the Angels were conservative with their moves. Their rotation for 2020 should feature youngsters Griffin Canning, Suarez and Jaime Barria as well as presumed No. 1 starter Shohei Ohtani and left-hander Andrew Heaney. They could count on prospects Luis Madero and Patrick Sandoval for depth. A winter acquisition, such as pending free agent and Orange County native Gerrit Cole, could push them into contention.
“The circumstances played out how they played out,” Eppler said. “We are not going to make short-sighted or impulsive decisions.”
So the Angels settled for an alternative. Stassi could be a key piece for the Angels in the future. He is under control through the 2022 season. Plus, he’s affordable, making just above the league minimum. He is not arbitration-eligible until next season.
The move shores up a position of weakness for the Angels. Jack Kruger, their best catching prospect, has not played above double A since being drafted in 2016. After struggling to hit at the beginning of the season, Kruger fell in Baseball America’s rankings and was named the Angels’ 22nd-best minor leaguer at their midseason review.
Scouts have praised Kruger for his pitch-calling as well as his receiving and blocking abilities. But they have knocked his arm strength. With him behind the plate, pitchers in the Angels organization have allowed 258 stolen bases throughout his 235 games. Kruger has, however, thrown out about 25% of base stealers in his career, which is just below the major league average.
Relying on Stassi, a Yuba City native, makes for a solid contingency plan as they wait for Kruger to develop. He was drafted by the Oakland Athletics in the fourth round in 2009 and made his way into the Astros organization following significant injuries that kept him to 315 games through his first four full professional seasons. Diminished playing time did not deter the Astros from calling up Stassi in late 2013 or from shuttling him back and forth from triple A from 2014 to 2017.
Once out of options, Stassi served as backup. He batted only .226 with a .710 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 88 games last year and .167 with a .446 OPS in 33 games this year. His defensive value transcended the issues with his bat, though. He has always been a solid receiver. Despite being sidelined for a month because of a knee injury, Stassi’s 7.2 framing runs added ranks ninth in baseball this year.
Stassi, 28, became expendable when the Astros traded for former Angels catcher Martin Maldonado on Wednesday. Houston acquired Maldonado last July too. Maldonado became a free agent, signed with the Kansas City Royals during spring training and was traded to the Chicago Cubs earlier this month.
Since Stassi can’t go to the minor leagues, the Angels must make a move on their active roster to accommodate him.
Before the trade, they designated catcher Dustin Garneau for assignment Wednesday so they could reinstate veteran Jonathan Lucroy from the injured list in time for him to catch the Angels’ series finale with the Tigers at Angel Stadium.