Angels aren’t looking into a new catcher, but maybe they should
The Angels will not spend the offseason searching for a new catcher, general manager Billy Eppler said Monday during the first day of baseball’s general managers meetings. He expects Max Stassi, a career backup who batted .071 after being acquired in a midseason trade with the Houston Astros, to tap into unrealized potential at the plate.
Eppler also believes catcher Kevan Smith, who played only 67 games because of a concussion and other ailments, has more to offer than the .251 batting average and .710 on-base-plus-slugging percentage he produced in 2019.
“That’s an area where we feel good with what we’re getting defensively at that position,” Eppler said.
But the Angels might want to reassess that strategy if they decide to pursue Gerrit Cole, an Orange County native who is the top starting pitcher available on the free-agent market.
The 29-year-old is likely to command a long-term salary of at least $30 million per year, and the Angels are uniquely positioned to meet Cole’s conditions. Owner Arte Moreno committed to expanding the Angels’ payroll for the 2020 season during manager Joe Maddon’s introductory news conference last month, an indication he is willing to give Eppler the necessary resources to field a team that can jockey for a playoff berth.
Eight teams hired a new manager this offseason, yet none interviewed Mike Scioscia, who managed the Angels for 19 years before stepping down a year ago.
Such a heavy investment might warrant a comparatively small expenditure on a catcher with whom Cole and the Angels are familiar.
With former Angels catcher Martin Maldonado behind the plate for the Astros this past season, Cole posted a 1.57 earned-run average over his final 10 starts, striking out 114 and holding opponents to a meager .189 on-base percentage. Their run of success extended into the postseason, when Cole was similarly stingy with a 1.72 ERA.
Maldonado, who became a Gold Glove winner during 1½ seasons with the Angels, also worked with Cole after the Angels shipped him to the Astros before the 2018 trade deadline. Both spoke highly of the other after being reunited at the 2019 deadline when the Chicago Cubs traded Maldonado back to Houston.
“We’re very honest with each other. ... He’ll come in and tell me that, you know, ‘You’re full of it. That was a stupid pitch,’ ” Cole said during the playoffs. “And I’ll come in and tell him, ‘You’re full of it. That was a stupid call.’ To be able to have that conversation and be serious but have, like, some lightheartedness to it and know that it’s not personal, that’s pretty cool.”
Maldonado signed late last spring with the Kansas City Royals for a mere $2.5 million and was later traded to the Cubs. He is again a free agent. Should Cole and agent Scott Boras decide Anaheim is the right fit, a potential reunion with Maldonado should be considered.
Although the Dodgers likely will avoid the luxury tax again, they could be aggressive in pursuing free agents or trades to bolster the rotation and lineup.
Shohei Ohtani expected to rejoin rotation next season
Shohei Ohtani has rebounded well from the surgery he underwent to repair a congenital condition in his left knee. The two-way player, limited last season to hitting while he recovered from Tommy John surgery he underwent in October 2018, is expected to complete his mound progression by the end of the year.
Should his rehabilitation finish without a hitch, Ohtani should prepare for a normal spring training and a berth in the Angels’ rotation, starting every sixth day.
Eppler said he has not yet determined whether the Angels will use a six-man rotation as they did when Ohtani debuted in 2018. But Ohtani is expected to follow a similar schedule, serving as the Angels’ designated hitter three or four times a week and resting on the days immediately before and after he pitches.
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