The Angels on Monday declined to offer a contract to catcher Kevan Smith, making him a free agent on the day teams were required to decide the fate of arbitration-eligible players on their 40-man rosters.
The move leaves the Angels with only two catchers, Anthony Bemboom and Max Stassi, on their 40-man roster the week before the start of baseball’s winter meetings in San Diego. Despite saying last month he wasn’t in the market for a backstop, general manager Billy Eppler might indeed bolster the organization’s depth at the position before the offseason is over.
The departure of Smith, 31, comes after a season shortened by injuries. He was sidelined three times — first for a concussion, then because of a left wrist sprain and a back strain. He played in only 67 games.
Although he batted .251 with a serviceable .710 on-base-plus-slugging percentage when healthy, Smith’s defense made him a liability. He allowed 30 of 35 attempted steals and was behind the plate for 29 wild pitches. He was a poor framer and cost the Angels eight runs from extra strikes, according to Baseball Savant.
After four straight losing seasons, owner Arte Moreno is committed to expanding the team’s budget to better allow Eppler to construct a team that can contend for the playoffs.
A division berth might be tricky to attain with the AL pennant-winning Houston Astros poised to return their high-powered offense and the Oakland Athletics coming off a second consecutive 97-win season.
But the Angels can make inroads to contention by spending money on their rotation. They should have enough financial might to compete for free-agent pitchers Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Zach Wheeler and Madison Bumgarner, among others. They also have enough minor league capital in the way of top-level prospects to bolster their pitching staff through trades.
The Angels tendered contracts to their eight remaining arbitration-eligible players (position and ages for 2020 season):
RHP Cam Bedrosian, 28
Before a forearm strain cost him the last month of the 2019 season, Bedrosian assembled one of the finest campaigns of his career. He had a 3.23 ERA in 59 games. He logged 64 strikeouts in 61 1/3 innings. Batters hit only .207 against him. Although he’s right-handed, he held left-handed hitters to a .172 average. The injury, often a precursor to Tommy John surgery, should not impact Bedrosian’s availability for next season.
LHP Andrew Heaney, 29
Heaney’s season was once again beset by injuries. He made only 18 starts as a result. However, he was hardly an outlier on a team whose pitching staff was compromised by multiple injured list stints and the death of Tyler Skaggs. Eppler still believes Heaney, who made a team-leading 30 starts in 2018, is a solid rotation piece. Despite an elevated ERA (4.91) and home run rate (1.9 per nine innings), Heaney demonstrated an above-average ability to miss bats. He struck out 118 in 95 1/3 innings.
RHP Keynan Middleton, 26
Middleton returned from the Tommy John surgery he underwent in early 2018 in time to make 11 appearances out of the Angels bullpen. He had a 1.17 ERA over 7 2/3 innings. Although he has had little opportunity to demonstrate his value, Middleton looked poised to become the Angels’ closer in his debut season in 2017. When he returned to take up that mantle the following spring, he tore the ulnar collateral ligament after notching six saves in 16 games.
RHP Noe Ramirez, 30
Despite regressing at the end of the season after a nearly month-long absence caused by illness, Ramirez made a good case for a substantial raise in his first year of salary arbitration. He finished with a 3.99 ERA in 50 games and struck out 79 over 67 2/3 innings. Opponents hit .232 against him. His 89-91 mph fastball isn’t overpowering but still drew swings-and-misses 32 percent of the time, an improvement of 11 percent over the previous season. His changeup was also a good strikeout pitch.
RHP Hansel Robles, 29
Robles became one of the premier closers in the American League after beginning the season as veteran Cody Allen’s understudy. Robles’ career-best year featured a 2.48 ERA in 72 2/3 innings, 23 saves in 27 opportunities and 75 strikeouts. The rediscovery of a high-80s changeup — paired with his hard fastball and slider — enabled him to post a 1.52 ERA in his final 44 games. That mark was the bestsellers among AL relievers who threw at least 31 innings during the final four months of the season.
C Max Stassi, 29
Stassi, acquired at the trade deadline from the Houston Astros, presents an opposite case from Smith’s: He has never been a offensive threat, but he has been well-regarded for his framing abilities. He converted 53.3 percent of non-swing pitches on the edges of the zone into called strikes, the third-best rate among catchers who received at least 975 pitches. He also saved six runs from extra strikes, according to Baseball Savant. He was seventh in baseball with 10.6 framing runs, behind MLB leader Austin Hedges (26 framing runs), Yasmani Grandal (19.4) and AL Gold Glove winner Roberto Perez (15.5).
Stassi ended the 2019 season, which was also cut short because of injuries, by having hip surgery. His status for the beginning of spring training in February is unknown.
INF Tommy La Stella, 31
La Stella, a former Chicago Cubs utility player who hit 10 homers in 396 games in his first five big league seasons, hit .300 with 16 homers and 44 RBIs in 78 games for the Angels before a tibia fracture torpedoed his breakout season. He was voted by players as an All-Star reserve but was on crutches for the July 9 game at Cleveland. La Stella was able to put the incident behind him by the end of the year, appearing in two of the final three games as a designated hitter. He logged one hit — a double — and struck out once in nine at-bats.
OF Brian Goodwin, 29
Like La Stella, Goodwin flourished on a team that provided him ample playing time. He hit .262 with 17 home runs and a .796 OPS in 136 games, drove in 47 runs and scored 65. He could serve as Kole Calhoun’s replacement in right field if the Angels decide top prospect Jo Adell is not yet ready to make the jump to the major leagues.