In the hours after learning the Angels had been outbid for another free-agent starting pitcher earlier this week, general manager Billy Eppler kicked around a theory with members of his front office.
Could they build a lineup comprised mainly of sluggers, make only marginal upgrades to the maligned pitching staff and still field a team capable of making the postseason? Sure, Eppler concluded.
“You can rack up a lot of wins slugging throughout 162 games,” he said.
The Angels took a major step toward doing just that when they agreed to sign power-hitting third baseman Anthony Rendon to a seven-year, $245-million contract.
The largest free-agent contract awarded by owner Arte Moreno gives the Angels a potent lineup as they continue the spirited quest to snap a four-year playoff drought. Three-time MVP Mike Trout, two-way star Shohei Ohtani and Rendon combined for 97 home runs last season. Outfielder Brian Goodwin hit 17 home runs and injury-plagued Justin Upton contributed 12. Before breaking his leg, first-time All-Star Tommy La Stella hit 16. Even aging Albert Pujols connected for 23.
Infielder/outfielder David Fletcher hit only six homers but batted .290 in 653 plate appearances. And Andrelton Simmons finished with a .264 average after a season-altering ankle injury claimed nearly two months of his season.
But Eppler warned that such a blueprint can backfire in October, when prolific offenses often are strangulated by opponents with frontline pitching.
So the Angels must do more than find durable arms to bolster their injury-wrecked rotation. They must acquire at least one proven starting pitcher — preferably two — if they want postseason forays to result in a championship. The addition of Rendon could help persuade pitchers to consider the Angels because he’s an elite defensive player as well as a strong hitter. Rendon and Simmons might form the strongest left side of the infield in baseball next season.
Options for accomplished left-handed starters abound in free agency. Dallas Keuchel, 31,is a four-time All-Star who won the 2015 American League Cy Young Award, four Gold Gloves and a World Series during seven seasons with the Houston Astros. After signing a prorated contract with the Atlanta Braves that paid him about $13 million last summer, he now stands to sign a multi-year contract with an average annual value around $20 million.
Former Dodger Hyun-Jin Ryu, 32, is also seeking multiple years. He issued a league-low 1.18 walks per nine innings and logged 187 2/3 innings between 29 starts during the regular season and one in the playoffs in 2019. In his best season since leaving South Korea for a major league career in 2013, Ryu had a 2.32 ERA and finished second in NL Cy Young Award voting.
World Series veteran Madison Bumgarner, who rebounded from a down 2018 to log 207 2/3 innings and a 3.90 ERA, is on the open market. So is Wade Miley, who was 14-6 with a 3.98 ERA for the Astros in 2019.
The Angels also could go the trade route. They could leverage the emerging defensive talent of switch-hitting infielder Luís Rengifo and the compelling swing-and-miss changeup wielded by left-handed pitcher José Suarez. Taylor Ward, Matt Thaiss, Griffin Canning and Patrick Sandoval all spent time in the major leagues last year, too, and are attractive to other teams seeking controllable players. Top prospect Jo Adell is unlikely to be traded, but there are appealing minor leaguers at the lower levels. Outfielder Brandon Marsh, expected to begin the season at triple-A, is particularly a valuable chip.
The Angels could create packages for pitchers under contract through at least 2022, such as Cleveland veteran Carlos Carrasco (3.49 ERA since 2016) and Detroit’s Matt Boyd (combined rate of 10.0 strikeouts-per-nine-innings last two seasons). Carrasco, 33, is guaranteed $10.25 million next season and $12 million in 2021 and ’22. Boyd, 29, should receive a raise over his 2019 salary of $2.6 million through arbitration. The relatively low costs of those contracts would allow the Angels to add a strong defensive catcher such as free agent Jason Castro.
Even with Rendon’s contract, the Angels are still about $30 million shy of the luxury tax threshold of $208 million in 2020 payroll. They could trade with the Boston Red Sox, who are trying to shed salary and owe 2012 Cy Young Award honoree David Price $96 million over the next three years. Price, 34, pitched for new Angels manager Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay. They reached the playoffs together four times from 2008-2013. However, a deal of that magnitude might only be feasible if the Red Sox offset some of the cost.
The Angels acquired left-handed minor league starter Garrett Williams from the San Francisco Giants Thursday, finalizing this week’s trade of infielder Zack Cozart. Williams, 25, was a seventh-round pick in 2016. He had a 3.60 ERA, struck out 108 and walked 61 over 110 innings in 20 starts at double-A last season.