Adding better pitching will be Angels’ priority this offseason
What will be the Angels’ first priority this offseason?
Perry Minasian gave the question a half-second of thought, then responded with the obvious answer.
“Pitching,” the first-year general manager said at a news conference Monday. “I think pitching is always going to be a priority. You can never have enough.”
Angels fans, of course, need no reminder. Forget about an abundance of depth or talent on the mound. The club has struggled to pitch at even a league-average level for most of the last half decade, finishing in the bottom12 of the majors in team ERA for a fourth-straight season (and fifth out of the last six) this year with a 4.68 mark.
“I think that in all areas, there could definitely be improvements made,” Minasian said after the Angels completed a 77-85 campaign that was also plagued by injuries and inconsistency in the lineup. “But front and center is on the mound. We need to pitch better.”
The big question is how.
The Angels’ previous front-office regime led by Billy Eppler never found the right long-term answers, failing to either develop or acquire star front-line starters or build a consistently dominant bullpen over five consecutive losing seasons.
While Minasian had varying success this year with the pitching moves he made after being hired last winter — the acquisitions of starter Alex Cobb and closer Raisel Iglesias were the biggest triumphs, though they are both free agents this offseason — the staff as a whole still didn’t perform nearly well enough to make the Angels true contenders.
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For the Angels, the Anaheim weather is always perfect, the stadium remains beautiful, and the team is perpetually lousy.
“We had numerous injuries on the mound [and] some performance issues from certain guys,” Minasian said of a group that also ranked 24th in walk-and-hits-per-inning, 19th in opponent batting average and 18th in strikeout-to-walk rate.
“So you need pitching. You need quality, but you need depth, too, to be able to withstand injuries, withstand some subpar performances. I think that, this year, was pointed out more than ever.”
This offseason’s class of free agents will provide potential options, with big-name pitchers such as Max Scherzer, Robbie Ray, Kevin Gausman and others all set to hit the open market —-the kind of impact starters that the team has failed to acquire in recent seasons, and that manager Joe Maddon seemed to advocate for near the end of the season.
Minasian agreed such an addition would help, but didn’t commit to going that route when asked if the team needs to do so.
“Obviously, you want as much quality as you can get, and there are some big-name guys,” he said. “But where they are in their careers is important. How we view them going forward is important. So would you like to add front-line starters? Absolutely. I’d love to add three, four front-line starters. That would be outstanding. Realistically, that’s really difficult to do. It’s not that easy.”
Minasian hinted at the possibility of exploring the trade market for pitching help, too, though also noted it’s too early to know exactly who might be available and how much other teams would ask for in return.
“For the most part, year in and year out, there are impact starters available,” he said, pointing to the San Diego Padres’ acquisitions of Blake Snell and Yu Darvish last winter as the most recent examples. “So we’ll see what’s available from a trade standpoint.”
Minasian pointed to other “recipes” for pitching success, emphasizing the need to build depth in the bullpen following a 2021 season in which Angels relievers combined for a 4.57 ERA, ranking 24th in the big leagues.
“Building a great bullpen is a way to being in contention, where you don’t necessarily have front-line starters per se, or you don’t necessarily add multiple front-line starters, but you build a really good bullpen,” Minasian said. “Teams have won like that. There’s different ways to build winning teams. It’s not about one individual player. It’s about the whole puzzle and making sure we can improve in all facets.”
Indeed, the Angels have other needs — shortstop is the biggest question mark in the lineup — and only so many resources to go around.
Minasian said he and owner Arte Moreno have not discussed next year’s payroll yet, and that some factors could depend on the rules set out in a new, soon-to-be-negotiated collective-bargaining agreement.
But after having an opening-day payroll this year of just under $182 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the team only has about $111 million currently committed for next year. Even after arbitration and prearbitration salaries, they should have room to explore various possibilities financially.
What exactly that might look like, Minasian was not ready to say. But as he prepares to enter his second offseason leading the club, one he and others in the organization hope will finally spark a return to contention for the team, he made the team’s overarching winter plans clear.
“We’ll see what’s available from a trade standpoint. We’ll see what’s available from a free-agent standpoint. We’ll see how we line up. And then we’ll go from there,” he said. “But we understand the mound is a place where we’d like to significantly improve. Not just improve. But significantly improve.”
Options at shortstop
Like this year’s class of starting pitchers, free agency will be loaded with big-name shortstops, such as Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Javier Baez, Marcus Semien and Trevor Story.
Minasian said the team would consider all options for the position, which was primarily held by José Iglesias this year before he was released last month. But Minasian noted that the Angels have internal possibilities too.
“That’s obviously a really important position on the field,” he said. “I do think we have some versatility there with the guys we currently have.”
Minasian thought Luis Rengifo “played really solid shortstop” while manning the spot late in the season. He also left open the possibility that second baseman David Fletcher could be shifted to the other side of the infield.
“As good as [Fletcher] is at second, he’s very confident that he can play a high-level shortstop too,” Minasian said. “So we do have some internal options, but we’ll look at external possibilities too.”
One thing that’s not likely to change next season: the way in which the club utilizes two-way star Shohei Ohtani.
During his historic two-way season this year, Ohtani usually pitched about once a week while making normal turns through the team’s six-man rotation — Minasian isn’t sure if the club next year will stick with a six-man group or go to a five-man rotation yet — en route to finishing the season with 23 starts and 130 ⅓ innings pitched.
Ohtani also served as the everyday designated hitter and usually hit for himself on the day he took the mound.
Overall, he appeared in 158 of the Angels 162 games, collecting 46 home runs, 100 RBIs and a 3.18 ERA, making him the heavy favorite for the American League MVP award.
“I had a conversation with him at the end of the year, and I think he was very pleased with how things went and I was very pleased with how things went,” Minasian said. “I don’t see us changing anything.”
Minasian declined to comment if the club this winter might try negotiating a long-term extension with Ohtani, who is under team control for two more seasons.
Like many teams around baseball this year, the Angels struggled with injuries all season. On the big league roster alone, they had 25 different players go on the injured list over the course of the season — including the long-term absences of stars Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon — and racked up more than 750 man-games-lost among players who were on the opening-day roster.
Minasian said the injuries will be part of the team’s end-of-season review process, explaining the club will evaluate players’ individual training routines as well as the teamwide approach to injury prevention and rehab methods.
“That’s a significant, significant part of the review, is the medical side,” Minasian said.
There is also one injury that Minasian said might linger into next year: Pitcher Chris Rodriguez might not be ready for the start of spring training as the right-hander “wasn’t feeling great” during his recovery from a lat injury that ended his season in August.
“We’re not there yet,” Minasian said. “But with how his rehab is going and how he felt, that is one that could be pushed back to a certain extent.”
One good piece of injury news for the Angels is that Trout is going into the offseason finally feeling better about the calf strain that kept him out since mid-May.
“He felt good,” Minasian said. “We feel good about the offseason plan and expect him to be healthy to start spring training.”
Minasian, however, didn’t guarantee that Trout would be the primary center fielder next year.
After Trout got hurt this season, prospect Brandon Marsh showed potential playing the position every day down the stretch. And while Minasian acknowledged Trout’s careerlong track record in center, the general manager said the position will be “part of the review as we go forward.”
MLB coaching staff evaluation
Minasian said no decisions have been finalized regarding what the major league coaching staff might look like next season. The club is holding season-review meetings this week, after which Minasian said he will meet with Maddon to discuss if any changes to the staff need to be made.
“I’ll get together with Joe and we’ll talk about everything, how the year went,” Minasian said. “I’m really big on reviews.”
Minasian didn’t discuss the performance of any one coach specifically.
“I think in all areas, there were some positives and there were some negatives,” he said. “We’ll go through each area, whether it’s pitching, hitting, defense, infield, outfield, catching and go through each spot extensively and see where we’re at.”
Young pitchers leave impression
After Ohtani, there are two other young pitchers who will seemingly enter next year penciled into the starting rotation: Patrick Sandoval and José Suarez.
“Suarez finished healthy, made his starts and pitched really well,” Minasian said of the 23-year-old left-hander, who posted a 3.75 ERA in 23 games (14 starts).
Sandoval, 24, had a 3.62 ERA in 17 games (14 starts) before suffering a season-ending back injury in August.
“Sandoval’s gotta be healthy,” Minasian said. “But when he did pitch, he was really productive and exciting to watch. So those three [including Suarez and Ohtani], we feel like going into spring training are in a good spot.”
In the bullpen, Minasian praised three other young pitchers, Austin Warren, José Quijada and Andrew Wantz, specifically.
“They might not have been household names to start the year, but they all developed, they all grew and they all showed glimpses of potential in what they can be down the road,” he said.
Shohei Ohtani wants to make improvements in the offseason. And if the Angels want to negotiate a potential contract extension, he’s open for that too.
Minor League improvements
More than two months after he vowed in a statement the club would “address” concerns raised publicly by players in the minor league system, Minasian was asked what the organization has done to this point.
“There’s nothing to announce yet, as far as what we’re going to do going forward,” he said, other than noting that he and other club executives such as President John Carpino, Chairman Dennis Kuhl and Ray Montgomery, director of player personnel, had “positive” trips visiting various minor league affiliates to speak with players.
“Talked to a lot of different players, got a lot of different perspectives on how things have been done,” Minasian said. “We want to put our minor league players in the best position to succeed. That’s first and foremost.”
Minasian declined to comment on if those efforts could include an influx of resources for Angels minor leaguers.
“Once there’s something to lay out, we will,” Minasian said. “Today, we’re not ready to do that.”
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