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Lockout begins with the Angels still needing starting pitching

Angels closer Raisel Iglesias pitches against the Texas Rangers on April 28, 2021.
Closer Raisel Iglesias will return to the Angels on a four-year, $58-million contract he signed this week.
(Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)

On the first day of the offseason, Angels general manager Perry Minasian set a high bar for his club this winter.

Yes, they had an opening at shortstop. Yes, their lineup was in need of more depth. But more than anything, he was setting out to fix a perennially disappointing pitching staff, targeting a transformation he hoped could turn the Angels into true contenders as soon as next season.

“We understand the mound is a place where we’d like to significantly improve,” Minasian said in early October, at his end-of-season news conference. “Not just improve. But significantly improve.”

Two months later, the Angels pitching definitely looks different than it did last season. They brought in two starters they believe have high upside. They signed an accomplished left-handed middle reliever. And they’ve secured the return of their dominant closer.

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It didn’t take long for MLB owners to impose a lockout once the collective bargaining agreement expired. It may take a long time before the game is played again.

But, with free agency grinding to a halt amid a lockout between MLB and its players union, whether or not the Angels have “significantly” improved their staff — or compiled a group of arms capable of enabling a legitimate playoff push — remains in doubt.

A bona fide ace, after all, has yet to arrive. The top of the rotation still has holes. And, while there will be opportunities to add more once the lockout ends, most of the best free- agent starters signed elsewhere.

For a team seeking more than simply marginal improvements, the opportunities for another impact addition appear to be dwindling.

Noah Syndergaard came away from a three-hour dinner with Perry Minasian impressed with the Angels general manager’s baseball knowledge.

The Angels have made encouraging splashes, unquestionably, but the tidal wave seemingly necessary to wash away years of underperformance on the mound has yet to materialize.

Speaking with reporters Wednesday night, Minasian remained optimistic, touting the Angels’ additions while reiterating the hunt for more pitching will continue whenever offseason activity resumes.

“We feel like we have added some impactful arms, and the offseason is not over,” he said. “There’s time to continue to improve. We will look to do that.”

When asked if he thought the Angels staff was “good enough,” Minasian gave a familiar answer about always looking to better the group.

“I don’t think there’s any pitching staff that is good enough,” he said. “I think if you ask any team, they’d all want to get better.”

The clearest improvements for now are in the bullpen.

After signing left-hander Aaron Loup to a two-year, $17-million contract following a 2021 season in which he led all MLB relievers in earned-run average, the Angels signed closer Raisel Iglesias to a four-year, $58-million contract finalized hours before the lockout, securing the right-hander long term after he’d previously rejected the team’s one-year qualifying offer.

Just as they hoped, the Angels have struck a deal to keep their closer long term.

Keeping Iglesias was always a top priority for the Angels, who have had a different pitcher lead the team in saves every year since 2017. Bringing in Loup should enhance their set-up options in front of Iglesias, an area in which they struggled to find consistency last season.

“To have two veterans at the back of the bullpen who you feel really good about giving the ball to is comforting,” Minasian said.

What to expect from the rotation, however, is less clear.

So far, the team has added two starters: former All-Star right-hander Noah Syndergaard on a one-year, $21-million contract and former reliever Michael Lorenzen on a one-year, $6.75-million deal.

But they’ve also lost Alex Cobb, who signed with the San Francisco Giants, and Dylan Bundy, who signed with the Minnesota Twins. Despite being limited to 18 starts last season, Cobb had a decent 3.76 ERA (with even better advanced metrics). Bundy emerged as a staff stalwart in 2020, but regressed in 2021.

The Angels also missed out on several big-name free-agent starters to which they were linked. Max Scherzer signed a record-breaking three-year, $130-million contract with the New York Mets that, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, the Angels didn’t come close to matching. Robbie Ray, Kevin Gausman, Marcus Stroman and Jon Gray, however, were more affordable options all reportedly pursued by the Angels before they signed elsewhere over the last week.

It didn’t take long for MLB owners to impose a lockout once the collective bargaining agreement expired. It may take a long time before the game is played again.

While Minasian declined to say how close the Angels were to signing any of those players, he maintained it was still “realistic” for the team to add to the top half of its rotation this winter.

“We’ll explore every area,” he said. “As far as top half of the rotation, bottom half of the rotation, bullpen, back end, front end, I think there’s different ways to improve.”

Whenever the offseason resumes, though, there will be far fewer top targets for the Angels to pursue.

The best remaining free-agent starters include Carlos Rodón, Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Yusei Kikuchi. Quality pitchers are rumored to be available on the trade market, too, headlined by the Cincinnati Reds’ Luis Castillo.

But the Angels are already nearing their club-record $182-million payroll from last year — they’re currently projected to have around $172 million committed for next year, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, though Minasian has indicated the team could surpass last year’s sum — and don’t have a deep farm system to deal from in potential trades.

There’s still reason to believe the current group of starters — which is also expected to include Shohei Ohtani, Patrick Sandoval and José Suarez, all three of whom should have increased workloads — could take a step forward from their 2021 performance.

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The Angels also believe both Syndergaard, who has thrown only two innings the last two seasons after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and Lorenzen, who will be transitioning from a bullpen role, could be poised for breakout performances.

“I’ve always admired the power arm, the stuff, the pitch mix,” Minasian said of Lorenzen in his first public comments on the signing. “We feel like the transition to starter, which is what he’s been dying to do … was warranted.”

But without more reinforcements, the margin for error continues to feel slim — leaving the Angels with plenty of boxes checked off this offseason, but not yet the most important one.


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