With Wednesday night’s closing of the 2011 season came some payroll relief for the Angels, who didn’t get enough bang for the buck from the $142 million owner Arte Moreno spent on the club.
For example, the team will shed the albatross-like contracts of Scott Kazmir and Gary Matthews Jr., who made $25.5 million despite playing a combined 12/3 innings for the Angels this season.
In all, the Angels will trim $41 million from their 2011 payroll, which will probably prompt visions of free-agent sluggers Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder and pitchers C.J. Wilson and Heath Bell dancing in the heads of some fans.
They shouldn’t get their hopes up. The team has $99 million committed to nine players under contract for 2012, and arbitration-eligible players such as Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar will boost the payroll by about $18 million.
Add $4 million or so for near-minimum-wage earners such as Mark Trumbo, Peter Bourjos and Jordan Walden, and the Angels will have a starting payroll of about $121 million for 2012, one of the highest in baseball.
Assuming Moreno doesn’t want to surpass this year’s record payroll, the Angels may have room for one significant free agent.
General Manager Tony Reagins may be forced to get creative in the trade market, which can be good … or really bad. Reagins has been the Dave Kingman of GMs. He swings hard and has hit some home runs (Mark Teixeira, Dan Haren), but some of his whiffs (Kazmir, underachieving outfielder Vernon Wells) have been more spectacular.
“We’ve had issues this season, but I love the nucleus of this club,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “I love the youth, and I love the veterans. I think we’re still championship caliber, with some depth that needs to be added.”
With Jered Weaver, Haren and Ervin Santana, the Angels should have a strong rotation, and the emergence of several young players this season provides hope.
But if the Angels are to end their two-year playoff drought, they must upgrade a lineup that was held to two runs or fewer 51 times this season and a shaky bullpen that led the league with 25 blown saves.
Reasons for optimism
• The Angels were 58-42 in games started by Weaver, Haren and Santana, who combined for a 45-30 record with a 2.98 earned-run average and 568 strikeouts in 7022/3 innings.
The three right-handers kept an offensively challenged club in playoff contention all season, and they would make the Angels dangerous in a short playoff series … if they ever get to one.
• Trumbo, a rookie, led the team with 29 home runs and 87 runs batted in. Bourjos, in his second year, hit .273 with 12 homers, 11 triples, 26 doubles, 22 stolen bases and was a game changer on defense. Walden, who was thrust into the closer role as a rookie, took his lumps with a league-leading 10 blown saves. But the hard-throwing right-hander also had 32 saves and a 2.73 ERA.
• The Angels remain hopeful that slugger Kendrys Morales, out for a year and a half because of a broken left ankle, will return in 2012. He hit .306 with 34 homers and 108 RBIs in 2009, and would team with Trumbo for a dynamic one-two punch in the middle of the lineup. Add 20-plus homer seasons from Torii Hunter and Wells, and the Angels could have legitimate power.
Reasons for pessimism
• The roster is somewhat dysfunctional, heavy in outfielders, designated hitters and first basemen — not good in a winter when some of the most attractive free agents are first basemen (Pujols, Fielder) and outfielders (Josh Willingham).
There won’t be much use for Bobby Abreu, the 37-year-old designated hitter-outfielder, but he’s guaranteed $9 million next season and has virtually no trade value. If Wells hits .218 again, he will put a considerable drag on the team.
• The Rangers have won two straight division titles, reaching the World Series in 2010, and they have a potent club that is poised to dominate the AL West for years.
“There’s a separation [between us and the Rangers] that we need to close,” Scioscia said. “It’s going to come with guys here performing better, and we’re going to have to go outside the organization for depth.”
• The Angels have had a number of promising relievers — Jose Arredondo, Kevin Jepsen, Michael Kohn, Jason Bulger — flame out after breakout seasons, and deals for veterans such as Fernando Rodney, Justin Speier and Esteban Yan haven’t panned out.
Reagins can’t afford to miss on bullpen help when free-agent closers such as Bell and Ryan Madson are available.