It’s open season on baseball’s free agents, but don’t expect the Angels to do any big-game hunting. It figures to be another winter of prudent spending for the club that lavished $317.5 million on Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson in December of 2011 and $125 million on Josh Hamilton in December of 2012.
“Some subtle changes will be made, but we’re more likely to be active in the trade market than chasing high-end free agents,” General Manager Jerry Dipoto said. “The easiest way to describe our model is to look at the things we were doing last off-season.”
Dipoto’s two biggest moves last winter were to sign veteran setup man Joe Smith to a three-year, $15.75-million deal and to trade a young player with high value, slugger Mark Trumbo, for young pitchers Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago.
All three of the newcomers made significant contributions — especially Smith, who solidified the back end of a shaky bullpen — to a club that had a major league-best 98-64 record and won the American League West for the first time since 2009.
Much like last winter, owner Arte Moreno’s reluctance to pay a luxury tax — that threshold increases from $172 million in 2014 to $189 million in 2015 — will shape Dipoto’s off-season strategy and spending.
The 10 players under contract for 2015, including Pujols, Mike Trout, Hamilton, Jered Weaver and Wilson, account for $140 million in luxury tax payroll.
Salaries for arbitration-eligible players could add $20 million to $25 million. Salaries for players with less than three years’ service time, along with bonuses and benefits, will add another $20 million or so, pushing the Angels to about $180 million, leaving them little wiggle room under the cap.
“We will try to create as much roster and payroll flexibility as we can and as many usable players that fit together,” Dipoto said. “But we really like the team we have on the field. The team we have on opening day in 2015 could look a lot like the one we have now.”
Max Scherzer, Jon Lester or James Shields would look great at the front of the rotation, but the Angels aren’t expected to bid on the three best starting pitchers on the market, all of whom could command nine-figure deals.
They could pursue second-tier pitchers such as Jason Hammel, Ryan Vogelsong, Kyle Kendrick or Hiroki Kuroda, and they will likely add rotation depth by signing several pitchers to minor league deals.
The Angels would also like to add a reliever, preferably a left-hander, but as much as they’d love to sign a dominant left-hander such as Andrew Miller, they may have to settle for the likes of Joe Beimel, Craig Breslow, Neal Cotts or Joe Thatcher.
The Angels could gain a little more payroll flexibility by trading second baseman Howie Kendrick ($8.4 million) or third baseman David Freese, who is projected to make $6.3 million in arbitration, preferably for a young, controllable starting pitcher or reliever.
The Angels could also save some money by not tendering a contract to utility infielder Gordon Beckham, who is projected to make $5 million in arbitration. But the Angels like what Beckham brings to the role, and Beckham would be a candidate to start at second or third if Freese or Kendrick is traded.
“We’ll take advantage of whatever opportunities come our way,” Dipoto said.