After winning five American League West titles in six seasons, the Angels missed the playoffs in 2010 and 2011 and replaced general manager Tony Reagins with Jerry Dipoto. In 2012, they signed Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson as free agents and Mike Trout burst onto the scene with a rookie season for the ages, but they still missed the playoffs. In 2013, they added Josh Hamilton, Jason Vargas and Joe Blanton and missed the playoffs again, finishing with their worst record since 2003.
The consensus seems to be the Angels need to make some big moves this winter, but those moves will be impeded by the albatross contracts of Pujols and Hamilton. Pujols is owed $212 million through 2021 and Hamilton $107.6 million through 2017. In 2016, those two alone will make $57.4 million ($58.4 million in 2017). Wilson and Jered Weaver are also signed through 2016; that year, the Angels will be paying more than $98 million to those four players.
Oh, they also have what is regarded as one of the weakest farm systems in the majors.
The hidden flaw in the Angels in 2013 was their defense. Consider:
2013: -63 Defensive Runs Saved (27th in majors)
2012: +58 Defensive Runs Saved (2nd in majors)
Whoa. The Angels were 121 runs worse on defense in 2013? Let's see what happened, with the usual caveats that one-year defensive metrics aren't always reliable (Ultimate Zone Rating had the Angels declining from plus-60 to negative-2, still a big drop).
C: +2 to -7 (Chris Iannetta from 0 to -7)
1B: +7 to 0 (Pujols from +8 to +1)
2B: +3 to -9 (Grant Green was -6 in 323 innings)
3B: +4 to -4 (Alberto Callaspo from +7 to -6)
SS: -7 to -12 (Erick Aybar from +3 to -7)
LF: +7 to +1 (Mark Trumbo was +7 in 497 innings in 2012)
CF: +30 to -7 (Trout from +23 to -9)
RF: +9 to -13 (Torii Hunter was +15 while Hamilton was -8)
P: +2 to -13 (J.C. Gutierrez -4 in just 26 innings)
So according to Defensive Runs Saved, the Angels declined at every position, with the biggest problems caused by Trout declining 32 runs in center field and Hamilton replacing Hunter, a decline of 23 runs. (Mark Simon detailed Trout's defensive problems in late August.)
Overall, the Angels allowed 38 more runs in 2013, so that decline -- if you trust Defensive Runs Saved -- is mostly attributable to the defense and not the pitching staff. If that's the case, this should show up in the peripheral pitching numbers. Let's see:
K/9 BB/9 HR/9 LOB% BABIP
2012 7.3 3.0 1.0 72.6 .277
2013 7.4 3.3 1.2 72.3 .300
The Angels did walk a few more batters, but the big difference was batting average on balls in play. In 2012, the Angels ranked second in the majors in BABIP (just behind the Rays). In 2013, they ranked 22nd. Those figures do suggest a defensive decline (well, plus a lot of line drives allowed by Joe Blanton).
The trick for the Angels' front office: Do you work to improve the pitching staff or work to improve the team's defense? And how can they avoid torpedoing the offense in the process? Trading Howie Kendrick and installing Grant Green or rookie Taylor Lindsey at second base likely hurts you on defense and offense (Green probably won't hit as well as Kendrick and Keith Law gave Lindsey's defense in the Arizona Fall League a poor review). Or maybe you trade Kendrick, hope for the best from Green/Lindsey and hope everyone else plays a little better than last season. Still, the defensive numbers are a reason I'd be hesitant about trading Peter Bourjos, who may not bring much in trade anyway considering his injury issues last season.
If I'm the Angels, I look to deal Trumbo, who hit 34 home runs but will be 28 and had a sub-.300 OBP. The power is nice, but it comes at the expense of a lot of outs at the plate. Now's the time to trade him, with three years of team control being an attraction for another club. Return Pujols to first base, play Kole Calhoun in the outfield with Trout and Bourjos and have Hamilton split time in right field and DH.
Baseball-Reference estimates the Angels' payroll right now at $148 million after being at $137 million in 2013. With the new $25 million in national TV money, there's money for the Angels to go up over that $137 million, but probably not a lot of room for big-ticket free agents. That means the Angels probably have to take a risk on a couple of low-cost starters if they want to improve their rotation -- think Josh Johnson, Dan Haren, Phil Hughes or bringing back Jason Vargas. None of those guys will break the bank or require a long-term deal.
That still leaves third base open, assuming Trumbo is dealt for pitching help (say, Felix Doubront from the Red Sox). Jhonny Peralta would be a nice fit there, a guy Jim Bowden predicted to receive a two-year, $20 million deal.
It's not a sexy offseason, but the Angels could then roll out a lineup like this:
RF Kole Calhoun
2B Howie Kendrick
LF Mike Trout
1B Albert Pujols
DH Josh Hamilton
3B Jhonny Peralta (2 years, $20 million)
C Chris Iannetta/Hank Conger
SS Erick Aybar
CF Peter Bourjos
SP Jered Weaver
SP C.J. Wilson
SP Josh Johnson (1 year, $8 million)
SP Felix Doubront
SP Tommy Hanson (the Angels may non-tender him )
SP Joe Blanton (he's still around!)
Can that team win? It certainly would be dependent on getting more from Pujols than Hamilton. Pujols had the foot injury he tried to play through and Hamilton did hit .287/.341/.460 in the second half (a big improvement from his .224/.283/.413 first half), so there is a good chance that will happen.
I can see the Angels improving in 2013. Just not sure they have the resources to catch the A's and Rangers.