The Angels are now headed for a second straight October of watching baseball instead of playing it. Here's what needs to happen to get them back on the right track.
First and foremost, Tony Reagins has to go. A good GM lets the manager manage, but also makes sure the right pieces are in place, and the Vernon Wells for Juan Rivera and Mike Napoli swap will likely go down as the worst player-for-player trade in baseball history (I figure taking cash for Babe Ruth will always be the worst). With Rivera and/or Abreu in left and Napoli splitting time at first and catching, the Angels are in a tight race with the Rangers and aren't grossly over budget. He's made a few good moves over the years, but the early wisdom of letting Figgins and Lackey go while snagging charismatic Torii Hunter and acquiring Mark Teixeira on the cheap are distant memories. Now it's the salary-chugging deals of Reagins' tenure that are killing the team, as well as Mike Scoscia's nigh-unlimited power. He trots Jeff Mathis out there every day because he's on the roster, and an easy way to fix that is simply to choose not to sign him.Hhire Kim Ng, maybe, to replace Reagins. Get someone in who understands baseball is about getting the best value for your money, both on the field and at the bank.
The Angels need to turn the page at starting catcher. Jeff Mathis needs to go. He has no business being in an every day lineup. If Jered Weaver wants a more defensive-minded backstop, Bobby Wilson can pick up those duties, but the other four games per rotational cycle should go to Hank Conger. Despite Mike Scoscia's insulting comparison of an outfielder to Hank Conger behind the plate, it's time to let a kid who can hit (and watch a bad ball go by) go for it. At this point, a .700 OPS catcher would be a massive boost behind the plate, and Conger's ceiling is much higher than that. Even if his throws aren't perfect, he can improve, and the positional value of having a catcher who can hit in baseball right now is worth some defensive shortcomings.
The Angels also need to be willing to let the best players play in the outfield. Counting Bobby Abreu, the Angels are paying an exorbitant amount of cash for three players that are all in obvious decline. Torii Hunter still brings value as a corner outfielder, and his offense, while subpar, will probably be just good enough to stay out there for the last year of his contract, after which it will be time for a fond farewell. Peter Bourjos' offense is good enough for the tremendous defensive value he brings, so he's still worth keeping in center. Vernon Wells, the big splash in the middle of the toilet bowl, needs to ride pine as the fourth outfielder. Sure, it stings to pay $20 million or so a year for a role-player, but if the point of the game is to WIN, he needs to be on the bench, not soaking up boos in left field. It makes no sense to dump him entirely due to the Angels' lack of organizational depth, but he shouldn't be starting. Mike Trout should be out there in left field, because even if his offense hasn't come around to Major League pitching yet, his defensive value is enough that it can make up for it while he comes along. Bobby Abreu might end up the odd man out, but he might be movable if the Angels take on some salary. He could still DH somewhere, perhaps a place like Kansas City, where he can pass on his wisdom to a new, young class of hitters. He's not ready to retire yet, but getting Abreu in as hitting coach would be great, and as soon as he retires, the Angels should be knocking on that door.
The Angels also need to stop counting on Kendrys Morales to come back and be the force he was in 2009. It is possible that he will, and if so, that can be figured out when it happens. For now, the Angels have a good young player in Mark Trumbo, but his light-tower power obscures his cringe-inducing on-base numbers. The Angels need to make a move this offseason and get that middle-of-the-order bat they've been missing since Vladimir Guerrero's decline. They need to get either Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder. One is younger and one is more fit, but both will bring an offensive presence to the club that will give them a fighting chance against a Rangers team in its prime while also letting the young class mature into support roles. If one were so inclined, they could even try Pujols at 3B to keep Trumbo and/or Morales at first, though I'm not sure it's a wise move defensively. One of the great fallacies of 2011 was counting on Kendrys Morales to return when all signs pointed to either no return or a diminished presence when he did.
The rest of the infield and the rotation is fine. Jose Reyes is sure to be a big name this season, but he has some pretty big durability issues, and going hog wild in the offseason after signing Prince or Pujols is a fast way to repeating the same problems the Angels are facing right now. Erick Aybar could be more consistent, but he does a much better job of staying on the field than Reyes. Signing a fourth starter to a 1-2 year deal would make some sense, but I'm also not opposed to letting Trevor Bell get another crack at the starting rotation while keeping Tyler Chatwood up. With Garrett Richards waiting in the wings, the Angels would be able to weather an injury (or suspension) next season without completely falling apart. I'd like to say Scott Downs should be closer, but knowing how rigid Scoscia is with his relievers, having him around when games are close in the earlier going is of more value than waiting until the 9th inning, when a game could be lost due to poor relief prior and his talent is wasted.
I think the Angels are fixable, and I think they're fixable relatively quickly. There's a desert of talent left over after the team pushes its last few young stars through and the new draftees start to move up through the system, but if the Angels want to challenge the Rangers in the first half of this decade at some point, promoting the last few stars of this wave of talent is their best shot at doing so. And while I normally abhor overpaying for free agents, the Angels have to do something big to keep up with a very good team in Texas, and signing Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder would not only put butts in seats, it would give their engine some horsepower. 2012 may be the last year Jered Weaver dons Angels red. Dan Haren and Ervin Santana are in their prime. The time to make the push is NOW.