The news broke before the noontime game vs Boston. On the DL since July 31st due to a "flexor tendon strain," there had been few updates since, save for a lengthening of his likely disabled stint to a month above the standard 15 day stretch. Now the worst has been confirmed. Tyler Skaggs will undergo Tommy John surgery and be out the rest of this season, and most or all of next.
Acquired in the three-team trade that sent Mark Trumbo to Arizona and Adam Eaton to the White Sox, Tyler Skaggs arrived with Hector Santiago this season to form the backend of an Angels rotation reboot for a team that had suffered from thin depth in both the ranks of its starters and bullpen in recent seasons. While Skaggs had intermittent troubles with going long in games, as with many young pitchers rounding out their game (Skaggs only turned 23 last month), he nonetheless had a number of promising outings that demonstrated the very high ceiling on his talent. Over his past two starts, he held the formidable Baltimore and Detroit offenses to 5 hits and 1 earned run collectively over 10.1 IP. For the 2014 season, he made 18 starts and threw 113 innings, pitching to a 4.30 ERA. "True talent" metrics liked him even better, due to his low walk rate and ability to keep the ball in the park. With a 50.1% groundball rate, he penciled out to a 3.55 FIP and 1.6 fWAR on the season.
The miserable news that the young starter would be lost for not only this year's pennant race, but 2015 as well, throws a klieg light on the Angels' short- and long-term roster building strategies, and reignites a tinderbox of fan questions and complaints about recent moves, before the recent trade deadline and in offseasons since 2012. The combination of owner Arte Moreno's appetite for "big splash" acquisitions on the expensive veteran free agent market, and his near-ideological reluctance to exceed luxury tax thresholds, has hamstrung the team in multiple ways. It has sunk much of the budget into a small set of player contracts (eg, Pujols, Hamilton, Wilson), while depriving the organization of first-round draft talent that could carry high value in times of emergency, like now. The chronic underinvestment in international talent has only exacerbated the issue, leaving the Angels farm system (its own source of trade capital) the most depleted in baseball.
The result is a small, fairly inflexible budget that requires GM Jerry Dipoto to invest in only the minimum number of pieces necessary to field a solid rotation and bullpen, and to unwisely assume natural exigencies like injury and underperformance simply will not occur. "Bargain" pickups like Ryan Madson, Mark Mulder and Sean Burnett are not only expected to magically regenerate from disability and to perform at their historical peaks – the expectation is actually a critical part of the seasonal plan. Players with numerous performance question marks like Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson and Hector Santiago are anticipated to find their strides under the pitching tutelage of Mike Butcher and company, in the beneficent park environment of Anaheim, and round into superlative form.
Most of these expectations don't pan out.
Given this difficult framework in which to build a team, doubling down on one aspect of team health brings its own costs. With memories of recent bullpen collapses fresh, Dipoto chose to focus exclusively on the relief corps in the past two months, trading seven prospects, including three of the team's five top prospects, to bring in three arms (Huston Street, Joe Thatcher, Vinnie Pestano) to rehab a historical team weakness.
Meanwhile, a greater need was unfolding, even before the All Star Break. C.J. Wilson had delivered a string of outings that ultimately shot his ERA up near 5, and Tyler Skaggs had already been out nearly a month in June due to a hamstring injury. This year's vigorous trade deadline activity demonstrated that some high-quality pitching could be acquired with fewer trade chips that initially imagined, so the decision to go all-in on one-inning bullpen arms may prove to be a suboptimal near-term strategy.
Unfortunately, the cycle reinforces itself going forward. As the Pujols and Hamilton (and now Trout) contracts will only become more expensive next year, the absence of Tyler Skaggs will almost certainly force the Angels to spend aggressively on the 2015 free agent pitching market again, likely losing more early round draft picks in the bargain, and making the team even more vulnerable in the future to injuries like this one.
The mantra for the past half-decade has been "win now," but there has been insufficient scrutiny on the how of that. Tragic outcomes like today's are unfortunately more predictable than we might admit. It's the job of the front office and ownership to plan for them, and build the depth to overcome them. This patchwork boat continues to spring leaks.