It feels like so long ago that Arte Moreno bought the Angels and immediately endeared himself to the fanbase by making his first order of business lowering beer prices. In his first offseason he ponied up and signed Vladimir Guerrero, Bartolo Colon, Kelvim Escobar and Jose Guillen. Soon after, he imported teenage Cuban star Kendry Morales, then drafted the Boras-advised Jered Weaver, who fell to the team due to signability concerns.
Perhaps it feels so long ago because it was so long ago. Since then, Arte has been hampered by hard deadlines on potential star free agents, lack of interest in the international market and of course, impulsive "big splash" signings for fading stars with name recognition. Recently, Arte has stated he would be willing to cross the luxury tax threshold for the first time since that amazing 2004 spending spree for "the right player". The following is a list of reasons this should be the year Arte busts the budget.
Deepest free agent class in years
Whether you are looking for a starting pitcher, corner outfielder or power bat, there is no denying there are some tasty treats to be found in this year's free agent market. David Price, Johnny Cueto and Zack Greinke are legitimate aces still within their prime. Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Yoenis Cespedes are franchise outfielders. Chris Davis has been the game's premier power hitter the last few years while Ben Zobrist, Alex Gordon and Matt Wieters are former All Stars who would improve any team.
Looking ahead to next year's free agents, the waters are far more barren if teams hope to land a big fish. Sure, you can take a chance that a 36 year-old Jose Bautista will still be a premier power hitter or that Carlos Gomez bucks his recent injury trends and continues to be an elite centerfielder into his 30's. Stephen Strasburg will be the only notable starting pitcher available, while even moderately useful second-tier players will be in short demand. Plenty of big names will be on the market but most will be in their mid-to-late 30's. If Arte truly is willing cross the threshold for the "right player", the time is now to identify that guy.
Uninspiring 2016 draft class
Of course, it is far too early to make any judgements on next year's amateur player draft and still plenty of time for some of these players to take a step forward and emerge on the scene. But early previews seem to indicate that there should be plenty of interesting, useful players available but no star power.
As our own Turk's Teeth has pointed out recently, the sheer volume of qualifying offers made by major league teams could push the Angels into the middle of the first round next year if they avoid any of the QO free agents. That is enticing and I would be impressed if Eppler shows that kind of restraint to take the long view of team building. On the flip side, the quality of players available in free agency this year should add enough value to the team over the next 4-5 years that sacrificing the next Sean Newcomb would be worth it.
Timing is everything. With this year's crop of free agents as deep as ever and next year's draft still a question mark, it seems prudent to put their eggs in the free agent basket. If Eppler can fill out the roster now and basically blow off this year's draft, he can begin hoarding picks starting in 2017.
The luxury tax penalty is likely temporary
Baseball-Reference estimates the Angels' 2016 payroll at roughly $154.7M, barring any major free agent acquisitions. In 2017 Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Erick Aybar and Joe Smith come off the books. By 2018, they are finally free of the Josh Hamilton debacle. Of course, signing some of the big names available this year will mitigate the savings over the next few years, so it's tough to gauge what their actual payroll will look like in 2017 and beyond.
But does it matter? Keep in mind, the CBA expires after this season. While revenue sharing and the luxury tax are not likely to go anywhere, player salaries continue to rise every year. It is not unreasonable to think that the tax threshold should rise beyond the $200 million range. This assumes, of course, that Arte's payroll cap really is about a reluctance to pay the tax and not about his actual revenues coinciding with where the threshold has been set.
If they spend like drunken sailors and nab, say, David Price, Ben Zobrist and Tony Sipp, that would add roughly $45 million or so to next year's payroll, putting them at an even $200 million, plus another $2M for the luxury tax. Some hesitation is understandable since the tax threshold beyond this year is currently unknown. But it is virtually impossible that it would drop below the current $189M, considering it has only risen nearly every season since the rule was collectively bargained. Even in the unlikely scenario that it stays flat for a few more seasons, the Angels can make the sacrifice this year and stay below the penalty in future seasons, as long as they stay out of the deep-end of the free agent pool for a few years.
The AL West will only get tougher
The Houston Astros have been lauded (and criticized) for their cut-throat approach to roster building and the payoff came early in 2015, earning entry into the playoffs via the second wild card. The Rangers surprised baseball by taking the AL West and look just as formidable next year, as Yu Darvish returns to pitch alongside Cole Hammels. Seattle has been a trendy breakout candidate for a few years now and will have a motivated Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais to help them get over the hump. Of course, Billy Beane never stays quiet for too long.
With a few key additions, the Angels can be right there with the rest of the division over the next few seasons. If they continue with the mediocrity we have dealt with the last few seasons, they might as well sell off all their valuable pieces and re-load to compete in five years when the cycle runs through again.
We have Mike Friggin' Trout
In case you somehow need to be reminded, the Angels happen to employ the best player of the last half-century and he's still only 23 years-old. Worth roughly 10 WAR per season, it is virtually impossible for the Angels to not be competitive while he wears their uniform. Ultimately, we want the team to challenge for a championship now while continuing to build towards the future. At the moment, the former seems far more plausible than the latter. If Mike walks away after the 2020 season, chances are at that point a full-blown teardown will be in order.
For this one offseason, with enough readily available talent to transform the current roster into a legitimate contender, it makes complete sense to push all their chips to the center and make a push to win it all sometime over the next few seasons. Once the roster is in tact, a more conservative approach can be taken to subtly set up future rosters to remain competitive once this current window closes.