This off-season there was quite a bit written about the Angels lack of a farm system. The best prospects (Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis) were traded along with Erik Aybar, for defensive shortstop sensation, Andrelton Simmons. Indeed, in terms of premium minor league talent, it will take the Angels years to reconstitute their young talent pool.
If you want to see the best of the Angels young talent, you won't find it in the minor leagues, you will find it on the 40 man roster, you will find it in the big league dugout, you will find it shining like a mighty beacon of glory in CENTER FIELD (yes capitalized fully).
The Angels are in the midst of a revolution. A exciting young cluster of major leaguers gathered around the ultimate nucleus of Mike Trout. Indeed this is the dawn of a new age.
The Infield Revolution
One only has to look at the infield turnover in the past year to see a massive shift in the team. For nearly a decade Erik Aybar and Howie Kendrick anchored the Angels up the middle They were both very solid, well above average, high quality players and people. We as Angels fans appreciated their primes. But with the departure of Aybar this off season and Kendrick last off season, we are looking at a brand new middle infield.
Andrelton Simmons is a defensive shortstop, the likes of which, Angels fans have never witnessed before. At least not in this modern era. At just 26 years of age, with 500 games of major league excellence at shortstop already established, he will anchor the Angel's defense, and do for the infield, what Mike Trout does for the outfield. A super hero like defender, with room to grow as a batter, flashes of pop, already achieving home run totals Aybar never came near (17), and a team friendly salary locked in at about 10mm AAV, ladies and gentlemen, the shortstop question has been answered with brilliance.
Johnny Giavotella, our scrappy new second basemen, has some big shoes to fill. Howie Kendrick was both an excellent hitter as well as a plus defender. Howie hit a lot of line drives and sometimes that meant he created tailor made double plays in clutch moments. He would also seem to whiff at important moments, perhaps trying too hard, hacking. Both Aybar and Kendrick were hitters first, not the kind of guys who watch a lot of pitches go by, they wanted to swing at all the strikes. With Johnny G. the Angels have acquired a scrappy and surprisingly clutch spark plug, who has been a sub par defender, but who brings passion, fire, and determination to the club. Howie was almost too nice at times, too serene. No one is going to accuse Johnny G. of not going all out on everything.
Last year Johnny G. was one of the biggest reasons the team surged down the stretch, exploding offensively, pushing doubles into triples, getting clutch rbi's, scoring runs, and pushing the team to the brink of the playoffs. In fact, that one game difference, can be boiled down to a game in which Johnny G. hit a homer and then was benched for Featherstone in the seventh inning, who promptly committed an error. Mike Scioscia offended the baseball gods by benching the hero of the game, and the rest is history. Johnny has worked feverishly on defense this offseason with off all people, Ronnie Washington, to make sure that never happens again.
David Freese had been the Angels third basemen for three seasons until his contract ended this off season. He was a decent veteran with mediocre defense, a bit of pop, and he played well in spurts. He was also a bit on the brittle side, and some of that was just plain old bad luck, getting hit in the hands with pitches. Perhaps he just isn't that mobile, a man that plays above his age, whose range both on the field and in the batters box was minimal. Many of us were upset that he cost the team Randall Grichuk to acquire, and to top it off, he batted close to .200 for the first month and a half of his Angels career, adding to the buyer's remorse.
Yunel Escobar replaces Freese at third base for the next couple seasons, signed for a pittance in terms of major league contracts these days, and coming off a year in which he batted a robust .315, Yunel, a former shortstop turned third-basemen looks to provide a quality OBP bat, coupled with a potentially better than Freese level of defense at the hot corner.
So in just one year, from last spring to this spring, the Angels have completely revamped the infield. The combined salaries of Freese (6.4 million), Aybar (8.5 million) and Kendrick (9.3 million) amount to about 24 million dollars. The next generation infield of Escobar (7 million -1.5 paid by Nationals, so 5.5 million this year), Simmons (6 million this year + 2.5 of Aybars, so 8.5) and super bargain Johnny G. (500K or so), add up to a total of 14.5 million this season. The cost of our infield has been cut in half. We have the best defensive shortstop in the game, we have a table setter in Escobar with better than Freese defensive upside, and we have a true spark plug in Johnny G., who brings an Eckstein like intangible competitiveness, similar to what brought the team a championship in 2002.
The Catcher Revolution
We've also had a complete turnover of our catching department in the past year. For several years the tandem of primary catcher Chris Ianetta, and backup Hank Conger, where the targets that the Angel pitching staff were throwing into. Neither catcher was a plus defender, with Conger being known as a good pitch framer with a lousy arm, and Ianetta being a sub par defender and target, but with the calling card of a great OBP. Both catchers were more known for their offensive potential.
Hank Conger was traded for both Nick Tropeano AND Carlos Perez on November 5th, 2014. Wow was that a great trade for the Angels. At first, Carlos Perez was looked at as kind of a throw in on that trade, but as luck would have it, Perez turned out to be a great rookie acquisition and played a major role in 2015.
Chris Ianetta fell off the end of the earth last season, and was eventually benched in favor of the rookie Perez. When a manager like Mike Scioscia benches a veteran catcher in favor of a rookie catcher, you know that vet has used up all nine lives. Ianetta's batting average plunged to a career low, .188, while Perez hit a far more respectable .250, their OBP percentages were almost identical.
In addition to putting together a lot of quality at bats down the stretch for the Angels last year, Perez turned out to have a plus arm, throwing out about 38% of steal attempts, good for 5th in all of baseball. He also had 71 assists, good for 2nd in the league, catching only half the games. Carlos Perez is now entering his 2nd major league campaign, and is under team control for the entire Trout window.
The Angels signed veteran catcher Geovany Soto to a one year contract, for 2.8 million. Last year Soto put up superior numbers to both Conger and Iannetta, providing 1.0 WAR, 9 homers in 210 PA, and an OBP on par with Iannetta, Conger, and Perez, all hoovering around .300.
The Angels have a capable duo of catchers, again at a bargain price. This year, Ianetta will make 4.25 million, and Conger will make 1.5 million, for a combined cost of 5.75 million. Carlos Perez in his second year will make just over 500K and as stated above Geovany Soto will make 2.8 million for a combined cost of 3.3 million. The team cut it's catching expenses almost in half, and with 2015 first round draft pick Taylor Ward developing nicely in the minor leagues (and tweeting brilliantly), it seems that the Angels have things settled for this year and some degree of optimism moving forward.
First Base Revolution
When the team signed Albert Pujols heading into the 2012 season, we thought he would play first base as long as he could, and then slide into the DH slot. Well this might be the first season in which Albert plays about half his games at first base and the other half at DH, which brings us to the heir apparent at first base CJ Cron.
Cron is entering his third season with the Angels, but this projects to the first year in which he plays all his games in the major leagues and has a chance to truly find his offensive timing and rhythm. Cron has tremendous natural power in his swing, but to this point, has been a mediocre first basemen defensively at best.
We have high hopes for Cron, and if Cron was measured by his production in comparison to how much he will make this year, he's another bargain for the team. At 26, he is cost controlled for years, and signed for the Trout Window. Cron might have Trumbo-like numbers this season, let's hope circa 2012, and he is part of the Trout generation. Last season Cron put together two very high quality months, July and August, and helped propel the team towards a shot at the playoffs during that stretch. He projects to get better this year, and the team is counting on him to have a breakthrough year.
The Outfield Revolution
A few years ago, when Jerry Dipoto was hired to be assistant GM, the Angels had a crowded outfield believe it or not. It was so crowded, that Mike Trout got the flu in spring training and started the year in the minor leagues in 2012. Then in the off-season heading into 2013, Moreno made the big smelly splash of Josh Hamilton. It moved Dipoto to dish talented OF prospect Randal Grichuk and gimpy speedster Peter Borjous to the Cardinals for David Freese and a side Salas.
Well a lot has changed in the past couple years, and the human tragedy known as Josh Hamilton has been jettisoned back to Texas along with 26 million dollars (times 2). The Hamilton relapse torpedoed all the momentum of 2014's great regular season, and left the team scrambling for a viable left fielder. The gaping wound that created in both the offense and the team's budget is still bleeding profusely.
26 Million dollars is more than the team will spend on six roster spots on opening day, and three heavy platoon backups. Imagine, Escobar, Simmons, Johnny G., Cron, Perez, and Nava combined, along with backups Soto, Gentry, and Pennington will make about 26 million dollars. Let that sink in for a minute.
On the bright side, we have Mike Trout, with the most league friendly contract in baseball, according to some. Mike Trout, the best player in the world, anchors our team's offense, outfield defense, and fills the stands every single night, wherever the team plays. I could go on and on about Trout, but this article is about the young core of players that are here as part of the Trout generation, and the veterans additions that round out the mix.
Which brings us to Kole Calhoun, the Red Rooster of Right, KFC, the Red Baron. Now entering his third season of being our everyday right fielder, Kole brings gold glove defense, a great arm, and left handed power to the Angels lineup every single day. He's 28 years old, in his prime, and under team control for 4 seasons. This year he will make just 3.4 million, so he's another bargain in baseball terms.
In Trout and Calhoun, we have our Batman and Robin of the outfield. Both very gifted, one being a Hall of Famer talent and the other a gold glove winner and slugger who hit 27 homers last year. Trout will make 16 million this year, and Calhoun will make 3.4, which is about 20 million, plus some bonus money hopefully on top of that. That's the bargain of all outfield bargains, league wide.
The Black Hole in Left Field
Let me make this brief. We have underdog storybook Daniel Nava presently as our primary LF option, potentially platooning with 4th outfielder veteran Craig Gentry. Competing with them for a shot at the position is juicy Korean Ji Man Choi, who might also slot as a backup DH.
We all want to believe in the Nava story, but essentially we are looking at the exhaust shaft of the 2016 Angels Death Star. This battle station isn't quite complete, the shields are down, and the fleet of league pitchers is flying low and fast with proton torpedos armed. All thanks to Sith Lord, Josh Hamilton.
The Angels had the best opportunity in many years, to fill this slot with one of the many great free agent outfield option, but Arte Moreno let destiny float past him.
Looking at the Yankees, who are trying to get under the luxury cap, it almost seems like a version of league wide, ownership collusion is taking place in advance of the Collective Bargaining Agreement between league ownership and the players association.
Perhaps the Angels genuinely made quality offers and were rebuffed, it's hard to know exactly, but the team is going to war with nothing but duct tape holding together left field. It's a sore subject and I wish Nava and Co. all the best, but we may have punted 2016 because of all that has led to this. Indeed what a storybook it would be if Nava could put together a JB Shuck circa 2013 year.
The Pitching Staff
Nowhere is the next generation as obvious on the Angels than on this year of transition for the pitching staff. We enter the year with 8 starters. Weaver has been the anchor of the staff for almost a decade, and he is entering his last year under contract. CJ Wilson is also in his last year under contract. Each will make 20 million this year, and both have big question marks hanging over their heads entering Spring training.
Weaver is the longest tenured Angels, and the Angel who has done the most for the team as a pitcher for the last decade. He has been our ace, a fierce competitor, and taken a team friendly contract. We love him, but his body has already begun to retire. He might become a precautionary tale for young pitchers of the future, that how you train in the off-season, how you stretch, how you treat your body, could be the difference between a viable 89/90 mph fastball at age 33, or a great view from the dugout. We hope for the best for Weaver, but we can't count on him being viable based on the steep physical decline he is exhibiting.
Luckily in Dipoto's final year or so, he managed to make some really important trades and acquisitions, which have set the table in terms of starting pitching for years to come.
Richards is our emerging ace, bouncing back from his knee injury in 2014, he looks to re-establish himself as one of the leagues premier pitchers. His stuff is scientifically elite, spin rate, movement, velocity, all at the top of the charts, it's his emotional and mental toughness that hold to key, the difference between him being very good, and the Ace he was born to be. He's signed for another 3 years and makes just 6 million this year.
Heaney, who was acquired in the Howie Kendrick trade last offseason, had a breakthrough year, and looks to provide the Angels with a quality left handed starter at league minimum pricing. Cost controlled, entering his age 25 season and signed for the Trout Window, his composure and ability were remarkable last season.
Tyler Skaggs was acquired in the Mark Trumbo trade, which also included Hector Santiago, another incredible move by Dipoto. Skaggs is coming of Tommy-John surgury and did not pitch last season at all, but his stuff looked great in 2014 before the injury, and it is hoped that he can regain his form in 2016. He is cost controlled and signed for 4 more seasons I believe.
Nick Tropeano was acquired in the Conger trade, and has shown major league stuff, but hasn't been given an opportunity to really delve into the major league rotation just yet. He is cost controlled, signed for the Trout Window, and has a good upside.
Hector Santiago is signed for 2 more years, and had a great first half last year, which catapulted him onto the All-star team. He often fades around the fifth inning and has shown flashes of anger on the mound, but he has a firm fastball, and the potential to get better. He is looking to develop as a pitcher, and at 28, he is hoping to cash in when he hits free agency in 2 seasons. He will make 5 million dollars this year, which for a decent starter, is a bargain, let's hope he continues to get better.
Shoemaker was the surprise of 2014, and his heart is unquestionable. I watched him pitch to the Royals in the playoffs and despite being injured and worn down, he delivered a quality start and gave the Angels every opportunity to win. Last year he was erratic, pitching great one night and then getting hammer the next, so much so, that he was sent down to the minors (bad move IMO) for a few starts to tune up. He's cost controlled, and his beard is legendary. Whether he is a long reliever, spot starter, or steps into the rotation this season, he will be contributing to this team and getting people out with his excellent splitter.
Once Weaver and Wilson's contracts roll off the books, the young cluster of starters and Shoemaker will be one of the greatest bargains in baseball. In 2017 we are looking at Richards (arb2), Santiago (arb3), Heaney (min), Skaggs (arb1) Tropeano (min) and Shoemaker (arb1), which might be a total of about 30 million dollars for 6 starters. It gives the Angels the chance to extend Richards, and sign an premium Ace.
Most likely a trade will be made between then and now, to address LF and perhaps bolster the pen.
Another young pitching notable to mention is Mike Morin out of the pen. He has shown flashes of brilliance and could emerge as the next Joe Smith for the team moving forward. He is just 24 and under team control for the Trout Window. He is hoping to lock up the 7th inning role with a strong showing in Spring.
The Front Office Revolution
Last year, we had an epic front office meltdown. Jerry burned out on being Mike Scioscia's whoopee cushion, and dedicated his August and September to managing his airbrush perfect hair-do full-time in Boston. Arte went about the business of replacing Dipoto and settled on rookie GM Billy Eppler, just after the season ended.
Eppler revamped the front office and coaching staff, starting with firing pitching coach Mike "Slider" Butcher, and hitting coach Don Baylor. Eppler brought in Charles Nagy to coach pitching, and Dave Hansen to coach hitting. He moved Gary Disarcina away from thirdbase, thankfully, and brought in former Angel coach Ron Roneicke to coach third base. Eppler signed Scott Radinski as the punk rock bullpen coach, and hired Bud Black into a front office role.
Eppler's decision to bring in Bud Black and Ron Roneicke, meant that he would have a chorus of baseball manager class minds to massage the spice of modern baseball anaylytics into hardened meatball of Mike Scioscia's baseball mind. Mike Scioscia is now the third best manager in the org chart.
In Jerry Dipoto's distilled tears, Arte Moreno tasted the salt of baseball analytics for perhaps the first time. Thanks to an intervention by the team's new brain trust, Mike Scioscia, a gut-aholic, has been forced to confront his demons and has begun the 12 step analytics recovery program. It's all part of the Angels revolution.
The Angels Revolution
So there you have it, your 2016 Mike Trout generation Angels. With Albert Pujols as the team's captain, and Mike Trout as the teams heart and soul, we enter 2016 on a wing and a prayer. How else can you describe an Angel?
Gone are Aybar, Kendrick, Conger, Trumbo, Freese, Ianetta. Weaver is on his Kobe Bryant tour, trying to dig deep and prove science, math, and logic mean nothing, but if anyone can fool the world with guts and guile, it's Weave. We enter a brave new world, with Mike Trout as our Soma. With a bevy of young pitchers, trying to get a grip on destiny. With a whole new infield, and a hole in the outfield. With a second year catcher whose arm makes us forget Conger and whose bat makes us forget Ianetta.
We have hope because it's Spring, because it's fresh, because it's Trout time. The Revolution is upon us, and next year, it will come full circle. A new ace or power bat will be signed as contracts slide off the books. While this season might be a big question mark, there is a lot of great young talent which is growing and evolving with Mike Trout as the nucleus. This cluster of players should grow and develop together and by the time Trout is 26, should be peaking with him.
I can't wait for the season to begin, in 2017, and until then, I am going to enjoy watching the best farm in the league compete in the Bigs. No matter what happens this season, whether we win or lose, we will learn and grow and develop and progress. Underdogs, and in some cases Undergods, we cross into a new frontier together.
Viva la Revolucion!