When it came to finding meaningful upgrades to their much maligned starting rotation in free agency over the last half-decade or so, there is one phrase that perfectly describes how the Angels operated: gun-shy.
Whether it be Gerrit Cole and Zack Wheeler two offseasons ago, Patrick Corbin and Nathan Eovaldi in 2018, or any other high-profile starter to hit the market in recent years, the Halos have consistently chased the sort of top-of-the-rotation arm that the team has lacked since the end of Jered Weaver’s prime, but their general aversion to taking the necessary risks to secure commitments from guys like that has left them on the outside looking in time and time again.
This long-running modus operandi is what made Tuesday morning’s news that the Angels had reached an agreement with Noah Syndergaard on a one-year, $21 million deal so surprising. After a seemingly endless cycle of low-risk, short-term commitments (think José Quintana, Julio Teheran, Matt Harvey, Trevor Cahill, etc.) that constantly blew up in their face, the club finally bucked the trend and pulled the trigger on what is perhaps the biggest high-upside gamble that anyone could make this offseason.
The Angels have agreed to terms on a one-year deal with RHP Noah Syndergaard. pic.twitter.com/BBs7irtvUj— Los Angeles Angels (@Angels) November 17, 2021
It’s difficult to discuss Syndergaard without talking about what makes him a gamble in the first place, so we’ll start with the big elephant in the room, which is the fact that he is coming off Tommy John surgery. The 29-year old Syndergaard went under the knife in March of 2020 and missed the entirety of the COVID-shortened season, and while rehabbing the injury in May of this year, he suffered a setback that pushed his return to the mound back by months. He appeared in two brief one-inning cameos at the very end of the 2021 season in what were his only two innings pitched in the last two years, although he did so without using his signature slider on the orders of the team doctors with the Mets.
All of this is absolutely cause for concern, especially when you consider the hefty price tag that comes with it, but it also makes it easy to forget that when Syndergaard has been on the mound in his career, he has been the definition of an elite-level pitcher. In the four-year stretch between his rookie year in 2015 and 2018. the man nicknamed “Thor” was undoubtedly one of the top pitchers in all of baseball, ranking among the league’s best in ERA (4th), FIP (2nd), strikeout-to-walk ratio (9th), fWAR (15th despite having significantly less innings pitched than the people in front of him), and a host of other notable pitching statistics.
His arsenal of pitches, which included a fastball that touched triple digits with regularity and a pair of low 90s offspeed offerings (a slider and a changeup, to be specific) that worked incredibly well as both swing-and miss-getters and barrel suppressors, was matched only by a select few guys around the league, and that combined with an advanced feel for the strike zone led him to great success early in his career. He won a World Series game in 2015, made the All-Star Game and received NL Cy Young votes in 2016, and just generally dominated with his unique blend of power and control whenever he stepped foot on the mound.
Pitchers with > 25 K%, < 6 BB%, > 45 GB% since 2015, among the 144 pitchers with 500 IP:— Devan Fink (@DevanFink) November 16, 2021
The injury makes it no sure thing that Syndergaard will regain this form with the Angels in 2022, but pitchers with the type of track record that he has don’t come along on the open market very often. He has shown himself to be capable of producing front-of-the-rotation caliber seasons from a very young age, and given the Halos’ absolutely dire need to fix a rotation that finished in the bottom third of the league in most pitching statistics for the sixth consecutive season, the ace-type potential that the 29-year-old righty could potentially offer is tantalizing to say the least.
Of course, Syndergaard can’t be the only addition that the Angels make this offseason, and it’s hard to completely judge his signing without the knowledge of how they plan to fill things out around him. He joins Shohei Ohtani, Patrick Sandoval and José Suarez in a rotation that certainly has the potential to be better than the groups of years past, but when you consider the injury history of the first two and the inexperience of the latter two, there still exists a need to round out the group with a level of certainty. Still, the top end of the rotation is—as the Angels have proven countless times over the years—the most difficult to nail down, and if Syndergaard is at the level that the club apparently views him at, they may have just done exactly that.
Is it a guarantee that this gamble will pay off? Not at all, but with the need to bring postseason baseball back to Anaheim in the Trout/Ohtani/Rendon window growing ever stronger as time rolls on, a talent like Syndergaard is absolutely worth betting on in hopes of getting there. It’s been a long while since the Angels really stuck their neck out for one specific pitcher on the market, but in this case, it’s a risk that they needed to take.