SAN DIEGO — The past five years, the average win total needed to earn a playoff spot in the American League has rounded out to 91. For the Los Angeles Angels, striving to launch themselves into legitimate contention as quickly as possible, that means finding 19 more wins in one offseason. Teams have done it — 29 of them since 2000, most recently the 2019 Minnesota Twins and the 2018 Oakland Athletics — but never easily.
“I think it’s going to require risk,” Angels general manager Billy Eppler said. “So you have to be prepared to take risks, be willing to kind of pursue both marketplaces, free agency and trade, in order to do that.”
The Angels’ best chance to make up the difference might have vanished Tuesday, when Gerrit Cole joined the New York Yankees on a nine-year, $324 million contract. Now the Angels have a lot of money to spend and no obvious place to spend it. They seemingly began Tuesday with enough payroll space to give Cole a massive contract — though perhaps not that massive. Then they sent the 15th overall pick in the 2019 draft to the San Francisco Giants so they could free themselves of the nearly $13 million they still owed Zack Cozart.
The Angels are now projected to sit roughly $70 million below the 2020 luxury-tax threshold, which is set at $208 million, according to information from Cot’s Contracts. Owner Arte Moreno has declined to reveal his operating budget for next season, but Eppler acknowledged that the team “probably” has the means to sign multiple players to $20-plus million contracts. Speaking five hours before Cole made his decision, Eppler expressed optimism about his ability to acquire front-line starting pitchers besides Cole, specifically through the trade market. He smiled when asked if he could access those players without parting with his top prospect, Jo Adell.
“Yes,” he said, “I feel confident in that.”
The Angels’ actual record and Pythagorean record were the same last season: 72-90. They need to increase that win total to at least 91, but how? First, they need to count on improvement from their current players.
An obvious one is Shohei Ohtani, who will return to a two-way role next season. Steamer projects him to be worth 4.7 FanGraphs-blend wins above replacement (fWAR) in 2020, which would be 2.9 more than he was worth in 2019. Steamer also projects an increase of 1.8 fWAR from left fielder Justin Upton, who struggled to stay healthy last season. It projects 2.3 fWAR from newcomer Dylan Bundy, who is probably taking the spot of a replacement-level starter. That is — ideally — seven more wins.
If Adell can somehow match the 3.6 fWAR Fernando Tatis Jr. produced in 84 games as a rookie for the San Diego Padres this season, that would qualify as a one-win increase over Kole Calhoun, the man he will eventually replace. Now we’re at a maximum of eight.
How do the Angels pick up the rest? Below is a look. We’ll take a guess at the Competitive Balance Tax payroll, which uses the average annual value of contracts, and put it at $190 million, giving the team an estimated $52 million or so to spend. We’ll ask that you be mindful that this is a very inexact exercise, especially because we aren’t factoring in the newcomers’ potential replacements.
This is very straightforward. The Angels would move on to the next tier of free-agent starters and hope two of them can come close to or surpass the production the team would have received from Cole. Ohtani is expected to pitch once a week, not every five games, which means the Angels will need a sixth starter every now and then. This gives them a rotation of Ryu, Keuchel, Ohtani, Bundy and Andrew Heaney and allows them to keep the innings low for young guys such as Griffin Canning and Patrick Sandoval. It keeps them somewhat flexible with their payroll and keeps their improving farm system intact while giving them a shot at a playoff spot. It’s safe. Too safe?
Donaldson adds more might to the lineup, giving the Angels someone who can probably play both third and first base and easing the burden for guys such as David Fletcher, Tommy La Stella and Luis Rengifo. Keuchel isn’t an ace, but he can slide into the No. 2 spot and give the Angels a respectable rotation of Ohtani, Keuchel, Bundy, Canning and Heaney. Contreras, attainable from the Chicago Cubs, solidifies the catcher’s spot with someone new manager Joe Maddon is quite fond of. It isn’t necessarily sexy, but it is solid.
The cost would be high, both financially and in prospects, but this would be fun. Rendon would join a lineup with Mike Trout, Ohtani and Upton. Kluber would sit atop the rotation, making it a formidable group. Hader would be the dominant, left-handed force in a bullpen that includes Keynan Middleton, Hansel Robles and Ty Buttrey.
The Angels would be a pretty complete team, one that might be equipped to beat a Houston Astros club that seems poised to come back to the pack. Rendon will require an exorbitant contract, but Kluber and Hader are affordable. Question is: Can the Angels acquire those two without parting with Adell? Would guys such as Canning, Fletcher, Brandon Marsh and Jeremiah Jackson be enough?