The Angels seem to be in baseball purgatory as spring training approaches, one big bat and frontline starter away from possible playoff contention, and one or two injuries away from another fourth-place finish in the American League West.
They had a chance to — but didn’t match — the 10-year, $700-million deal Shohei Ohtani signed with the Dodgers and lost the two-way phenom to their Southern California rivals, leaving gaping holes at the top of the rotation and in the middle of the lineup.
Those voids could be nicely filled with two pricey free agents the Angels have been linked to, veteran left-hander Blake Snell, who won the National League Cy Young Award with the San Diego Padres last year, and left-handed-hitting slugger Cody Bellinger, who hit .307 with an .881 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 26 homers and 97 RBIs for the Chicago Cubs.
Snell, who went 14-9 with a major league-leading 2.25 earned-run average in 32 starts, striking out 234 and walking 99 in 180 innings, could bump Reid Detmers, Griffin Canning, Patrick Sandoval and Tyler Anderson down a slot in the rotation and significantly boost the starting pitching.
Bellinger could replace a chunk — but not all — of Ohtani’s power and give the Angels a Gold Glove-caliber defender in either center field, necessitating the long-anticipated move of Mike Trout to left, or at first base, where Bellinger could play if rookie Nolan Schanuel struggles in his first full season.
The Angels’ annual winter bullpen renovation seems to have gone fairly well, general manager Perry Minasian spending $49 million on right-handers Robert Stephenson, Luis Garcia and Adam Cimber and left-hander Matt Moore, who should provide new manager Ron Washington with plenty of setup options in front of closer Carlos Estévez.
The rotation would improve dramatically with the addition of Snell, and Bellinger would thicken the middle of a lineup that includes Trout, Anthony Rendon and Brandon Drury and will be be filled out by the likes of Luis Rengifo, Taylor Ward, Mickey Moniak and youngsters Logan O’Hoppe, Zach Neto and Schanuel.
Would that be enough to vault the Angels, who suffered their eighth straight losing season by going 73-89 last year, into playoff contention in a rugged division that includes the defending World Series-champion Texas Rangers and the perennial title-contending Houston Astros?
Probably not, but it could give them a fighting chance.
Without such additions, the Angels will have trouble competing for a playoff spot, and will have even more difficulty absorbing another major injury to Trout, who has played only 237 games in the last three seasons, or the perennially hobbled and high-priced Rendon, who has been limited to 148 games the last three seasons.
The question is, would owner Arte Moreno, who put the Angels up for sale in 2022, only to pull them off the market early last year, shell out the money required to sign Snell and Bellinger, who both reportedly are seeking deals in the $200-million range?
Minasian didn’t shed much light on that question this week when asked if he was optimistic he could add more players this winter.
“We’re definitely not done from an offseason standpoint, but it’s got to be the right fit,” Minasian said. “It has to make sense. But do I believe there are still players out there who can help us improve and make us a more competitive club? Yes.”
Minasian was even more evasive when asked if the Angels would have a payroll similar to last year, when the GM jumped through more hoops than a Cirque du Soleil performer to waive enough players after an August collapse to get the Angels $28,000 under the $233-million luxury tax threshold.
“I’m not putting any type of number out there,” Minasian said. “It depends on the player and the fit. We’re gonna continue to work to try and make this team better.”
The Angels’ payroll, as it relates to the competitive balance tax, stands at about $187 million, according to Cots Contracts, $50 million under the first luxury tax threshold.
They probably would have to convince Snell and Bellinger to defer large portions of their contracts, like Ohtani did with the Dodgers, in order to lower the present-day value of the deals for CBT purposes, but both players are represented by agent Scott Boras, who prefers his players get their money up front.
There is little indication that Moreno, who has been burned by so many nine-figure deals in the past, has the stomach for another massive free-agent splash, let alone two, and many fans wonder if he might be preparing to put the team up for sale again.
But if the Angels enter the season as currently constituted, they’ll likely be staring down the barrel of another disappointing season and contemplating — yet again — a total rebuild, which probably would begin with the trade of Trout, assuming the 32-year-old slugger regains something close to the form that made him a three-time American League most valuable player.
That’s not what Angels fans want to hear on the verge of pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training in Tempe, Ariz., but covering their ears isn’t going to help.