Welcome to the fourth installment in a series of articles profiling organizations that might match up well as trade partners for the Cardinals this offseason. The intent of these pieces is not to propose or analyze specific trade ideas (although I will suggest a framework trade or three, and kicking around specific ideas in the comments is encouraged). The idea is to provide readers with more information about organizations they might not know as well as they know the Cardinals, so they can be more informed for Hot Stove season. Previous entries can be found here.
The Angels are blowing it.
The Cardinals’ focus this offseason is acquiring at least one 4-5+ win player to make their roster reliably playoff-caliber. Meanwhile, the Angels have had an 8-10 win player on their roster for the last six years, yet have just one playoff appearance (and no playoff games won) to show for it. They control Mike Trout for three more years, and it frankly shouldn’t be that hard to build a playoff team around a guy that good. If they’re not going to waste his next three years the way they’ve wasted most of his last six, they need to find a way to fill out a roster around him. This offseason, that could make the Cardinals and Angels a square peg and a square hole.
Things to know from 2017
The Angels were a frustrating mediocrity last year. On the one hand, they got marvelous seasons from Trout (7 WAR, despite missing almost two months with a torn thumb UCL) and shortstop Andrelton Simmons (5 WAR). Those guys are fun! On the other hand, there was basically everything else.
Outfielder Kole Calhoun was coming off of four straight 4-WAR seasons, but put up a disappointing 2 WAR, as his batting line dipped to slightly below average. Cameron Maybin was okay in limited playing time, posting 1.3 wins in fewer than 400 PA. No other position player, save August acquisition Justin Upton, played well at all.
Some, in fact, played truly awfully. Albert Pujols (cue extended, theatrical sigh) finished at the very bottom of the WAR leaderboards with -2, and let’s just not mention him again. In more palatable “holy cow this guy was bad” news, Danny Espinosa managed -1 WAR in only 254 PAs, thanks to a sub-Kozmaian 38 wRC+. The Angels gave these two -- two of the very worst players in the league last year -- almost 900 plate appearances between them. Lesson one: adding a couple of hitters who are merely average would improve the Angels by as much as acquiring Josh Donaldson would improve the Cardinals.
The pitching story was also bad. The top two (two!) Angels pitchers in FanGraphs version of pitcher WAR were relievers: Yusmiero Petit (2.2) and Blake Parker (1.6). Only one starter, Ricky Nolasco, surpassed 180 innings, and he was bad during them. Former staff ace Garrett Richards continued to be plagued by arm trouble. Though he was very good when he did manage to take the mound, he only did so for 27 innings.
Nobody else on the staff was even mildly interesting. Fallen former prospects Tyler Skaggs and Alex Meyer were blah, and the latter will miss all of 2018 following labrum surgery. Matt Shoemaker came out of nowhere with a good 2016, but went back to being nobody. Fillers like Jesse Chavez and Parker Bridwell made a bunch of starts. Andrew Heaney was given five starts, during which he allowed 12 home runs and posted a FIP of 9.11 (at least his FIP had a sense of humor about itself). Lesson two: acquiring a couple pitchers who are merely average would improve the Angels by as much as acquiring Chris Archer would improve the Cardinals.
Still, the Angels got enough just from Trout and Simmons and good bounces (they finished four games above their BaseRuns record) that they were in the Wild Card hunt as of August 31, when they went out and traded for Upton and Brandon Phillips. That wasn’t enough, though, and they ended up 80-82.
Mike Trout is the best player in the world, with a reasonable argument for being the best baseball player who ever lived. Pretty good asset.
Andrelton Simmons is not just the best defensive shortstop, but the best defensive player of the UZR era. An overall Ozzie Smith comp is tough -- Smith was a more valuable baserunner than Simmons, and during his age 30-37 peak was a bit better hitter (104 wRC+) than Simmons has been so far in his career (94 wRC+) -- but the defense matches up. And just being able to say an Ozzie comp isn’t crazy means we’re talking about really good player.
[Twenty-minute break to watch Simmons highlight videos]
He’s a joy. Anyway… turned 28 in September, controlled through 2020 for $39 million.
Warm bodies. Trout, Simmons, and Calhoun are locked into spots. So is Upton if he doesn’t opt out of his remaining contract, but the most recent reporting indicates he’s likely gone. Richards is talented, but a huge health question mark. And the bullpen is fine. Other than that, I don’t think there’s a single player on their roster who projects as even an average full-time player. Several positions -- DH, 1B, OF3 if Upton leaves, SP 3 through 5 -- currently project to produce zero value in 2018, or close. (And if the injury bug bites Skaggs and Richards, as it has in the past, they could be looking at a 2017-Reds-level rotation disaster.)
They also need better prospects. This system’s been poor for a while. It may be trending up, slowly, but its best assets are still a long way from the majors and it still lacks depth. The few names to know are:
- Toolsy outfielders Jordan Adell (age 18, drafted 1-10 in June; strong debut in rookie ball and expected to be a plus defender) and Jahmai Jones (just turned 20; good hitter in his first look at full-season leagues, praised for makeup and work ethic, and can stick in CF) are the highlights and they are legitimately very good prospects.
- 19-year-old 2016 OF draftee Brandon Marsh is a sleeper who may put his name right alongside Adell and Jones by this time next year. He didn’t play after the draft last year due to a back problem, but was good in rookie ball this year and draws strong reviews for his raw tools and, like the other two, potential power-speed combo in CF.
- RHP Jaime Barria maybe doesn’t miss as many bats as you’d like to see in the minors (K% in the high teens or low 20s at every level), but scouts have praised him for his smarts and dedication to the craft, and advancing three levels in one year at age 21 is always an attention-grabber.
- 1B Matt Thaiss has lost a lot of shine now that he’s moved off catcher permanently, but he’s a prospect as long as he keeps hitting; the big 2017 red flag was his sagging in-game power, which has been a longstanding scouting concern.
Other than the above, there’s not much to know for a neutral fan. The best of the rest are the kind of far-off or probably-a-reliever C+ prospects who might distinguish themselves a year from now or might be totally off the prospect map.
What they should do
As long as they have Trout, the Angels shouldn’t give up. Granted, they could sell Trout for a whole new farm system, Simmons for a good chunk of a second, and kick this thing down the road a few years. But, first, owner Arte Moreno doesn’t seem like the type. And second, the built-in advantage that an 8-10 win player provides is so strong that it just feels cowardly not to try to win while you have him.
A team of all replacement-level players would project for 47-48 wins. To build a contender, a front office is thus aiming for 40+ WAR on the roster. If you can get a quarter of that from one guy, potentially, there’s just not that much work left to do. The median pitching staff in 2017 produced 13 WAR, and the median position-player group produced 18. If you can simply assemble an average group of players, plus Trout, that’s all you need to contend.
So that’s what the Angels should aim for. Unfortunately, as described above, they’ve got some projected zeroes (at 1B, DH, probably OF, and a few rotation spots), not a ton from the farm to deal for help, and the only player better than average, besides Trout, is Simmons.
That’s why, as strange as it sounds to advise a team that I’m arguing should try to contend to sell their second-best player, I think the Angels would be well-served by moving Simmons, and spreading his value around the roster to knock out some of those zeroes.
How they match up with St. Louis
Well, especially if they’re willing to move Simmons. If so, they could use Matt Carpenter, Jose Martinez, any of the MLB-level or MLB-ready outfielders, any starting pitcher, probably Carson Kelly, probably Jedd Gyorko, plus they’d need a replacement for Simmons… the Cardinals have ways to replace almost all their cogs, and the Angels could use just about all the cogs.
The Trout trade
The Simmons trade
If you project Simmons as a four-win player, and Paul DeJong, Randal Grichuk, and Jack Flaherty as collectively six wins a year, then trading those three for him and a quality middle reliever makes the Angels and Cardinals both better. There are lots of permutations of this trade, as well as a three-teamer with the Rays that I’ll add in the comments, as this is already too long.
The small trade
A smaller, simpler deal would involve LA just buying an upgrade out of the Cardinals’ surplus with a prospect. A move like Stephen Piscotty for Marsh and a lottery ticket might not be the best return for Piscotty, but it might be good for him personally to land closer to his family in the Bay Area. And it would add an intriguing guy to the Cards’ system — one young enough that he doesn’t add to the upper-level OF prospect glut.
Simmons is not the huge upgrade they’re looking for, necessarily, and I hope it’s not all they’d do. But in an offseason that’s all about consolidating value, the Angels are exactly the kind of team to target, and he’s the only reasonable target they have. Failing that, the Angels at least look like a potential buyer of whatever quality parts look like spares after the rest of the Cardinals offseason has shaken out.