Angels’ Problems Run Deeper Than Pujols

Angels’ Problems Run Deeper Than Pujols

It was past time for the Angels to cut ties with Albert Pujols, but there are still plenty of obstacles in the quest to do right by Mike Trout.

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Albert Pujols’s days as a feared slugger are long gone, just like the home runs he used to blast with regularity. With the 41-year-old posting career-worst offensive marks across the board this year and owning a slash line of .240/.289/.405 since 2017, it was time for the Angels to shut down The Machine and let him restart his Hall of Fame career elsewhere. The move was overdue given Pujols’s reported insistence on being a regular fixture in the starting lineup. He hadn’t been able to cut it against righties since Barack Obama was president, which feels like a lifetime ago.

But in a way, it’s hard to fault the Angels for holding onto the three-time MVP this long. Until Jared Walsh and Shohei Ohtani simultaneously proved themselves capable of excelling in everyday lineup spots this season, Los Angeles didn’t have any obviously superior options (sorry, C.J. Cron and Justin Bour). Despite carrying MLB’s sixth-highest payroll ($182 million), the club sits in last place in the AL West with MLB’s third-worst run differential (-32), a distressing amount of holes across the roster and a farm system that isn’t exactly brimming with the talent required to fill them.

Let’s start with the offense, because a core of Ohtani, Walsh, Anthony Rendon and Michael Nelson Trout is certainly a good place to start for the Angels. Walsh’s improvement into a legitimate power threat who can also hit for average and take a walk, a process that began last season, enabled the release of Pujols. The former 39th round pick is a rare recent success story for the franchise’s player development system. Rendon is rightfully entrenched across the diamond, as is Trout in center and Ohtani at DH.

Beyond that quartet, however, there may not be any above-average hitters on this roster. As a team, the Angels have been adept at making contact and own MLB’s second-lowest strikeout rate (21.6 K%), behind only the Astros. They also, unfortunately, carry the league’s worst walk rate (6.8%).

Justin Upton plays older than his age (33) given the high mileage on his legs, which have been beset with injuries the past couple years. David Fletcher gained some believers last season—including down-ballot recognition from a lone MVP voter—but he and Jose Iglesias are a limited throwback middle infield combination that probably can’t exist on a modern World Series champion. Nevertheless, Iglesias is hitting in the lineup’s 5-hole following injuries to Rendon, Upton and catcher Max Stassi. The bench is populated with replacement-level thirtysomethings such as Juan Lagares, Phil Gosselin and Jon Jay. Prospects Jo Adell and Brandon Marsh could soon provide reinforcements in the outfield, but they may need time to take their lumps, which wouldn’t vibe with the urgent timeline of Trout’s prime.

The more pressing issue, as it has been for the entirety of the Trout era, is run prevention. The Angels have tragically failed to fill out a competent pitching staff since Trout arrived in 2011, and this year has been no exception. The team’s 5.07 ERA ranks 28th, with the rotation (AL-worst 5.08 ERA) and bullpen (5.05 ERA, 13th in AL) sharing equal blame.

Newly hired GM Perry Minasian acquired Alex Cobb and Jose Quintana in the offseason to create a six-man rotation alongside holdovers Ohtani, Dylan Bundy, Griffin Canning and Andrew Heaney. Only Ohtani and Bundy have recorded ERAs below 5.00. Reid Detmers is the team’s lone pitching prospect in MLB.com’s top 100 prospect rankings, and the 21-year-old has yet to make his professional debut after being selected No. 10 in last summer’s draft due to last year’s canceled minor league season. The bullpen blew its seventh save of the season on Thursday, tied for the fourth-most in the majors.

There is hope for somewhat of a turnaround there. Every starter is effectively missing bats, with Canning’s swinging strike rate registering as the best improvement in the league since last year. But the pitching’s shortcomings have been exacerbated in historic fashion by one of the league’s worst defenses, which has been hampered by several veterans—including, concerningly, Rendon—losing a step. Upton is ranked by Fangraphs as the sport’s worst qualified left fielder due to poor range and arm metrics. Even Iglesias, generally a terrific defender at shortstop, has accounted for minus-3 defensive runs saved. The gap between the rotation’s ERA and FIP (3.83), which aims to estimate what an ERA would be independent of variations in fielding, is 1.5 runs per nine innings, the largest of any rotation since 1900, according to Fangraphs. Removing Pujols from the equation will help, but not that much.

Bumping Iglesias out of the starting lineup with an external acquisition would be worth pursuing. (That may hurt for Minasian to hear, as Iglesias was the first player the GM traded for, in a deal with Baltimore, after his hiring.) The Angels probably don’t possess the prospects to rent Trevor Story. Willy Adames could be an interesting buy-low target if the Rays express a willingness to move him amid his early-season swoon with Wander Franco waiting in the wings. But since Adames is under control through 2024, he too may be out of Los Angeles’s range in terms of trade return. Of pending free agents, Javy Baez and Brandon Crawford may be attainable if their respective teams fall out of the playoff race, but each has his warts.

The front office owes it to Trout to sniff out that market, as well as corner outfield options. They’ll surely scour the bench and relief market for help. But they may only end up upgrading around the edges. Pujols is still owed $30 million this year despite his release, and his contract isn’t the only albatross hanging around the neck of owner Arte Moreno. Upton will be paid $28 million in 2022, the most egregious outlay of $111 million committed to 17 players next season. And that’s before arbitration costs are considered. Moreno has been willing to spend in the past, but will that continue in a post-pandemic world?

The AL West contains a contender with championship pedigree (Astros), the defending division champions (A’s) who always seem to fashion a challenger out of spare parts, a long-sleeping project in Seattle that finally seems to be on the rise and a rebuilding squad with Texas-sized finances to speed up its timeline if everything falls right (Rangers).

How much more is Moreno willing to commit to come out on top of that group and clinch a trip to nearby Disneyland in the near future? The answer will likely dictate whether the Trout era will be remembered as a fairy tale or a cautionary tale of a (mostly) fruitless farm system and free agent expenditures gone wrong.

Quick hits:

  • Gleyber Torres beat the shift in the most entertaining way possible, scoring from first on an infield single after catching Houston’s defense napping. Direct the blame to catcher Martin Maldonado, who was late covering third, and first baseman Yuli Gurriel, whom manager Dusty Baker said should’ve been covering home.

  • Phillies manager Joe Girardi wasn’t afraid to leave Zack Wheeler on the mound for 118 pitches to finish a complete-game shutout (and four-game sweep) against Milwaukee, even with two runners reaching in the ninth. Philadelphia has heavily leaned on its top three starters, with Wheeler, Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin combining for a league-high 130 innings among starter trios, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Scott Lauber. You can’t blame Girardi if he’s still wary of his bullpen after last year, but the Phillies will likely need to ease the load on its Big Three at some point.
  • The Twins just can’t catch a break. Byron Buxton suffered a hip strain during Thursday’s game and may require a trip to the injured list. Minnesota already placed Alex Kiriloff (sprained wrist), who’d hit safely in seven straight games with four homers, and Luis Arráez (concussion symptoms) to the IL this week. Losing the former No. 2 overall pick just as he’s fulfilling his MVP-like potential would be another blow to a struggling team that can ill afford any more.

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