Due to Arte Moreno’s absence, the Angels must invest heavily in free agency.
Arte Moreno is headed for the exit, the Angels owner planting a for-sale sign under the Big A in August. Shohei Ohtani could follow Moreno out of town, the two-way phenom poised to become a free agent after the 2023 season.
If ever there was a time for the Angels to act boldly, to take a high-risk, potentially high-reward swing in the market, it is now. Their mantra as baseball’s winter meetings begin on Sunday in San Diego should be this: Go big or go home.
What have they got to lose, except another chance to send two of the greatest players in baseball history — three-time American League most valuable player Mike Trout and Ohtani, the game’s marquee attraction — to the playoffs?
General manager Perry Minasian has been proactive this winter, making significant but incremental upgrades to the roster with the signing of free-agent left-hander Tyler Anderson and the trade acquisitions of right fielder Hunter Renfroe and utility infielder Gio Urshela.
But if the Angels are to snap an eight-year playoff drought and compete with the World Series-champion Houston Astros, the 90-win Seattle Mariners and improving Texas Rangers in the AL West, they need to add a starting shortstop and at least two reliable relievers to a bullpen that lacks a proven closer.
The Angels have already pushed their competitive balance tax payroll to about $206 million according to Fangraphs, leaving them $27 million shy of the first luxury tax threshold of $233 million.
With Moreno selling the team, they should go all in by pursuing one of the top four free-agent shortstops — Trea Turner, Dansby Swanson, Carlos Correa or Xander Bogaerts — and let the new owner worry about the luxury tax bill.
That would allow the Angels to move light-hitting shortstops David Fletcher and Andrew Velazquez to utility roles — where they belong — and Luis Rengifo, who had a breakout 2022 with a .723 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 17 homers and 52 RBIs, to stay at second base, the position he’s most comfortable and effective at.
It would also lengthen the heart of a lineup that will feature Trout, who slugged 40 homers last season; Ohtani, the 2021 AL MVP and 2022 runner-up; Renfroe, one of seven players to hit 25 homers or more in the last five full seasons; and third baseman Anthony Rendon, if he can stay healthy for more than half a season.
Neither Turner, Swanson, Correa nor Bogaerts will come cheap. They are expected to command multi-year deals averaging $25 million to $32 million a year and would push the Angels over the CBT threshold for the first time since 2004.
The Angels have whiffed badly on their big free-agent swings since 2012, getting little bang for the buck for the $240 million they spent on Albert Pujols, the $125 million they spent on Josh Hamilton, the $77 million they spent on C.J. Wilson and — so far — the $245 million they’ve committed to Rendon.
But the four free-agent shortstops are 30 or under and in their prime and don’t come with the risks attached to the heavy legged Pujols, who was 32 when he signed with the Angels, and Hamilton, who had a history of substance-abuse problems and quickly flamed out in Anaheim.
And any of the four shortstops would add an impact bat to a lineup that needs more punch to keep pace in the rugged AL West.
The Angels, who have not had a winning record since 2015, went 73-89 in 2022, finishing 33 games behind the Astros, who added slugging first baseman José Abreu to their championship-caliber offense.
The Mariners have one of baseball’s most aggressive GMs in Jerry Dipoto, who is already working to improve a playoff team led by 2022 AL rookie of the year Julio Rodríguez. The Rangers showed how serious they are about winning by signing ace Jacob deGrom to a five-year, $185-million deal Friday night.
The rotation of the notoriously pitching-thin Angels actually looks solid with Anderson, who went 15-5 with a 2.57 ERA for the Dodgers last season, joining an Ohtani-led group that ranked sixth in baseball with a 3.67 ERA and features promising young left-handers Patrick Sandoval, Reid Detmers and José Suárez.
Renfroe, who hit .255 with an .807 OPS, 29 homers and 72 RBIs for the Milwaukee Brewers last season, will provide pop from the right side, push Taylor Ward from right field to left and Jo Adell, the highly touted prospect who has struggled offensively and defensively in Anaheim, to the bench or minor leagues.
Urshela, who hit .285 with a .767 OPS, 13 homers and 64 RBIs for the Minnesota Twins last season, will provide insurance at third base if Rendon suffers another injury, solid depth at shortstop and second and a possible platoon partner for left-handed-hitting first baseman Jared Walsh.
Three moves into the offseason, the Angels have improved their rotation, added significant power to their lineup and deepened their bench.
But they can’t stop there. If they can sign one of the free-agent shortstops — luxury tax be damned — and acquire a shutdown reliever or two, they should compete for a playoff spot.
A new owner who shells out $2.5 billion for the club is not going to quibble over a luxury tax of a few million bucks, and a deep run into the playoffs in 2023 might convince Ohtani to sign a long-term deal with the Angels.
That would be a win-win, for the new owner and the team.