The Los Angeles Angels came away empty-handed from the Gerrit Cole sweepstakes, but that doesn’t mean this offseason has to be a failure
But not paying Cole the $324 million the Yankees were willing to spend on Tuesday night may turn out to work in the Angels favor. There’s still plenty of talented players left on the market, and the Angels have the will and, more importantly, the resources to turn this offseason into a franchise-turning one.
It starts on the pitcher’s mound. The Angels finished 29th in baseball last season in starting pitching, ahead of only the Rockies. Their 5.64 ERA from the rotation was a full run worse than any team that made the postseason. They were last in the league in innings pitched from starting pitchers and have never had a top-10 pitching staff in Trout’s eight-year career. No surprise that they’ve made the postseason just once in that span.
Fortunately, missing out on Cole allows the Angels to pursue not one, but perhaps two of the top free agents still left on the market. There are many possible scenarios for the club to take.
One is to sign Madison Bumgarner, the lefty postseason hero who has spent his entire career with the San Francisco Giants. Bumgarner won’t come with anywhere near the price tag of Cole. The 30-year-old is coming off the worst season of his career with a 3.90 ERA and hasn’t reached double digits in wins since 2016. There’s also plenty of wear in his left arm; only six pitchers have thrown more innings since 2011. What Bumgarner does have is postseason experience and the reputation of coming through in the biggest moments, something sorely lacking from the rest of the Angels projected starters in 2020.
Another left-hander, Hyun-Jin Ryu, is a candidate to make the short trip from Los Angeles to Anaheim and sign with the Angels. The 32-year-old led all of baseball in 2019 with a 2.32 ERA and walks per nine innings, finishing second in the NL Cy Young Award voting. Or the Angels could go after Dallas Keuchel, another veteran lefty and former Cy Young winner who started 19 games for the NL East champion Atlanta Braves last season after not signing a deal until June.
The Angels don’t even have to go the free agent route to completely remake their pitching staff. The Cleveland Indians are actively listening to trade offers for right-hander Corey Kluber. The 33-year-old has one year left on his contract for $17.5 million plus an $18 million club option for 2021. He was limited to seven starts in 2019 after fracturing his forearm on a line drive, but prior to that ran off four top-three Cy Young finishes in five seasons. Because of Kluber’s advanced age and injury history, the Angels likely won’t have to part with top prospect Jo Adell to pry him from the Indians.
In a perfect scenario, the Angels won’t stop with just upgrading their pitching. Now that they won’t be paying a free agent like Cole upward of $35 million a season, they have the opportunity to pair one of these pitching targets with an impactful bat to help out Trout on offense.
No free agent is more impactful than Anthony Rendon, who led the NL with 126 RBI in 2019 and was third in OPS on his way to being an MVP finalist for the first time in his career. If the Angels miss out of him, third baseman Josh Donaldson would be a nice consolation prize. The 34-year-old is coming off a bounce-back season, hitting 37 home runs for the Braves. After an injury-plagued 2018 season, he appeared in 155 games in 2019 and earned Comeback Player of the Year honors.
Just hours before the Cole deal with the Yankees was announced, Angels’ general manager Billy Eppler reiterated that he has the resources to pay $20 million to potentially two free agents. The Angels have $61 million to work with and stay under the luxury tax threshold for 2020 and traded Zack Cozart to the Giants to free up even more space. New manager Joe Maddon says making room under the threshold is all part of the framework the club is employing in an attempt not to waste another year of Trout’s prime.
“We have a plan. [Eppler]’s working the plan right now,” Maddon said at the Winter Meetings on Monday. “Yes, we do need more pitching. I’ll be the first one to tell you that. For us to compete at the level we want to this year we have to get more innings out of our starting rotation.”
The Angels projected rotation as it stands right now consists of Andrew Heaney, Griffin Canning, recent acquisition Dylan Bundy, and Shohei Ohtani, who’s coming off Tommy John surgery and ready to return to the mound after spending 2019 exclusively as a hitter. But that surely won’t be the rotation they enter the season with. Eppler has to sign one of the other free agent pitchers for this not to be a wasted offseason. Fortunately for fans in Anaheim, he still has options available to him, even without Cole.