In need enough of upgrading their starting rotation, the Angels missed their chance to bring either Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg back to their California roots. So they signed Strasburg’s fellow now-ex-National, third baseman Anthony Rendon, for the same time and dollars (seven years, $245 million) it took for the Nats to grant Strasburg’s real wish to stay home in Washington (he’d bought a home there quite recently) for the rest of his baseball life.
Tony Two Bags swaps his shark’s teeth for a halo. And now that they’ve turned third base from a swamp into rolling rapids, the Angels can get right back to the pitching pursuit.
They needed to upgrade at third base almost as badly as they need a pitching upgrade. A trio of third basemen produced a combined 2019 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) .359 lower than Rendon’s 1.010. And if nothing else Angel fans should be frothing at the mouth over the prospect of Rendon joining the game’s prize Trout in a tag team that accounted for 14.6 wins above replacement-level last season. That’s a remarkable enough difference if they could have been together then.
Fourteen wins might have meant an 86-76 instead of a 72-90 Angels season. Assuming the Angels don’t stop with Rendon on this winter’s market, free agency or trading alike, they still have room for the pitching upgrade. And to say the Angels require a pitching upgrade is to say Washington, the government and not their world champion baseball team, requires remedial constitutional training.
The entire 2019 Angel staff encouraged walking for sound mind and body; they walked 3.9 batters per nine innings while striking out 8.8 per nine. Their collective earned run average was 5.12 and their collective fielding-independent pitching was 5.04. Collectively they were stingy when it came to surrendering big flies (1.7 average per nine innings) but generous beyond belief when it came to atoning for strikeouts by letting the other guys do the stroll. (2.44 K/BB ratio.)
The bullpen was superior enough to the rotation that you wondered for a few moments why the Angels didn’t go to more bullpen games when feasible than they did. (The crown jewel, of course, was that 13-0 combined no-hitter blowout against the Marines in their first home game following the shocking death of Tyler Skaggs, their best starting pitcher.) The only Angel with an ERA and an FIP below three? Hansel Robles, relief pitcher, the former Met who succeeded where another former Met (Matt Harvey, started) had his moments but collapsed enough to be designated for assignment and released.
What to do this winter, then? At this writing Madison Bumgarner, whose postseason jacket has only Strasburg for a near-equal match, remains on the market and a solid candidate to continue the remaking/remodeling he began in 2019. Also on the market is Hyun-Jin Ryu, the National League’s 2019 ERA leader. Angels owner Arte Moreno is nothing if not a man with stupid money to spend and a reputation for several times spending stupid, but the Angels aren’t exactly hurting for resources and a Rendon signing doesn’t pull them out of the market quite yet.
Bumgarner isn’t likely to cost as much now as he might have a few years ago, and the latest reporting as I write indicate he seeks five years at $100 million, pricey in terms of the average annual value but something of a bargain over the life of the deal. He has a reputation as a Fun Policeman but isn’t otherwise sinister so long as you keep him away from dirt bikes and remember that Angel Stadium’s power alleys don’t point into the Pacific Ocean or any other body of water.
He might find himself having a blast challenging two-way Shohei Ohtani to home run contests in batting practise. And, swapping notes on postseason heroism with Rendon, who landed himself a lifetime of quaffs and steaks on the house or at cut rates with such heroics as Game Five of this year’s division series, Game Seven of the World Series, and a 1.093 OPS toward the Nats’ run to the Promised Land.
Ryu may or may not be a more elusive target, not that he’s seeking stupid money but that there are several teams training their sights upon him, including (it’s said as of this morning) the White Sox, the Twins, and the Dodgers for whom Ryu laboured six seasons. And the White Sox have a kind of incentive with Ryu’s former Dodger catcher Yasmani Grandal having signed with the White Sox for four years and $73 million and said with certainty enough that he’d love to catch Ryu once again.
The better incumbents among the Angels’ starting pitchers, Andrew Heaney and Griffin Canning, are suited better to number three and four positionings pending any adjustments they might begin making come spring. The talent is there for both pitchers but so has been the inconsistency. But the Angels have a concurrent dilemna with teams interested in prying Canning and their plus right field prospect Jo Adell away in any trades the Angels might seek for a starting pitcher. The Angels may have interest in David Price (a trade candidate) and Price might find himself having a bounceback in Angel Stadium, and the Indians’ Corey Kluber, another former Cy Young Award winner and incumbent bounceback candidate, might be another trade target, but general manager Billy Eppler’s challenge would be to bring them aboard without surrendering the family jewels or at least the holiday china.
Still, you have to hand it to the Angels for landing Rendon, the no-questions-asked best regular player on the open market this winter, who’s going to earn more per season than any third baseman in major league history. Just when it looked as though the Rangers had the most solid track to lay down for Rendon, they derailed it when they offered him six years when the third baseman sought the seven to which the Angels agreed. That, and not such silliness as ejaculated by some who think it’s the media’s fault because, you know, the media prefers the Rendons to be in New York or Boston or southern California, not Texas, is why Rendon chose to wear the halo. That and (never discount this car on a baseball player’s train of thought) the challenge of becoming a big enough part of the Angels’ return to contention and, who knows, the postseason soon enough.
Which is no less than the least the Angels could do en route reconstructing themselves into a team their and the game’s best all-around player, the one who made himself an Angel for life last spring, can be proud of. ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez isolates the point: “In short, the Angels want to win, they know there is a sizable gap to make up, and they’re willing to do what it takes to accelerate their timeline. They made a promise to Trout, who eschewed free agency to sign a 12-year, $426.5 million extension, despite barely sniffing October relevance. And the Angels made a promise to [Joe] Maddon, who chose to return to the organization, despite having his pick of managing jobs. The Angels told them they were going to do what it takes to compete. And with the Houston Astros engulfed in a sign-stealing scandal that could yield significant punishment, perhaps now is as good a time as any to take the leap.”
Nationals shortstop Trea Turner only wishes the Angels hadn’t taken the leap at their expense. He got tight enough with Rendon that they had T-shirts made proclaiming each other best friends. When Turner got the news that Rendon has become an Angel, he had shot for himself a video showing him removing his “Anthony Rendon is my favorite player” T from his drawer and kicking it against the wall. Nats reliever Sean Doolittle was a little less, shall we say, demonstrative, posting a GIF of Baby Yoda and a simple, “Goodbye, Tony.”
Maybe the Lerners could have afforded both Strasburg and Rendon. I thought so myself. But then Thomas Boswell knocked me back down to the planet in gentle but firm terms, when he wrote after the Nats re-signed Strasburg, “Before chanting, ‘The Lerners are billionaires, so just pay Rendon his money!’ look ahead just one year. After 2020, the Nats will have to replace or re-sign — in most cases at higher prices — Adam Eaton, Aníbal Sánchez, Sean Doolittle, Kendrick and Kurt Suzuki. Also, Trea Turner and Juan Soto will soon cost much more.” So maybe they couldn’t afford to keep Rendon among the sharks, too.