Two off-seasons ago when the Angels staked Albert Pujols to a 10-year, $242 million contract, and signed C.J. Wilson to a 5-year, $77 million deal, seemingly everybody in the baseball world jumped on the Angels Are Going To Win The World Series bandwagon. The result, albeit nothing to sneeze at in retrospect, was an 89-73 record, and a 3rd-place finish in the American League West.
Then last year in December, having signed Josh Hamilton to a 5-year, $125 million deal, the hype machine basically repeated itself. Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Mike Trout, all in the same lineup? How could they not win the World Series?
The answer is basic and, in the baseball world, as old as time: Pitching. You gotta have pitching. The club finished just 78-84, again 3rd place in the West.
Mike Trout performed as the best player in MLB for the second year in a row — worth +10.4 fWAR — but wedged around him was a team unequipped to succeed. The pitching staff graded out at 24th out of 30 big league clubs in FIP-wins — +10.3 as a whole — though if you take out Wilson (+3.3 fWAR) and Jered Weaver (+2.4 fWAR), the remainder of the unit generated a mere +4.7 Wins Above Replacement.
For context, 11 different starting pitchers in MLB produced more than that all by them self.
So, yeah, the Angels pitching staff was pretty bad in 2013.
This is why I found myself mildly perplexed yesterday to learn that they traded 4th outfielder Peter Bourjos, along with a minor league hitting prospect, to the Cardinals for… David Freese? They also got a reliever — Fernando Salas — in the deal.
Freese has had two solid big league seasons, most notably his amazing 2011 campaign where he took home both the NLCS MVP and World Series MVP honors. The following year, in 2012, he hit a healthy .293/.372/.467 (133 wRC+) with 20 HRs on his way to a 4-win season.
However, Freese was never a top-shelf prospect, was never a sure-handed 3rd baseman defensively, and the equity he accrued as a World Series hero in 2011 sort of evaporated on him after an underwhelming 2013 season. In 521 plate appearances he batted just .262/.340/.381 (106 wRC+) with 9 HRs, including a -14.9 Ultimate Zone Rating in the field. He finished at barely above replacement-level (+0.3 fWAR).
The Angels, meanwhile, shed one of baseball’s truly underrated stars, Bourjos, who in only 1136 big league plate appearances has been worth +9.0 Wins Above Replacement according to FanGraphs. In his only full season, 2011, he batted a respectable .271/.327/.438 (114 wRC+), which included 12 HRs and 22 stolen bases, worth +4.2 fWAR.
The fact that Anaheim, or LAA, or whatever the hell you want to call them, went into the offseason with only two viable trade candidates on the block — both Bourjos and Mark Trumbo — and didn’t decide to use them on acquiring a starting pitcher, or two, is a little disconcerting if I was an Angels fan. Bourjos alone wouldn’t fetch more than a #3 or #4 starting pitcher, and neither would Trumbo, but to waste one of them on a slugger who just isn’t very good, along with a relief pitcher — the least valuable property on a major league roster — signifies that they haven’t learned very much after back-to-back unproductive off-seasons.
The Cardinals, on the other hand, will be able to plug Peter Bourjos into the everyday lineup in center field right away, compensating for what are likely to be two of the least-rangy corner outfielders in the National League (Matt Holliday and Allen Craig). This allows them to shift Matt Carpenter from 2nd base into his natural position at 3rd, install Kolton Wong in at 2nd, and play Matt Adams at 1st base. Their lineup is ostensibly complete, and the rest of their offseason will be spent improving upon what already appears to be the team to beat in the central division.
Then there are the Angels, who have yet to address the clear and present problem at the backend of their starting rotation, instead deciding to parlay their most valuable trade chip this side of Mike Trout to acquire a fledgling corner infielder who’s about to enter his age-31 season.
Perhaps this is the winter to move Howie Kendrick, or to cash Mark Trumbo in to a team desperate for a little right-handed power in its lineup. I couldn’t say. But that’s really to say I don’t know anything about what the Angels are thinking, or what direction they are aiming for, because if the last two-plus years have proven anything, it’s that I’m not sure they know, either.