Angels Add Pitching, But Does It Answer Questions About 2021? 2022?

“We’d like to add more arms to the current crop we have.”

Perry Minasian proclaimed these words on a conference call promptly after noting the Angels are “very active” in their pursuits for another starting pitcher for the 2021 season.

Sensibly, the Angels went into the off-season with a need to improve on their pitching staff that came off a season where their starters had the second-worst ERA (5.52) in baseball, while their relievers remained in the bottom third of the league in the same statistical category.

Going into the winter with much of the same pitching staff — minus five non-tendered relievers — there was notion to Joe Maddon’s December comments of adding at least two starting pitchers.

The bullpen was addressed quickly into Minasian’s tenure as General Manager of the organization, seeing his first transactions at the helm include four high-level minor league relievers among 15 players signed to minor-league contracts. Just over a month into the job, he traded for one of the game’s most consistent relievers of the last half decade in Raisel Iglesias. Within a week in mid-December, he added another two relief options between the Rule-5 Draft and another minor league signing, while finalizing the week before Christmas by signing Alex Claudio, that of the second most relief appearances since 2017.

Despite the two key additions in Iglesias and Claudio; along with the depth additions of Brendan McCurry, Ben Rowen, Thomas Pannone, Jake Faria and Jake Reed, it seems Minasian isn’t quite finished establishing his relief core.

“We’re going to look to improve in any area possible to make sense,” Minasian said. “We’re not gonna pigeon-hole ourselves into one area. If there’s an improvement in the back end of the bullpen that we feel like can make an impact for this club — short term or long term — we’ll look to execute that. Definitely, the bullpen in general is a place we’d still like to add.”

Noting that the club is looking for not only quantity, but quality, Minasian could add another (or multiple) high-leverage relief options that remain on the free agent market in the likes of Brad Hand, Trevor Rosenthal, David Robertson, Keone Kela, or Joakim Soria (who the Angels have expressed interest in according to reports from Jon Morosi of MLB Network). It remains though that the Angels must address another pitching priority: Starting Pitching.

On Friday afternoon, the Angels officially announced the signing of Jose Quintana to a one-year, $8 million deal.

Quintana, 32, is coming off only 10 innings in a shortened 2020 season, due to a sliced finger he attained while washing dishes in his own kitchen. The laceration gave Quintana five stitches on his left thumb and following microscopic surgery, revealed a laceration to his left thumb digital sensory nerve. It did not hinder the Angels hopes for Quintana to return to previous form of being an above-average pitcher from his rookie year to 2018.

“Jose has been the model of consistency. He missed last year with a non-shoulder, non-elbow injury. It was a freak thumb injury that we feel he’ll bounce back strong from.”

Despite the freak thumb injury in 2020, Quintana was coming off a career-worst season in 2019, where he had a 4.68 ERA and 93 ERA+ over 171 innings. Far from par of his 3.60 ERA and 114 ERA+ from 2012-2018, the Angels looked deeper into the statistics to see a potential rebound.

“The underlying numbers — the FIP’s, the xFIP’s, from a WAR standpoint — he actually performed pretty well with the amount of innings he gave the Cubs,” Minasian noted. “We see significant bounce back potential here.

As comes with the territory of the high winds that carry to the outfield at Wrigley Field, Quintana saw a rise in home run to fly ball ratio from 9.2% while with the White Sox, to 13.5% while with the Cubs. Pitching in Angel Stadium, where the marine layer lessens the carry of balls at night, a drop in ratio could be beneficial from a performance standpoint, placing Quintana back near his career pars.

Outside of the underlying numbers and potential markers for success, Minasian stated the desire to bring Quintana into the organization for his on-field and off-field assets, and the hopes that it will improve the in-house pitching staff from within.

“I’m a big believer in players making other players better. I’ve seen it with my own eyes over the years being in clubhouses for a significant amount of my career. This is one of those guys that make the people around him better and we have some young, talented guys on this staff that have a chance to be really productive and adding this person to the room — I think not only from a performance standpoint but from a team and makeup and veteran leadership standpoint, he’s gonna be huge.”

Regardless of whether Quintana returns to form, even to the above-average quality performance, or gives the Angels a veteran leader among the young starters, there is still necessity for a second starting pitcher and add to the depth of quality in their rotation, something Minasian and his staff are still eyeing, whether it come via trade or free agency acquisition.

“I think there’s still arms to discuss and talk about that are available through trade. Obviously, there’s still a big pull of arms in free agency.”

Though Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, and German Marquez have yet to be traded, the market on Blake Snell, Yu Darvish, and Joe Musgrove indicate the Angels may not have the trade chips to acquire such an arm from the trade market.

On the open market, Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, and Jake Odorizzi remain free agents. The reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, Trevor Bauer, is still without a job for 2021 going into late January.

Both routes come with their struggles, as the Angels don’t seem to have the tradeable assets to attain a “front line” starter on the trade market. As for free agents, is Arte Moreno ready to go deeper into his pockets to put this team in a division chase scenario, let alone, a playoff scenario where fans may or may not even be in the ballpark?

As it sits, the Angels projected payroll for 2021 simmers around $186.5 million according to FanGraphs Roster Resource. The addition of a Trevor Bauer, who is reportedly looking for a five-to-six-year deal at $200 million (reports were denied by both Bauer and his agent, Rachel Luba, via social media), could easily push the Angels into the luxury tax of $210 million. But the drop off from Bauer to the next top pitcher on the free agent market could opine playoff contention in 2021 or playoff aversion in 2021 from ownership and management.

One vital item is that the Angels will have to alter their ways from the past two seasons, using patch work one-year contracts to starting pitchers in the likes of Julio Teheran, Trevor Cahill, and Matt Harvey. Starting pitching depth problems don’t just rest on the 2021 season, but into the immediate years following.

As the Angels current 40-man roster stands, the projected mid-rotation or better starters under contract for 2022 go as such: Griffin Canning, Shohei Ohtani, end.

Andrew Heaney and Dylan Bundy will be free agents at the end of 2021, as will Jose Quintana.

You could add Chris Rodriguez to that list with Canning and Ohtani, and though he has shown promising signs of health in the last calendar year, has yet to pitch above High-A due to injuries and will need to show advanced development in 2021 to be considered for 2022. Reid Detmers, though not on the 40-man roster, could also be added to that list, but would also be looking at a potential rookie season in 2022, leaving potential growing pains. Improved under Billy Eppler, the Angels farm system still lacks the depth on the pitching front to give the Angels more than a pair of viable starting options for the 2022 (or even 2023) campaigns, leaving both Rodriguez and Detmers less likely trade options as the Angels may need to retain both arms out of necessity.

In short, the one-year contracts must end, unless there are bigger plans on the horizon…

With $53.25 million in guaranteed contracts coming off the books at the end of the upcoming season, and another $28 million the following, the Angels could be set for a big splash on the upcoming 2021/22 free agent market, which includes Zach Davies, Jon Gray, Lance McCullers Jr., Daniel Norris, Marcus Stroman, and Noah Syndergaard as pitchers 30 or younger.

Also included in that free agent class is Javy Baez, the Cubs superstar shortstop, a position of need for the Angels once Jose Iglesias becomes a free agent at the end of 2021. Minasian noted that players who have “played for (Joe Maddon) in the past are dying to play for him again.” With extra financial flexibility, a reunion between Baez and Maddon may not seem so far distanced, but the question still lingers: who will pitch in the rotation?

“Part of my job is not only short term, but long term,” Minasian said. “I’m well aware of what we have currently and what we have going into ’22. I will say in this game, things change so fast. So, what we currently have on paper now might not necessarily look the same as far as — from a performance standpoint — what it looks like a year from now.”

As noted, Griffin Canning and Shohei Ohtani (who Minasian said physically feels like he did prior to Tommy John surgery) are the only two guarantees for the 2021 Angels rotation. Trading off pitching prospects like Chris Rodriguez and Reid Detmers now seem like more of a challenge. Trevor Bauer is a fine free agent option (if you can afford him), but how much does the rest of the free agent pitching class give you?

The Angels need pitching. There’s no doubt. They’re at least one starting pitcher short of a full impact rotation. Who that pitcher (or pitchers) will be could dictate not only the Angels hopes for 2021, but into the years beyond.

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