Minggu, 08 Januari 2012

Like a Straw Passing a Melon: The 2012 Angels and the Logjam of the Century

In 2011 the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (Anaheim County, California, United States, North America, Western Hemisphere, Earth, the Solar System, The Milky Way, the Universe, etc) were nothing if not deep at their 'Eric Hinske' positions: outfield, first base, and DH. Vernon Wells manned left, Peter Bourjos manned center, Torii Hunter was in right, Bobby Abreu was the DH, Mark Trumbo played first, Reggie ".356 career OBP" Willits was the 4th outfielder-type, former MVP candidate first baseman Kendrys Morales would be coming back from his leg injuries, and 19-year-old Mike Trout, the #1 or 2 prospect in the world, was eventually another cog in the system as well.

This brings us to 2012, and there are a few issues:

One: Trout is a full-time player. Trout has raked all over baseball's farm systems, with a career Minor League OPS of .930. He does literally everything, tool-wise, including plate discipline, and he may also be the fastest player in pro baseball. Depending on the source, he was ranked as the #1 or 2 prospect in the game, and even earned a callup in 2011, getting 135 PAs, OPS+ing 88 and putting up a 0.9 WAR -- which translates to 4.0 given 600 PAs. Trout, who turned 20 in August, is ready for a full-time gig in MLB, and for all the things that Scioscia does, if he does not get Trout playing time, that would be the most unforgivable.

The Angels added another spanner to the works in December when they signed this guy you may know, Albert Pujols. Pujols is, of course, their first baseman, leaving Abreu, Trumbo, and Morales hanging in the wind for the DH spot.

None of these pieces are movable. I count nine players competing for five spots, and among them, few could conceivably be traded. Trout and Bourjos are exciting young players that should not be moved. Hunter, Wells and Abreu are all made unattractive by age, limited fielding ability, and salary ($18, 21, and 9 MM, respectively). Pujols obviously isn't going anywhere, and the return/upside on Morales right now would make it ridiculous to trade him. Basically, they were left with the ability to trade or release Willits, a decent player whose value they have destroyed by leaving him to rot in Triple-A for large swaths of his career, and Trumbo, who is a decent little player.


Willits is actually not an Angel, having declared minor-league free agency in October. So that's one problem gone -- now we only have 8 guys competing for 5 spots. With a history of not valuing Willits, it is hard to envision them bringing him back.

There are some givens in this situation. I think you have to put Trout in left field, Bourjos in center, and Albert at first base. Whether or not they do this is yet to be seen, but Pujols is obviously getting starts at first, Bourjos had an outstanding 5.0 WAR in 2011 as one of the best center fielders in the league, and Trout is very likely to outpace Wells and Hunter in the short-term, let alone the necessity to play him to continue his development. This leaves us with the following:

RF, DH -- And five players competing for those spots: Wells, Hunter, Abreu, Trumbo, Morales.

The position of RF is a tough call. The two obvious competitors are Hunter and Wells, both former Gold Glove center fielders. Neither have taken to the corners (or age) particularly well, and both put up negative fielding values in 2011, though both are better options than Abreu, who hasn't been a good fielder in a long, long time.

Now, using Bill James' Favorite Toy and the usual aging curve, We can predict Wells to be something like a 1-1.5 win player (awesome return on $21 MM). Hunter, on the other hand, looks more like a 2-win player, by the same system. Hunter (who, not without relevance, was Anaheim's starting RF in 2011) is your starting right fielder and Wells is your fourth outfielder, playing the corners with Trout being able to fill in for Bourjos in center.

This leaves Trumbo, Morales, Abreu, and the DH spot. Abreu probably wouldn't have been back this season if not for a playing-time-based vesting option that brought him back at the aforementioned $9 MM. While Abreu's power is virtually dried up at this point (8 home runs and a .365 SLG in 2011), the former Home Run Derby champ and future Hall of Famer still brings a solid bat to the plate. His discipline, his main remaining tool, brought him a .353 OBP in 2011, and his bat was still worth 7 runs above average. Still, he will be 38 in 2012, and expecting him to be anything better than average on offense (something not really acceptable from a position with a 112 OPS+ in 2011) would not be advised.

Trumbo on the other hand is an interesting player. What he lacks in discipline (4.4 BB% -- 8.3% league average) he mostly makes up for in power: he hit 29 home runs and ended up with a 118 OPS+ and 8 batting runs above average. This does not seem much more impressive than Abreu's campaign, and it isn't, but what is important is age. Trumbo turns 26 next week, meaning that he is in the beginning of his prime, as opposed to Abreu, who is at the tail end of a spectacular career.

Trumbo is clearly the better option at DH, but is having a reserve DH making $9 MM really ideal? Probably not. Which is why the Angels may look into a much-discussed option: moving Trumbo to third base.

The Angels currently have Alberto Callaspo listed as their third baseman. Many baseball people have offered the possibility of making Trumbo the third baseman, but I'm not even really going to entertain that possibility. Callaspo is roughly as valuable as Trumbo at the plate (111 OPS+, 10 batting runs), and is much better in the field. Trumbo is a fine-fielding first baseman, but Callaspo was a pretty good shortstop before becoming probably the best-fielding 3B in the AL not named Evan Longoria. He posted a 4.5 WAR in 2011, and, at 29 years of age, there is no reason to expect him to regress significantly. Callaspo is easily the best option for 3B.

So, we return again to Abreu being left out of the fold. And, because I like to make the Angels look silly, I will now introduce the wild card: Kendrys Morales.

Morales now infamously broke his leg during a walk-off celebration in early 2010, and complications have kept him off the field since that May afternoon. He was once an elite talent, a highly-sought-after Cuban defector, a two-time top-100 Baseball America prospect, and placed fifth in the 2009 MVP ballot as a 26-year-old. Before he hurt himself in 2010, from 2009 until his injury, he had hit .302/.353/.548 as a smooth-fielding first baseman, and was regarded as a budding franchise player. Morales says he is ready to go for 2012, and while the Angels may be able to stash him at Triple-A initially (he hasn't faced pro pitchers in almost two years), if he proves in either Spring Training or early on in his minor league stint that he can still rake, the Angels will have no choice but to bring him back up.

The Angels' best solution may simply be swallowing their pride, eating $30 MM for two bench players (Wells and Abreu) and playing Trumbo at DH. This is a deep team with a real chance to win in 2012, and it would be foolish to do anything but try to win.

However, if a situation does arise where Morales is hitting in the minors, he may force the Angels' hand, and they may have to move Trumbo, who is, as I said earlier, the only real possible trade candidate. The Angels could use pitching depth or bullpen help, and any organization welcomes prospects, and Trumbo may be expendable if Morales emerges as the DH option of the future.

In short, the Angels are not going to be able to walk away from this situation while both putting the best team on the field and not ruining their relationship with at least one player. It may be that eating a bunch of salary and moving Abreu or Hunter or even Wells is what they need to do, if they really want to find all of these guys time, but it is unlikely that each of these guys leaves 2012 with 500 PAs. Jeremiah wrote, "as ye sow, so shall ye reap", and it appears that the Angels are paying the price for not only the awful financial planning that cost former GM Tony Reagins his job, but also some excellent player development. Make no mistake: this is an issue that the Angels probably will not enjoy sorting out; but as baseball management figures so often state, this is a good problem to have.

Trout, the latest in this generation of super-prospects, should be a star for the Angels for years to come.

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