The Los Angeles Angels took center stage at the winter meetings on Wednesday, reaching a seven-year, $245 million agreement with All-Star third baseman Anthony Rendon.
It’s the spot they had hoped to occupy one day earlier. That’s when Gerrit Cole, the undisputed top pitcher and overall top player available in free agency, reached a record-setting nine-year, $324 million deal with the New York Yankees.
Cole was the Angels’ top priority, but they couldn’t convince the dominant right-hander they were close enough to fielding a consistent winning team.
In signing Rendon, the Angels have landed arguably the next best player available. That should, in theory, make it easier to convince the next free agent who calls that they are, in fact, closer to winning. But the reality might be that Rendon’s signing only shines a brighter spotlight on what is, and seemingly always has been, the Angels’ biggest problem: starting pitching.
Angels rotation needs a major upgrade
With Rendon, the core of the Angels lineup is as strong as any in MLB. Along with Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani and Justin Upton, this is now a fearsome foursome. Scoring runs should not be an issue. Rendon also upgrades the team’s infield defense, which is anchored by an All-World defender in shortstop Andrelton Simmons.
Those are the good points. The issue is that the Angels rotation still looks paper-thin. The return of Ohtani the pitcher figures to help, but it’s difficult to predict what he’ll contribute coming off Tommy John surgery. They’ve also added Dylan Bundy in a trade with the Baltimore Orioles, but consistency has been hard to come by for him. Beyond them, there’s a group of unproven starters that took some lumps last season.
The last time an Angels rotation collectively posted an ERA below 4.00 was in 2015. In 2019, that number was closer to 6.00 than 5.00.
Here are the Angels rotation ERAs and rankings over the last four seasons.
2016: 4.60 (20th)
2017: 4.38 (12th)
2018: 4.34 (18th)
2019: 5.64 (29th)
The Angels win totals during those seasons: 74, 80, 80 and 72. That means they have effectively wasted several of Trout’s prime seasons in large part because the rotation has been average to really bad. Despite what Rendon brings to the table, they are poised to continue wasting seasons if the rotation isn’t upgraded.
This doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve screwed up by investing $245 million in signing Rendon instead of a top-flight pitcher. However, it does limit their rotation options. If they can’t pitch better, adding Rendon won’t mean much in the short term.
Best available options
It’s reported the Angels are considering dipping into the trade market. Multiple reports, including one from The Athletic’s Fabian Ardaya, say the team could pursue Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber. That would be an upgrade even with Kluber coming off his own injury-shortened season. It might be more affordable too with Kluber due up to $35.5 million (there’s an $18 million team option for 2021) over the next two years.
Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Dallas Keuchel are the biggest free agents names still on the board. With free-agent deals bouncing back this winter, the commitments needed to land one of them might get pretty steep. In other words, the Angels will have to keep on spending big if free agency is the path they take.
Whichever direction they feel is best to go, the Angels can’t come up empty. They must find a way to add pitching. Not a pitcher, but pitchers. They are more than one or two starters away from putting together a reliable rotation, and the urgency to bring those pitchers aboard might never be higher than right now.
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