About six months ago, Los Angeles was the center of the baseball world.
The Dodgers had sprung for outfielder Mookie Betts and starting pitcher David Price in a three-way trade in early February. With that deal nearly done, they offered the Angels outfielder Joc Pederson and pitcher Ross Stripling in exchange for young, versatile infielder Luis Rengifo and a few minor leaguers.
The deal would have cleared some payroll space for the Dodgers and given the Angels more time to groom their highest-level prospects without sacrificing a chance at the postseason.
The swap fell apart, victim to Angels owner Arte Moreno's impatience — and "other things" about which Moreno declined to elaborate.
As the teams prepare for their first regular-season encounter since the Angels swept the season series last July, some questions arise. Would the Dodgers lineup be any deeper with Rengifo in the mix? Could Pederson perform better batting behind Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani and Anthony Rendon? Would the Angels' rotation, which has endured a handful of stumbles including Ohtani’s disastrous return to the mound, look any sharper with Stripling?
Before the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the nation and upended the sports calendar, neither team was interested in dwelling on what-ifs. Andrew Friedman, Dodgers' president of baseball operations, waved off the deal Price and Betts' introductory news conference. Moreno referred to the failed trade as “water under the bridge" when addressing it a week after he nixed it.
It is impossible to know what could have been. But we can take a look at the impact the three players have made before the weekend series at Angel Stadium.
Searching for a reliable starter
Moreno didn’t seem to think Stripling, who had struggled to break into a loaded Dodgers rotation, would make much of a difference.
“We’re looking for a pitcher that can substantially help us and not a four [or] five,” he said in February.
Stripling has provided stability for a Dodgers rotation that has contended with the absences of Price (opt-out), Clayton Kershaw (back injury) and Alex Wood (shoulder inflammation). He is the only Dodger to go seven innings. He has lasted beyond the fifth inning in three of four starts. Rookie Dustin May is the only other Dodgers starter to see the sixth inning more than once.
Bundy is the only Angels pitcher performing effectively for more than five innings at a time. He has thrown a complete game and finished at least six innings in all four outings. His 1.97 ERA entered Thursday tied for seventh-best in the major leagues.
Two-way player Ohtani pitched only 1⅔ innings before a forearm strain ended his season on the mound. Teheran hasn’t made 60 pitches in either of two outings since recovering from COVID-19 last month. While rookie Patrick Sandoval has impressed (three earned runs in 10 innings over two starts), neither Heaney nor Canning has hit his stride.
Stripling’s 3.97 ERA and 3-1 record would be just as welcome in Anaheim as in Chavez Ravine.
A needed offensive boost?
Moreno was convinced that with Trout, Rendon, Ohtani, Albert Pujols and Justin Upton in the lineup, the Angels could slug their way to the playoffs. He cited the 2009 World Series-champion New York Yankees, who scored 5.65 runs per game in the regular season. The rotation of that Yankees team had a combined earned-run average of 4.48.
The Angels have clobbered their opponents. They entered Thursday having hit the most home runs in the major leagues (34). They had scored 4.84 runs per game. Their starters had a 4.71 ERA.
But the joke is on Moreno. His team is 7-12 after taking two of three from the Oakland Athletics this week. Their .368 winning percentage was the fourth-lowest in baseball after Wednesday’s loss.
The Angels’ weakness? Situational hitting. They have batted .211 with runners in scoring position, 29th in baseball.
Pederson, who batted .180 with seven RBIs and a .665 OPS in his first 16 games, wouldn’t be of much help to the Angels right now. However, his presence might have allowed the Angels to avoid the premature promotion of top prospect Jo Adell. Pederson could have become one of the team’s primary outfielders while Upton was moved into a platoon with Brian Goodwin. Taylor Ward and David Fletcher could have provided backup until Adell’s defense was considered ready for the major leagues.
Neither the physical ailment nor unexplained absence seemed to bother Rengifo in the field. He has received steady work since joining the active roster, appearing in 12 of the last 15 games. He has made tw o errors but has otherwise been sure-handed, which is why he has played more at second base in the last two weeks than Tommy La Stella, who was a first-time All-Star at the position last year.
But Rengifo has been a liability at the plate. He has four hits and nine strikeouts in 32 at-bats, with five walks. He is the only Angel with at least 35 plate appearances who has an on-base-plus-slugging percentage below .400.
For the Dodgers, Rengifo would have probably filled a similar role to Chris Taylor’s. Taylor has been instrumental, making a game-saving outfield assist a week ago and most recently picking up innings at shortstop in the wake of Corey Seager’s back injury. He hasn’t made an error in 130 innings, most of which have come in the middle infield.
Taylor, a veteran utility man, entered Thursday batting .255 with two extra-base hits and eight RBIs. He had 10 walks. According to Baseball-Reference.com’s version of the statistic, Taylor was worth 0.6 wins above replacement in 19 games. Rengifo had totaled negative-0.3 WAR.
The trade-that-wasn’t was far from Rengifo’s mind this week.
“I can’t control those decisions,” Rengifo said in Spanish in a videoconference. “I can only control how strongly I play. At the time, it was tough but, thanks to God, I’ve been with my teammates. I’ve been with them as much as possible and learning a lot from them every day. And I am very happy about that.”