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The future of the Angels rotation

Just for a moment, imagine what a healthy Angels rotation could potentially look like. In a perfect world, Garrett Richards, Andrew Heaney, Matt Shoemaker, Tyler Skaggs and Nick Tropeano would create the makings of an average or better rotation, while all 5 guys were also in the middle of their primes while coming at cheaper, under market value prices. Add in rotation depth with J.C. Ramirez, Alex Meyer, Nate Smith and possibly some veteran signings and you have a 8-10 starters who can win you baseball games at the highest level. Much like life at times, baseball can provide cruel and unexpected events. The Angels are certainly not the first or only team that has dealt with injuries before but considering the circumstances, this type of bad luck seems to be very rare.

2016 was a brutal season for the Angels, not just based on the 73 wins they accumulated, the worst total since they won 70 games in 1999, but due to the injury bug that crushed their rotation. C.J. Wilson was paid 20.5 million dollars to not throw a pitch in the major leagues last year. Garrett Richards and Andrew Heaney both tore their respective UCLs(Ulnar Collateral Ligaments) in their throwing arms, ending their 2016 seasons. Richards opted to rehab his arm rather than undergo Tommy John surgery, with the results showing up as positive entering the offseason. Heaney, meanwhile, also tried rehabbing his arm unsuccessfully, eventually undergoing surgery during the summer and ending his season and likely his 2017 season as well. Not to be outdone, Nick Tropeano also tore his UCL in July, ending his 2016 and 2017 seasons. Tyler Skaggs, who underwent Tommy John surgery in August of 2014, missed all of 2015 and didn’t throw his next MLB pitch until July 26th 2016. The injury big even struck the minor league level when Nate Smith, the arguable top pitching prospect in the Angels system at the time, dealt with elbow tightness which shut down his 2016 season while he was on the verge of reaching the majors.

Entering 2017, the same uncertainty surrounded the Angels rotation, first starting with Garrett Richards debunking the conventional approach by allowing stem cell therapy and platelet rich plasma(PRP) injections to fix his torn UCL. Tyler Skaggs dealt with his own injury issues once again, missing numerous starts at the end of 2016 due to shoulder soreness. Fast forward to April 2017 and the injuries once again plagued Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs, putting them out of action and sabotaging the potential of the Angels rotation. Richards was pulled after 5 magical innings in his first start due to an irritated nerve in his right biceps, which has put his return this season in question, with many saying he could pitch in August or September if rehab goes well. Tyler Skaggs left his April 28th start due to a strained oblique, this being his 5th start of the season. He’s likely to return in July if things go well.

This ongoing trend of important Angels pitchers getting hurt has influenced the organization in a big way. With so many pitchers going under the knife, the club needed to allocate resources towards finding pitching to keep the Angels afloat and possibly competing for the next few years. When Hector Santiago was traded last year, the return of Ricky Nolasco and Alex Meyer appeared to be very underwhelming, but the trade was almost a necessity. Nolasco remains a boring back end starter who isn’t here for his results but rather his stability as an innings eater who won’t kill your rotation. Meyer represented another potential starter with previous top prospect pedigree, although is likely future home remains in the bullpen. Had the Angels not endured so many crucial injuries, it’s possible Santiago could’ve been moved for help elsewhere on the diamond, possibly in left field, 2nd base, 3rd base or at catcher. Instead, the Angels had to utilize their biggest(and realistic) trading chip last summer to obtain a starter to give innings for 2017 and a lottery ticket in Alex Meyer.

If you assume the Angels still brought in Jesse Chavez as the aforementioned veteran starter for 2017 but didn’t have Ricky Nolasco on the team, the team would have had 12 million dollars in extra money this prior offseason. If you had an Angels rotation that was fully healthy, or even mostly healthy, the team would’ve been rolling out a higher quality rotation along with potential upgrades elsewhere which would’ve created the upside for a 85-88 win team. The consequences of the injuries the Angels rotation has endured not only affects the rotation quality but the whole roster as a whole. With some semblance of good luck for the team, they’d have a better rotation and the necessary funds to fix the roster in other areas.

The 2017 Angels rotation currently ranks 25th in WAR, due to an American League high 63 home runs allowed that has led to a 4.25 ERA. The rotation is missing bats at a league average rate while not walking many batters but the quality of contact allowed has been very poor, mainly due to Ricky Nolasco and Jesse Chavez’s bad contact quality they’ve allowed. The huge surprise in this Angels rotation has been J.C. Ramirez(4.11 ERA, 3.97 xFIP), who many questioned as a legitimate starter, myself included. Other than Ramirez, it’s been a disheartening performance from the collective unit, who have not been helped by the losses of Richards and Skaggs. Matt Shoemaker, who enjoyed a monster 2016 season along with a frightening line drive off the skull in September, has barely pitched above replacement level this year. Alex Meyer has started 6 games and walked 20 batters in 29.1 innings. The only help on the near horizon right now is Doug Fister, signed on a minor league deal in May, who tossed 5 innings of 1 run ball with 7 strikeouts in his first AAA start Tuesday, allegedly sitting 88-91 mph on his fastball. If Fister can give quality innings, it really helps the 2017 squad stay afloat. His presence still doesn’t fix the problems beyond 2017, however, which need to be addressed in the offseason.

As 2016 and 2017 have shown, you can never have too much rotation depth, especially when the pitchers you’re counting on have legitimate injury concerns. It would be foolish to enter the 2018 season assuming Richards, Skaggs, Heaney and Tropeano will all be healthy and give the rotation the bulk of the innings. With those injury concerns in mind, the team is almost a lock to look outside of the organization for more starters, whether that be through the trade market or in free agency. The trade market is unlikely, considering the Angels still don’t have good enough farm system to compete with other teams in trades and if they attempt to, they’re throwing away some of the good work the team has done in the last few seasons trying to fix the farm system. Free agency is the likely source the Angels utilize for fixing their rotation woes. Luckily for them, the upcoming free agency class is rich in starting pitching.

You want a frontline starter? Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta(arguable at this point) and Michael Pineda are free agents with the potential for Masahiro Tanaka and Johnny Cueto to join them if they opt out of their deals. There’s also an outside shot that Japanese superstar Shohei Otani comes to America, which would create a flurry of trade rumors involving the Angels. There’s also a huge collection of #3/4 starters such as Marco Estrada, Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb. Even if that’s too rich for the Angels taste, there’s some quality back end starters such as C.C. Sabathia, Tyler Chatwood, Clay Buccholz and John Lackey(can you imagine a Lackey/Scioscia reunion?). With other holes to fill at 2nd base, 3rd base, left field and in the bullpen, it’s unlikely that the Angels dish out 150+ million dollars for an frontline starter but the Angels do have approximately 50 million dollars of spending money, not including arbitration raises and contract raises for particular players. Realistically, the Angels will have around 35-40 million dollars to spend, which gives them enough to potentially target one of the 3/4 arms.

If you assume the Angels have interest in spreading out the resources to obtain multiple players, the ideal group of starters the Angels will target will be those mid rotation starters. The aforementioned Estrada, Lynn and Cobb all make a boatload of sense for the Angels. Estrada will likely command a pretty big deal, considering he has pitched like a mid rotation starter for 3 straight seasons and has been a quality arm since 2012. He’ll likely demand a 3/45 or 4/60 deal. Lynn and Cobb are different cases, as both guys are coming off recent injuries and are still trying to build up full workloads following those injuries. Cobb was once a very good #2/3 starter who dazzled but couldn’t consistently stay healthy but he’s more of a #4 type of starter now, which is still highly valuable in this league. Lance Lynn has had an extremely solid and underrated career and has been very consistent in his Cardinals tenure. He’ll likely command the most money of these 3, especially if he puts in a full season of work. Given his age(30 years old) and his consistent production as a #3 arm, he might command a deal similar to Mike Leake’s deal, commanding 5 years and 80-85 million dollars.

Even if one of these pitchers are signed, there’s still some uncertainty surrounding the rotation and the depth beyond those 5 main starters. Given there are 4 starters with injury issues entering 2018, another buy low veteran starter might need to be brought in to offer some depth. This could include Clay Buccholz, Jaime Garcia, Miguel Gonzalez or Derek Holland. Let’s pick one pitcher from each group and look at a potential Angels rotation. The Angels decide to sign Marco Estrada to a 3 year 48 million dollar deal and Miguel Gonzalez to a 1/4 deal. This gives the Angels this crop of starters: Marco Estrada, Matt Shoemaker, Garrett Richards, Tyler Skaggs, Andrew Heaney, Nick Tropeano, Miguel Gonzalez, J.C. Ramirez, Alex Meyer, Nate Smith. This doesn’t include potential starters in the minors such as Jaime Barria, Troy Scribner, Luis Diaz, Osmer Morales and Jake Jewell, who are all prospects with some sort of potential to pitch in the major leagues in the next 2-3 years. That may look like an excessive amount of starting pitching but as the Angels have become accustomed to, there’s never enough pitching depth. You can hypothetically move Meyer, Ramirez and potentially Skaggs into the bullpen to use as multi inning relievers, which still gives the Angels 7 other starters, with 4 of those starters being question marks. For a team with playoff aspirations, this type of approach might be a necessity to make sure the Angels can cover for the injury bug striking again.

In this scenario, the Angels spend roughly 20 million dollars, which still leaves about around 20 million dollars to spend on a new third baseman, 2nd baseman, left fielder and potential relief help. In this day and age, you’re not getting 3 starting position players and a reliever on the open market but you can try to get 2 of the 4 while obtaining the remaining 4 via trades and waiver pick ups. Regardless of the approach Angels general manager Billy Eppler has, he’ll have to get awfully creative trying to fill numerous holes and adding depth without spending an absurd amount of money. Going the proposed route above, however, stabilizes the rotation while giving the team the option to move players to the bullpen or send players to AAA, giving the whole pitching staff more depth.

Regardless of what moves the Angels make in the foreseeable future, the team really needs some of their hurt pitchers to provide production in 2018 and beyond. The law of balances says the team should see some good luck coming their way soon but if the woes continue, the Angels will still be stuck in a spot where they’re giving far too many innings to players who shouldn’t be starting MLB games. The rotation has improved upon last year, even with the injuries they’ve sustained already, but there is a lot of improvement to be made for this team to be consistently winning ball games with a formidable rotation. With some good luck and an active offseason in the upcoming free agent market, the Angels could have an above average rotation in 2018, which could mean the Angels are nearing playing playoff baseball for the first time since 2014.

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