Perry’s Angels

The approach to team building might be changing in Anaheim.

Albert Pujols buttoned his white jersey while C.J. Wilson bent the brim of a red cap. The two prized free agents stood between Los Angeles Angels owner Art Moreno and then-GM Jerry Dipoto. The group was all smiles as LA announced the five and ten-year deals totaling over $300 million for the two stars.

“Today is a great day for the Angels organization,” Pujols said.

A year later, Moreno and Dipoto returned to the stage. This time the pair flanked outfielder Josh Hamilton, who the club had just signed to a five-year $125 million deal.

Over $425 million later, the 2013 Angels won just 78 games. All of the accepted risk of signing Hamilton became reality, Wilson posted just one above-average season with the Angels, and Pujols went from the best right-handed hitter in baseball to the worst contract in the league. During the first nine years of Pujols’ still unfinished contract, the Angels made the postseason once — a three-game sweep at the hands of the Kansas City Royals.

Mike Trout was posting 1.000 OPS seasons, Mark Trumbo hit 30+ homers twice, Howie Kendrick was an All-Star who got MVP votes, and the Angels won 90+ games once since 2009. They had all the ingredients but none of the results. Those ingredients still remain — Trout, Anthony Rendon, Shohei Ohtani, a high payroll capacity — and now it’s new General Manager Perry Minasian’s turn to try for a winner in SoCal.


Raising the Floor


The 2010s Angels had elite talent, but the supporting cast rarely showed up. Erick Aybar started 1220 games with a sub-.700 OPS, Jamie Barria and Suarez started 15+ games one year with ERAs over six, and Pujols has gotten over 440 PA every year despite four straight seasons of sub-.740 OPS. The 2019 Angels had eight players worth 1.0 or more bWAR, but seven worth -.5 or worse. On day one, Minasian raised the floor.

With Andrelton Simmons and Tommy La Stella departing, LA was left with clear holes at C, SS, RF, and across the pitching staff. The 2020 Angels finished 26-34, a 70 win pace, so Minasian had to both find replacements and improve. He didn’t bring in any flashy acquisitions, but each transaction directly addressed a need.

After four seasons of quietly above-average hitting in Atlanta and Washington, Kurt Suzuki was signed to a one-year, $1.5 million deal. In December, Minasian traded for Baltimore shortstop Jose Iglesias, who finally added a bat to his elite defense and posted a .956 OPS in 2020. In February, LA nabbed a largely retained Dexter Fowler from St. Louis. Three moves, three stable, floor-raising hitters while adding less than $6 mill to the payroll.

The biggest additions to LA’s offense, however, were not additions at all, but organizational approach changes. Prior to the shortened 2020, Albert Pujols played 115 or more games in all but one of his 19 MLB seasons. In 2021, Pujols’ two primary positions, 1B and DH, are filled instead by two of the Angels’ most dynamic young hitters. Jared Walsh is regularly starting at first and has a career .870 OPS in 242 MLB PA, and manager Joe Maddon is attempting to maximize Ohtani’s time at designated hitter and letting him hit as a pitcher too. 

It is certainly easier to bench Pujols with just a year left on his monster contract, but for a team trying to win it is the necessary move. Just 13 games in 2021, Ohtani and Walsh have combined for more RBI than Pujols had in all of 2020 and they are one and two for Los Angeles in the category.

Even when some recent Angels teams managed to hit, they have always been let down by the other side of the ball. Sitting at his introductory press conference, Minisian was quick to address his predecessors’ biggest struggle.

“There are different ways to find arms,” Minasian said. “It’s going to be up to the baseball operations department to do what we need to do to find those arms.”

Before going to the other Los Angeles, Minasian’s squad was briefly linked with Trevor Bauer, but the Angels took the same approach to run prevention as to offense, raising the floor. Building around a breakout season from Dylan Bundy, a healthy Ohtani, and the emergency of Andrew Heaney and Griffin Canning, Minasian signed Jose Quintana and traded for Alex Cobb to fill out the rotation. Getting Bundy out of Baltimore seemed to work wonders, and Cobb has seen similar results a few starts into 2021. In 11.2 innings, Cobb has a 4.63 ERA, but has struck out 17 and walked only two.

While Angels team-building ridicule usually falls on the starting rotation, the team has also registered a below-average bullpen ERA all but one year since 2015. 

Mike Mayers had a 2.10 ERA and 12.9 K/9 in 2020, but LA brought in most of its 2021 bullpen back end this offseason. Just weeks into his tenure as GM, Minasian was already committing robberies, flipping reliever Noe Ramirez and a PTBNL to the Reds for closer Raisel Iglesias. While Iglesias won the closer’s role in Maddon’s bullpen, Ramirez was released by the Reds in March. Minasian filled out the unit with lefty Alex Claudio, and at the end of spring training nabbed released veterans Tony Watson and Steve Cishek for established depth. LA’s 4.06 bullpen ERA a few weeks into 2021 would be the unit’s lowest since 2018.

Kurt Suzuki and Alex Cobb won’t turn a 70-win team into a 90-win powerhouse, but they represent an organizational shift in LA: building a team around the stars they have, not paying for new ones. If an 8-5 start to 2021 means anything, it might be working. 

There will come a time where Minasian will sit opposite Moreno at a press conference and attach his career and reputation to a big-ticket trade or free agent acquisition, like the 12 Angels GMs before him. But so far it seems Minasian’s Angels are going to be built differently, and for Trout’s sake let’s hope it works.

Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire | Feature Graphic Designed by James Peterson (Follow @jhp_design714 on Instagram & Twitter)

Mitch Bannon

Mitch is a sports writer from Toronto who has covered college and professional football, basketball, hockey, and baseball. He is a defender of the oxford comma and card-carrying member of the J.A. Happ fan club.

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