Offseason decisions:  Los Angeles traffic jam in Anaheim

One of a series on dilemmas facing major league teams this winter.

In January of this year, then-general manager Tony Reagins attempted to break into the comedy industry. Okay, maybe that wasn’t his thinking, but the laughter his decision to acquire Vernon Wells and his albatross contract elicited from onlookers makes it at least a plausible theory. That big splash paid handsomely to the tune of, wait for it, 0.3 WAR, according to FanGraphs. I can’t imagine that’s what they had in mind when they dealt for him.

It also should be noted that one of the pieces sent to the Blue Jays for Wells was Mike Napoli, who ended up playing a major role in the Rangers’ run to another division title and American League championship.

Not all was bad for the Angels, though, as they finished second in the American League West at ten games over .500 with a 86-76 record. Solid starting pitching, headlined by Jered Weaver and Dan Haren, and contributions from youngsters such as closer Jordan Walden, Mark Trumbo, Peter Bourjos and super-prospect Mike Trout helped keep them in the playoff hunt until late in the season.

The team likely will be busy during the offseason because of the emergence of its young talent and the subsequent logjam it has created among first base, outfield and designated hitter.

First base

Fantasy owners who rostered Trumbo last year were rewarded with an incredibly cheap 29 home runs and nine stolen bases for gravy on top. From a real-world point of view, he leaves a bit to be desired at a bat-heavy position with just a 4.4 percent walk rate, and with it, a subpar .291 OBP.

Trumbo also played 10 games in right field last year, just one of those games a start, but with so many outfield options, expect him to remain at first base, where defensive metrics graded his glove favorably. With regular playing time, he should once again be a cheap power option for fantasy gamers but will offer little in average because of his propensity for swinging and missing.

Trumbo’s playing time, or possibly his time as a member of the Angels, may be dependent on the recovery process of Kendrys Morales. Morales broke his ankle in May of the 2010 season celebrating a walk-off grand slam. He had to have a second surgery this past season and hopes to be ready for Opening Day 2012, but there is no timetable currently available for his return.

Morales had a big first full season with the Angels back in 2009, and prior to his ankle injury was validating that it was no fluke. Having missed so much time, it’s anyone’s guess how long he’ll take to return to that level of play, or if he will at all. Like Trumbo, Morales is realistically limited to first base or designated hitter duties.

One thing that could make a decision to trade a cost-controlled Trumbo easier is knowledge that 2011 draft pick C.J. Cron may not be too far from reaching the major league level. Cron was an impressive power-hitting college player who signed quickly after being drafted in the first round this year. He played in 34 games in Rookie-level ball and probably should open the coming season in High-A. If he hits, he’ll move fast.

Outfield

As crowded as the first base playing time situation looks to be, it pales in comparison to the outfield cluster. Five players are under contract or team control and vying for three outfield spots. Those five players are Bourjos, Trout, Wells, Torii Hunter and Bobby Abreu.

Bourjos is under team control as a pre-arbitration player and was an outstanding defensive center fielder last year. Amongst players with a minimum of 400 plate appearances, FanGraphs had Bourjos as the seventh most valuable center field defender. He wasn’t all glove either, as his .336 wOBA ranked 11th out of 21 qualified center fielders.

Surprisingly, he has found his name bandied about the rumor mill as a trade candidate. The most notable rumor would see him going to the New York Mets for David Wright. This isn’t the first time interest was expressed by another team in Bourjos, as the Nationals were reportedly checking on his availability over this past summer as well.

Wherever Bourjos plays, he’s a full-time regular and an intriguing fantasy outfield option. His fantasy value is mostly tied to his ability to steal bases but is also a result of hitting for some power and not being a complete drain on batting average. In many ways, he’s a Drew Stubbs-lite.

Trout is also a pre-arbitration-eligible player and is the only player in the discussion for top prospect honors with Bryce Harper. He received fewer than 130 at-bats, thus, retains his rookie eligibility going into next season.

Trout’s 2011 season was nothing short of remarkable. He reached the big leagues at the age of 19 and posted a Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) of 89 (100 would be league average) while playing playing excellent outfield defense and accounting for 0.8 WAR in just 135 plate appearances.

He has options left, and was jumped from Double-A to the majors, so it is possible the Angels could start Trout in the minors if he struggles in the spring, or they are unable to sort out the jumbled outfield mess before Opening Day. He almost certainly will see the bulk of his playing time in the majors next year.

If Bourjos is still on the roster, Trout’s plus centerfield defense likely will be shifted to left field. He’s dynasty- and keeper-league gold, and his elite upside and power/speed combination make him intriguing in yearly leagues, as well.

Wells, the owner of a monster contract that will pay him through the 2014 season, will be going nowhere. He saw time in all three outfield positions last year. UZR graded his defense negatively (barely) in right field and center field (he won’t play there over Bourjos or Trout), but positively in left field. His fielding graded out as sixth-best at FanGraphs amongst left fielders with 400 plate appearances.

If Wells is penciled into the starting lineup in the outfield, and not at the designated hitter position, it is possible that it will be in left field, shoving Trout over to right. While his defense was acceptable, it was his bat that came up limp and failed him badly this past season. His slash of .218/.248/.412 was downright pitiful. His .214 BABIP was unlucky, and 56 points below his career mark, but he did himself no favors hitting line drives in just 12.3 percent of his batted balls.

Further hurting Wells’ value at the dish was his career-worst 3.8 percent walk rate, a mark roughly half of his 2010 rate of 7.7 percent. He did offer some power to fantasy gamers with 25 home runs and could be a cheap bounce-back candidate this coming season.

Hunter is in the last season of a five-year deal he signed in November of 2007. According to Cots, he is due $18 million, making him a prime trade candidate if the Angels are willing to eat part of his contract. If Hunter isn’t dealt prior to the season, he could be this year’s version of Carlos Beltran—with less bat—and on the move at the trade deadline.

Hunter was healthy this year, playing in 156 games and seeing almost all of his time in right field, with 136 games played there. The former center fielder is no longer a fielding asset and actually hasn’t been since 2005. His move to right field has been a good one, as he posted a positive UZR there in 410 innings in 2010, and a tolerable -0.6 UZR there this past year.

For fantasy purposes, gamers should note that Hunter’s average and stolen base totals have declined each of the last two seasons, and he isn’t getting any younger. He should once again approach 25 home runs, probably coming up just short, but his days of double digit stolen base totals are over.

He swiped just five bases last year and was caught stealing seven times. Including his 2010 stolen base and caught stealing totals, Hunter has 14 stolen bases and 19 caught stealings in the last two seasons combined. Promising for his prospects next year is his strong finish. He hit 15 of his 23 home runs after July 1.

The final man battling for outfield playing time is Abreu, who played 28 games split between left field and right field and was essentially a statue out there. He’s easily the worst fielder of the bunch and should be limited to designated hitter duties only. The problem is, his bat is lackluster for the role. The bottom fell out on his power last year, and he had an ISO of just .112. For comparisons sake, his ISO was just one point higher than light hitting teammate Maicer Izturis.

Abreu still runs the bases well, stealing 21 in 26 chances, and his ability to draw walks 13.3 percent of the time helped him reach base regularly (.353 OBP).

Those that clicked the Cots link above and saw a team option with a $1 million buyout may wonder why the Angels didn’t exercise it with so many options for playing time, but the reason is that it actually vested in July. Abreu’s $9 million contract, and the fact he isn’t under contract next year, make him another possible trade candidate.

If a team believes his power can bounce back a little bit, he should cost next to nothing to acquire, as the Angels would almost certainly be happy to simply be relieved of the monetary commitment, ala the Braves with Derek Lowe.

Where he starts the season will play a big part in Abreu’s fantasy value. If he is still in Los Angeles and fighting for at-bats, it will be tough to endorse him. However, if he is an everyday regular, his stolen base contributions alone make him an option in AL-only leagues and deep mixed leagues. The possibility of his home run power returning to the mid-teens range is further reason to consider gambling on the 37 year old.

Conclusion

One of the losers of their respective battles at first base or in the outfield will receive the consolation prize of starting at designated hitter. Depending on how the Angels sort this out, DH could be a revolving door, allowing everyone to see some time in the field.

New Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto has some interesting decisions to make. Having so many capable players, including one, Trout, with superstar potential is a nice luxury to have. Welcome to Los Angeles, Mr. Dipoto. Time to work the phone lines.

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Comments

  1. ecp said...

    Angels have already said that Trout will absolutely start next year in the minors.

    Maybe it’s just me, but to my eyes he in no way looked ready for major league pitching just yet.  Top that off with not performing well against the watered-down pitching of the Arizona Fall League and it seems to me that a good dose of AAA time will do him a world of good.

  2. Josh Shepardson said...

    @ecp

    Interesting, I hadn’t seen that about Trout, but I trust your info.  Seems silly to make such a declaration now, let Spring Training play out and make a decision then. I only watched a handful of his at-bats, but I didn’t feel as if he was completely overwhelmed.  The numbers support the little bit I watched, as he wasn’t flailing and striking out all the time.  Maybe more seasoning will help, but I’m of the opinion he needs to play through some of the rough spells in the majors.  His defense is good enough to make him an asset while he adjusts. 

    I wouldn’t read too much into the AFL stats.  They certainly could mean something, but I’ve read a few folks, including Adam Foster of Project Prospect, who said he looked tired.  Considering his age, and the number of games he played this year, I’d say that’s a reasonable explanation.  The same was said about Devin Mesoraco last year, and he bounced back in a big way.  If the Angels consider themselves contenders for a the AL West, or Wild Card, they’d be wise to break camp with the best squad they can field.

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