When the 2014 L.A. Angels were swept out of the playoffs by the eventual American League champion Kansas City Royals, Angels fans were left scratching their heads. How could this team that won 98 games and scored 773 runs – leading Major League Baseball in both categories – lose three straight games to Kansas City while scoring a total of six runs?
We had the better team, Angels fans thought. The Royals just caught us at the right time. This team will be back virtually intact next season and we’re gonna win the title.
The consensus within the organization was probably similar. Who could blame them? The front office had put together a juggernaut in 2014 through a combination of offseason transactions and savvy in-season moves. They could have pointed at the regular season and noted how the team won 98 games while losing its best pitcher (Garrett Richards) in mid-August while getting a subpar performance from Josh Hamilton after the All-Star break.
When baseball’s Winter Meetings began in San Diego on December 7th, few expected the Angels to go in and make a major splash. The team badly needed cost-controlled pitching since the signings of Albert Pujols and Hamilton, but with the massive contracts each player received and a lack of quality prospects coming through the Angels farm system, the organization has little to bargain with.
Jerry Dipoto, on the other hand, wanted to shake things up a bit.
On December 11th, Dipoto sent Howie Kendrick to the Los Angeles Dodgers for left-handed starting pitcher Andrew Heaney. The move appeared to be a one-for-one swap designed to bring the Angels a young starter with a lot of potential. In trading Kendrick, Dipoto was giving up a second baseman with a career slash line of .292/.332/.424 who provided plus defense up the middle. On the surface, it appeared Dipoto had dealt one of his only tradable assets in a desperate move to acquire the young pitching his team badly needed.
But Dipoto was thinking several moves ahead. Kendrick will turn 32 years old this year and is headed for free agency after the 2015 season, in which he is due to make $9.85 million. The team would not be able (or willing) to re-sign him due to payroll constraints and Dipoto made his move early, leaving himself plenty of time to find a way to replace Kendrick’s production. In Heaney, Dipoto found himself a left-handed starter who will make close to the Major League minimum this year and projects to open the season at the back end of the Angels’ rotation. With some luck, he could develop into a middle of the rotation stalwart with six full years of team control.
The $9.85 million owed to Kendrick this season now the Dodgers’ concern, Dipoto gave himself a little more room to maneuver and fill other holes. He then acquired outfielder Matt Joyce from Tampa in exchange for reliever Kevin Jepsen and eventually agreed to terms with Joyce on a one year, $4.75 million contract. Even with a healthy Josh Hamilton, the team desperately needed a left-handed power bat/on base machine with the ability to play both corner outfield spots. Joyce had a down year in 2014, hitting just nine home runs and slugging .383 after averaging 18 homers over the previous three seasons. There are indications Joyce could be a strong bounce-back candidate in 2015; he spent last season on a wildly underachieving Rays team offering little protection around him, posted a career-low home run to fly ball ratio, and still managed to get on base 35% of the time. With Hamilton’s status uncertain heading into this season, Joyce is the heavy favorite to be the Angels’ starting left fielder on Opening Day and should slot in nicely at DH upon Hamilton’s eventual return.
In late January, he brought back David Freese on a one-year deal worth approximately $6.4 million. Freese’s numbers over the last two seasons don’t exactly jump off the page, but his ability to get on base along with the low-risk nature of a one-year contract makes this a favorable deal for the Angels. Freese did battle some injuries early on in the season and posted much stronger offensive numbers in the second half when healthy. Any way you look at it, signing a corner infielder with Freese’s track record to such a team-friendly contract is worth it 95 times out of 100.
To fill the hole at second base following the Kendrick trade the Angels brought in several players to audition for the role, the most likely candidates being Josh Rutledge and Johnny Giavotella. Rutledge is a shortstop by nature and benefitted from playing in hitter-friendly Coors Field, but he’s only entering his age-26 season and posted a .269/.323/.405 slash line in 309 at bats last year. His rather atrocious defense, however, will most likely result in the everyday job going to Giavotella. Giavotella has posted strong numbers in four seasons in the minors at AAA-Omaha, but in 437 career Major League at-bats, Giavotella has exactly 29 extra base hits. The team will have through spring training to evaluate their options at second, but whoever ends up with the job will most likely bat ninth. Obviously, neither player will be able to replace Kendrick’s production at that position, but personally, I would wager on Rutledge to post hitting numbers more closely resembling Kendrick’s. Manager Mike Scioscia, who has a history of valuing a player’s defensive ability much higher than his offensive prowess, will most likely decide the starter.
One further offseason Dipoto trade worthy of closer examination is the November 5th, 2014 deal which sent catcher Hank Conger to the Houston Astros in return for right-handed pitching prospect Nick Tropeano and reserve catcher Carlos Perez. Conger never quite became the hitter the Angels had hoped for upon drafting him 25th overall in 2006, but has shown an elite pitch-framing ability. Teams are starting to appreciate this ability more and more, although they’re a little late to the party – some of the smarter teams have seen the value of framing pitches for years. Chris Ianetta will take over full-time catching duties for the Angels, and while nobody will be comparing him to Yadier Molina defensively, he has the ability hit for power while getting on base more than any 2014 Angel not named Mike Trout.
In Tropeano, the Angels receive a 24-year old pitching prospect with the potential to develop into a middle-to-back end of the rotation starter, and is exactly the type of asset the team has desperately needed to fill its depleted farm system. Tropeano will likely start the season in AAA, but could play an important role for the big league club should injury hit the starting rotation.
The Conger trade, however, is unlikely to have the overall implications on the 2015 season than the Howie Kendrick deal. Jerry Dipoto looked at the cards he was dealt and played his hand masterfully, a chess grandmaster thinking several moves ahead.
In essence, Dipoto took one asset – a soon-to-be 32 year old second baseman (Kendrick) entering the decline phase of his career who leaves for nothing after 2015 season but a compensation pick and turned it into the following:
- One of the top pitching prospects in baseball (Heaney), under team control for at least five years.
- A solid-to-potentially-above-average third baseman (Freese) on a team-friendly contract.
- Matt Joyce, a desperately needed left-handed power bat who can serve both as the team’s 4th outfielder and DH – especially now with Hamilton’s status uncertain.
The only thing that matters is results – and for this Angels team, that means winning a championship. By trading Howie Kendrick, Jerry Dipoto brought in the pieces to save the Angels’ 2015 season.
Editor’s Note: Josh Rutledge was sent to AAA prior to Opening Day, paving the way for Johnny Giavotella to become the Angels’ starting second baseman. Through 9 games, Giavotella is hitting .296 while providing solid defense up the middle.
 In an effort to acquire cost-controlled pitching, the Angels dealt slugging first baseman Mark Trumbo to the Arizona Diamondbacks as part of a three-team trade that brought Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago to Anaheim. More on this later.
 Highlighted by the huge acquisition of Huston Street from San Diego in mid-July as part of a six-player trade.
 Tony Reagins, the Angels’ GM from 2007-2011, does not receive nearly enough blame for the harm he inflicted on the organization during his tenure. That Mark Trumbo trade I mentioned earlier was a direct result of the Diamondbacks fleecing Reagins for Joe Saunders, minor leaguers Tyler Skaggs and Patrick Corbin (a 2013 All-Star) in return for 2.5 seasons of Dan Haren.
 In 137 innings between AA and AAA last season, Heaney struck out almost 10 batters per 9 innings pitched with a walk rate of only 6%.
 Although he did start early, dealing minor leaguer Jairo Diaz to Colorado for Josh Rutledge on the same day he traded Kendrick to the Dodgers.
 On February 25th, Hamilton met with MLB officials in New York to admit he had used alcohol and cocaine during the offseason. One rumor floating around is that Hamilton’s relapse came over Super Bowl weekend – almost exactly a week before the Angels signed Matt Joyce, and only days prior to Hamilton’s shoulder surgery.
 After posting 20 home runs in the 2012 campaign, Freese has hit just 19 homers in the last two seasons combined.
 Whenever the words “four seasons” and “minors” are mentioned in the same sentence, this should be a huge red flag.
 Remember when the Angels traded Mike Napoli for $85 million worth of Vernon Wells just so Jeff Mathis (career OPS: .563) could become the team’s everyday catcher? That trade was 100% Scioscia. I am shaking my head.
 Seems to be a recurring theme.