The Angels Are Stuck on a Treadmill

A somewhat comprehensive look on why the Angels stink...

 

The Halos are going to be stuck in the “Tungsten Arm O’Doyle” era for the next few years, just like they have been since 2016. The Angels have a litany of problems that, when combined, make baseball fans wonder how anyone can enjoy rooting for the Halos beyond Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani. There are so many issues with this team, both in the team’s construction and the organization as a whole, that it won’t be as simple as selling the team or firing Joe Maddon or trading Trout or whatever else armchair GMs are proposing as a quick fix for the Angels’ woes. This article will explore a short list of the issues that have turned the Angels into a mess and will keep them a mess for the next few years, barring a miracle.

 

The Angels Have Done a Poor Job of Drafting and Developing Talent

 

The Angels have stain after stain on their draft record, ranking almost dead last in MLB in terms of WAR from drafted players since 2010. The Halos have produced a comically small 58 WAR from drafted players over the past 10 years. Let’s take a quick look at the Angels’ first-round draft picks from 2010 to 2015; this should capture most of the players that are reaching or have reached their athletic prime in MLB:

Angels 1st Round Draft Picks, 2010-2015

*NOTE: Newcomb was traded to Atlanta as part of the package for Andrelton Simmons.

 

The first round is generally the most important round in any professional draft because it’s theoretically where the strongest collection of talent lies. In a perfect draft, the first round sees the 30 most talented players drafted in order, selected from best to worst. In practice, it’s difficult to forecast where the best players in the draft will go because even the smartest scouts can’t project exactly how an 18-year-old will eventually perform in MLB, but teams will still– slightly more often than not — “hit” on their first-round picks and add valuable players to their lineup through the draft. Even though drafting is very often a “crapshoot,” in that teams are doing little more than making guesses as to who will be a successful big leaguer in 3-5 years, the Angels have somehow drafted so poorly that they are below coin flip-level performance, “hitting” on only 37.5% of their picks from 2010-2015.

Further exacerbating their drafting issues in that span of 5 years was the loss of two high-value first-round picks, given up to the Cardinals and Rangers in exchange for signing Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton to expensive, long-term contracts. It’s even harder to generate long-term value from draft picks when you have fewer chances to “throw darts” on young players in the draft. It puts a lot of pressure on the scouting department to make shrewd draft decisions with such a limited number of high-quality picks, and the graph above should illustrate that the Angels didn’t make smart draft decisions in the early 2010s. The Angels’ draft choices didn’t get much better in later rounds, either; they weren’t crashing and burning on first-round picks and then selecting golden nuggets in the 2nd round and beyond:

It’s a little difficult to say whether these players’ futures are set in stone as “busts” or “studs,” but the early returns on the Angels’ draft choices in the second half of the decade have not been pretty, either:

Angels 1st Round Draft Picks, 2016-2020

Maybe you thought 2010-2015 was a train wreck that couldn’t be beaten, but then 2016-2020 came along and made it look decent in comparison! The Angels are still waiting for Jo Adell to be, well, the Jo Adell we’ve heard so much about, and Reid Detmers‘ career is still too young for us to make a fair judgment, but the rest of this draft is sorely lacking in plug-and-play players or even quality depth pieces. It’s no wonder the Angels haven’t been able to “protect” Trout and Ohtani within the big-league lineup because they haven’t been able to luck their way into a first-round draft success.

The Angels have also struggled to draft well and failed to develop players once they reach the Halos’ minor league system. It’s one thing to pick a highly talented player and push them aggressively through the minors; every team is smart enough to do that — even the Angels, who did it with Mike TroutIt’s another thing to grab unheralded players in the later rounds and turn them into competent, major-league-quality players, which the Angels have absolutely failed to do.

The Dodgers, for example, have excelled at turning bad players into mediocre ones, mediocre ones into good ones, and good ones into elite ones. They have been drafting from the back end of each round in every MLB draft since the early 2010s and still churn out quality players, year after year, so drafting from a low slot isn’t an issue for the Dodgers like it might be for a highly-competitive team in another sport (For example, the Patriots, who drafted at the back end of every NFL draft in the 2010s because they were constantly competing for championships with Tom Brady and eventually crashed to the bottom of the NFL for a season). It’s why the Dodgers’ farm system remains ranked in the top half of the league every single season, even after trading prospects for Mookie Betts, Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, Manny Machado, Yu Darvishand the list could go on and on.

Failing to draft blue-chip (or even high-quality) talent in the first round while simultaneously failing to develop players from the later rounds is not a recipe for success because the team will lack the lineup depth/offensive contributions required to win games regularly. Currently, the Angels’ lineup has 2 superstar hitters and a pair of above-average hitters (if you’re being generous to Taylor Wardwho knows what’s happening with Anthony Rendon), but it has no contributions from the bottom of the lineup. Good luck trying to get steady offensive contributions out of Andrew Velazquez or Brandon Marsh or Max Stassi. The lineup succeeds when Trout and Ohtani succeed, which isn’t enough to get into the playoffs in a sport that requires sustained contributions from more than a few all-talented stars to win consistently.

The lack of quality homegrown talent manifests itself in several ways in the Halos’ on-field product. One of the most significant ways not yet mentioned is how the Angels have failed to add difference makers through trades. The Angels haven’t been able to make changes via trade because there’s simply no farm talent for the Angels’ GMs to trade. Unsurprisingly, opposing GMs haven’t been interested in acquiring the Angels’ spare parts and future bench players in exchange for high-quality talent. So, even if they wanted to make a big push, the Angels don’t have the prospect capital to make significant changes to the roster in-season. And, that failure to trade for real difference makers at any point during the year, let alone during the season, makes it difficult for the Angels to make significant improvements to their roster without taking on a hefty contract or giving up the few talented young players they’ve lucked into.

 

The Angels Have A Big Payroll, But the Money is Not Allocated to Provide Quality Lineup Depth

 

The lack of homegrown talent makes it near impossible for the Angels to fit within budgetary constraints and compete simultaneously. Owner Arte Moreno has always been willing — or forcefully demanding his GMs — to pull out his pocketbook for free-agent stars, shelling out the big bucks for Vladimir Guerrero, Vernon Wells, Albert Pujols, and Josh Hamilton, to name a few. And, it’s not just one star on the team and a nice collection of depth players. When the Angels go all-in on superstars, they go all-in on a handful of superstars all at once, causing their payroll to skyrocket:

Angels Payroll Analysis, 2017-2022

However, high payrolls do not reflect greater team success, especially in a sport that requires contributions from the entire roster to win games and ultimately make the playoffs. The payroll is merely a function of how teams have allocated their money. The Angels spent $180 million in 2021, for example, but $118 million was allocated to 4 players’ contracts. The Padres spent $179 million in 2021, but their 4 highest-earning players made a total of $94.5 million, $23.5 million less than the Angels, which the Padres could then reallocate towards more quality players on controllable contracts (i.e. Blake Snell).

Handing out megadeals to superstars in free agency is not a bad thing, in a vacuum. The Yankees are certainly reaping the rewards from signing Gerrit Cole to a record deal in 2019. The Phillies gave Zack Wheeler a huge contract in that same offseason, and he is a perennial Cy Young contender. Bryce Harper is still performing at an MVP level, 4 years into his deal with the Phillies. Likewise for Manny Machado and the Padres. Granted, those players are all in the primes of their careers, but we can go further back in time to find good, big-money free agent deals (Max Scherzer with the Nationals, for example) to convince the naysaying readers.

The Angels, however, have not enjoyed the same fruits with their superstars, save for Mike Trout’s record contract extension. Albert Pujols ended his 10-year contract with the Angels having produced negative fWAR, meaning he was performing at or worse than a replacement-level player for multiple seasons. Yet, the Angels committed $240 million to him over those 10 years. Josh Hamilton ended his Angels career with just 2 wins above replacement level across 2 seasons with the club, at the hefty price of $125 million over 5 years. In the years where the Angels carried both Pujols and Hamilton on the payroll, the Angels were paying somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million for zero production. And, as we know, the more money you commit to a single player, the less you can commit to the roster as a whole, which ultimately leaves some positions sorely lacking in talent or depth.

One of the reasons the Dodgers and Astros — the gold standards in team construction — have enjoyed sustained success this decade and beyond is that they almost always have young players waiting to fill the roster holes left by players who depart in free agency. After the Astros lost George Springer to the Blue Jays in free agency, they kept chugging along and winning games because they had Kyle TuckerMyles Strawand Chas McCormick (among others) waiting to soak up some of that new outfield playing time. The Angels haven’t had those young, major-league-ready guys waiting in the minors to quickly plug a roster hole. Instead, the Angels have utilized the free agency bargain bin or relied on Quad-A level players to fill the holes in their roster. Those are the types of unreliable players that can’t pick up the slack when the superstar players struggle, which ultimately hurts the Angels’ chances of winning enough games to get into the playoffs.

When the team’s owner gives you, the GM, a budget of $180 million (below the Competitive Balance Tax, by the way), and you’ve leveraged $118 million of that money in 4 players, you had better hope that those 4 players play at an MVP level, or that you have a smattering of young players on minimum contracts ready to pick up the slack. Otherwise, you’ve funneled a ton of money into a few players and filled the rest of the roster with unreliable players because there’s no money left to give to quality depth players on the free agent market. This is the issue the Angels will continue to run into, so long as they keep handing out megadeals to free agents and, at the same time, restrict the money that can be spent on filling important roster holes such as the pitching staff and lineup depth players.

 

The Angels Refuse to Invest Properly in their Minor League System

 

The following tweets will do a much better job of explaining the Angels’ failure to invest in their minor leaguers than I could:

 

Dear Arte Moreno —

Pay your minor leaguers a living wage. Also, pay for their housing and nutrition! Your ball club might develop some incredible young talent if you did.

Thanks,

-Adam Sloate

It’s very, very easy for a billionaire to allocate a couple of million dollars to feed, clothe, house, and otherwise pay their minor leaguers. Simply take it out of the yearly profits, which are already massive (I’m not an expert on team finances, but you have to figure the teams won’t bat an eye if $2-3 million comes out of the year-end profit), and watch the results roll in. It’s a frustratingly simple fix, and yet owners have balked at providing even a living wage for the minor leaguers because it threatens profit margins.

It’s difficult to understand the argument that providing housing and a wage even for Joe Warm Body down in High-A, the guy unlikely to make the contributions to the big league club, isn’t going to pay the big bucks in Anaheim and thus the owner doesn’t need to provide for Mr. Warm Body. It seems like common decency to provide minor leaguers with payment for their services, but it makes economical sense to do it anyways. Developing a single superstar player in the minor league system would generate enough revenue to pay back the costs allotted for all the minor leaguers in the system. Spending money on every player in the system increases the likelihood of developing talented players, who won’t have to worry about providing for their families and instead can focus purely on developing baseball talent.

However, the Angels have decided to meet the “bare minimum” requirements for minor league housing; doing the “bare minimum” seems to be popular over at the Big A these days. Thus, minor league players still have to worry about making ends meet by taking second jobs and calculating whether they can eat today, tomorrow, or both to have enough money for shelter. I’m no psychologist, but I figure when players are worried about money and where they’re sleeping tomorrow night, they’re not really thinking about developing their hit tool or dropping their swinging strike rates. And when they’re not thinking about developing baseball skills, those players are not improving to be the best versions of themselves, which is what teams need in order to win ballgames. Accordingly, when the Angels choose to skimp on minor league paychecks and housing options, they’re actively hurting their major league product in the process.

Or, if Arte Moreno wasn’t a robot designed to think about profits first, second, and last, he could think, “Oh, I’m a human being. I would hate it if I had no money for food or shelter, so why should my workers suffer? Let’s send some of that sweet cash over to my six minor league affiliates so they can meet their basic human needs!”

 

There Are No Quick Fixes For Their Competitive Window

 

All of these issues have been present for years, but they’ve never been more frustrating than this season for Angels fans because of the team’s hot start and epic collapse in June/July — plus, Shohei Ohtani is coming off arguably the greatest season in baseball history and is playing at an MVP level once more.

Even the most faithful Angels fans — me — have questioned the team’s long-term direction; the team has been totally aimless since 2016 or 2017, somehow leaning in and out of a rebuild with no end in sight. Unfortunately, this perpetual rebuild will almost certainly extend into 2023 because the issues plaguing the club are not short-term fixes. Even if the Angels completely altered their player development staff and strategies for the better tomorrow, the big league club wouldn’t reap those rewards right away. They wouldn’t develop enough quality players within the organization to make a blockbuster trade nor replace all of the “holes” on the big league club, two of the ways the club could be fixed quickly. Individual player development occurs over the course of several years, with all of the development staff’s tweaks to the player’s habits culminating in a major-league-ready player. Even Mike Trout took a year to develop in the minors before he was called up to the big league club. And, in even worse news, the players the Angels have drafted lately are not Mike Troutso they’ll likely take longer to develop into high-quality players that can help the organization compete.

So, is it all doom and gloom for Angels fans?

It’s near-impossible for a team to develop enough quality players from within the organization in one offseason to make the Halos outright contenders in 2023. It’s near-impossible for the Angels to rid themselves of Anthony Rendon’s weighty contract. These are issues that need sustained attention and long-term plans, and it’s understandable if fans have no faith that the Angels can right the development ship quickly. I am one of those people; that’s why this article’s headline forecasts similar adversity next year.

But there are things that can be fixed to make this team more competitive in 2023 and beyond. It’s not impossible for the Angels to start funding their minor league system appropriately, which will hopefully provide benefits immediately and in the future.  It’s not impossible for Arte Moreno to truly loosen his proverbial purse strings and use free agency to fill all of the big league club’s roster holes. Nothing is stopping Moreno from pushing the player payroll into the Competitive Balance Tax — which is just a really weak penalty for a billionaire like Moreno — and fielding a team that plays like it deserves to be in star-studded Los Angeles.

I just don’t see it happening, unless Moreno has finally decided he’s had enough of this on-field mediocrity — unlikely because his eyes have been replaced with dollar signs, and spending more money on player payroll erases those dollar signs from his eyes. So, the Angels are likely going to be stuck on a treadmill of mediocrity until some poor sap GM gets enough time to actually cultivate the farm system into something that produces big-league-quality players to supplement whatever is left of Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani

Steve Cohen is happy to spend nearly $300 million a year to fix almost all the Mets’ problems. Why can’t Arte do it with the Halos?

Photos by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire, David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire, and Joe Woods/Unsplash | Featured Image by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter and @EthanMKaplanImages on Instagram)

Adam Sloate

Die-hard Angels fan since birth; misses the good ol' days of Vladdy, Kendrys, and Weaver. Temple University alumnus, UCLA Law student.

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