ANAHEIM -- Jerry Dipoto has a tough task on his hands: Keep the Angels competitive, with very little talent in the upper levels of their farm system and most of the payroll tied to long-term contracts for aging players. Dipoto, entering his fourth offseason as the Angels' general manager, must do it all without surpassing the luxury tax, and under a competitive owner with no desire to ever enter in a rebuild stage.
The challenge continues now, with the Angels coming off a 98-win regular season and three days removed from swift elimination by the Royals in the American League Division Series.
The contracts for Vernon Wells and Joe Blanton come off the books this winter. But Mike Trout's six-year, $144.5 million extension is added to the competitive-balance-tax payroll, which uses the average annual value of all 40-man-roster players, plus bonuses and benefits, to determine how close teams are to the tax threshold. That threshold will be $189 million once again in 2015, with teams taxed 17.5 percent for going over it. Five of the Angels' players (Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson and Trout) make up about 56 percent of that.
The key to keeping the Angels competitive, and not being in the financial situation of, say, the Phillies, "is to make sure you achieve good balance," Dipoto said.
The Angels need to have contributing players "who develop on the other side of the roster," meaning cheap assets making about $500,000 because they're in the service-time range of zero to three years. The Angels have some of those -- Kole Calhoun, Matt Shoemaker, Mike Morin, C.J. Cron, to name a few -- as well as avenues to free up money down the road.
After the 2015 season, Howie Kendrick, Chris Iannetta and Huston Street come off the books. After the '16 season, Weaver, Wilson and Erick Aybar are slated for free agency.
Now, what does any of this have to do with this offseason?
This Dipoto quote speaks to that: "We understand what our model is, and we have to stay within that model. We can't be pushed in the direction to do something north, where we have to go above and beyond. I've heard the comment, 'We're all in.' We're all in every year, but we have to do it with good balance. And that means we have to be a little bit more aware of how our roster ages."
Translation: The Angels can't, and are unwilling to, take on any more lucrative free-agent contracts.
They're currently set up to have no more than $10 million of wiggle room below the tax threshold this offseason. And if they do acquire starting pitching, Dipoto would like to do it in a very similar manner in which he did it last offseason, by using two arbitration-eligible position players (Mark Trumbo and Peter Bourjos) to land two zero-to-three starting pitchers (Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago).
So, yes, you can pretty much forget James Shields, Jon Lester or Max Scherzer.
Dipoto said after the Game 3 loss to the Royals that he feels "really confident in the foundation" of the roster, and that the Angels are "tweaks and turns from being a very good team again" in 2015.
Below is a look at where those "tweaks and turns" may come.
Arbitration-eligible: 3B David Freese (third year), INF Gordon Beckham (third year), RP Kevin Jepsen (third year), RP Vinnie Pestano (second year as Super Two), RP Fernando Salas (second year), SP Wade LeBlanc (second year), SP Santiago (first year), SP Garrett Richards (first year), C Hank Conger (first year), OF Collin Cowgill (first year)
Free agents: RP Jason Grilli, RP Joe Thatcher, C John Buck, INF John McDonald
Rotation: Once again, the rotation will be the most interesting area to monitor. Richards will be coming off knee surgery, though he's expected to be ready by Opening Day; Skaggs will spend the 2015 season recovering from Tommy John surgery; Wilson is coming off his worst year as a starting pitcher; Santiago can be quite erratic; Shoemaker had the kind of success few know if he can duplicate; and Weaver isn't getting any younger.
Still, Dipoto didn't sound like a man who felt like adding starting pitching over the offseason was a major priority. "The well isn't dry," Dipoto said, adding that the Angels are good with a 2015 rotation of Weaver, Richards, Wilson, Shoemaker and Santiago, with added depth from LeBlanc, Drew Rucinski and Cory Rasmus, if converted to a full-time starting pitcher. "We'll continue to find more ways to create more depth on the pitching staff," Dipoto said, but don't expect that to be with a big-name free-agent starter.
Bullpen: The Angels shored up their bullpen with the acquisition of Street, whose $7 million club option for 2015 is basically a formality, and they'll have most of their main guys back next year. That includes Joe Smith, Jepsen, Salas, Morin and Pestano. The Angels could try to work something out with Grilli, and they may look to finally get a lefty specialist, either Thatcher or someone else. In any case, they'll continue to try to add cheap depth here, too.
Catcher: The Angels look set behind the plate, with the duo of Iannetta and Conger providing above-average production in 2014. Iannetta, who will enter his final season before free agency, took over the everyday role down the stretch and finished second on the team in on-base percentage (.373) while improving his caught-stealing percentage (19 percent in 2013 to 30 percent in '14).
First base: Pujols will turn 35 in January, just before starting the fourth season of a 10-year, $240 million contract that is backloaded and could be crippling very soon. The Angels' hope is that Pujols can replicate something similar to his 2014 season -- .272/.324/.466 slash line, 28 homers, 105 RBIs and AL Gold Glove Award-caliber defense -- for several years. Pujols believes he can be even better, once his right knee, surgically repaired two offseasons ago, gets strong enough to help him have a stronger base and drive the ball to right field.
Second base: The homegrown Kendrick enters his final season before free agency, and there are no indications that the Angels will explore an extension similar to the four-year deal they gave him before his walk year in January 2012. Kendrick is coming off another solid year, posting a .293/.347/.397 slash line while taking over the cleanup spot down the stretch. His name was all over the rumor mill last winter, and the Angels could explore dealing him this winter to free up more money. Second base is probably their deepest position organizationally.
Third base: The Angels have an interesting tender decision with Freese, acquired in the deal that sent outfielders Randal Grichuk and Bourjos to the Cardinals last November. Freese is also entering his final season before free agency, and is set to make roughly $6 million in arbitration. The 31-year-old basically duplicated his slash line from last year (.262/.340/.381 in 2013, .260/.321/.383 in '14), but he might have helped make his case by hitting .315 with four homers in the final month.
Shortstop: Aybar is coming off a terrific season at age 30, one that saw him bat .278/.321/.379 while making a case for his second AL Gold Glove Award. The fiery switch-hitter is signed for two more years at a combined $17 million, and he probably isn't going anywhere.
Outfield: Two-thirds of their outfield is very well taken care of. Trout, 23, will probably win the AL's Most Valuable Player Award after batting .287 with 36 homers and 111 RBIs in center field. Right fielder Calhoun is coming off a solid first full season in the big leagues, producing a .272/.325/.450 slash line from the leadoff spot. And then there's Hamilton.
Hamilton is entering the third season of a five-year, $125 million contract after a very underwhelming first two years. He stayed healthy in 2013, but batted .250 with 21 homers. He only played in 89 games in '14 and batted .263 with 10 homers. He continues to be an enigma. Given Hamilton's contract and no-trade clause, the Angels may simply have to cross their fingers that '15 is a bounce-back year.
Bench/designated hitter: Dipoto identified this department as "a focus of our offseason." Last winter, the Angels signed 41-year-old Raul Ibanez to take over that spot, only to release him in June and have a revolving door all year (until finally settling on Cron in the ALDS). This offseason, the Angels will try to acquire more functional pieces that can rotate and also play the field, with Pujols and Hamilton increasingly needing time at DH. They're also expected to be in the market for a utility infielder, unless the Angels surprisingly tender Beckham a contract.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez.