Calculated risks led to current LF void

January 27th, 2016

ANAHEIM -- On Tuesday night the Mets formally announced a new three-year contract with Yoenis Cespedes, suppressing any hope that the Angels would take advantage of a free-agent market that was tailored to address their greatest need.

Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, Chris Davis and Cespedes would have all satisfied the Angels' desire for a corner outfielder and middle-of-the-order bat. But owner Arte Moreno opted to stay below the $189 million luxury-tax threshold, forcing new general manager Billy Eppler to find creative solutions and subsequently disappointing a large segment of his fan base.

With the Angels lacking impact prospects at the upper levels and their division rivals improving, several people throughout the industry felt Los Angeles' best path back to the postseason was to sign one of those aforementioned free agents. But a few outsiders were also hesitant to believe they would, because Moreno has long been trepidatious about exceeding the threshold.

It happened in August 2012, when the trade for Zack Greinke -- occurring seven months after the monumental signings of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson -- pushed the Angels close enough to the threshold that they couldn't improve their beleaguered bullpen.

Hot Stove Tracker

The Vernon Wells salary dump to the Yankees in March 2013, occurring three months after the surprise splurge for Josh Hamilton, was done with an eye toward remaining comfortably below the threshold. The same can basically be said for the Mark Trumbo trade of December 2013 and the Howie Kendrick deal that occurred 12 months later, even though both brought back some much-needed young pitching.

In times like these, it's easy to forget how generous Moreno has been with the budget.

From 2004-15, the Angels -- never considered big spenders in their first four-plus decades of existence -- ranked no lower than eighth in the Majors in Opening Day payroll. This year, they're already on track to sit at roughly $164 million when the season begins, representing about an $18 million increase in one year.

But because teams typically have to forfeit Draft picks to sign marquee free agents, clubs that perpetually spend big in pursuit of championships have a hard time maintaining the strong farm systems that are essential for sustained winning. And when that becomes the case, the only way to remain in contention is usually to keep increasing the payroll.

The Angels, to their credit, have managed to keep a consistent winner on the field for more than a decade without ever going through a full-scale rebuild. Their 1,160 regular-season wins since 2003 are topped only by the Yankees (1,223) and Cardinals (1,179). Those are the only three teams to win at least 76 games every single time in that 13-year span.

That's an impressive run of consistent winning under Moreno's ownership. But the Angels ran into a financial road block this offseason. And now, despite ongoing hopes to add an everyday bat, they're set up to field a platoon of Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry in left field, a position where the Angels received a collective .592 OPS in 2015.

It wasn't merely that the budget didn't allow the Angels to sign the upgrade they so desperately needed; it's that they needed to rely on the free-agent market in the first place. That is a volatile position for any club to find itself in.

How did it happen?

Below is a look at the main reasons.


It was Moreno's decision to sign Hamilton to the five-year, $125 million contract that pushed the team up against the luxury-tax threshold in 2013, and it was Moreno's decision to trade the underperforming Hamilton to the Rangers last April, paying almost the entirety of his contract over the following two seasons and creating a hole on the Angels' roster.

Third base

Alberto Callaspo was expected to hold the fort down at third base through 2014, but he struggled in 2013 and was traded midway through the season with the Angels out of contention. Kaleb Cowart, a first-round pick in 2010, was supposed to take over on an everyday basis in 2015, but he struggled so much in Double-A -- before turning his career around last summer -- that some felt he should try pitching.

With that in the background, the Angels ended the 2013 season with an unexpected need at third base. So in November of that year, they used outfield prospect Randal Grichuk in a four-player trade with the Cardinals for David Freese. Shortly thereafter, Grichuk blossomed. He batted .276/.329/.548 with 17 homers in 103 Major League games in 2015, providing the kind of low-cost production the Angels now crave.

Salary dumps

For further proof of just how dangerous it is to constantly gamble on free agents, take a look at how much money the Angels have sent to other teams over the past few years. It isn't just Hamilton. The Angels absorbed a significant amount of salary to trade away Wells and Gary Matthews Jr., while the likes of Scott Kazmir, Bobby Abreu and Joe Blanton were all released with money remaining.

Missed opportunities

The Angels didn't have a pick in the second round of the 2006 Draft (due to the signing of Jeff Weaver), either of the first two rounds in '07 (Matthews and Justin Speier), the first round of '08 (Torii Hunter), the second round in '11 (Scott Downs), the first two rounds of '12 (Pujols and Wilson) and the first round in '13 (Hamilton). That's a lot of chances to add high-ceiling, controllable talent.

In the 2010 Draft, the Angels had an opportunity to capitalize on the opposite extreme, with five selections within the top 40 picks thanks partly to the losses of John Lackey and Chone Figgins. But they took Cowart, Cam Bedrosian, Chevy Clarke, Taylor Lindsey and Ryan Bolden, none of whom has lived up to expectations. Kole Calhoun proved to be a brilliant pickup in the eighth round, but the Angels mostly flopped that June -- one year after one of the most successful Drafts in recent memory.

The counterpoint to all of this is Mike Trout, the 25th overall pick in 2009. He's proof that drafting a single superstar can help overcome a lot of other issues.

Future uncertainties

The Competitive Balance Tax (CBT) payroll differs from the Opening Day payroll. It's the one used to determine which teams exceed the luxury-tax threshold and thus pay a tax on the overage (17.5 percent the first time, 30 percent the second, 40 percent the third and 50 percent the fourth). Calculations are done at the end of the year, using the average annual value of all 40-man-roster contracts, plus bonuses, benefits and any money changing hands with other teams.

The Angels currently sit less than $4 million below the threshold and have five players -- Pujols, Wilson, Hamilton, Jered Weaver and Trout -- accounting for about $105 million, or 56 percent. Next year, though, the budget seemingly opens up, with Weaver and Wilson slated for free agency and a new Collective Bargaining Agreement expected to increase the threshold.

In other words, the club can exceed the mark in 2016 and get back under it in 2017, thus avoiding those escalating penalties. But the Angels seemingly weren't comfortable with the free-agent prices -- Upton, Cespedes, Heyward and Davis all got more than $22 million on an average annual value -- and decided to stay below the threshold knowing that they will have to address other needs next winter.

With catcher Geovany Soto, setup man Joe Smith and middle reliever Fernando Salas also entering their final years before free agency, the Angels could have two holes in the rotation, two more in the bullpen, and they could be in the market for help at catcher, left field and second base next offseason. Meanwhile, Garrett Richards, Calhoun and Hector Santiago will all get more expensive via the arbitration process.

The Angels will have more financial flexibility next winter, but perhaps not as much as you might think. And because the free-agent class won't be nearly as deep as this year's, Eppler may once again need to be resourceful.