Payroll, Prospects, Paint Grim Future For Angels


Sep 11, 2014; Arlington, TX, USA; Los Angeles Angels shortstop

Erick Aybar

(2) throws the back after walking in the eighth inning against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington. Los Angeles beat Texas 7-3. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Enjoy first place, Anaheim. Enjoy the 96 win season, the division championship, the champagne, the playoffs. Because there is a cliff coming, if not next year, then the one after, and the Angels may come crashing to earth.

Since August 11th, the Angels have are MLB best 30-10.  They have gone from a quiet contender living in Oakland’s shadow to must see television, owners of the best record in baseball (96-59) and a 11.5 game lead over the A’s in the AL West. General Manager Jerry Dipoto has been lauded for a trio of summer trades to steel a rusted bullpen. Owner Arte Moreno has earned praise for his budget-blind commitment to winning. After two years of controversy, Mike Trout seems poised to finally take home that coveted American League MVP trophy.

That’s this year. And as we enter October, the Angels’  recent hot streak should make them – along with Baltimore – World Series favorites.

The costs of a championship, though, could be steep. The prospects price of Dipoto’s mid-season acquisitions, namely that of closer Huston Street, have been well-documented. Taylor Lindsey, the Halo’s top prospect coming into the season per Baseball America, headlined the Padres deal, and while he has struggled since coming to San Diego, the rest of the pieces have not. R.J. Alvarez, previously ranked by BA as the Angels No.4 prospect, had a 2.76 ERA in Double-A San Antonio and a 1.93 mark since the Padres promoted him to the majors. Jose Rondon, a high-upside, 20 year old shortstop, is hitting .301 since the move. The least-touted player in the deal, 22 year old right-hander Elliot Morris, is 3-3 with a 3.56 ERA.

Such a collection would not choke most systems. Although Alvarez has since graduated, none of the other players currently rank higher than ninth on’s top 20 Padres prospect list. But years of frugality and near-sighted moves have rendered Anaheim’s farm system barren. The signings of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton left the Angels without a first round selection in consecutive drafts, and they’ve routinely ranked in the bottom handful of teams for international spending, coming in at 29th of 30 teams for the 2013 signing period.

The result is an uninspiring mosh of minor league talent that was ranked by both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus as the worst in all of baseball before the 2014 season. This summer move’s have only darkened an already grim landscape.

This is not to bash win-now moves, or to say that an abject farm system is symptomatic of impending failure. Teams like the Yankees routinely contend with an impoverished system and the Red Sox have proven that pipelines can be rebuilt with relative facility.

But despite what Arte Moreno’s recent spree of Gatsbian spending may indicate, Anaheim is not blessed with New York’s bottomless pockets.  They cannot simply spend whenever a need presents itself. Leery of the luxury tax, Moreno has already shown a reluctance to loosen his purse strings, passing on Bartolo Colon this summer because of the veteran’s 11 million dollar price tag for 2015.

With the massive contracts held by Pujols, Hamilton, and Mike Trout, as well a variety of lesser commitments, Los Angeles already has 140 million dollars in luxury tax payroll for 2015. Tack on arbitration-eligible players and those with less than three years of major league service time, and the Angels will owe at least 170 million next season, if not more, leaving little breathing room beneath the luxury tax threshold of 189 million. Going past the threshold would result in a 17.5% tax on payroll, a tax that would increase with each successive year spent over the cap.

Meanwhile, Pujols, Hamilton and C.J. Wilson will all be  wrong side of 33 as they collect the combined 316 million dollars still guaranteed on their backloaded deals.  The former two have proven injury-prone, and all three have  appeared to be in decline this season. For the Angels to contend, someone (or someones) is going to have replace those lost games and production. If Moreno continues to insist on staying beneath the luxury tax marker, those players will be all but impossible to come by on the free agent market.

And they won’t come from the farm system. 2014 First round pick Sean Newcomb  is a nice prospect, with a plus fastball and a four pitch arsenal, but he has just 14.2 professional innings under his belt and won’t be major league ready until 2017 at the earliest. Their next two prospects per, Joe Gatto and Christopher Ellis, have never pitched above rookie ball. Aside from a couple relievers, the only  other player in the Angels farm system capable of making an impact in the near future is second baseman Alex Yarbough, a mediocre defender who hits for average but little else.

Thrifty moves, such as non-tendering third baseman David Freese (.262 average, .712 OPS). could create some financial flexibility, but not more than a few million dollars worth.  They could try trading a couple veteran pieces for prospects and young major leaguers, as the Red Sox have done to tremendous success. However, Anaheim lacks the abundance of attractable assets Boston had this summer. Most of their top players are weighed down by immense contracts. Middle infielders Howie Kendrick and Errick Aybar may fetch small returns, as could catcher Chris Ianneta.   Dealing them, though, would hurt Anaheim’s playoff chances for 2015, something the aging Angels are most likely unwilling to do. Signing young Cuban free agents isn’t really an option, either, as that would also bring them perilously close to the luxury tax.

The good news is that almost all of Anaheim’s weapons are under team control for 2015. If Garret Richards can recover and be even a shadow of his 2014 self, the Angels should be poised to compete for another AL West Crown. But fans better hope they can capture a title one of these two seasons, because unless Moreono spends again or the farm makes a miraculous recovery, 2016 could be the year Angels come crashing down to earth.