Entering the 2019-20 offseason, Gerrit Cole and the Los Angeles Angels seemed as natural a fit as any potential pairing in the free agent market. Cole just finished a historically great season and was free agency at 29 years old in search of a record-setting contract. The Angels, meanwhile, had the least valuable rotation in baseball by WAR and are a large-market team that plays in the same area where Cole was born and raised (and where he played his college ball). In terms of need, in terms of finances, and in terms of mutual interest, matching the two up made perfect sense.
But it wasn’t to be. It was the New York Yankees who inked Cole to his gargantuan new contract late Tuesday night, with the two parties agreeing to a nine-year, $324 million deal. The Angels then made a hard pivot to the best remaining free agent, signing third baseman Anthony Rendon to a seven-year, $245-million contract. The benefits of adding Rendon are abundant — at perhaps the deepest position in the sport, Rendon might be the best, and adding a second superstar to a lineup that already includes Mike Trout will at the very least make this an exciting offense for years to come. Throw in top prospect Jo Adell, two-way stud Shohei Ohtani, and maybe even a bounce-back year for Justin Upton, and this offense could be quite scary. The signing of Rendon unambiguously makes the Angels oodles better, but it’s worth mentioning that it doesn’t address the biggest hole on the team. And if Los Angeles is going to get Trout back to the postseason in the near future, that hole is going to need filled quickly.
That hole, of course, is the starting rotation. Along with the bullpen, it’s the most imminently improvable area of the roster. That’s why every team in baseball has a need for a player like Cole, who led the AL in WAR, ERA, FIP, xFIP, and strikeouts in 2019, and has finished in the top five in Cy Young voting each of the past two seasons. Last I checked, there aren’t any rotations who have five starters who share those credentials. But as much of an upgrade as Cole would be for all 30 teams, it’s difficult to find a club that had more of a need for him than the Angels. Los Angeles missed the playoffs for a fifth straight season in 2019, finishing with a 72-90 record that was their worst since 1999. Several factors contributed to that, but arguably none were bigger than their stagnant rotation.
The name that stands out on this list, of course, is Tyler Skaggs. We don’t need to dive deep into his tragic passing on July 1st, less than two weeks before his 28th birthday, but you also can’t tell the story of this season without him. He was his team’s best pitcher, a talented lefty with a mean curveball. He also seemed to be incredibly popular among both his own teammates and players on opposing teams, and it’s impossible to try and guess what it was like for the organization to continue the season without him.
There are other familiar names on that list. Matt Harvey was a free agent pickup last winter and turned out to be a disaster. Trevor Cahill joined the organization after re-establishing his value in Oakland and saw his numbers disintegrate. Jaime Barria and Andrew Heaney both regressed. And then there were the debuts from well-regarded prospects — Griffin Canning was decent, Jose Suarez was not. Together, this group, along with a handful of openers, posted just 3.3 WAR in 2019. Over the past decade, only the 2017 White Sox rotation was worse. Cole wouldn’t have fixed those issues all by himself — he only pitches once out of every five games, after all — but he would have provided as much of a boost as one player possibly could have.
Instead, the Angels will hope to get upgrades elsewhere. The good news there is they already have a couple of upgrades in Ohtani and Dylan Bundy. Ohtani, the two-way marvel, was restricted to offense only in 2019 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. But when he returns to the mound, the 25-year-old will be the Angels’ ace, hoping to build off a 10-start debut in 2018 in which he posted a 3.31 ERA and 3.57 FIP while striking out nearly 11 batters per nine innings. Bundy, meanwhile, was acquired from Baltimore via trade earlier this month, and while his numbers don’t leap off the page (4.79 ERA, 4.73 FIP), his 2.5 WAR would have made him far and away the most valuable Angels starter in 2019.
Inserting those two into the rotation for 2020 will be helpful, but it still might not be enough to make the Angels a serious contender. Factoring in our projected pitching WAR for Ohtani (2.2) and Bundy (2.3) adds just 4.5 WAR to their rotation’s total. If we simply add that to what the team finished with this season, that still gives them just 7.8 WAR from their starters. Looking back at the past 10 seasons, very few teams have reached the postseason while getting that little value out of their rotations.
Having this poor of a rotation doesn’t necessarily preclude you from playing in October, but it does mean you are playing from behind right off the bat. Not surprisingly, the teams who reach the playoffs in spite of mediocre starting pitching tend to do so with the help of a very good offense — on average, their hitters were worth 25.4 WAR. That’s where the Angels are in luck. After signing Rendon, our Depth Charts calculations project them at 30.1 offensive WAR, second in baseball behind only the Astros. That alone could be enough to make them a threat for October, but it makes no guarantees.
That’s why Los Angeles entered this offseason with such an incentive to upgrade its pitching staff, and why it had its sights on Cole in the first place. And when looking at the best pitchers available as of Thursday, there is no understating the drop-off between Cole and the pack.
Cole was twice as valuable over the last two seasons as the next-closest pitcher on this list, and he was more than three times as valuable as most of them. It’s easy to see why he got such a large contract, but it also means the Angels will probably need to go after more than one of the remaining starters on this list to get a similar impact. According to rumors, it appears the Angels have the financial flexibility to make that happen.
No, I don’t think this means they can afford Rendon and Cole. But it does mean they might be able to do, say, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Madison Bumgarner if they don’t get Cole. They might have had the money for Cole before making the trade, and now have even more room.
— Alden Gonzalez (@Alden_Gonzalez) December 11, 2019
Bumgarner and Ryu won’t come cheap, and both have their own risks. Bumgarner has been durable and consistent over the course of his career, but he’s been much closer to an average pitcher over the past three seasons than the ace he was in his mid-20s. Ryu’s highs have been higher recently, with him leading the majors in ERA and finishing second in NL Cy Young voting last year. But he struggled in the last couple months of the season, and injury issues have resulted in him throwing more than 100 innings just twice in the past five seasons. Both pitchers have flaws, but that’s why they’re generating a $100 million market instead of $200 or $300 million market like a couple of their peers.
After landing Rendon, it’s almost certain the Angels won’t be able to secure both Bumgarner and Ryu. Getting one of them, however, should definitely still be in the team’s plans. If the Angels can swing a deal for either, and combine that with a smaller deal for someone like Gonzalez or Hill, things could begin to look very promising for Los Angeles in 2020.
Turning a 90-loss team into a contender in the course of one winter isn’t an easy task. But then again, the Angels’ situation never really seemed that dire to begin with. Just one season before, Ohtani had been worth 3.8 WAR as a two-way player, and Andrelton Simmons had the best season of his career, racking up 5.4 WAR. Injuries hampered them in 2019, but the idea of both playing at 100% next year is incredibly exciting. This team is going to hit, and with David Fletcher, Simmons, and Rendon in the infield, they’ll defend really well, too.
The Angels just need pitchers. They missed out on the two best ones, but they got their complement at the plate. They were determined to make a splash, and they did. Now it’s time to get back on the diving board and do it again.
Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.