Rendon Signing Shouldn’t Distract from the Angels’ Pitching Needs

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.

Los Angeles Angels Starters, 2019
Andrew Heaney 95.1 4.91 4.63 4.18 1.2
Griffin Canning 88.1 4.18 4.26 4.73 1.4
Tyler Skaggs 79.2 4.29 3.85 4.36 1.8
Jose Suarez 67.0 6.85 6.68 5.72 -0.5
Jaime Barria 60.1 5.52 6.45 5.25 -0.4
Matt Harvey 59.2 7.09 6.35 5.45 -0.4
Dillon Peters 55.2 5.82 6.43 5.70 -0.4
Trevor Cahill 53.1 6.92 6.68 5.17 -0.5
Patrick Sandoval 34.1 5.24 5.08 4.37 0.2
Felix Pena 28.2 5.34 5.38 5.47 0.1
Chris Stratton 23.0 7.04 5.82 5.55 0.0

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.

Lowest Rotation WAR For Playoff Teams, 2010-19
Team Year Starters’ WAR
Orioles 2012 9.9
Giants 2012 9.9
D-backs 2011 9.8
Rangers 2016 9.8
Rangers 2015 9.4
Orioles 2014 8.8
Brewers 2018 8.7
Royals 2015 8.6
Giants 2014 8.5
Athletics 2018 7.9
Pirates 2014 7.4
Braves 2012 7.2
Twins 2017 7.1

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.

Top Free Agent Starting Pitchers, 2018-19
Gerrit Cole 412.2 2.68 2.67 13.1 2.4 38.1% 13.4
Hyun-Jin Ryu 265.0 2.21 3.07 8.6 1.3 49.0% 6.7
Madison Bumgarner 337.1 3.66 3.94 8.8 2.3 38.6% 4.6
Dallas Keuchel 317.1 3.74 4.06 6.9 2.6 55.9% 4.1
Gio Gonzalez 258.1 3.97 4.12 7.9 4.1 45.0% 3.6
Wade Miley 248.0 3.52 4.21 6.9 3.2 50.7% 3.3
Rich Hill 191.1 3.29 4.01 10.4 2.8 42.1% 2.6

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.

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_.

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2 years ago

I agree that they still need starters, but if they miss out on Ryu, etc., the Angels can find comfort in the “Big Red Machine” school of team building: the 1975-76 Reds finished first in position player WAR each year, but finished 21st and 19th in starting pitcher WAR (and that’s worse than it sounds, considering there were only 24 teams at the time). The result, of course, was back-to-back championships, so perhaps the Angels can slug their way to the top as well.

Anthony Princeton
2 years ago
Reply to  Roger21

I don’t know if I would go that far hahaha. The 1975 Reds as a team, 107 ERA+ and 3.74 FIP. The 2019 Angels, 89 ERA+ and 5.04 FIP.

1975 Reds starters.

Gary Nolan, 114 ERA+, 3.42 FIP, 32 starts
Jack Billingham 88 ERA+, 4.43 FIP, 32 starts
Fred Norman, 97 ERA+, 4.25 FIP, 26 starts
Don Gullett, 149 ERA+, 3.34 FIP, 22 starts
Pat Darcy, 101 ERA+, 3.64 FIP, 22 starts
Clay Kirby, 77 ERA+, 4.85 FIP, 19 starts

2 years ago

Amazing that those stats still resulted in the rotation ranking nearly last in the league. Then again, that ranking is based on FIP, and the ERA+ numbers were presumably bolstered by Concecpion and Geronimo turning in all-world defensive years.

2 years ago
Reply to  Roger21

League average innings eaters have their uses.
(Look at the innings, too.)
The BRM staff wasn’t awful.
And the bullpen was good…
Plus, it was different era.
Angels have work to do.

2 years ago

More importantly, 2019 Angels batters recorded 20.4 WAR with wrc+ 99 right at the average.
Adding Rendon to the roster makes it above-average, but hardly elite especially with Calhoun gone as well.
If you are considering bounce back from Simmons and Ohtani, you should also expect regression from guys like La Stella and Goodwin.

2 years ago
Reply to  Roger21

Good luck doing that in the same division as a team that will also compete for #1 offense while also having top 5, if not top 3, pitching.

As of this morning, the Angels are probably still 15 wins worse than the Astros by roster true talent; good luck making that up on the free agent market.

It’s not clear they could even pass the A’s; even if they signed Keuchel, Bumgarner and Ryu I think they would still be the 3rd-best team in their division.

2 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

They already project as the 2nd-best team in their division.

2 years ago
Reply to  Roger21

I don’t really pay a lot of regard to the depth charts outcomes until ZIPS is included. Steamer has such strong regression preferences that I don’t really think it creates an accurate picture as it tends to be deeply skeptical about players who make significant improvements. For example, it still thinks Max Muncy is a 115 wRC+ player next year, despite 2+ seasons at 140+.

ZIPS has quite a bit more gradiation in it’s outcomes and I don’t find the depth charts to be very useful until it is included.

The Angels were 25 games (!!) worse than the Athletics last year; I don’t really think the addition of Rendon+Gausman comes close to making up that gap.

A team like the Athletics that by design has so many new players who contribute without being mega-elite prospects is by nature one that Steamer as a projection system is particularly likely to under-estimate.

The Angels are still a team with a strong stars/scrubs roster design and inadequate depth; even as they have improved their high-end outcome, their low-end is really, really poor, because there is no meaningful depth at most positions. They still project to get 2/3(!!) of their position player WAR from 4 players (Trout, Rendon, Ohtani and Simmons). Losing even a few weeks of any of those players is crippling to their chances of success, because the backups at all of those positions are pretty much replacement-level uselessness.

Without any additional moves I would take the A’s to have a better record pretty strongly, and I suspect most people would.