When the Los Angeles Angels stored their equipment in October after a late-season surge brought them within one game of a wild-card spot, they faced several pivotal questions for the following season. Who would play left field? Who would serve as the lead-off hitter? Who would provide left-handed power? Would owner Arte Moreno spend big money to attract at least one of the big free agents who could solve those questions?
When the Angels meet for spring training in Tempe, Ariz., they will bring their answers: inexpensive journeymen who will serve as short-term placeholders that postpone the inevitable.
Moreno, who owes first baseman Albert Pujols $165 million for the next six seasons and is paying $53 million to outfielder Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers, wanted to avoid surpassing the luxury-tax threshold or relinquishing draft picks that could reinforce a barren farm system. So the Angels chose not to pursue outfielders Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Gordon, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Denard Span or Dexter Fowler.
Instead, general manager Billy Eppler signed low-cost free agents and traded for an infielder who will become a free agent after this season.
Two free agents, outfielders Craig Gentry and Daniel Nava, will compete to fill the pit in left field. The Angels started 10 players there last year, only one of whom remains in the organization. Gentry, who spent most of last season in the minors, signed a one-year deal worth $1 million. The switch-hitting Nava, who hit a career-high 12 home runs in 2013, agreed to another one-year contract worth $1.65 million. Both would be eligible for arbitration after the season, and neither have guaranteed contracts.
The aforementioned infielder, third baseman Yunel Escobar, replaces unsigned free agent David Freese and will take over the lead-off role. The 33-year-old Cuban brings a .281 average and a .350 on-base percentage for his career to the Angels, who sent right-handed reliever Trevor Gott and a minor leaguer to the Washington Nationals for him. The Nationals will play $1.5 million of Escobar's $7 million salary this season, the last installment of a two-year contract. By contrast, Freese made $6.425 million last year. The Angels could renew their option for 2017 at $7 million, or buy Escobar out for $1 million.
Besides costing less money, Escobar, Nava and Gentry appear to fit manager Mike Scioscia's aggressive offensive philosophy.
"We will have a more versatile, deeper look than we had last year," Scioscia said. "I think we'll resemble a lot of the things that we did well for a long time, not relying so much on four guys hitting the ball out of the park."
But the most immediate challenge will be resolving the congestion in the starting rotation. Right-handers Jered Weaver and Matt Shoemaker join left-handers C.J. Wilson, Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs in the race for spots behind the rotation's two likely leaders, right-hander Garrett Richards and left-hander Andrew Heaney.
As he begins his 17th spring training as the Angels' manager, Scioscia dismissed projections that have his club finishing either barely above or below .500.
"Whether people think we're a fluke or the next best thing since sliced bread, it doesn't factor into anything," he said. "Two years ago we won 98 games. Nobody expected us to win 98 games two years ago, right? Last year, we won 85 and people thought we were going to win probably 95. I don't think it serves any purpose to handicap. I'm confident in this team."
NOTES AND QUOTES
POSITION BATTLE TO WATCH: OFs Craig Gentry and Daniel Nava are the latest candidates to fill the Angels' void in left field. Neither journeyman compiled impressive statistics last year. The 32-year-old Gentry spent most of the season in the minor leagues and batted just .120 in 26 games for the Oakland Athletics. Nava, who turns 33 on Feb. 22, managed only a .194 average in 60 games with the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays. So why did GM Billy Eppler take a chance on these inexpensive free agents? They offer tantalizing short-term promise. In 2013, when the Red Sox won the World Series, the switch-hitting Nava batted .303 with 12 home runs and 66 RBIs in 134 games. In 2012, Gentry stole 13 bases while hitting .304 in 122 games for the Texas Rangers. Though the Angels plan to platoon both, Nava has played more career games in left field and offers some needed left-handed power. If neither perform to expectations, look for the Angels to pursue mid-season help, as they did last year.
ROOKIE WATCH: 1B Ji-Man Choi and RHP Deolis Guerra have the best chance to make the roster. Both were chosen in the Rule 5 draft, and both must stay with the Angels for the entire season or else return to their original teams. Selected from the Baltimore Orioles, the switch-hitting Choi has yet to make his major league debut. But the 24-year-old Korean owns a .302 batting average and a .990 fielding percentage after six seasons in the Seattle Mariners' system. In 2013, Choi represented the World Team in the All-Star Futures' Game. But in 2014, Choi served a 50-game suspension for steroid use. Then last year, Choi played only 23 games after breaking his right leg during spring training. He hit .290 with 18 RBIs and a .388 on-base percentage for the Mariners' affiliates at Tacoma (AAA) and in the Arizona Rookie League. Guerra, taken from the Pittsburgh Pirates, will compete with RHPs Mike Morin and Al Albuquerque for the spot as the seventh-inning specialist. The 26-year-old Venezuelan compiled a 1.23 ERA, amassed 37 strikeouts in 36 2/3 innings and held opposing batters to a .165 average while converting four of five save opportunities last year for the Pirates' Indianapolis (AAA) farm club. With Pittsburgh in 10 games, Guerra won both of his decisions while accumulating 17 strikeouts against three walks in 16 2/3 innings. But the right-hander allowed 26 hits, including five home runs, compiled a 6.48 ERA and allowed opposing batters to hit .371.
COMEBACK TRAIL: RHP Javy Guerra seeks to rebuild his career after serving a 50-game suspension last year for drug abuse. That suspension followed a second positive drug test and ended an already frustrating season for the veteran reliever. Guerra did not permit a run in three games covering 1 2/3 innings for the Chicago White Sox before an inflamed right shoulder put him on the disabled list. Then after allowing seven earned runs and eight hits in 3 2/3 innings during his rehabilitation assignment at Charlotte (AAA), Guerra drew his release in May, two months before Commissioner Rob Manfred suspended him. Guerra has known major league success. The native of Denton, Texas saved 21 games in 2011 as a rookie with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and compiled a 2.91 ERA in 2014 for the White Sox. The Angels invited him to spring training after signing him to a minor league contract Feb. 10. For the 30-year-old Guerra, this could be his last chance.
--CF Mike Trout has made such a profound impact that ESPN's Keith Law suggests trading him for prospects to rebuild the Angels' minor league system. But as long as Trout remains a force of nature, the Angels likely will ignore such advice. Trout enters this season having finished 2014 with a career-best 41 home runs, 90 RBIs, 104 runs and a .590 slugging percentage that led the American League. Trout also played error-less defense for the first time in his career and became the first player to win successive Most Valuable Player awards in the All-Star Game. Trout finished second to Toronto Blue Jays 3B Josh Donaldson in voting for the American League's MVP award, which he won in 2014.
--SS Andrelton Simmons automatically becomes the infield's cornerstone after arriving from the Atlanta Braves, where he used his acrobatic agility to win two Gold Gloves in his first two full seasons. Since his major league debut in 2012, the native of Curacao has saved more runs (113) than any of his peers. Simmons cost the Angels their two best prospects, LHP Sean Newcomb and RHP Chris Ellis, as well as SS Erick Aybar in the five-player trade. But the 32-year-old Aybar is scheduled to become a free agent after this season, while the 26-year-old Simmons is signed through 2020. Though he carries a career batting average of .256, Simmons hit .265 last year, his most productive season since batting .289 in 49 games for the Braves in 2012.
--RHP Jered Weaver hopes an offseason conditioning program will restore at least some of his lost velocity as he enters the final season of his five-year contract. With his fastball averaging just 85 mph, Weaver experienced the worst season of his career last year. The 33-year-old right-hander finished with a 7-12 record and a 4.64 earned-run average. Until last year, Weaver never won fewer than 11 games or compiled an ERA higher than 4.33 in any previous season. Weaver needs one victory to surpass Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan and move into second place on the club's list of career wins.
--3B Yunel Escobar replaces unsigned free agent David Freese at the position, and will get the first chance to establish himself as the Angels' lead-off hitter. Escobar, 33, compiled a .314 average and a .375 on-base percentage in 139 games for the Washington Nationals last year. Defensively, Escobar's .970 fielding percentage ranked second among the National League's third basemen. But Escobar provides little speed or power. The 10-year veteran has stolen no more than six bases nor hit more than 14 home runs in any single season. Since Escobar will become a free agent after the season, the Angels view him as a stopgap while 3B propsects Kaleb Cowart and Kyle Kubiza develop.
--2B Johnny Giavotella will fight to retain his position in the starting lineup after unexpectedly earning it last spring. Despite playing no more than 53 games in any single season before last year, Giovatella beat three competitors in spring training for the infield spot, then hit .272 with 25 doubles, five triples and a .318 on-base percentage. But Giavotella's 12 errors in 535 chances raised concerns. Veteran INF Cliff Pennington, signed as a free agent, has the best chance to displace Giavotella.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's not the superstar players that determine the fate of the team. It's the No. 5 hitter, the No. 6 hitter, the Nos 3, 4 and 5 in the rotation. That's kind of how it is." LHP C.J. Wilson on skepticism surrounding the Angels' chances after owner Arte Moreno signed none of the free-agent outfield stars available during the offseason.