Dipoto likely to explore trading over free agency
Angels limited in payroll flexibility; starting pitching atop offseason wish list
The Angels badly need starting pitching, but they don't have a ton of payroll flexibility, and their farm system is perceivably among the worst in baseball.
Jerry Dipoto is going to have to get creative.
The Angels' general manager -- assured in early October that he'd return for a third year -- will spend a vast majority of his offseason talking to teams about ways to acquire starting pitching via trade, preferably by dangling offensive pieces like Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, Peter Bourjos and Mark Trumbo.
But the first order of business will be their own free agent: Jason Vargas.
With the World Series over, the Angels hold an exclusive, five-day negotiating window with the 30-year-old left-hander, who has averaged 10 wins, a 3.97 ERA and 190 innings over the past four years. Typically, though, players who reach free agency wait the extra five days so that all teams can bid and the price can go up.
The Angels aren't expected to tender Vargas the $14.1 million qualifying offer, mainly because they'd be too close to the luxury-tax threshold if he were to accept it. And they can't afford to overpay.
"We're certainly interested in having him back," Dipoto said. "But there's no certainty when you're this close to free agency."
Even if Vargas does come back, the Angels have holes to fill in their rotation. Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson and Garrett Richards will make up three spots. But Tommy Hanson (arbitration-eligible for the second time) is expected to get non-tendered after posting a 5.42 ERA in 73 innings of a year that saw him get demoted to the Minors, Joe Blanton (owed another $8.5 million) may get released after going 2-14 with a 6.04 ERA, and no other options exist in the Minor Leagues.
The free-agent market for starting pitching -- highlighted by the likes of Matt Garza, Ricky Nolasco, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana -- is rather slim, and the prices could get too steep. Trading may be the Angels' best bet. And what caliber of pitching they're able to acquire may come down to how willing they are to part ways with Trumbo, who has hit 95 homers and driven in 282 runs the past three years.
Starting pitching, as Dipoto said, "is gold in this game" -- and it's never easy to acquire.
"Obviously, we're on the lookout for it," Dipoto said. "But there aren't many ways to access that type of talent. You draft it, develop it, wait. That's the most tried and true and sure method to acquire that type of pitcher or potential impact. Obviously, the other way is via trade, because those aren't guys that pop up on waiver wires, they're not guys who pop up on six-year free-agency lists, etc."
Free agents: Vargas
Arbitration-eligible: CF Bourjos (first time), RHP Ernesto Frieri (first time), RHP Juan Gutierrez (second time), RHP Hanson, RHP Kevin Jepsen (second time), 3B Chris Nelson (first time), 1B/OF Trumbo (first time), RHP Jerome Williams (second time)
Non-tender possibilities: Gutierrez, Hanson, Nelson, Williams
AREAS OF NEED
Third base: The July trade of Alberto Callaspo freed up close to $5 million for 2014 -- essentially paying for Trumbo's arbitration raise -- but created some real questions at the hot corner. Grant Green, acquired in exchange for Callaspo, has a lot of work to do before he's ready to man the position at the big league level; top prospect Kaleb Cowart really struggled to hit Double-A pitching in 2013; and Nelson, Andrew Romine and Luis Jimenez, all of whom had tryouts at the position over the past two months, haven't proven to be everyday options. Some sort of platoon is what the Angels may have to start with in 2014.
"We'll go out and look at what's available there, whether it's trades, secondary market, waiver wire, free agents," Dipoto said. "In an ideal world, we'll come up with what we believe is a combination of players."
Starting rotation: If Tim Lincecum's two-year, $35 million extension with the Giants is any indication, starting pitching will be really expensive in the open market -- as usual. With only Weaver, Wilson and Richards projected for the 2014 rotation, the Angels have at least two spots to fill. One of those could be Vargas, who went 9-8 with a 4.02 ERA in 24 starts last season, but not if his price gets too high. The rest -- and that extends beyond the five-man rotation, given the Angels' need for depth in their Minor League system -- will likely have to come via trade, probably by parting ways with offensive pieces.
"Really what we need is organizational starting pitching," Dipoto said. "We need starting-pitching depth, we need options from within. We need young, controllable starting pitching."
Bullpen: The Angels will hope for better luck with regards to bullpen arms this offseason, after free-agent acquisitions Sean Burnett and Ryan Madson hardly contributed in 2013. Burnett, limited to 13 games and officially shut down on July 31 because of a torn flexor tendon, is expected to be fully healthy for Spring Training. Frieri has proven capable of locking down the ninth inning, and the Angels have an assortment of additional power arms like Dane De La Rosa, Michael Kohn, Gutierrez and Jepsen. What this bullpen could use, many observers have said, is some arms that offer different looks.
"We'll go out and try to add more depth," Dipoto said. "I feel like with Ernie, DLR, Kohn, Jepsen, Burnett, we have the makings of a good bullpen."
All indications are that the Angels' payroll next season will continue to be somewhere between $140 million and $150 million. That's among the top 20 percent in baseball, but they're already close to that figure. The Angels have $131.375 million tied up for 2014, without including arbitration cases and minimum contracts, and they're up against the luxury-tax threshold of $189 million (that's a different payroll figure, calculated as the average annual value of all contracts on the 40-man roster plus benefits).
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.