Will Angels' strategy lead to improvement in 2013?
GM Dipoto confident bullpen upgrades will help cover rotation losses
ANAHEIM -- The bullpen looks improved, with closer Ryan Madson and lefty Sean Burnett joining a formidable back-end trio of Ernesto Frieri, Scott Downs and Kevin Jepsen. The rotation is perceivably worse, with Tommy Hanson, Joe Blanton and (likely) Garrett Richards replacing Zack Greinke, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana. And the offense is mostly the same, save for the promising Peter Bourjos replacing the proven Torii Hunter.
Yeah, there's still plenty of time for an offseason surprise or two. But it's very possible -- perhaps even likely -- that no other significant moves are made before Spring Training.
If that ends up being the case, did the Angels ultimately improve this offseason?
It depends on your perspective, but first you must consider the circumstances.
Choosing a different path
The $159 million payroll the Angels finished last season with was more of an anomaly than the start of a trend. The likely scenario -- especially after 2012 yielded a third straight playoff absence and the lowest average attendance since '03 -- was that they'd go back to the $140 million range of two years ago. They're pretty much there right now.
Operating under slightly less payroll flexibility, and faced with a pitching market that quickly became more expensive than anticipated, Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto has taken two fundamental steps this winter.
1. Act quickly. With at least three pitching holes to fill and over $100 million already tied to seven players for 2014, the Angels couldn't compete with the six-year, $147 million deal Greinke agreed to with the Dodgers on Saturday. So, Dipoto swiftly carved out his own path. The week before the Winter Meetings, he signed Madson and traded Jordan Walden to the Braves for Hanson. Then, just before those Meetings came to an end five days ago, he signed Burnett and Blanton, basically solidifying the pitching staff with more than two months remaining in the offseason.
2. Build from back to front. Dipoto felt all along that the relief-pitching market was deeper than the one for starters, and he badly wanted to address a bullpen that blew an American League-leading 47 saves the last two years. So he followed the model of the '07 National League West-champion D-backs -- for which he served as vice president of player personnel -- countering a less-than-stellar rotation with a deep bullpen that can meet it in the middle.
But are the Angels better for it?
Quantity over quality?
Wins Above Replacement says ... maybe.
As currently constructed, the quintet of Blanton, Hanson, Richards, Madson and Burnett are essentially replacing the quintet of Haren, Santana, Greinke, Walden and LaTroy Hawkins on the Angels' pitching staff. The combined 2012 WAR of the latter, using Baseball-Reference.com, was 1.5. The combined WAR of Blanton, Hanson and Burnett in 2012 was 0.4, with Madson posting a 2.0 WAR in his last full season in 2011 and Richards likely to get his first shot at being a full-time big league starter in 2013.
Fans, for the most part, say ... absolutely not!
They stomached Hunter's departure only because they remained hopeful that the money would be allocated toward a top-tier starter -- if not Greinke, then at least Anibal Sanchez or Kyle Lohse or even Ryan Dempster.
Instead they got Blanton, who's a back-end starter and commands little attention. And now C.J. Wilson, who was fourth on the Angels' staff at the start of last season and struggled mightily in the second half, is the No. 2 starter behind Jered Weaver.
Dipoto has refilled his pitching staff with one mid-rotation starter (Hanson), one proven innings-eater (Blanton) and a couple of high-end relievers (Madson and Burnett), going anti-2011 and anti-Dodgers this winter. He chose bottom line over blockbuster, substance over sizzle; in many ways, quantity over quality.
"Sometimes," Dipoto said, "the smartest thing you can do is just make practical decisions."
Give Dipoto credit for this: He rose above the inordinate sums of money that have been handed out this offseason.
Final choice a surprising one
Madson was signed to a one-year salary that will finish somewhere between $3.5 and $7 million, depending on how healthy he is and how many games he finishes. Burnett's deal is for $8 million over two years, with a $4.5 million club option for 2014. Both are bargains in a market where Jeremy Affeldt ($18 million), Jonathan Broxton ($21 million) and Brandon League ($22.5 million) each reaped lucrative three-year contracts.
The Hanson acquisition was a prudent one, too, considering he's one season removed from being one of the best young pitchers in baseball, was traded for a reliever (Walden) who's no better than sixth in the Angels' present-day bullpen and will make about $4 million in his first arbitration year.
The head-scratcher is Blanton.
The Angels gave him a two-year, $15 million deal with a third-year option, putting their 40-man roster at 39 players, giving them six big league starting pitchers and essentially taking themselves out of a starters market that boasted so many better options.
Why not wait until the market defined itself a little more clearly? Why not pay a little more for a better arm?
Perhaps, in meeting with almost every agent at last week's Winter Meetings, Dipoto figured everyone else would be too expensive to fit under the 2013 payroll. And perhaps he was determined to not experience a repeat of last August, when spending big on the rotation didn't allow him to address a needy bullpen.
Here's an alternate way of looking at things ...
Blanton and Hanson combined to post a 4.60 ERA in 365 2/3 innings last year and will cost about $12 million in 2013. Haren and Santana did worse than that (4.75 ERA in 354 2/3 innings) and will cost more than double ($26 million).
As for the only change in the starting lineup, Bourjos instead of Hunter? Bourjos is projected by Bill James to post a .262/.316/.411 slash line in his return to the starting lineup in 2013, while Hunter is projected to hit .271/.336/.428 for the Tigers next season -- at about 26 times the price.
So the Angels' roster is certainly more payroll efficient. There's no arguing that.
Is it better? Dipoto thinks so -- but of course, he's quite biased on this subject.
"Where we are as a club, as a pitching staff, we need to fortify our innings to make sure that we field one through 12 as competitive a pitching staff as we can field," Dipoto said just before leaving the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tenn., on Thursday.
"I feel like we have 11 men in place on our Major League pitching staff, and every one of the 11 guys, when they take the field, is a competitive Major League pitcher and the innings are going to grow. To that extent, I feel like we're in pretty good shape. We have a very good defense, we've got a strong offensive club, we have a top of the rotation that's representative with the better top of the rotations in the league, and we've got a bullpen now that I think matches up depth for depth with anything that we've had here for quite some time."
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.