How the Angels Turned an Outfield Surplus Into a Division Champion

At the end of 2013, the Angels had three players competing for one outfield spot. Kole Calhoun got the nod, the other two options were traded, and the rest is history.

At the end of the 2013 season, the Angels had five outfielders for three spots. Mike Trout had just completed a second straight MVP-worthy season, so the youngster was a shoo-in for one outfield position, especially since his rookie deal made him the biggest bargain in baseball.

Josh Hamilton , on the other hand, had a disappointing first year in Anaheim, and was too overpaid and injury prone to be a tradeable asset. He would stay on as well.

With Hamilton and Trout locked in, Peter Bourjos , Kole Calhoun , and Mark Trumbo contended for the final outfield spot. Angels management chose Calhoun, traded Bourjos and Trumbo, and look like geniuses as the Halos head towards the playoffs.

How did the Angels settle on Calhoun? Bourjos was likely eliminated first. Much of his value comes from his defensive prowess; once the Trout camp made it known that the superstar wanted to take over in center field, the thought of Bourjos at a corner outfield spot was not appetizing. His 16.3 UZR in 2012 plummeted to -0.3 in 2013, while his wRC+ finished far below league average at 73 in 2012, and rose only to 104 in 2013. Why stick with Borjous if Calhoun posted a 127 wRC+ during his cup of coffee at the end of the 2013 season?

Now, the debate moved to Trumbo and Calhoun, mano y mano. Trumbo’s wRC+ in 2013 was 107, not much better than Bourjous'. The slugger hit the ball far and drove in plenty of runs, but he struck out 27 percent of the time and made contact on 70.7 percent of his swings. By comparison, the offensively challenged Bourjos hit 77.6 percent of pitches, while Calhoun connected on 81.4 percent of his swings. In addition, Trumbo was shaky at best in the outfield. His total outfield UZR is negative 10.4, not exactly encouraging for an everyday right fielder in a pitcher’s park. Add to that the financial details: Calhoun isn’t eligible for arbitration until 2017, the year Bourjos and Trumbo hit the open market for the first time. The choice became clear. Calhoun became the Angels right fielder and leadoff man, while Bourjos and Trumbo headed for the trading block.

The Angels flipped Bourjos to St. Louis (along with outfield prospect Randal Grichuk ) for third baseman David Freese and reliever Fernando Salas . The trade brought the Angels a line-up replacement for Trumbo who made more contact and played better defense. Trumbo contributed 2.4 wins above replacement to the 2013 Angels, while Freese has given the club 1.5 WAR this year. Here’s where things get interesting. The 1.5 isn’t an improvement over Trumbo, but it is over departed third baseman Alberto Callaspo, who contributed .2 WAR before being sent to Oakland mid-season, and Bourjos (.9 WAR in 2013) combined.

Freese replaced Callaspo and Bourjos’ overall production while taking Trumbo’s spot in the lineup. He’s made contact 77.4 percent of the time, had a positive UZR at third base (1.7), and come through in the clutch (.291 with 2 outs and runners in scoring position). All goes according to plan as long as Calhoun replaces Trumbo’s overall production from Bourjos’ spot at the top of the lineup, and did he ever. Calhoun burst onto the scene, racking up 4.3 WAR, 126 wRC+, and a 5.6 UZR in the outfield to boot. He’s hit .312 in Angel victories, and .211 when the Halos lose. His .301 average leading off innings and .389 average leading off games show that he’s been able to set the table for Trout, Pujols, and Hamilton. He’s even hit .273 with runners in scoring position, flipping the lineup when Chris Iannetta draws a walk. Simply put, the Angels wouldn’t be where they are without Calhoun’s breakout season.

The Angels replaced Bourjos and Trumbo with Freese and Calhoun, improving their lineup more than they thought. And they still had Trumbo on the roster. Trumbo became trade bait, and the Angels used him to revamp what hardly passed for a back-end of a rotation in 2013. Jason Vargas , Jerome Williams , and Joe Blanton exited stage left, replaced by youngsters Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago at the cost of only Trumbo, who was already out of a lineup spot.

Last year’s not-so-big three combined for a WAR of 1.6. Vargas was serviceable, but he was a free agent demanding nine million dollars, which the Royals gave him despite a 4.09 FIP and 1.8 WAR. Williams was a replacement-level pitcher, with a 4.60 FIP and a 1.39 WHIP. Blanton was horrendous; his 5.12 FIP, 1.61 WHIP, and 29 home runs allowed put a smile on any opposing batter’s face. This year’s back end consisted of Skaggs, Santiago, and long-time farmhand Garrett Richards , and combined for a 4.9 WAR. Santiago, acquired from the White Sox, pitched better than Williams and Blanton did in 2013, as his 4.31 FIP and 1.36 WHIP suggest. Skaggs underwent Tommy John early in the second half, but was far better than Tommy Hanson , boasting a 3.54 FIP and 1.21 WHIP when healthy. Richards had a Calhoun-like impact on the pitching staff, delivering a 2.60 FIP and 1.04 WHIP, and providing the Angels with an ace out of thin air.

Returning starters Jered Weaver and CJ Wilson declined from 7 WAR to 2.7 WAR. But slot Richards in Wilson’s place at the top of the rotation, and not only does Richards improve the 1-2 punch’s WAR from 7 to 7.3, but the bottom of the rotation’s 4.6 WAR is still way ahead of last year’s bubmling back three.

Most remarkably, the Angels spent no money to make the aforementioned upgrades, meaning they could dole out free-agent contracts to reliever Joe Smith (helpful) and slugger Raul Ibanez (not helpful), and sign Trout to a long-term extension (super-duper-duper helpful). The breakout season of Matt Shoemaker also can’t be ignored, as he contributed a 3.26 FIP, 124 strikeouts, and 16 wins as an understudy for Santiago, Skaggs, Wilson, and Richards, who all spent time on the DL or in AAA.

Above all, Richards’ breakout season and the Angels’ gamble on Calhoun lifted the team to the playoffs for the first time in five years.