In the offseason, the Miami Marlins and Los Angeles Angels were baseball’s biggest gamblers.
This week, the ante came up again. One folded. The other doubled down.
Days after the Marlins admitted their gaffe through the trades of four veterans — including disappointing star Hanley Ramirez — the Angels threw themselves a congratulatory party by dealing for Zack Greinke.
The Angels sent highly regarded shortstop Jean Segura and two Class AA right-handers — John Hellweg and Ariel Pena — to Milwaukee for the starting pitcher they desperately needed. Segura, Hellweg and Pena ranked among the Angels’ top 10 prospects, according to Baseball America. But Greinke, an established No. 2 starter behind ace Jered Weaver, was well worth the price.
The mere fact that first-year general manager Jerry Dipoto was in position to make the deal represented a triumph for the Angels — in light of the catastrophe that became of their big-spending brethren on South Beach.
Has everything gone according to plan for the Angels? Well, no. As recently as April 27 — exactly three months before Friday’s trade — they were last in the American League West with a 6-14 record. Then Mike Trout showed up. The Angels are 49-31 since, tied for the league’s best record. If the postseason began today, they would play the Oakland A’s in the winner-take-all wild-card game.
Owner Arte Moreno didn’t spend more than $300 million on free agents Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson to print “Wild Card Champion” T-shirts. But even as the team remains four games behind the Texas Rangers, Moreno’s vision for the franchise is coming into focus. The Angels are proving that lavish free-agent spending can be effective — in the right environment.
The Angels had a well-established winning culture, steady field manager and homegrown talent ready to contribute (Trout, Mark Trumbo). The Marlins, to be frank, had none of those things. That is why they are 14 games back, headed for one of the most expensive disasters in recent baseball history.
With Friday’s trade, Moreno and Dipoto sent a powerful message to the Angels’ clubhouse: The worst part of our season is behind us. We still believe in this team, enough that we’re adding even more payroll to give you a better chance at winning the World Series. And with 10 games left against Texas — beginning, rather conveniently, Monday in Arlington — the Angels have ample opportunity to win the division.
More importantly, Greinke could become a “swing” acquisition in this year’s installment of the burgeoning Angels-Rangers rivalry. The Rangers wanted Greinke, too, and could have had him if they had agreed to surrender left-hander Martin Perez and other prospects. (Interestingly, the Brewers did not insist on shortstop Jurickson Profar or third baseman Mike Olt in negotiations with Texas, according to my colleague Ken Rosenthal.) The Angels, for their part, avoided surrendering starter Garrett Richards or center fielder Peter Bourjos in the Greinke deal — a true deadline coup.
We should reserve definitive judgment — Texas GM Jon Daniels has until 4 p.m. ET Tuesday to issue his reply — but for now the Angels have the better rotation: Weaver, Greinke, Wilson, Dan Haren and Richards/Jerome Williams/Ervin Santana. The Rangers’ rotation is full of questions — the latest raised by rookie Yu Darvish, who was unable to hold a 4-1 lead in Friday’s loss to the White Sox.
The Rangers’ rotation is searching for stability, in the wake of Colby Lewis’ season-ending elbow injury and, yes, Wilson’s free-agent defection to SoCal. Texas is 3-4 since Lewis threw his final pitch of the year; without Lewis’ reliable innings, the staff’s vulnerabilities have been laid bare. Roy Oswalt is due to start Monday’s series opener against the Angels — a statement that isn’t as reassuring as it sounds, given Oswalt’s 5.22 ERA.
Frankly, the Angels had to acquire Greinke (or someone of his caliber) to offset the resurgence of the Oakland A’s, who have become more than a temporary nuisance in the AL West. The A’s are 17-3 this month and a legitimate postseason contender, thanks in large part to a rotation that has posted the league’s lowest ERA. The A’s have so much pitching depth that GM Billy Beane could flip a current starter (rookie A.J. Griffin) to satisfy the team’s need at shortstop.
So, yes, Daniels needs to counter. Rays right-hander James Shields would be a modest upgrade, with a 6.15 ERA over his last seven starts; Daniels should be able to do better. Certainly, he has the prospects to land Miami’s Josh Johnson. The organization might even have enough firepower — in the bank and the minor leagues — to persuade GMs in Philadelphia and Seattle to listen to offers for Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez, respectively.
Daniels may need to get creative — as he is known to do — because many of the most-rumored names of July aren’t coming to Texas. Cole Hamels re-upped with the Phillies, Matt Garza came down with a sore arm, and Ryan Dempster seems intent on using his no-trade clause to make certain he pitches for the Dodgers. Does he take a chance on a left-hander like Francisco Liriano or Joe Saunders, or pry away Wade Miley from Arizona with a youth-for-youth trade?
While awaiting Daniels’ rejoinder, we must declare Friday a clear victory for the Angels — particularly in light of Greinke’s potential willingness to sign a long-term contract in Anaheim. Moreno’s master plan didn’t involve slogging through April and averting his eyes from unsightly Santana starts, but his team is where he expected it would be: pitted against the Rangers (and A’s) in a close and entertaining division race — with momentum on its side.