The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are the most interesting team in baseball. You can argue with me on that point, and you might even win, but at this moment, that sure feels

  • The Angels have the best player in baseball, in Mike Trout. In fact, in Trout, they have the best player the American League has seen since Alex Rodriguez was at his true peak, over 10 years ago.
  • For each of the last three offseasons, the Angels have made the most famous, and ultimately most widely derided, major move, adding Vernon Wells (via trade, in early 2011), Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson and Josh Hamilton. Those moves came in response to the team missing the postseason in 2010, for the first time in three years and second in six, but none of the three teams those splashy moves produced has reached October, either. Pujols battled injuries throughout 2013, and Hamilton had a very rough first half, but both enter 2014, ostensibly, healthy and ready to produce.
  • After a staredown between the front office and field staff that lasted the whole second half of the 2013 season, and seemed to promise change, the Angels changed… nothing. Manager Mike Scioscia and GM Jerry Dipoto are both coming back.
  • Those big-ticket acquisitions, some bad scouting and some ill-advised trades that immediately preceded Dipoto’s takeover have left the Angels with what a few Baseball America pundits recently called the worst farm system baseball has seen in five years or so. They further weakened it, in fact, by trading one of their best prospects as part of their most recent flurry of moves.

Most interesting team or not, the Angels have been an active club early in baseball’s Hot Stove season. On Friday afternoon, they traded outfielder Peter Bourjos (whom they viewed as a spare part) and outfield prospect Randal Grichuk to the St. Louis Cardinals for third baseman David Freese and relief pitcher Fernando Salas. Then, over the weekend, they signed free-agent set-up man Joe Smith (with a delivery as unique as his name is popular) to a three-year, $15.75-million deal.

That more or less fills out their roster, save for the starting pitching that must be their top priority. It was a surprise when Bourjos departed in a deal that did not address that need, but the Angels now have a real and viable third baseman in the fold. Freese is a poor fielder and might not age well, but for what he is, he’s a worthwhile addition. He should be no worse than a league-average hitter, and he’ll settle in somewhat past the true heart of the order.

Kole Calhoun is the man who made Bourjos expendable. Calhoun is a left-hitting right fielder who has gap power, not over-the-fence power, but also provides great strike-zone control and is a fine fielder. He should probably bat leadoff for this club, in fact, with Trout, Hamilton and Pujols following him, but that may be too much to hope for from unenlightened skipper Mike Scioscia. If Calhoun were even five percent worse than he truly seems to be, I would be screaming about the foolishness of dealing Bourjob for Freese. Given the circumstances, though, the trade better aligns the Angels’ talent.

One other reason to like the deal is that it might permit the Angels to trade Howie Kendrick for a starting hurler. Kendrick, who is under contract for just under $20 million for two more seasons, is a good all-around player. He’s exquisitely consistent at the plate, not patient nor gifted with great power, but solid, above average for a second baseman. He’s also a fine, although not excellent, defensive second baseman. Though it seems like he’s been an Angel forever, he’s also just 30.

That’s what makes him attractive to other teams. What makes him undesirable for the Angels is that Kendrick has so little plate discipline. He and Erick Aybar are too similar. In 1,102 plate appearances last season, the pair combined for 46 walks (23 apiece). Neither even quite walked once a week. While they make up for that with other skills—BABIP and modest power for Kendrick, very good speed and solid shortstop defense for Aybar—two players like that in a big-league lineup just make it too easy for opposing pitchers to slice through the bottom of the batting order. It’s also true that Kendrick, who took a long time to find a permanent defensive home, is a flawed defender, and is only likely to get worse as he heads into his 30s.

Grant Green can play second base. He’s no stud there, but he can do the job. Green came over via trade in July, and besides being four years Kendrick’s junior, is a more patient hitter with a bit more pop. Taylor Lindsey, who turns 23 on Sunday, can also play second. It’s his natural position, and he should be the Angels’ everyday second baseman in short order. He hit and hit well at Double-A in 2013. Lindsey profiles a lot like Calhoun, a left-handed batter who commands the strike zone and provides enough power to at least keep pitchers honest. Green can stop the gap, and by June, Lindsey can probably fill it.

Although Bourjos probably should have been worth more, it’s perfectly possible that he simply wasn’t. The Angels made a move that solidified their infield, and in so doing, gave themselves flexibility to address a more pressing need. I was very harsh on this trade at first, but in evaluating the acquisitions, independent of the transaction itself, I admit a bit of hope that this makes the Angels better.

Signing Smith certainly makes them better, and it’s the kind of move I am much more inclined to view favorably now than I was a few years ago. While relief pitchers—especially guys like Smith, who has a funky delivery, to say the absolute least—are unpredictable, oft-injured and usually bad long-term investments, it’s impossible to win much in modern baseball without a sound relief corps. Smith is a very good pitcher. The parameters of his contract look gaudy, but the acquisition is a positive one, and with all the money teams have these days (including and especially the Angels), the opportunity cost of the expenditure is not high enough to sour me on it.

The Angels get a lot of flak, and could be in trouble in the long term. At the moment, though, they’re still a winning team, and they have a whole winter to add the starting pitching necessary to be a playoff-caliber team.

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