Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon are no longer on the same team, but now they’re on the same contract. Two days after the 2019 World Series MVP took a seven-year, $245 million contract to stay home, the laconic former Rice third baseman took a matching deal—at least in years and total value—to join the Los Angeles Angels.
The Angels, and their owner Arte Moreno, have talked a big game so far this offseason, only to whiff on two of the very best pitchers in baseball: Strasburg and Gerrit Cole—both born, raised, and trained in Southern California. But less than 24 hours after Cole signed his record deal with the Yankees, the Halos inked this offseason’s third tentpole free agent and top position player. Rendon, 29, finished third in NL MVP voting last year by hitting .319/.412/.598 with good defense at third base, then batted .328/.413/.590 while playing every inning of Washington’s run to the title. Rendon’s deal is comparable to the contracts Manny Machado (10 years, $300 million) and Nolan Arenado (eight years, $260 million) signed last offseason.
Mike Trout is entering the second year of his 12-year, $426.5 million contract and, despite the eight years of MVP-level production on his Baseball-Reference page, has still never won a playoff game. Rendon’s relocation from D.C. to O.C. won’t change that immediately—this is, after all, a team that lost 90 games last year—but adding one of the premier third basemen in the game is a good start. Last year, Rendon produced 6.3 bWAR, a mark Trout has exceeded in each of his eight full major league seasons. The only other Angels position player to post a 6.3-win season since 2012 was Andrelton Simmons in 2017. The best player in baseball has simply never had a teammate this good before.
— Mike Trout (@MikeTrout) December 12, 2019
If the Angels ever had any intention of competing in 2020, they had to make a signing like this. After Strasburg and Cole went off the board earlier in the week, the Angels made a curious trade to pave the way for Rendon, sending incumbent third baseman Zack Cozart—a defensive wizard whose time in Anaheim has been plagued by injuries—to San Francisco. In order to entice the Giants to take on the entirety of Cozart’s $12.67 million salary, the Angels added minor league infielder Will Wilson, the 15th pick in this past year’s draft, to sweeten the deal.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Angels were willing to make Rendon the best offer. A return to Washington was scuttled when the Nationals only offered Rendon their customary deferment-riddled deal, while the Rangers were reportedly unwilling to offer a seventh year. With Cozart out of the picture, the Angels are free to pay Rendon $35 million a year, with full no-trade protection and no opt-outs, and ensconce him at the hot corner.
With Rendon in the fold, the Angels’ lineup starts to look quite formidable, particularly if Simmons and Justin Upton rebound from down years. Shohei Ohtani will be back in the lineup—perhaps even on days he pitches, according to new manager Joe Maddon—and Tommy La Stella and David Fletcher can both play second base and provide some offense off the bench.
In addition to Rendon, the Angels will likely add top prospect Jo Adell to the lineup in 2020. Adell battled some fluky injuries in 2019—he missed several weeks after injuring both legs on the same play in spring training—but the 20-year-old Louisville native combines power, speed, and hitting ability in a way few outfielders have since, well, the guy he’ll be playing next to once he gets called up.
With that said, the rest of the Angels roster still needs to be overhauled. Last season, the Angels gave 545 plate appearances to Albert Pujols, whose bat is slower than a Terrence Malick movie these days. Either that needs to change or the Angels need to account for getting very little production out of first base or DH. They need a catcher to replace the departed Kevan Smith–Jonathan Lucroy tandem. And not to be indelicate, but they need an entire pitching staff.
Last season, Trevor Cahill led the Angels with 102 1/3 innings pitched. He had an ERA of 5.98. Jaime Barria nearly doubled his ERA after an impressive rookie campaign in 2018, the Matt Harvey and Cody Allen pillow contracts backfired spectacularly, and Ohtani missed the entire season recovering from Tommy John surgery. And Tyler Skaggs, who was expected to be one of the leaders of the pitching staff, died tragically on July 1.
Getting Ohtani back will help. So will the acquisition of former Orioles right-hander Dylan Bundy; Bundy was about a league-average pitcher last year, and despite catastrophic injury issues early in his career, the 2011 first-rounder has now made at least 28 starts in three seasons in a row. Former UCLA standout Griffin Canning had a solid debut season in 2019, but will need to take a step forward in 2020, and veteran lefty Andrew Heaney is a decent option at the back of the rotation. Of those four pitchers, only Ohtani can be expected to put in an above-league-average performance, and at least one of the four is likely to get hurt and miss significant time. That’s just the nature of pitching in 2019.
That means that if the Angels are done shopping, Trout will be back home before Wawa reintroduces the Gobbler for a ninth consecutive year. That doesn’t seem to be the case, however, as the Angels are reportedly looking into trading for Cleveland ace Corey Kluber. Furthermore, there are still numerous reliable free-agent pitchers on the market, even with Cole, Strasburg, Zack Wheeler, Cole Hamels, Josh Lindblom, Kyle Gibson, Tanner Roark, and Michael Pineda off the market. And with Simmons and Rendon manning the left side of the infield, the Angels don’t necessarily need a guy who can miss bats—the infield defense is well suited to accommodate a sinkerballer, such as Dallas Keuchel, Wade Miley, or Hyun-Jin Ryu.
So while Rendon might turn the Angels from a 90-loss team to a team capable of reaching .500, what does his departure mean for the Nationals?
A year ago, the Nationals prioritized pitching over offense, letting Bryce Harper walk and using the savings to hand a nine-figure deal to Patrick Corbin. Washington was perhaps uniquely well suited to do without Harper, as Juan Soto had locked up a spot in an outfield corner and the middle of the lineup, and Víctor Robles was ready to stake a claim on an everyday outfield job. The Nationals don’t have a ready-made replacement for Rendon, but they do have Carter Kieboom.
Kieboom was the 28th pick in 2016, making him the second-best amateur shortstop to come out of Marietta, Georgia, in the past five years, after Dansby Swanson. Kieboom rose quickly through the ranks and landed in the top 25 of a few global prospect rankings last offseason. Kieboom hit .303/.409/.493 in 109 games at Triple-A, and just this week Baseball Prospectus ranked him the top prospect in Washington’s system.
But it’s fair to be cautious about Kieboom, not just because of his inexperience but because of a disastrous 11-game call-up last spring when Trea Turner was on the IL. Kieboom’s big league totals so far: 5-for-39, with four walks and 16 strikeouts. That said, Turner’s injury probably forced Kieboom to the big leagues too soon, and 11 games is a minuscule sample size. Alex Bregman famously went 0-for-18 to start his big league career, and now he’s on base so much he’s considering changing his name to Sodium Hydroxide. Suffice it to say, there’s still plenty of time for Kieboom to make good on his potential as one of the top infield prospects in the game.
But however well he performs, he’ll likely be unable to match Rendon’s all-around production. Few players are, which is why the Angels are happy to pay him accordingly.