Angels fans awoke to terrible team news Friday morning: Garrett Richards‘ dehydration problem had taken an unexpected right turn into a torn-elbow-ligament problem, putting him on the track for Tommy John surgery and a tentative return date of June 2017.
The loss of the proverbial staff ace for the next year of course brings with it a bunch of questions about the Angels’ future, but there are four in particular that seem most important to address today:
What Happens To The Rotation Now?
The Angels rotation was hanging on by a thread before Richards went down. It is now a complete dumpster fire. Hector Santiago is the de facto ace of the staff for the foreseeable future, which is bad enough until you realize that means either Nick Tropeano or Jered Weaver are now the No. 2 guys. Gahhh.
Just who will step into the final two spots in the rotation is anyone’s guess. Matt Shoemaker will likely get the call as a temporary fix sometime in the next week, but he could be supplanted by any number of arms in the coming month. Tim Lincecum, Tommy Milone, John Danks, and Kyle Lohse are all free agents who can eat some innings, but their ability to do anything more than that seems remote given their current circumstances.
So far as internal options go, Triple-A left-hander Nate Smith appears to be the only guy close to MLB-ready who has anything resembling upside—he currently owns a 3.79 ERA at Salt Lake and has a fastball that tops out at 91 mph. Cory Rasmus and Jose Alvarez can probably be called on to make a tandem start here and there, but there’s a real danger of overextending both players and having a short bullpen by midseason as a result.
The Angels’ best hope—maybe their only hope—for putting together a non-embarrassing rotation for the remainder of the season is for C.J. Wilson and Tyler Skaggs to return as soon as possible and somehow stay healthy in the second half. The odds of that happening? Not great, but plausible.
Both are tentatively slated for a June-ish return, but that could change at any moment. Given how severely the team undersold the injuries to Richards and Andrew Heaney, I would not be surprised to learn that Wilson’s arm fell off and he’s now learning to pitch with a prosthetic, or that Skaggs has been missing for weeks. Which brings us to…
Why Did The Angels Seemingly Hide Richards’ Injury?
Up until Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan broke the news this morning, everyone was under the impression that Richards was dealing with general fatigue brought on by his bout with dehydration on Sunday. There were reports that the Angels would provide more information once tests were carried out, perhaps alluding to a larger problem, but there was absolutely zero indication Richards’ problem had anything to do with his arm.
I understand the desire to be cautious when divulging health issues, but to play it off as “fatigue”—the same word used to describe Tyler Skaggs’ setback before a shoulder injury was revealed—seems needlessly evasive and almost purposefully deceptive. That the Richards news was both broken by someone outside the team’s regular circle of reporters only feeds this idea. Had Passan not received a tip from one of his sources, how long would the Angels have kept this under wraps?
Same goes for the Heaney news. Until today the official team stance on his injury, after two MRIs and a second opinion, was that the only structural damage was to the flexor mass muscles in his left forearm. Heaney was even quoted saying team doctors described his UCL as “fat and happy,” which it now seems was either a flat-out lie or a giant mistake on the part of the doctors. Either way, why keep that info from the press? To what end is the team putting this effort into making players appear to the public healthier than they truly are?
The only logical explanation I can come up with is that the team wanted to wait as long as possible to disclose the severity of the injuries so that they could hold at least some leverage in any trade or free-agent discussions with prospective starting pitchers. Before the news, the Halos had at least some negotiating power with teams and players. Now that everyone knows the Angels are desperate for pitching, though, they can make take-it-or-leave-it offers and force Billy Eppler to overpay for someone. I don’t know if that’s actually what happened here, but it’s a much less depressing explanation than the team explicitly lying to people.
Should The Angels Now Consider Trading Mike Trout?
In the last 24 hours, the Angels’ odds of being a playoff contender in 2016 have gone from around 10% with a healthy Richards to probably about 3% without him. In layman’s terms, they dropped from slim to none. That, to me, seems an awfully silly reason to trade away the biggest asset the franchise has ever had the good fortune to lay its hands on.
This has not stopped the speculation far and wide that maybe the time is right for the organization to consider rebuilding by trading Mike Trout. Some of this is coming from those who simply enjoy an opportunity to try determining just what fair value would mean (if it exists at all) in any deal involving Trout, but many others seem dead serious about the idea.
Given the small dip in playoff odds, this seems like a gross overreaction to me and a strange blend of cognitive biases. So the Angels are smart to laugh off any Trout trade proposals when they’re playoff odds are around 10%, but when they drop closer to zero it suddenly becomes not just a smart move, but the only move? That’s not how this works.
Say the Angels do trade Trout for the biggest package of prospects in baseball history. Then what? Wait around until hopefully one or two of those players pan out? What do you do with Albert Pujols in the meantime? No matter who’s included in that deal, Trout is far more likely to provide more value over the next four-plus seasons—a conservative 35+ WARP, per PECOTA—than all the guys in return will accrue over their entire careers. All the promise in the world can’t stand up to a player in his prime who’s proven he can perform at an unprecedented level in the big leagues.
The Angels have the best player in baseball under contract at a below-market rate through the 2020 season. This has not changed in the last 24 hours. Health permitting, that means the front office has at least four more opportunities to build the best roster they can around Trout. Doing anything else at this point would be beyond rash. Good decisions are rarely, if ever, made out of desperation.
What About Richards’ Future?
Richards is reportedly going for a second opinion on his arm this weekend. If the doctor confirms the prognosis, which he likely will, Richards will likely undergo Tommy John surgery sometime next week. The earliest Richards could return to the mound after that would probably be June 2017.
But given how volatile recovery times are for TJ and how cautious the Angels have been with Tyler Skaggs’ recovery—now at 21 months and counting—there’s no guarantee Richards will make any appearances for the Angels next season. In the best-case scenario, Richards returns to pitch most of his age-29 season (2017) and works to re-establish his value before hitting free agency after 2018. In a more moderate-case scenario, Richards can’t return until 2018 and has just one season to prove himself as a valuable asset before hitting the open market.
Either way, the odds of Richards getting a contract extension from the Angels just dissipated completely. It was risky enough working to lock up a guy who will be on the wrong side of 30 when he gets through his team-control years. Adding Tommy John surgery to the list? He’s spoiled goods now.
That’s incredibly unfortunate, and one can’t help but feel for Richards. He worked incredibly hard to go from being an absurdly raw college starter to a fringe bullpen arm to a legitimate MLB ace in a span of five years, only to have his body betray him twice. One can be optimistic that he’ll return to form post-surgery, but it’s impossible not to dwell on what could have been.