Los Angeles Angels: Off-Season Preview – Behind the Plate
Sep 8, 2019; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago White Sox catcher James McCann (33) hits a single against the Los Angeles Angels during the seventh inning at Guaranteed Rate Field. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
If there’s a single position the Angels have struggled to secure the past decade, it’s the catcher position. Since the Angels traded Mike Napoli to Toronto for Vernon Wells before the 2011 season, the team has been challenged to find long-term solution behind the plate. Chris Iannetta’s 394 games are the most of any Angels catcher since that trade and the current organizational roster offers limited resources at the position. As we head into the Thanksgiving holiday, the Angels have three catchers on their 40-man roster in Kevan Smith, Max Stassi, and Anthony Bemboom.
Kevan Smith leads the group having played 67 games for the Angels last season. Smith was signed along with Jonathan Lucroy to serve as the Angels’ catching tandem last off-season. Smith hit .257 with five home runs and 20 runs batted in during his first season with the club. The 31-year-old Smith has spent the majority of his professional career shuffling between the Triple-A and major league levels as a back-up catcher. In fact, last season was Smith’s first full-season on an MLB roster. Ideally, Smith is a back-up catcher at the MLB level and the Angels presumably acquired him for nothing more than that role a year ago.
Max Stassi was acquired from the Houston Astros at the trade deadline last season. Stassi has played in 183 MLB games over the course of the last seven seasons. The defensively-minded Stassi was a favorite catcher of free agent Gerrit Cole. He is recovering from hip surgery but is likely to be healthy by Opening Day. Assuming he’s healthy, the light-hitting Stassi has a career batting average just above the Mendoza line and looked uncomfortable at the plate in his 20 games with the Angels last season.
Anthony Bemboom is a minor-league veteran who the Angels acquired from Tampa Bay last July. Bemboom spent the early portion of his professional career with the Angels before being selected by the Colorado Rockies in the 2016 Rule V draft. Bemboom made his MLB debut last season with Tampa before being dealt to the Angels in July. Bemboom is considered more of an organizational depth catcher for any MLB club and not an ideal option for the 40-man roster going into next season.
The Angels’ farm system offers very little hope at higher levels. The club released Jose Briceno last season and Jack Kruger’s bat did not progress as the Angels had hoped at Double-A last season. Fellow 2019 Mobile Bay Bears catcher Julian Leon has been breaking out offensively in the Mexican Pacific League this winter. Leon is hitting .319 with eight home runs (two behind the league lead) for the Hermosillo club and right now is the best minor league option to make waves in Tempe in three months. The lower levels of their farm system feature hope in talents such as Keinner Pina, Anthony Mulrine, Harrison Wenson, Justin Kunz, and Ysaac Pena. Each of these players would seem to be at least two to three years away from the majors.
The top two options on the free agent market, Yasmani Grandal and Travis d’Arnaud, were signed last week by the White Sox and Braves, respectively. This leaves Robinson Chirinos, Jason Castro, Yan Gomes, and Martin Maldonado among the top available free agents at the position. Matt Wieters, Francisco Cervelli, Alex Aliva, Russell Martin, and Austin Romine would be the next tier of catchers available. It would not be a surprise to see the Angels sign any of these players in the coming weeks. A reunion with Martin Maldonado could make a lot of sense for the Halos while Austin Romine is a native of South Orange County.
The Chicago Cubs have been rumored to consider shopping two-time All-Star Willson Contreras, but his price will be high.
The White Sox’ Grandal signing would seem to make 2019 All-Star James McCann expendable via trade this offseason as well. The cost for McCann would likely be less expensive than Contreras and this is a more likely option for the Angels, who are likely saving top prospects in trades for pitching.
Seattle is rumored to be shopping Omar Narvaez, as well, but an inter-division deal with Mariners would seem quite unlikely.
Additionally, the upcoming Rule V draft could feature some intriguing options as well. Philadelphia’s Rafael Marchan, Baltimore’s Brett Cumberland, and the New York Mets’ Patrick Mazeika could all be considered potential selections by the Angels in December’s draft.
The Angels are almost certain to change the look of their catching situation in the coming weeks either through free agency or trade. Billy Eppler and Arte Moreno are committed to improving the Angels and this is clearly an area that must be improved. Fans are certain of one thing: it’s going to continue to be an interesting off-season for the Halos.
Angels This Week
This past Wednesday was the deadline for MLB clubs to add players to their 40-man roster who they do not want exposed to the coming Rule V draft. The Angels added infielder Jahmai Jones and pitcher Hector Yan to their roster but left several intriguing candidates exposed; that list is headlined by utilityman Jose Rojas. Rojas hit .293 with 77 extra-base hits including 31 home runs for Triple-A Salt Lake last season. Rojas is a speedy middle-infielder that could interest clubs, in addition to pitchers like Adrian De Horta and Oliver Ortega.
Nothing new has been reported on the Angels’ free agent front. The Angels are said to be pursuing both Gerrit Cole and Zack Wheeler, which is obviously no surprise. 31-year-old Korean left-handed pitcher Kwang-Hyun Kim has announced he will be pursuing opportunities in MLB. The Angels have a long history of scouting Kim from 2014 through 2019 and he could be a good fit to the middle of the Halos’ 2019 rotation.
Angels Down on the Farm
Matt Thaiss made his Dominican Winter League debut on Nov. 19 with the Tigres del Licey and has struggled to get his hits at the plate. He finally recorded his first hit Saturday evening, while reports indicate he’s been showing impressive glovework at third base early. Thaiss transitioned from first base to third base at Triple-A this past season and the extra time at the position will only benefit him and the Angels next season.
Another player who transitioned to a new position last season was Taylor Ward; he’ll reportedly be joining the Dominican Winter League’s Escogido club on Nov. 30. The Angels’ 2015 first-round draft pick as a catcher transitioned to third base in 2018, which led to his MLB debut for the Angels that same year. Last season at Triple-A, when Matt Thaiss transitioned to third base, Ward began playing the bulk of his games in left field. Ward will presumably continue to improve his play in the outfield and third base in Santo Domingo this winter.