Evaluating the Angels’ shortstop situation: Is a big-name upgrade possible?


SAN DIEGO — The Angels have spent the offseason plugging the obvious holes in their roster. They traded for a corner outfielder in Hunter Renfroe. They found a corner infielder to spell Anthony Rendon and Jared Walsh. They signed a fifth starting pitcher. They got a reliever that throws with velocity.

There is, however, one remaining hole, a clear need with some potentially interesting and complicated solutions: shortstop.

“We do have some (internal) options there,” Angels general manager Perry Minasian said. “With that being said, that’s a spot we’ll continue to look (at). If there’s an opportunity to improve that spot, we’ll examine it. I think that’s definitely an area that we’ve discussed.”

The prevailing answer from the Angels hierarchy is that the season doesn’t start in December. So they can’t really speak to how the team’s middle infield will line up when the season starts.

But the framework for the season is established in December, and at the Winter Meetings in particular. The elephant in the room is whether or not the Angels have a pathway to acquiring a starting shortstop — whether through free agency or trade. Or if they’ll run with what they’ve got.

If the season were to start tomorrow, it’s likely that David Fletcher would be at shortstop. The Angels also have Luis Rengifo — more likely to be the starting second baseman. Then there’s the light-hitting defensive whiz Andrew Velazquez. And also Livan Soto, who hit .400 in a limited September sample last season. The Angels might use Gio Urshela at shortstop, but that would be in limited situations.

“I don’t have to make a lineup on December 6,” Nevin said Tuesday when asked about his middle infield. “I certainly sit and brainstorm and do that a lot. There’s so many things that are going to happen before Opening Day. The fact is we have a lot of options, we have a lot of depth.”

The exact financial situation with the Angels is a mystery, though it’s incredibly relevant to how the Angels might tackle this position. Their projected 2023 payroll, based on current commitments, is $198 million, according to FanGraphs. That’s an Angels record. But there’s room for it to grow.

Minasian stated earlier in the offseason that he doesn’t expect many financial restrictions. On Wednesday, he said the $233 million luxury tax threshold wouldn’t be a hindrance.

“I think there’s a possibility. There’s no mandate that we can’t,” Minasian said of having a payroll exceed $233 million. “It just depends on the opportunities. We want to add to this club. If that means going over the tax, it’s a possibility.”

It’s hard to know whether this statement is a reflection of the Angels’ intentions to spend, or a desire to not want it publicized that they won’t. The intriguing factor is the team’s impending sale. And as commissioner Rob Manfred said Tuesday, that process could wrap up before Opening Day. That means the potential incoming Angels owners theoretically could have influence presently over how the payroll might look in 2023.

This all circles back to the shortstop position. Because there are three significant free agents still unsigned as of Wednesday afternoon. Dansby Swanson — whom Minasian is familiar with from his days with the Braves — as well as Xander Bogaerts and Carlos Correa. All three of them will command a significant contract. The Angels could also explore a trade.

“We do have some talent at shortstop, I will say that,” Minasian said. “David Fletcher, when healthy, I think we’ve all seen what David Fletcher is when he’s healthy. … I think he’s going to have a way better year than he’s had the last two.

“Soto came up and played well. Velazquez came up and played really good defense, and we do think there’s upside to the bat.”

It’s hard to know exactly what the Angels will get from Fletcher. The 28-year-old had a 70 and 77 OPS+, respectively, over the last two years, after he signed a five-year, $26 million contract extension. He missed a lot of time last season after getting surgery on his adductors. Then he suffered a hand injury late in the season.

He’s a strong defensive player with elite bat-to-ball ability. But he provides almost no power and almost never walks. A healthy Fletcher would surely provide a serviceable shortstop for the Angels. But he might be more valuable as a utility player behind a shortstop that provides more offense.

It is worth noting that Minasian didn’t rule out Rengifo breaking camp as an everyday shortstop, though it doesn’t sound likely. Rengifo’s performance last season earned him a starting role. But he makes more sense as a second baseman.

Velazquez and Soto will likely compete for a backup job in camp. Velazquez has more major-league experience and his defense is among the best. Soto’s stint in the big leagues last year was exceptional. But it’s hard to take much away from 59 plate appearances.

The mandate for the Angels this offseason has been to upgrade the middle of their roster. That has been said and repeated by Minasian. It’s also been effectively put into motion by a series of sensible offseason moves.

An upgrade at shortstop would not be improving the middle of the roster. It would require a sizable investment in a player that is expected to be highly productive.

This team is going all-in for 2023. Nothing about this club’s moves has signaled a long-term rebuild. It’s all about success next year. A new shortstop is the one significant roster hole remaining.

(Photo: Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)


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