Can first-year general manager Jerry Dipoto work his magic to shore up some glaring holes on the Angels' pitching staff?
The chips are stacked against him, it seems.
A source with knowledge of the team's thinking described the Angels' chances of acquiring a starter as "below average and diminishing" as of Thursday. The asking prices are too high, the competition for pitching is too intense -- largely due to the additional Wild Card in each league, which has more teams in the hunt than ever -- and the Angels don't have an abundance of intriguing prospects to offer.
That, and a $155 million payroll with little wiggle room, has made the Angels' search for a starter "an uphill task," the source said, before adding, "But don't underestimate Jerry."
Dipoto's track record as a GM is still quite small, but already includes several quick triggers and shrewd moves.
As an interim GM with the D-backs two years ago, he dealt Dan Haren to the Angels for a reliable starter (Joe Saunders) and two top-notch pitching prospects (Patrick Corbin and Tyler Skaggs), then flipped Edwin Jackson to the White Sox for another talented arm (Daniel Hudson).
As the Angels' GM, he signed two of the most coveted free agents on the market -- Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson -- barely a month into the job, then made one of the savviest moves of the year in early May by trading for little-known Padres reliever Ernesto Frieri, who has become a lights-out closer.
Now, it's starting pitching -- the one area that seemed rock solid at the start of the year -- that appears to be the biggest area of need. With Haren recently returning from lower-back stiffness that plagued him through the first four months of the season, Ervin Santana having a dismal campaign and Jerome Williams and Garrett Richards being hit-and-miss in the back end, the Angels' rotation looks shaky outside of Wilson and Jered Weaver.
But how many feasible upgrades are out there?
Cole Hamels has agreed to a lucrative extension to stay in Philadelphia, the Marlins seem unwilling to part ways with Josh Johnson, Wandy Rodriguez has moved on to the Pirates, Matt Garza has some elbow issues, Ryan Dempster seemingly only wants to pitch for the Dodgers, and Francisco Liriano is fresh off giving up seven runs in 2 2/3 innings, putting his ERA at 5.31.
That makes the competition for the likes of James Shields (signed to a pretty affordable deal through 2014) and free-agent-to-be Zack Greinke quite fierce.
The Angels would prefer to not acquire a rental player -- a move that is even less appetizing under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, which eliminates Draft-pick compensation in such cases -- but reports have indicated that Greinke would be willing to sign an extension to stay in Southern California. Still, it's a risk.
Do the Angels have enough assets to swing a deal? Or, perhaps more importantly, is Dipoto willing to give up enough to do so?
It would be a shock, a source said, if the Angels were to move Richards, who's 24, cost-controlled for five more seasons and boasts a ton of upside. Center fielder Peter Bourjos, a reserve with Mike Trout now in the fold, is perhaps their biggest chip -- though Dipoto has publicly said he's unwilling to trade Bourjos because he's still a big part of their future. Then there are prospects like middle infielder Jean Segura, catcher Hank Conger, first baseman C.J. Cron and pitcher John Hellweg, among others, who could be expendable in the right package.
Dipoto, while continuing his tireless pursuit and maintaining an open mind, publicly continues to preach that the Angels' best options remain in-house.
"The focus for us is, 'How do we get these guys where they need to be?'" Dipoto said, speaking specifically about Haren and Santana. "When you have pitchers that are as accomplished as these guys, essentially the rest of the league is going out trying to scout guys like that, who are playing for teams who might not be contenders, to try to essentially buy low and get a guy who can make a difference for them in the second half. Here we are, we've got those guys -- we just have to get them back on track."
Is that the Angels' only real hope of improving their struggling rotation, which has posted a 4.66 ERA since the start of June?
In five days, we'll know for sure.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.