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2018 AL West Preview: The Angels’ Lineup

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The Angels have shored up some of the non-1B-shaped black holes in their lineup and are looking to make a run

Cleveland Indians v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
stars and scrubs forever
Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

In 2017, the Angels moved towards building a strong defense to prop up the big bats of Trout and Pujols; that strategy somewhat backfired when Trout missed time with a thumb injury and Albert Pujols became the worst everyday player in baseball. Fortune smiled on the Angels with an offensive surge from Andrelton Simmons, who posted the team’s highest bWAR, but it wasn’t enough to offset sluggish performances from the rest of the lineup, as the average Angel batter only posted a wRC+ of 93 last year, 21st in baseball. As a team, they accumulated 16.6 total fWAR, 17th in baseball, of which Simmons and Trout together represented just shy of 12 wins of that total.

Going into the 2018 season, GM Billy Eppler has spent money (and prospects, but mostly money) to surround Trout with some more genuine offensive threats, and specifically worked to upgrade the infield, where in 2017 only Simmons received a positive offensive rating from Fangraphs. Ian Kinsler and Zack Cozart will bring a much-needed offensive lift, but both are on the wrong side of 30 (Kinsler closer to the wrong side of 40, which is any side for a professional athlete), so it’s fair to say the Angels are in full win-now mode.

Infield:

Catcher:

2017: 62 wRC+, .6 fWAR, 24th in MLB

2018 projections: 1.6 fWAR, 75 wRC+ (Steamer); 1 fWAR, 65 wRC+ (ZiPS)

Incomprehensibly, the Brewers gave away one of the game’s better defensive catchers in Martin Maldonado in exchange for Jett Bandy and RHP Drew Gagnon, one of whom didn’t see MLB time in 2017 (the other one probably shouldn’t have). At 31, Maldonado is no spring chicken, but according to StatCorner he’s the fifth-best catcher in the game at adding value with his defense, making his 2017 wRC+ of 73 a bit easier to stomach. One thing to be aware of: the 31-year-old Maldonado played 138 games last year, third-most in baseball; the Angels signed Rene Rivera this offseason to back him up, who is a slightly older, worse version of Maldonado.

1B:

2017: 90 wRC+, .7 fWAR (26th in MLB)

2018 projections: 100 wRC+, 1.1 fWAR, (Steamer); 99 wRC+, 1 fWAR (ZiPS)

Currently, CJ Cron is projected as the Angels’ starting first base option, although there’s always a possibility that Mariner-killer and all-around pest Luis Valbuena can earn a larger slice of the pie there, especially as Cron didn’t take the step forward in 2017 some hoped he would after an improved 2016. The Angels will also most likely have to think about creating at-bats for [REDACTED], which means potentially seeing Albert Pujols at first, an idea that sends me into transports of delight.

2B:

2017: wRC+ 60, -.3 fWAR (28th in MLB)

2018 projections: 97 wRC+. 2.4 fWAR (Steamer); 97 wRC+, 3 fWAR (ZiPS)

The Angels shored up a big hole at second with the signing of Ian Kinsler, still a good defender at the age of 35. Behind Kinsler, the depth chart lists prospect and fellow “why a C when you can have a higher-value K” Scrabble enthusiast Kaleb Cowart, who at 25 and with three different unimpressive stints in the majors has lost some of his prospect sheen; it seems more likely Valbuena will be the backup option there.

3B:

2017: 96 wRC+, 2.0 fWAR (21st in MLB)

2018 projections: 100 wRC+, 3 fWAR (Steamer and ZiPS)

While it wasn’t quite the black hole of second base, the hot corner also provided a bit of a weak point for the Angels in 2017. Similar to what they did across the diamond, the Angels addressed this position with the signing of Zack Cozart, who, in addition to putting on a different red uniform for the first time in his career, will shift off shortstop for the first time. He will be backed up by the same combination of Valbuena/Cowart/possibly Jefry Marte, same as the other infield spots.

SS:

2017: 109 wRC+, 4.9 fWAR (4th in MLB)

2018 projections: 96 wRC+, 3.4 fWAR (Steamer), 90 wRC+, 4 fWAR (ZiPS)

Andrelton Simmons has always been an elite defender, but now he’s seemingly an offensive threat as well, matching his former career-best year in 2014 in almost every offensive category and tacking 13 points onto his wRC+. If he repeats his 2017 performance he’ll be an All-Star; if he takes yet another step forward, he’ll stake a claim towards being considered among the “Big 3” (Correa, Seager, Lindor).

DH:

2017: 78 wRC+, -2.0 fWAR (last in the AL)

2018 projections: (Pujols only) 98 wRC+, -.1 fWAR (Steamer); 0 fWAR (ZiPS)

This one is obviously tricky to predict without knowing what Ohtani will bring with the bat or how much he’ll bat, but there is a strong possibility that the Angels will be paying about 15% or more of their total payroll for a negative WAR at this position.

Outfield:

2017: 113 wRC+, 11.9 fWAR (7th in MLB)

2018 Projections: Trout, wRC+ 176/8.4 fWAR (Steamer), wRC+ 167/7.9 zWAR (ZiPS); Calhoun 108 wRC+/2.4 fWAR (Steamer), 105 wRC+/2.4 zWAR (ZiPS); Upton, 113 wRC+/2.1 fWAR (Steamer), 112 wRC+/2.6 zWAR (ZiPS)

Mike Trout will be back to patrol center, flanked by Crossfit bro Kole Calhoun and new signee, Seattle-hater, and extreme pest Justin Upton. I was a little surprised the Angels didn’t bring back Cameron Maybin, who brought positive value and superior defense at a bargain price, at least as a fourth outfielder, as currently the depth is looking a little thin there, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Angels add one more outfielder as the signing period seems to heat up a little. It will probably be Jarrod Dyson, just to really troll Seattle fans.

As solid as this lineup looks compared to previous years, there are some question marks in this lineup. Will Maldonado’s glove continue to make up for his poor offense? Will Simmons continue to improve offensively, plateau, or regress? What will happen with the first major two-way player we’ve seen in the major leagues in over half a century? How red can Mike Scioscia get, and is it redder than Kole Calhoun, as an entity?

Overall, however, on paper this looks like a much more balanced team than the Angels have run out in recent years, and that’s rough news for Seattle fans looking for some hope of a wild card appearance. It is an old and expensive team, however. The Angels opened 2017 with the 11th-highest payroll in baseball, and additions to the roster through free agency and taking on contract obligations will push them past that mark. They were also the second-oldest team in 2017, and swaps like Bandy for Maldonado (+4 years), plus adding Kinsler and Cozart, should keep them up around that figure. The Angels are banking on the fact that, with Trout and Ohtani in hand, now is their time, and they’ve built an off-season around that.