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AL West Threat Assessment: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

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If you score 11 runs a game it doesn’t matter if you give up 10, right?

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Seattle Mariners
“Okay but have you at least tried pitching, Mike?”
Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images

The first couple targets of our offseason appraisals have been fairly straightforward. Oakland is trying to maintain their underpaid core without adding new money, as per usual. Then we had the Astros, who lost the youngest member of their ace triumvirate, remain mired in scandal, yet will open the season as the World Series favorite without any moves. Little changed for either club, and they will likely duke it out for the AL West crown again.

The (non-Mariners) back half of the division intends to change that. The Rangers were surprisingly cromulent in 2019, with a pair of hurlers helping them hang around the .500 mark despite injuries and underperformance from some of their core players. They ostensibly intend to add still, be it in free agency and/or trade, so we will save them for last. Today we tackle their brethren in scarlet - the Angels.

Anaheim has done more to augment their roster than any team in the division, and seems mostly settled, pending one potential big trade to land an arm to shore up their rotation. After missing out on most of the premier free agents in this class, the Angels have been linked in trade rumors to both the Tigers’ Matt Boyd and Cleveland’s Mike Clevinger, although with Anaheim balking at giving up top prospect Jo Adell (or even reportedly fellow outfielder Brandon Marsh), so far there has been little to no progress on those fronts. Nevertheless, their offseason has involved four additions that should slot right into their starting units, and the offense could easily be among MLB’s best. But will it be enough to turn last year’s 90-loss club into a playoff club in 2020? And what about beyond?

The Angels in 2020:

He can’t pitch, but Anthony Rendon might be a surer bet long-term than any hurler on the market. After four straight losing seasons since taking over, Billy Eppler got the go-ahead from Arte Moreno to let loose “unlimited resources” to improve the roster. Naturally, one of their first moves was functionally selling Zack Cozart’s contract to the Giants and dumping their 2019 1st round pick Will Wilson to do so. Despite the dubiousness of that move, few clubs have improved as much this winter as Anaheim. By FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projections (extremely rough at this stage), they stack up as the fifth-best team in the AL, trailing only the Astros, Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays. Like each of the past few years, however, seeing the paper Angels make it healthily to the field is a different proposition.

The rotation:

Projected Rotation: LHP Andrew Heaney, RHP Shohei Ohtani, RHP Dylan Bundy, RHP Julio Teheran, RHP Griffin Canning, LHP Patrick Sandoval

Do you feel lucky, punk? Billy Eppler has given an emphatic “YUP” each of the past few seasons, and has been rewarded with a myriad of arm injuries waylaying his club. With the best roster in recent memory everywhere else, the Angels have hedged on their pitching staff once more. Teheran offers consistency, and has long outperformed his peripherals, and for the Angels having even one pitcher reach 180-200 innings would be a dramatic improvement. None of his likely rotation mates can boast the same consistency.

Bundy comes with promise, albeit less than the 27 year old boasted for many years as a top prospect. Still, he’s put together three 160+ IP seasons, and his availability could easily make or break the floor of this rotation along with Teheran. The ceiling (and the floor) depend far more on Heaney and Ohtani, each of whose durability is suspect at best. Beyond them is a quartet of prospects: Canning, Sandoval, LHP Jose Suarez, and RHP Jaime Barria. Canning has rocketed through the minors, but none have handled their brief MLB debuts with aplomb. Any could take a step forward, with the first rounder Canning atop the list, but it’s not a group with any sure bets. Any further help is in the low minors at best, and could just as easily be shipped out to help bring in more MLB talent.

Failing more additions, Anaheim could challenge the Astros and A’s for the AL West crown if this unit is fully healthy. If the front line gets hurt or is ineffective, slugfests may abound. The bullpen is led by Hansel Robles, who broke out last year both on the field and the big screen. Between him and Ty Buttrey, there’s a pair of solid high-leverage options, but variability swinging the right way for guys like Cam Bedrosian, Justin Anderson, and Keynan Middleton could be the difference for this group.

Lineup stalwarts:

Projected Lineup: 2B David Fletcher, CF Mike Trout, 3B Anthony Rendon, DH Shohei Ohtani, LF Justin Upton, RF Brian Goodwin, SS Andrelton Simmons, 1B Albert Pujols, C Jason Castro

Now that’s a lineup. If you’d like to nitpick, you might say it’s a shade stars-and-scrubs, but my goodness the stars. Trout/Rendon/Ohtani is as fearsome a 2-3-4 as the league has, and a resurgent Upton could add to that ferocity. The lineup above gives the continued credence to Albert Pujols that his play has long not merited, but the largest question marks are still 1B and RF. Tommy La Stella will return from his broken leg to attempt to sustain his breakout season, but whether he battles Fletcher for the 2B/UTIL role or is granted a full-time spot at first is up to Eppler and Joe Maddon. Goodwin held his own well in 2019, easing the loss of Qcole Ckalhoun. Still, his spot is just a space-holder for what Anaheim hopes will be Jo Adell, about a month and a half into the season when he magically becomes ready.

This group looks monstrous, and features Mike Trout’s best teammate ever instantaneously, in addition to Ohtani who looked fully rejuvenated at the plate late in 2019, even if his pitching program has faced setbacks. Simmons declined in 2019, and there’s no replacement for him looming, but nearly every position should be improved over the 2019 version elsewhere. Castro and Max Stassi are reasonable backstops, and while a bench of Luis Rengifo and Michael Hermosillo isn’t oozing impact depth, it offers versatility and youth. The offense (and defense) will have to spread their wings for the Angels to soar this year, but finally the best player in baseball at least has some competent companions.

Key losses:

OF Kole Calhoun, INF Zack Cozart, RHP Trevor Cahill, RHP Blake Wood, RHP Luis Garcia, SS Will Wilson

Key off-season additions:

3B Anthony Rendon, RHP Dylan Bundy, RHP Julio Teheran, C Jason Castro

Season projection:

This is a fascinating team, and one that has thus far magnified their strengths in lieu of addressing their weaknesses. The late-90s/early-00s Rangers energy radiating off this group could power a small nation-state. While their pitcher-friendly home park likely limits their counting numbers and traditional stats like BA, HRs, or OPS, this team could quite easily finish top-five in most position player WAR metrics and bottom-five in those same metrics for pitchers. I’m not sure quite where that settles them, in truth, but I think they could be one of the best third-place clubs in recent memory. Given the choice to bet on the health of a group of non-elite pitchers or not, I will not nine times out of 10, and that sets me believing this is a team that slugs its way to an upper-80s win total but gets slugged back just a few times too many to get Mike Trout back to the playoffs.

The Angels in 2021:

The 2021 Angels will have almost $120M committed to four players in Trout, Pujols, Rendon, and Upton. Andrelton Simmons might have come off the books for them if they don’t re-sign him, but with no obvious successors waiting on the farm, the Angels could attempt to re-up with Simmons, who will be just 31 but is coming off an injury-plagued season. If Simmons struggles again with injuries in 2020, the Angels could move Luis Rengifo back over, as he covered short while Simmons was out, as an in-house option. With Rendon holding down third and promising prospect Matt Thaiss at first, the infield corners should be well locked-down, but the middle infield is more of a question. In prospect hunting, the Angels have prized high-upside, raw athletes, which has paid off big in outfield phenom Jo Adell and also caused some stumbling blocks, like in the case of second base prospect Jam Jones, who took a step back in repeating Double-A in 2019.

As it currently stands, the pitching remains a question for the Angels in 2021, as their prospect ranks for pitching are comprised of low-ceiling backend starter types and low-level live arms. If the Angels fail to contend in 2020, their payroll commitments will make chasing a premium arm in 2021 tough; however, with a glut of outfield talent in the system that will have aged up another year, the Angels could be well-positioned to pull off a trade in a way they aren’t in 2020.

The Angels in 2022:

With Pujols finally off the books, the Angels’ payroll drops to just under $100M for the trio of Trout, Rendon, and Upton. With a lineup that is hopefully made of homegrown players and their stars, the Angels should have enough financial flexibility to chase some frontline pitching. And there will be plenty to chase in 2022, with Noah Syndergaard, Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, Chris Archer, and Mike Foltynewicz all free agents (and Jacob DeGrom set to become a free agent the year after).

With the sun apparently setting on the dynasty in Houston, the Angels are angling hard to position themselves as the new kings of the AL West, right at the same time the Mariners, a club with many similar flaws in the pitching department, hope to open their contention window. The Angels are on a more accelerated timeline, but are aided by having the best player of the age locked up for the foreseeable future, along with a handful of other star talents sprinkled around the diamond. If the Mariners are to get past the Angels, it likely won’t be on sheer talent alone; they will have to have more players consistently reaching their ceilings in order to even begin to address the WAR deficit of facing Trout, Rendon, Ohtani, and Adell on a regular basis. That’s a tall order, especially if the Angels hit similarly big on any of the other diamonds in the rough lurking in their farm system.