As winter draws to a close, temperatures rise—Ann Arbor aside—and Spring Training gets underway it can only mean one thing: Baseball is (almost) here! Welcome back to M-SABR’s Season Preview 30 Teams in 30 Days series, where our staff writers share their insights on what to expect from your favorite team and players in 2018 and get you ready for that very first first pitch. Today Max Smith takes on the Los Angeles Angels. Enjoy!
by Max Smith
Los Angeles Angels
2017 Record: 80-82 (2nd in AL West)
2017 Payroll: $109,185,825
All player projections for 2018 from Steamer
- 2B Ian Kinsler, .255 AVG/.317 OBP/.413 SLG, 2.5 WAR
- CF Mike Trout, .308/.434/.609, 8.4 WAR
- LF Justin Upton, .248/.331/.472, 2.3 WAR
- DH Albert Pujols, .254/.308/.440, 0.0 WAR
- RF Kole Calhoun, .258/.337/.429, 2.4 WAR
- SS Andrelton Simmons, .269/.323/.396, 3.5 WAR
- 3B Zack Cozart, .255/.322/.425, 3.2 WAR
- 1B Luis Valbuena, .228/.321/.427, 0.8 WAR
- C Martin Maldonado, .223/.290/.370, 1.3 WAR
DH/P/OF Shohei Ohtani, .261/.339/.464, 0.6 WAR
- RHP Shohei Ohtani, 148.0 IP/3.56 ERA/1.21 WHIP, 3.0 WAR
- RHP Garrett Richards, 159.0 IP/3.74 ERA/ 1.29 WHIP, 2.8 WAR
- RHP J.C. Ramirez, 122.0 IP/4.63 ERA/1.41 WHIP, 0.9 WAR
- RHP Matt Shoemaker, 129.0 IP/4.35 ERA/1.27 WHIP
- LHP Tyler Skaggs, 129.0 IP/4.22 ERA/1.32 WHIP, 1.5 WAR
- RHP Parker Bridwell, 75.0 IP/5.04 ERA/1.41 WHIP, 0.2 WAR
Coming off of a somewhat disappointing 80-82 season, in which Mike Trout missed almost two months and Garrett Richards only started six games, the Angels of Anaheim had one of the most eventful offseasons of any team. They enter 2018 with new starters at second base, third base and a full season of the freshly re-signed Justin Upton in left field. Most significantly though, LA emerged victorious from the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes, adding both an ace and one of the coolest stories in all of baseball—all on a minimum salary.
Moving on from 2017 lineup regulars Ben Revere, Danny Espinosa, Cameron Maybin, Yunel Escobar, and Cliff Pennington, the Angels wasted no time replacing them with big name additions Zack Cozart (coming off a breakout 141+ wRC 2017), Ian Kinsler (just a year removed from three straight seasons of 4.0+ fWAR), and signing trade deadline addition Justin Upton to a 5-year, $106 million extension the day after the World Series ended. On the pitching side of things, they lost 138.0 innings of Jesse Chavez, and Bud Norris’ 19 saves, while trading for RP Jake Johnson from the Braves who should factor into the closer competition in 2018. Yet getting Garrett Richards back for a full year and adding Ohtani are certainly the biggest offseason developments, and will be touched on plenty as we continue.
Wild Card or bust.
In my mind the Angels’ season is as simple as that, but luckily the roster Billy Eppler has assembled heading into 2018 appears to be up to the task. Yet with the World Champion Astros looking all but insurmountable in the AL West, and the Yankees and Red Sox poised for a heavyweight bout for the AL East banner, the Angels will be looking to beat out the Blue Jays, Twins and Mariners for the second AL Wild Card. And while question marks remain on the pitching front, the offense, which Fangraphs projects to be 12th in the Majors at 4.87 runs/game, and should help them get there.
Looking beyond the artist formerly known as Albert Pujols, the Angels boast a pretty balanced line up, especially given their revamped infield. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons made huge strides as a hitter last year, and his glove remains unquestioned. Looking at new third baseman Zack Cozart, some regression might be expected after the anomaly of a breakout season he enjoyed in 2017—his impressive 141 wRC+ was only the second time in six seasons he has even broken 100. But if Cozart can continue improving his plate discipline, which he did last year in raising his walk rate from 7.3% in 2016 to 12.2% in 2017 and cutting his outside the zone swing percentage (O-Swing%) from 31.4% in 2015 to 28.9% in 2016, all the way down to 24.4% last year, he could prove himself to be a major upgrade at third base. And even if Ian Kinsler does not return to 2014-2016 form, he is unlikely to put up less than the -1.0 fWAR that 2017 Opening Day starter Danny Espinosa put up last year.
In the outfield there’s Mike Trout, so that already puts the Angels ahead of just about every other team. Add in Justin Upton and Kole Calhoun flanking him in left and right field respectively and suddenly you have one of the best outfields in baseball a year after losing Trout for a long stretch and trotting out Ben Revere and his 0.0 fWAR 109 times. If Upton can continue to produce the power he always has, and Calhoun’s BABIP rises from a career-low .284 closer to his .303 career average, things should be looking good in Anaheim. And while a 38-year old Pujols might seem uninspiring at best, there are some pretty exciting alternative options at DH.
Speaking of those alternative options, new addition and NPB sensation Shohei Ohtani looks poised to head a top heavy rotation that possesses more potential than track record. After losing essentially two full years to injury, Garrett Richards will be looking to return to his pre-Tommy John form, and racking up 1.0 fWAR across just 6 starts last year was a promising start. Beyond those two, the Angels pitching staff boasts some relatively uninspiring options whose ERA’s are more likely to fall in the 5.00’s than the 3.00’s. Without an established incumbent, closing duties will be handled with a by committee approach, though Jim Johnson appears to be the early favorite.
All things considered, there is a clear top tier in the AL, and while LA does not belong in that group alongside Houston, Cleveland, Boston, and New York, the Angels of Anaheim might have a balanced enough lineup and sufficient star power to sneak into the second Wild Card.
Predicted Record: 88-74
Player to Watch: Mike Trout
While 2017 was the first year in his 6-year career that Mike Trout did not finish in the top 2 in AL MVP voting—wow, just read that sentence again—it might have been Trout’s finest campaign yet. Leading the Majors with a 1.071 OPS, the Melville Meteor posted a career-best 181 wRC+ over the 114 games he played. Irrational fans trying to poke holes in his game, and even rational fans arguing that he probably cannot get any better at this point might want to remember that Trout has decreased his strikeout rate while upping his walk rate each of the past three seasons, and he only seems to be gaining power as he approaches his peak years at 26 (his 33 HR would have been a career-best 47 over a full 162 game slate). Simply put, 2018 should be another outstanding year for Trout, but let’s make sure we don’t get bored by the seeming inevitability of his success, and instead fully appreciate pure greatness.
Player to Watch: Shohei Ohtani, Pitcher
Ohtani was the talk of the off-season, and while not all sites ranked the Japanese ace as their top free agent, he was undoubtedly the most intriguing. But let’s look at some numbers first.
A: 1.86 ERA, .957 WHIP, 11.2 K/9, 2.9 BB/9
B: 1.97 ERA, .897 WHIP, 9.3 K/9, 2.0 BB/9
Above we’ve got two remarkable, and remarkably similar pitching lines. Line A is Shohei Ohtani’s 2016, age 21 season (his last full season) for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters of Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan. Line B is Yu Darvish during his age 21 season for the Nippon Ham Fighters in 2008.
Yet some differences do exist between the two. Heading into 2018, Ohtani is slated to be the Angels’ ace at the tender age of 23, while Darvish, despite his early success, did not reach the Majors until age 25. Ohtani is betting that he is ready now, and what a gamble it is. By signing with an MLB team from Japan before age 25, he received only a $2.3 million dollar signing bonus in addition to a league-minimum $545,000 annual salary, which is nothing compared to the 5-year, $50 million contract Darvish signed with Texas, or the $200 million contract Ohtani likely could have commanded in a truly open market. While the decision certainly seems fiscally irresponsible, it speaks to Ohtani’s mindset and his belief that he is ready for the Show. The projections seem to agree, as even the most conservative Fangraphs estimate has Ohtani being worth 3.0 WAR with a 3.68 ERA. Now if Ohtani’s MLB statistics start resembling Darvish’s to the degree that his NPB numbers did, the Japanese flamethrower should go from being the offseason’s most intriguing free agent, to being one of the regular season’s most intriguing pitchers.
Player to Watch: Shohei Ohtani, Hitter
A: .322 AVG/.416 OBP/.588 SLG, 22 HR, 190 TB
B: .125 AVG/.125 OBP/.250 SLG, 0 HR, 2 TB
Here we’ve got two more stat lines, and once again they belong to Ohtani (A) and Darvish (B) in their respective age 21 NPB seasons. While Darvish’s statistics appear both normal for any pitcher as well as his own career standards (.129/.156/.258 in his 5 MLB seasons), Ohtani’s are anything but. In fact Ohtani’s 1.002 OPS is not even normal by MLB All-Star standards, and though his 4.6 NPB WAR as a hitter in 2016 does not match the 5.8 NPB WAR he put up as a pitcher, it does have Christian Yelich, Freddie Freeman and George Springer of 2017 beat.
Now realistically, the Angels will never allow their ace to play the outfield on any days he’s not taking the bump the way the Ham Fighters did, but Ohtani slotting into the Angels lineup as the designated hitter, and receiving somewhere between 217 and 322 at-bats depending on which Fangraphs projection model you look at, will be tantalizing. The potential of being MLB’s first true impact two way player since early Babe Ruth (or fellow Angel Willie Smith who posted a 125 OPS+ and 118 ERA+ in 1964), is what pushes Ohtani being one of the league’s most intriguing pitchers, to the single most fascinating player in all of baseball.
Check back tomorrow for AJ Janetzke’s take on the Houston Astros!