Hi, Angels fans. Listen, I didn’t want to have to do this, but I wrote about your team. I know it’s not something you want to think about too deeply. But it’s (one of) my job(s), and it does hurt me to say this team looks pretty ugly. They finished just outside of the AL West lead and the second wild card spot. Tantalizingly, painfully, dreadfully close.
But while the Rangers and Astros look to improve this season, the Angels haven’t improved much—if at all. They’re going to have to hit their 90th percentile at each position if they want to earn a spot in the playoffs. And even then I’m not sure it will be enough…
Depth Chart (As of 2/29)
C: Carlos Perez/Geovany Soto
1B: Albert Pujols (DL?)/CJ Cron
2B: Johnny Giavotella/Cliff Pennington
3B: Yunel Escobar
SS: Andrelton Simmons
LF: Daniel Nava/Craig Gentry
CF: Mike Trout
RF: Kole Calhoun
DH: CJ Cron
SP: Garrett Richards
SP: CJ Wilson
SP: Jered Weaver
SP: Andrew Heaney
SP: Matt Shoemaker
CL: Houston Street
New Faces: Andrelton Simmons, Craig Gentry, Daniel Nava, Yunel Escobar, Cliff Pennington, Ji-Man Choi
Departures: Mat Latos, David Freese, Shane Victorino, Matt Joyce, Chris Ianetta, David Murphy, Erick Aybar, David DeJesus
Position Battles: Let’s start with left field. The Angels brought in Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry to cover the position. I’m so, so sorry Angels fans. Neither is really good enough to warrant a full-time starting job. But the Angels’ brass is hoping that together, the platoon will be greater than the sum of its parts. And hey, maybe they’re right. We’ve seen platoons accomplish that feat in the past. Nava figures to get the majority of playing time as he’s the lefty—he’s a switch hitter that’s much better as a lefty anyway. He’s done reasonably well vs RHP too: 281/377/409 (119 wRC+) for his career. Gentry will take on lefties, which he’s hit 256/321/366 (100 wRC+) against in his career. That’s not quite as sexy, but it’s not bad either. And both are competent fielders. If all goes well, I could see the two combing for approximately 2.0 wins in left field. That’s about an average regular’s worth of production, so maybe it won’t be so bad after all.
I don’t have it within myself to muster the same level of hope for second base. Johnny Giavotella and Cliff Pennington appear to be the top options for that position. This time, I honestly mean it: I’m so sorry, Angels fans. Last year, Giavotella hit 272/318/375 (95 wRC+) in 502 plate appearances for the Angels with well-below average defense at second base (-12 DRS). In those 129 games, he was worth 1.1 fWAR which is a good site below average. Pennington was much worse (-0.4 fWAR) in half the playing time (249 PA). This is less a battle for playing time that sees one player win out over the other. It’s more about who is less bad. This isn’t even a situation where you can platoon them to get the best out of them because they’re both “strongest”—you’ll never see a looser usage of that word—against RHP. Maybe the Angels should try for a last-minute trade for a guy like Scooter Gennett, who isn’t great but is much better vs RHP: 307/339/458 (115 wRC+).
Perhaps the most hope for you poor Angels fans comes from Kaleb Cowart and/or Kyle Kubitza. Technically still prospects, they might get their sink-or-swim moment this year. Each now has upper minors experience, including a cup of coffee at the major league level. The questions are many with each, but if either could push for playing time at third base, that would allow the Angels to slot Yunel Escobar over at second base. Perhaps not a great option himself, Escobar did hit 314/375/415 (120 wRC+) last year with the Nationals. He’s unlikely to reproduce that line, but even if he could produce close to his career average—281/350/385 (103 wRC+)—it would represent a big increase in production.
Injury Concerns: Oh, what a plight it is to be an Angels fan. Albert Pujols hit 40 home runs last year, but he is far removed from the defensive asset he once was. And actually, he’s not nearly the offensive threat he once was. Despite hitting those 40 HR, he only hit fora .244 average and got on base at a below-average rate (.307 OBP). All told, he was only an average all-around contributor with a 116 wRC+ and 2.0 fWAR. He’s been dealing with foot problems for a while now and this offseason, he had surgery that now puts him in doubt for opening day. CJ Cron would likely be the alternative first baseman. And given Pujols’ struggles in the field, perhaps Cron is the best choice for full-time duties at the position. The worst part is the Angels still owe Pujols $165 million over the next seven years. Good lord, that’s a bad contract…
Once one of the more durable starters in baseball, having logged four seasons—2010 through 2013—with 33+ starts and 300+ innings pitched, C.J. Wilson has failed to log 200 innings in the last two seasons. He had season-ending elbow surgery towards the end of last year to remove bone spurs, and reportedly suffered some setbacks during spring training with his shoulder. At this point, it looks like he’ll be ready for opening day. But it also feels like his past workload is catching up with him. A DL stint, while not a guarantee, feels like a strong possibility at some point in-season.
On the peripheral of the rotation picture is former top pitching prospect Tyler Skaggs. His development sputtered with the Diamondbacks as he reached the upper levels. His velocity dropped too. Then in 2014, he underwent the dreaded Tommy John surgery, missing all of the 2015 season as a result. He should be ready to go for 2016, but he’ll be under an innings cap. And no one really knows how a player will rebound after such a procedure.
Key Player: Mike Trout, I guess? I mean, if Mike Trout gets hurt or somehow sucks—let’s be honest, that’s not going to happen—then the Angels have zero chance of doing anything meaningful. Of course, he could be the best player in baseball and the Angels still might not do anything meaningful—just like last year. It’s like the Angels made a deal with the Robot Devil. He gave them the best player in baseball, but took away all the talent from the rest of the major league team and the entire Angels’ farm system. Oh, you poor Angels fans. I’m so incredibly sorry this is your team.
Underrated Asset: I’ve been trying to figure out what to put here for about half an hour. It’s not that easy. The Angels roster is the definition of stars and scrubs. If you’re on the Angels, then people already know you’re a star because you’re Mike Trout, Garret Richards, or Andrelton Simmons; or you’re barely a major league regular, like nearly every other player on the 25-man roster. After two near 4.0 fWAR seasons, Kole Calhoun shouldn’t be underrated anymore.
Perhaps the platoon in left field is the most underrated asset on this team. The combination of Craig Gentry and Daniel Nava is probably around 2.0-win tandem at best. But even I went into this article with the expectation that the two were barely replacement-level caliber players. I think everyone was waiting for the Angels to pay a guy like Dexter Fowler to improve the production in left. But honestly, if the platoon can produce at their career averages, they might give the Angels similar production to what Fowler could have on his own.
It could also be their starting pitching depth. In addition to the five listed in the depth chart and Tyler Skaggs, the Angels could also look to Hector Santiago and Nick Tropeano. The truth is, while neither is better than a 4/5 starter, either could beat out a veteran like Jered Weaver for starting duties. And even if they don’t, it’s always nice to be able to look eight deep on your rotation depth chart. Even an “okay” 4/5 caliber starter is better than having Quad-A players get starts or rushing prospects before they’re ready—though that won’t be a problem for the Angels, since they don’t have prospects. Sorry again, Angels fans.
Burning Question: At what point do the Angels consider a rebuild?
The Angels fell short of winning the division by three games last year and just one game back of the second wild card. But whereas we can point to substantial upgrades from other teams in the AL, and specifically the AL West, I’m not sure the Angels are any better than they were last year. Sure, Andrelton Simmons will help them. But the Angels pitching staff had the lowest groundball rate in 2015. So of all the teams in baseball, the improved infield defense will help here the least.
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone outside of the organization or its fandom that would project the Angels to be relevant in the playoff picture in 2016. They do have a large sum of money coming off the books for 2017—but that free agent class is one of the worst I’ve ever seen. The Angels current farm system is also one of the absolute worst I’ve ever seen since I started paying attention to such things. So help isn’t coming from there either.
With reinforcements in doubt and of questionable quality, at what point do the Angels entertain a rebuild phase? For as bad as they look overall, they do have a number of assets that could inject some serious life into their farm system: Andrelton Simmons, Garrett Richards, Kole Calhoun, and, of course, Mike Trout. But how often do you see a team trade a player the caliber of Mike Trout? He’s a generational-type talent and that would be a once in a lifetime trade. I’m not sure they could ever get enough back to make a fair trade. Maybe in a few years, when Trout has just one or two seasons of control left, it could happen. If the Angels can’t find a way to be competitive in the next year or two, it’s something they should have to seriously consider.
Best Case Scenario: Well, the Angels did just miss the the playoffs by 1-3 games. Let’s say:
1) The LF platoon produces like an average regular (2.0 WAR)
2) One of Kaleb Cowart/Kyle Kubitza forces Yunel Escobar to 2B
2b) And the Angels subsequently get average production from both second and third base
3) The rotation stays healthy
4) Albert Pujols doesn’t miss significant time and produces at least like a 2.0-win player
If those four/five things happen, then perhaps the Angels can remain relevant all year. They still can’t expect much in the way of mid-season reinforcements, due to the paltry nature of their minor league talent pool. And the top of the division looks just as good as last year. But if those four/five things happen then sure, they probably have a puncher’s chance at either a division title or a wild card spot.
Worst Case Scenario: The worst-case scenario would include Mike Trout going back to his home planet. But I think we should probably stick to a realistic worst-case scenario. I think that includes the left field platoon falling apart, C.J. Wilson succumbing to injury again, Yunel Escobar turning into a pumpkin, the second base situation remains what it is—which could very well end up as the worst production from a position not manned by Avisail Garcia—in addition to a lengthy DL stint and further age-related decline from Albert Pujols. Honestly, just a ton could go wrong with this team. And when there are so many things that could go wrong, at least one thing usually does…
Realistic Prediction: I’m honestly worried that worst-case scenario is pretty close to a realistic one. Even if total disaster doesn’t strike, this Angels team needs so many things to go right for it to remain in the playoff hunt. Right now, I think the Astros and Rangers are clearly better teams. A division title seems unlikely at this point and the AL Wild Card race could be the most heated contest baseball has seen in years. I don’t feel like it’s impossible for the Angels to sneak into a playoff spot. But I’d stack the odds 60/40 or 55/45 against. And that might very well be generous. Again, I’m just so, so sorry Angels fans.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs