Playing Pepper 2016: Los Angeles Angels

It’s one of those rites of spring, one of those signs that baseball is returning.  For the eighth straight year, we’re Playing Pepper!  We’ll ask six questions of bloggers for each major league team as a way of getting familiar with those teams that don’t wear the birds on the bat.  This year, this series will be “sponsored” by The Cardinals Way, the new book from Howard Megdal.  It’s an outstanding look at the Cardinal organization and I can’t recommend you getting a copy highly enough.

Los Angeles Angels
85-77, third in the AL West
Last year’s Pepper

The Angels are proof that it’s tough to be a good baseball team.  They’ve got the best player in the world and an owner that’s proven money is no object, yet they still can’t seem to be a consistent playoff squad.  Last year saw an apparent stats/non-stats schism in the organization, leading to their GM now being in Seattle and Mike Scioscia still managing.  What can we expect out of the Angels this year?

We’ll find out thanks to two great LAA bloggers.  Alex Alarcon is the founder and senior writer over at Halo Headquarters and is making his Pepper debut.  His Twitter handle is @AlexAlarcon49 if you’d like to give him a follow.  Nate Aderhold has taken over the leadership of Monkey With a Halo, so he’s making his first Pepper appearance while the blog isn’t.  You can follow him on Twitter @AdrastusPerkins.

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?

HH: The Angels offseason was a bit of a letdown in a way. Yes they did upgrade at the shortstop position with acquiring Andrelton Simmons from the trade that involved Erick Aybar, Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis packing their bags to the Braves, but they needed an extra bat in left field. Right now the Angels have won the trade, because Simmons is a defensive player of the year, and Aybar’s years were slowly coming to an end. However the Angels did deal away some top prospects which could bite them in the long run. I was hoping for the Angels to finally address the outfield situation, instead they did not make a splash. Right now Craig Gentry and Daniel Nava will battle it out for the left field position, and Yunel Escobar looks to have the job at 3rd base. It’s going to be new lineup this season for the Angels.

MWH: I believe much of what dictates whether or not a team had a successful offseason is the expectation level going into it. Last winter the Angels didn’t sign a single MLB free agent, but most still viewed the offseason as a success because the front office said from the get-go that they were happy standing pat following a 98-win season. This winter, though, the trifecta of a new general manager, an owner who said he’d do “whatever is needed“, and an incredibly deep free-agent class set expectations sky high and made disappointment more or less inevitable.

That being said, the disappointment didn’t have to be quite this soul-crushing. If owner Arte Moreno didn’t want to spend for the big free agents this winter, he should have said so from the start. Removing Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, and Yoenis Cespedes from the table immediately would have saved everyone a lot of grief. Instead Moreno provoked fans with increasingly patronizing statements over the course of the winter, doing no one any good.

In the end, I don’t mind settling for a LF platoon. But acquiring for it the only two guys—Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry—who were worse than Matt Joyce in 2015 is mind-boggling, especially with so much younger talent readily available. That a franchise with some of the deepest pockets in the league is suddenly spending like the Tampa Bay Rays on the open market is incredibly concerning. Ownership wants fans to believe it’s the luxury tax or the budget—it changes from week to week—but that belies the record revenues coming in across the league. While the league average payroll has climbed nearly 30 percent over the last five years, the Angels’ has remained static.

Given the tight constraints laid upon him, new GM Billy Eppler should be commended for accomplishing as much as he did this winter. Andrelton Simmons was a particularly astute addition, and Yunel Escobar should be a solid upgrade at third base. But those moves alone won’t do away with the myriad what-if scenarios for left field and elsewhere.

Can the Angels succeed with the roster they’ve built? Sure. Is it the best roster they could have constructed to complement Mike Trout? Not even close.

C70: For some in our fanbase, there’s always going to be interest about Albert Pujols. How is he regarded in by Angels fans and what do you expect from him in 2016?

HH: Albert Pujols is one of the favorites for any Angels fan, but his 2016 season could change that view. Pujols is still recovering from a surgery on his right foot and may not be ready for the season opener. Pujols’s glory days are over, and it’s sad to say that. He won’t be the hitting machine that had an average above .300 or reach 35+ home runs years ago, but he needs to compete. He’s dealing with a foot Injury, and with his age (36) it’s hard to tell if he will play the whole season. If he is ready for the season, I expect him to still play a giant role in the Angels offense in the DH spot, but if his foot injury decreases his bat speed and playing time, it could be a rough season for Pujols.

MWH: I get the impression that most Halos fans are disappointed in what Albert Pujols has brought to Anaheim thus far. Again, I think it comes back to expectations. When a guy gets a 10-year, $240 million contract, it’s tough to see a non-MVP performance as anything but a letdown. (First impressions are tough to live down too. Pujols hit just .211/.256/.313 in his first 175 PA with the Angels.) What the high expectations obscure is that Pujols has been pretty dang solid and reliable despite his myriad leg issues. He’s appeared in at least 154 games in three of his four seasons and averaged 4.0 WAR per 650 plate appearances—not exactly peak Pujols but still better than, say, Matt Adams ;).

This season the hope is that he can finally get through an entire 162-game schedule without his legs giving out on him. Last year he was on pace for 50+ dingers before his plantar fasciitis caught up with him and held him to a .707 OPS in the second half. That he still managed to wallop 40 out of the park is a marvel, and it would be a huge boon to the 2016 team if he could come anywhere close to duplicating that effort. His “speed” and plate discipline are gone now so much of his success rides on his ability to drive the ball, especially if he’s DH-ing more often than not.

C70: What will be the starting rotation and what are your thoughts about how good it can be?

HH: The Angels 2016 starting rotation should be the following: 1st Garret Richards; 2nd Jered Weaver; 3rd Andrew Heaney; 4th C.J. Wilson; 5th Hector Santiago. If the Angels were going to add a 6th spot in the rotation, it might be Matt Shoemaker. Of course the Angels still have Tyler Skaggs who is recovering from an injury, but it’s still a question mark if he will be able to perform at a high level with missing a year of pitching. The pitching rotation has some great arms with Richards and Heaney. I expect them both to lead the teams in wins. Both Wilson and Santiago have the ability to be better pitchers in the league, but they tend to fall off the second half of the season. For Weaver, his fastball is reaching a max of 84 MPH, and if he doesn’t locate well, it’s gone. The Angels have the ability to have a great season of pitching, if Wilson and Santiago set up and hopefully Skaggs can have a rebuilding year, but Richards can not carry this team by himself.

MWH: The locks for the rotation are Garrett Richards, C.J. Wilson, Jered Weaver, and Andrew Heaney. The fifth spot, meanwhile, is an open competition this spring between Matt Shoemaker, Tyler Skaggs, Nick Tropeano, and Hector Santiago. Shoemaker or Santiago probably have the inside edge for that final spot given their experience, but I wouldn’t expect either of them to hold it for long. Once Skaggs is 100% recovered from his Tommy John surgery, the team is going to find a way to get him into the rotation. Whether that ultimately means trading Wilson—if/when his arm is healthy—or simply moving Shoemaker/Santiago to the minors/bullpen remains to be seen.

If you go by projection systems, the expectations for the Angels rotation are pretty low. Of the four guys locked into a starting spot, only Richards is projected to be better than league average. That doesn’t necessarily mean the rest of the rotation can’t be, though. Both Wilson and Weaver are just two seasons removed from being above-average starters, while guys like Heaney, Skaggs, and Tropeano have a bunch of upside potential just waiting to be tapped into. I don’t have any illusions they will end up on par with the Dodgers or Mets come September, but I am optimistic they can be a top five AL rotation if all breaks right. There’s a lot to be said for having a deep rotation with a high floor.

C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

HH: The one player that I expect to make the greatest strides this year would be outfielder Kole Calhoun. Calhoun goes under the radar at times, but deserves the recognition each season. Each year Calhoun is improving and I expect him to have his best season yet. Besides being a Gold Glove winner, he also has the bat. Last season Calhoun had an batting average of .256 along with 26 home runs and 83 runs batted in. I’m going to go on a stretch here and say Calhoun finishes the season with 30 Home runs and over 90 RBI’s. But his greatest stride comes in his batting average where he finishes with a .281 mark.

MWH: I expect a pair of young lefties, Andrew Heaney and Tyler Skaggs, to make the greatest strides for the Angels this year. Heaney is looking to survive and thrive in his first full season of MLB ball, while Skaggs is hoping for a second chance at the full season that eluded him in 2014. As former top 25 prospects they have the upside to take the rotation to another level this season, and I really think the stage is set for them to step up in a big way.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

HH: Last year the Angels saw themselves losing the last game of the season leaving them a game out of the wild card spot and four games from winning the AL West title. It’s going to be a tough division, but I see the Angels playing some good Halo Baseball this season and finishing with 84 wins and 78 Losses. Now I don’t know if that will be good enough to make the playoffs, but the Angels also can have another sour season. If the Angels can solve their hitting problem, they have a chance. Mike Trout cannot lead the offense by himself, others need to step up.

MWH: This team is banking on so many comeback seasons that it’s tough to confidently project them for anything but mediocrity. So I will peg them for an 82-80 record and a third-place finish, but with the note that I can see the pendulum swinging either way pretty easily given some key performances here and there.

C70: Which team in the division do you most enjoy beating and how do you think you’ll fare against them in 2016?

HH: For the Angels to make a run to the playoffs they must beat the Houston Astros often and badly to send a message to the other teams in the division. The Angels really don’t have any type of strong rivalry with anyone in the division, but I would enjoy beating the Astros over and over again. The ‘Stros are a good team who still have a lot left in the tank from last year. They basically had the AL West title in their hands, but could not finish the deal. They are the favorites to win the title this season, and it’s always nice to prove others wrong. Let’s see if the Angels can turn around from last season and focus on a new brighter season. Watch out Astros, we’re coming for you.

MWH: The most heated rivalry of recent vintage is between the Angels and Rangers, but the victories that I enjoy most tend to come against the A’s. No matter how good either team is the contests always seem to be nail-biters or complete blowouts, meaning they usually bring out the best and the worst from each club. It creates one heck of a catharsis when the rare Oakland sweep happens.

I won’t pretend to know how the Halos will fare against the A’s in 2016, but I bet it’ll be close. Let’s say 10-9.

My thanks to our two new friends for their thoughts on the Angels.  It’s going to be interesting to see if they can make the AL West even more competitive than it has been!

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