Playing Pepper 2017: Los Angeles Angels

Back in 2009, I had the idea of doing a season preview of each team by asking bloggers that followed that club questions and posting the answers.  We’re back for the ninth edition of Playing Pepper!  We’ll cover one team a day from now right up until Opening Day (not counting weekends).  This series is brought to you by our new United Cardinal Bloggers podcasts site, where you can find all the info and new episodes you need to enhance your Cardinal fandom.  Now, let’s play some pepper!

Los Angeles Angels
74-88, fourth in AL West
Last year’s Pepper

It was another devilish year for the Angels.  The club finished 14 games under .500 and had to have an 8-2 final kick to get that high.  Albert Pujols and Mike Trout combined for 60 homers and 229 RBI, but the pitching staff struggled to help them out, with long-time Angels Jered Weaver turning in his worst performance in what turned out to be his last season wearing the halo.  From a distance, it seems like the outlook for this team isn’t exactly sunshine and roses.

To see if the picture is different, we’ve got four Angels bloggers to fill us in today.  Give them all a follow and stay tuned as they take their cuts at the Pepper 6.

Blogger Blog Twitter Podcast
Rahul Setty Halo Heaven RahulSettyHH
Robert Cunningham Angels Win ettinone
Nate Aderhold nate_ader
Alex Alarcon Halo Headquarters AlexAlarcon49

C70: Was it a good offseason for the team? Did they do what they needed to do? Is there any move you wished they had made that they didn’t?

HHv: The Angels have had a solid offseason by being opportunistic in the trade and free agent market. They have essentially replaced below-replacement level players at 2b and LF for around league average production in Cameron Maybin/Ben Revere and Danny Espinosa, added a 5th starter in Jesse Chavez, and an bevy of bench, relief, and minor league depth that was sorely lacking. This is all without giving up any prospects of value or taking on bad long-term contracts, meaning the players mentioned above can be flipped at the deadline to boost the farm system.

The one questionable move is the Jett Bandy for Martin Maldonado trade, largely because Bandy has so many more years of control, but it’s understandable given the shift to pitch framing within the game.

AW: Yes, Billy Eppler did an excellent job, working within the confines of available payroll, to improve the team both offensively and defensively and dealing with the legacy of prior team moves (Hamilton and the weak farm system being the two big ones). He was able to add above average regulars to LF, 2B, 1B, and C and reinforce the rotation, primarily, and the bullpen to a lesser degree all without incurring significant long-term payroll obligations which was perhaps the most impressive part of his offseason moves.

If I had to give Eppler a grade it would be an A-minus because although he built some tremendous depth team-wide there are still some lingering question marks in the rotation and bullpen. The organization as a whole gets a B or generously a B+. Did they do what they needed to do? Yes they did for the most part. The Angels needed to find solutions in LF, 2B, C, SP, and RP and they were able to do that successfully without sacrificing any draft picks in the process. Maybin in LF could prove to be one of Eppler’s savviest moves pre-season, while picking up the defensively-gifted Espinosa to play 2B (after Billy struck out in the 2B trade market), trading for the well-regarded pitch framer Maldonado, and bringing in a slew of rotation and bullpen candidates via trade, waiver claims, and free agent signings has created a pool of risky, upside talent that could, potentially, make a difference if at least one or two of those players breaks out in a big way (there are a lot of former 1st round picks in that pool). Eppler was able to improve defensively up-the-middle (the Angels should be a Top 5 defensive team), incrementally improve the offense (which was ranked 10th overall in wRC+ last season), shore up the rotation through greatly improved depth (and relying to a degree on injured players recovering), and finally adding options to the bullpen to create not only competition in Spring Training but to also add depth.

It had been my hope that the Angels would solve their 2B situation long-term by acquiring a 2B such as Cesar Hernandez (as originally floated by the Orange County Register’s Jeff Fletcher), Kolten Wong, Greg Garcia, T.J. Rivera, Jonathan Villar, or another defensively-gifted 2B. However it is my impression that the trade market was too expensive in terms of prospect currency that the Angels just really did not have or want to give at this time. If the Angels are out of the Division race in mid-July they could potentially target a MLB-ready player or prospect if they sell off or they could simply wait until next offseason to re-engage some of the same or other teams for some of the names listed above.

FS: Given the constraints laid on the Angels front office the last few seasons, all courtesy of ownership, they’ve done a great job of filling out the roster this winter. There was a bit more financial wiggle room this year than last with C.J. Wilson ($20M) and Jered Weaver ($20M) departing, but it’s clear there was still a hard limit on how much GM Billy Eppler could dole out to free agents. (Since Josh Hamilton‘s ill-fated $125M deal in the 2012 offseason, no free agent has inked a deal with the Halos for more than $15M total.)

The biggest holes entering the winter were in left field (59 OPS+ in ’16), at second base (62 OPS+), and at catcher (83 OPS+). For the cost of three fringe pitching prospects, a back-up catcher, and just $16M in salary for 2017, the Angels upgraded those three positions both offensively and defensively with Cameron Maybin (120 OPS+ in ’16), Danny Espinosa (81 OPS+), and Martin Maldonado (82 OPS+). They then added some legitimate MLB depth by bringing Ben Revere and Luis Valbuena on, at long last abandoning the practice of using the bench as a revolving door for Quad-A players like Ji-Man Choi, Gregorio Petit, Efren Navarro, etc.

I do wish they’d taken a flyer on someone like Ivan Nova or Jason Hammel to bolster the club’s razor-thin and injury-prone rotation, but I sense they view Jesse Chavez’s one-year deal as addressing that issue. Not sure I agree.

HHQ: The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim did a lot this offseason, but they did not do anything too special. First, let’s start with the improvement of the pitching staff. The Angels re-signed Andrew Bailey to a one year deal worth $1m. Last season he pitched in twelve games with a overall 2.38 ERA. A great signing indeed. The Halo’s also signed RHP Jesse Chavez to a one year deal worth $4.75m. Chavez won’t blow away the Angels, but they got him for a steal. However the big “news” came with the signing of Ben Revere and the trade for OF Cameron Maybin. The Angels needed a Left Fielder, and got two average ones. Once again nothing special. What I really like about Maybin and Revere is they can be a duo the Angels need in LF. Together they could form one of the strongest platoons in baseball. It’s hard to see either guy as a solid option for 162 games. However if the Angels can flip flop between games with them, they may succeed with the added rest. The Angels did what they needed to do, but it was nothing fancy. I wish the Angels could have made a bigger move once again for the LF issue, but maybe Eppler is saving for next years free agency….

C70: Even with the best player in the game, at times this team feels like an afterthought. Can this team be in the national conversation in 2017 and, if not, when can they be?

HHv: The narrative that the “Angels suck, trade Trout” is simply untrue and most baseball writers have written this because 1) it’s easy clickbait 2) they are incentivized to see Trout on an East Coast team so they can watch him every night. The reality is that the Angels have won 98 games in 2014 and were 1 game away from the playoffs in 2015, and their 2016 run differential was -10, suggesting they should really be 80-82. They were the most unlucky team in 2016, by both injury impact and run differential.

They absolutely can be relevant in September and October, but it’s all going to hinge on the health of the pitching staff. Among their position players the Halos have assembled position players galore but among the pitching (Garrett Richards, Tyler Skaggs specifically) it could get dicey. Overall, realize that the addition of the 2nd wild card creates parity that the league has never seen before, and the bar for ‘contention’ has never been lower. At present, I would put the Angels over/under at 86 wins, Fangraphs has them at 84-78, and they’re not done adding pieces. Though there’s major risk here because of the pitching, you can see how they have a path in a pretty competitive AL West with two largely open wild cards.

AW: I sincerely believe that this team is capable of competing in the A.L. West and making a playoff run in 2017. Other than perhaps the Astros, the parity of this Division is in a fairly tight band which will create opportunities for the Angels to win games if they can execute well defensively and keep the games close. All it really takes is for some players like Garrett Richards, Cameron Maybin, C.J. Cron (if he is not traded), Matt Shoemaker, Cam Bedrosian, Tyler Skaggs, and Huston Street to either regain their full form or take it up another level in performance for this team to excel and consistently win games and series, particularly early in the season. The floor of this team is high enough to put them in the discussion for the Division race and if some players breakout they will be part of the National discussion too. There is some variability in total team performance that will ultimately decide the fate of the 2017 Angels squad.

FS: So long as Mike Trout manning center field, there’s always a chance the Angels can be a bigger part of the national conversation. (Sam Miller once estimated that placing Trout on any random team would instantly give them at least 60% playoff odds.) What continues to stand in the club’s way is their inability to build even an average roster around Trout.

Much of this is caused by the financial constraints mentioned above, which is how you get two straight years of an abysmal LF platoon when far more attractive options were available. But it is also the result of the organization’s barren farm system—ranked in the bottom five each of the last three seasons—and their nonexistence on the international market. With no money to add quality players in free agency, no options coming up the pipeline, and no resources spent on international players, the window in which the front office can operate becomes extremely narrow and limits the talent pool available to them.

I do think the roster compiled around Trout this winter has significantly more upside than either of the past two iterations, but I’m not convinced it’s the one to put them back on the national stage. Still feels like they’re one big arm away from contention.

HHQ: Mike Trout is the greatest player in baseball right now, and needs to become a thought in the playoffs. The only way the Angels can become in the national conversation in 2017 is if the pitching stays healthy. Last season it was a disaster, as the Angels fell apart early and never looked back. If Richards, Shoemaker can continue to lead that is great, however the pressure falls on the rest of the rotation. Which includes Ricky Nolasco, Jesse Chavez, and Tyler Skaggs. Skaggs is coming back from Tommy John which is always skeptical and Nolasco and Chavez have shown spurts of good traits. If The Angels can have a better than average performance from their starting five, the Angels offense can finish off the deal. 

C70: What is the strength of this team, besides Mike Trout?

HHv: Defense, defense, defense. Andrelton Simmons, Danny Espinosa, and Mike Trout is a pretty darn good place to start. Add in Kole Calhoun, a rangy Cameron Maybin/Ben Revere, and improving CJ Cron and you’ve got yourself (arguably) the best defense in the league. Baserunning is also much improved, but defense is going to be the identity of this team. 

AW: Team defense will be the Halos signature in 2017. This team will almost certainly be in the Top 5 defensively and perhaps could even be the best period. Having great defense will also help a rotation and bullpen that were decimated by injuries last year by helping to shorten innings via routine outs and double plays turned. One other strength this year will be team depth which has significantly improved across the board in every area which was another big reason why the Angels were so bad last year because they could not replace the production lost to the disabled list.

FS: Defense. Andrelton Simmons and Danny Espinosa up the middle are already being lauded as potentially the best double-play combination since Vizquel and Alomar dazzled in Cleveland. Kole Calhoun brings Gold Glove defense in right field, Maybin and Revere boast plus gloves in left, and Trout is Trout in center. Martin Maldonado is one of the better pitch framers in a league now full of them, and he and Carlos Perez both control the running game at an elite level.

The only defensive liabilities are on the infield corners. Albert Pujols can still pick it when he’s healthy, but he’s not. C.J. Cron and Yunel Escobar can’t field well on their best days, but should get some relief late in games in the way of Valbuena and Cliff Pennington.

HHQ: Besides Mike Trout, the Angels may have one of the best defenses in the MLB. If there’s one area the Angels absolutely, unequivocally improved this season, it’s their defense. Newcomers Cameron Maybin, Ben Revere, Danny Espinosa, Luis Valbuena, and Martin Maldonado are all plus defenders, and instantly upgrade the Angels’ defense. They’ll join Gold Glove winners Andrelton Simmons, Kole Calhoun, and Albert Pujols, (although he’s not expected to play a lot in the field this season,) and Gold Glove finalists Carlos Perez and Mike Trout. Even C.J. Cron showed a bit of improvement at first base last season, and third baseman Yunel Escobar is capable of making at least one fantastic play for every five times he botches a routine play.

C70: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?

HHv: CJ Cron, Tyler Skaggs, and Alex Meyer are all guys who can turn the corner, get red hot, and carry the team for stretches at a time if/when it all comes together. Watch out for Keynan Middleton and his high-90s fastball as he makes his MLB debut this year in the bullpen as well. Many people have made the mistake of sleeping on Kole Calhoun and they’ve all been wrong…so yeah, don’t do that either.

AW: Unheralded implies that the player has been under the radar for a while and with all of the new faces coming in it would be disrespectful to not focus on the players who have been with the team for a longer period of time so I will give you an example of a new guy and an established Angels player from the position players, rotation, and bullpen that may not be immediately obvious and why they should be watched.

For the position players I would point to our new LF Cameron Maybin and from the old guard I would select the reliable, and recently extended, RF Kole Calhoun. The former had a career season in 2016 and it appears to be related primarily to a mechanical fix in his swing from 2015 which the Angels now hope will translate to Anaheim so if Maybin can bring his above average defense along with his 2016 offensive production it could be quite an impact. Calhoun is not flashy but he is just an all-around solid player who will give you a great at-bat and does all of the little things that a good ballplayer should do which is why the team locked him up for another three years plus an option recently.

On the rotation side keep an eye on new-guy Vicente Campos who is recovering from a 2nd ulnar fracture but was once a highly regarded prospect that could touch the mid-90’s. If he can return to a semblance of his former self the Angels will have found a clean peanut that could significantly impact their season. Looking at the old timers keep an eye on former top prospect Tyler Skaggs. At one point in time he had one of the most
wicked curve balls in the game and if he comes back strong after his Tommy John Surgery watch out because he has front-of-the-rotation potential and could become a dominant member of the 2017 pitching staff. Finally in terms of the bullpen the often-waived Blake Parker has been pretty much lights-out over the last 4 years in the Minors for the Cubs and Mariners and now he will start the year in Salt Lake City for the Angels AAA affiliate but he will almost assuredly wind up in Anaheim at some point if he continues to throw up the gaudy numbers from recent seasons. From the old Angels side I am going to go out on a limb and catch some flak for highlighting the above average performance of Jose Alvarez. Jose has always been great against left-handed hitters but this year he also improved his peripherals against right-handed hitters as well. If not for some unusually high BABIP numbers he may have turned in an even greater performance. Alvarez has a career K%-BB% of 15% versus lefties and has started putting the ball on the ground more against right-handed hitters which, with Simmons playing behind him, should result in better numbers in 2017.

FS: Keynan Middleton. Former third-round pick got knocked around in his first three professional seasons—5.97 ERA in 221.2 IP over 47 starts—but immediately turned things around on converting to full-time relief in 2016. He flashed triple-digit heat and an improved slider out of the bullpen, compiling a 3.41 ERA and 32% K% across three levels, ending the year at Triple-A.

He’s still pretty raw, but if his 2017 starts off anything like the previous one he could force his way into Anaheim’s bullpen. Given the team’s lack of pitching depth, it shouldn’t take much for the team to at least give the 23-year-old a shot.

HHQ: He won’t be on the opening day roster, but soon will be joining the Angels bullpen and will make a sudden splash. Keynan Middleton. With a fastball that can touch triple digits and a wipe-out slider, Middleton has the raw talent to become one of the best relievers in all of baseball, a lofty high that seemed impossible not too long ago. Middleton has all the makings of an elite reliever, as he struck out eighty-eight batters in only sixty-six innings, an insane strikeout ratio. 

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

HHv: 86-76, good for the second wild card because of the Mariners. Again, depends on pitching health but if it doesn’t all implode, then this is a pretty fair assessment and it could go even higher if they make more improvements to the club which they are. 

AW: As noted above the Angels floor is high enough that it should take them into the 83-86 win range. What will determine their improvement or diminishment from that range lies primarily in the return to form of some of their key cogs such as Richards, Shoemaker, Skaggs, and Street among others. That variability in performance from those key players will play a large part in whether or not the Angels win or lose the Division this year.

FS: 84–78, good for third in the AL West.

HHQ: Last season, I made a prediction on your website, that the Angels would go 84 wins and 78 Losses. The Angels finished last season with a 74 and 88 record which makes my prediction from last year look a bit sour. However, times have changed and I’m ready to give it another go. The team will be asking a lot from each player this season, especially the pitching. The defense improved for the Angels, however the hitting (besides Mike Trout) and pitching stayed neutral. The AL West improved a lot this season, and it’s hard to see the Angels making a huge stride from last season. The Angels will finish the 2017 season with 81 wins and 81 losses, good for 4th in the league. 

C70: Who is your all-time favorite Angel and why?

HHv: Is this even a question? Mike Trout, hands down. He’s a legend already and it feels like he’s only getting started. 

AW: Trout is the easy answer to this one, he is an incredible athlete and baseball player and the things he can do on both sides of the ball is simply jaw-dropping to watch on a daily basis. We really are in the presence of a Hall of Fame talent and it is a real treat to watch.

Outside of that modern day answer I personally loved Brian Downing. He took what appeared to be an average baseball skill set and worked hard to be the best player he could be and for a period of time he was a dominant force for the Angels. Besides who doesn’t like a nerdy looking guy with glasses and a really cool batting stance crushing home runs out of Angels Stadium?

FS: All-time favorite Angel is Tim Salmon. I started following the team with gusto in 1993, his Rookie of the Year season, and was immediately taken in. I had a signed poster of him above my bed for years, and I still hold a grudge against Reggie Willits for popping out in the bottom of the 10th on October 1, 2006, which resulted in Salmon’s career literally ending in the on-deck circle.

HHQ: Tim Salmon: If you wanna talk about a clutch player, look no more further than “Mr. Angel” What I liked about Salmon first, was his dedication to the Angels. Salmon would spend all of his 14 seasons with the greatest team on this planet right? The Halos! Salmon would make his name known fast as he was awarded AL Rookie of the Year in 1993. However my greatest memory would be when he launched key home-runs in the World Series. Tim Salmon launched a two-run Home-Run in Game 2 to lead the Angels to victory. Tim Salmon was an all-around outstanding player and friend. 

Thanks to all these guys for giving us a little West Coast knowledge.  We’ll see how well 2017 treats their club!

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