Playing Pepper 2018: Los Angeles Angels

In 2009, before my second full season of blogging the Cardinals, I reached out to other bloggers to other teams to get insights on their clubs.  This year, instead of going through the teams alphabetically, we’ll approach it a little differently, spending a week with each division.  For the tenth straight season, get ready for the upcoming MLB season by playing a little pepper.  

Los Angeles Angels
80-82, second in AL West
Website | Twitter

Last year’s Pepper

Because they are out on the West Coast and play in the wrong league, I often don’t think much about the Angels.  (Perhaps it was a defense mechanism after Albert Pujols left as well.)  Yet the Angels always have something interesting going, whether it’s the best player in baseball or landing one of the biggest prizes of the offseason.  We’ve got three bloggers here today to let us know whether all of this talent and interest will pay off in 2018.

Writer Site Twitter
Rahul Setty Halos Heaven RahulSetty_
Nate Aderhold nate_ader
Vincent Page Halos Hangout VincentPage74

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? Did the club improve over the winter?

Rahul: With a lot of holes to fill this winter, the Angels were in a tricky position entering this offseason. They not only did the best they could but they aced it, in the end, by adding Justin Upton, Ian Kinsler, Zack Cozart, Rene Rivera, and of course, Shohei Ohtani. In conclusion, yes, they did improve.

Nate: I thought the Angels had a great offseason. They were, thankfully, one of the few teams this winter to miss the league-wide memo that spending market-rate money on players is bad praxis, and were rewarded as a result.

The retention of Justin Upton, the acquisitions of Zack Cozart and Ian Kinsler, and the good fortune of signing Shohei Ohtani provide the Angels with easily their most potent offense since 2014. Only three Angels regulars posted a 100 OPS+ or better last season: Upton, Andrelton Simmons, and Mike Trout. This year, thanks to the aforementioned offseason additions and the new hitter-friendly dimensions at the Big A, there’s a chance the entire starting nine posts above-average offensive numbers. When probably the worst everyday hitter in your lineup is an aging (though slimmed and allegedly healthy) Albert Pujols, things are looking up.

On the pitching side, the Angels again had the good fortune of signing Ohtani. It’s hard to fault the team for not adding any arms beyond the young superstar, seeing as how they have essentially an entire rotation returning from injury this spring. When there are ostensibly seven healthy MLB starters on the roster entering Cactus League play, convincing an eighth to join the fray probably isn’t easy. However, having literally anyone in the rotation (other than Ohtani) who hasn’t suffered a major injury to their throwing arm in the last year sure would be nice. Maybe if Lance Lynn is still available come May…

Vincent: I do believe the Angels not only improved, but are the most improved team going into 2018. Milwaukee and the Yankees are both teams you could argue for, but the Angels signed veterans to help them contend this year while also improving their farm system to a fringe top-ten unit. Not only did they add Shohei Ohtani, but they also added a couple players (Kevin Maitan, Logan Soto) from the Braves scandal. Billy Eppler really made his case as the best general manager in baseball this offseason.

C70: Which part of Shohei Ohtani’s game are you most excited to watch?

Rahul: Definitely the pitching side of it. Through the few pitching performances seen this spring, Ohtani has had electric, filthy stuff with an arsenal that few pitchers can match. I bet Pitcher Ohtani would strike out Hitter Ohtani, all day and every day.

Nate: While I’m generally excited to see everything Ohtani can do (including run the bases; don’t sleep on his speed), I’m most interested in the logistics of how he and the Angels plan to balance his workload over the course of the season. Playing 162 games in 184 days is a taxing and exhausting process for even part-time players. The reason we’ve not seen hitter/pitcher since Babe Ruth, other than the skill sets required, is because of the excessive toll it’s presumed to take. We know Ohtani won’t be in the lineup the day before or after he’s on the mound, but what about pinch-hitting late in those games? Come September, will it be worthwhile for the Angels to have Ohtani in the lineup at 80% if the result is he’s only at 70% for his next start? If it’s late in Game 161 and the Angels need a clutch hit to make the postseason, will they bring Ohtani off the bench even if he threw eight innings the previous day? These are questions I’m sure the Angels’ front office and coaching staff have been attempting to wrap their heads around for months, and since Ohtani’s the first two-way player in a century, they have no data to fall back on to answer those queries. Missteps are inevitable when navigating uncharted territory, so the Angels’ journey with Ohtani this season—balancing winning now vs protecting his future—should be a fascinating one to follow.

Vincent: I’m personally more excited for the pitching. I think that’s the general consensus in the baseball world, but it’s not hyperbolic to say he already has some of the best breaking balls in the MLB. His slider is nearly untouchable. It’s going to be interesting to see if he can avoid the similar injuries other Japanese pitchers have faced when coming to the states. The entire Ohtani experience has been awesome to cover and watch first hand, and I really think he pitches well this year. At the plate, I think we could see a tough learning curve in 2018. I’d guess .240 batting average with 10-12 home runs. 

C70: What’s one thing people may overlook (either positively or negatively) about this team?

Rahul: The Angels have a surprisingly large amount of starting pitching depth, knock on wood. Ohtani aside, Garrett Richards can go toe to toe with the best pitchers in the league, and both Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano are returning from UCL surgery. J.C. Ramirez is an innings eater, Parker Bridwell surprised last year, and Jaime Barria will be ready by midseason. I’m still waiting on the Tyler Skaggs breakout that hasn’t happened yet, but he certainly is a serviceable arm. The starting pitching *knock on wood* will not be a weakness.

Nate: With all the focus on the Angels’ implementation of a six-man rotation to circumvent potential injury pitfalls and workload concerns for their young and/or on-the-mend starters, I think it’s been easy to overlook how patchwork their bullpen is. Their equally hodgepodge relief corps was a surprise success in 2017, riding resurgent seasons from thirtysomethings David Hernandez, Bud Norris, Blake Parker, and Yusmiero Petit to the fifth-best bullpen ERA (and fourth-best FIP, whatever that’s worth) in the American League. But even if we could prove all four of those seasons were the result of sustainable improvements in skill set and not your annual flashes in the bullpen pan—hello, 2013 Dane De La Rosa—we’d still be left with the fact that, of that quartet, only Blake Parker is returning to Anaheim in 2018. That’s about 180 innings of quality relief out the door, roughly a third of their total 2017 bullpen output.

With no big names acquired to supplement those losses, the Angels will need a whole lot to break right to replicate last season’s bullpen success. Jose Alvarez will likely be serviceable as the team’s lone lefty reliever for the fourth year running, but beyond that the fate of the ‘pen is highly unpredictable. Not only does the team need now-closer Parker to maintain his sudden success, but also for young guys like Cam Bedrosian, Keynan Middleton, and Eduardo Paredes to put together full MLB seasons and for buy-low pickups Jim Johnson, Blake Wood, and Noe Ramirez to not completely blow up in their face. GM Billy Eppler has shown it’s possible to build a strong bullpen from proverbial scraps, but it remains to be seen whether that’s a reliable strategy for success year in and year out.

Vincent: Nobody is paying attention to the extension of Justin Upton. It was probably the most underrated move of the offseason, but to finally have a true slugger, not Albert Pujols, in the lineup behind Mike Trout is going to do wonders for the Halos offense. A full season of Trout and Upton together is going to be fun to watch, and we may see a career year from both of them. 

C70: Who is the one key player, the guy that must have a good year for the Angels to do well?

Rahul: I’m going to go with Garrett Richards, who has not pitched often the past two seasons. When he has, he has been among the best pitchers in baseball. Even just three months of Richards will make a world of difference.

Nate: If we’re not omitting Mike Trout, it’s Mike Trout. His reliable 8+ wins every year are the only reason the Angels have a shot at the playoffs. If we’re omitting Mike Trout? Then its Garrett Richards.

Richards is the linchpin of the Angels’ rotation. If he’s out for any prolonged period of time, the whole wheel is likely to come off. With Richards on the mound every fifth (or sixth) day, that means fewer innings and less pressure on: 1) Tyler Skaggs, Andrew Heaney, and Nick Tropeano, who are all still in the nascent stages of their Tommy John recoveries; 2) Matt Shoemaker and J.C. Ramirez, who both underwent TJ-adjacent procedures on their throwing arms late in 2017; and 3) Shohei Ohtani, who’s only trying to be the first two-way player in a century—no big deal. With Richards out, the likelihood of a ripple effect down the rest of the staff increases exponentially. Richards doesn’t even need to be particularly good this year for the Angels to do well, he just needs to be healthy. With major injuries sidelining him long-term in three of the past four seasons, that’s a bigger ask than one might think.

Vincent: There’s the obvious guys, Trout, Upton, Ohtani. However, I think the one guy who is going to dictate the Angels success the most is Garrett Richards. Last time we saw him pitch the majority of a season, he was an ace. Last year in his limited time, he showed he still has that ace material. While Ohtani is special, Richards is the guy who has to come in and show that he is the #1 pitcher for the Angels. He definitely has the ability to do it, he just has to remain available this season. 

C70: What’s your projection for 2018? Where does the team wind up overall?

Rahul: 90 wins and second in the division to the pesky Astros. They will be midseason buyers and end up with a wild card.

Nate: If the injury bug abates, I see the Angels with a shot at a 90-win season. That should be good enough for an AL Wild Card spot.

Vincent: My prediction for them is that they travel to Boston for the American League Wild Card. Houston is as much as a juggernaut as we’ve seen in modern baseball. However, the rest of the Angels division is weak, and the Halos should see their record get a boost because of that. I think they can go into Boston and win that game, but in the playoffs you never know. 

C70: What’s one question I should have asked and what’s the answer to it?

Rahul: Definitely about the farm system. Often the punching bag, the Angels farm system has seen a revitalization over the past two years to better talent evaluation and player development. The Angels don’t have any eye-popping superstars in their affiliates quite yet, but they have a semblance of maturing young talent, which isn’t something that could be said previously.

Nate: The one question you should have asked is: Will Mike Scioscia‘s 19th season as manager of the Angels be his final one? The reason it wasn’t asked is probably that no one knows the answer. I feel confident saying that the Angels are definitely going to try offering Scioscia a new contract at some point in 2018 no matter how the team is performing. Arte Moreno has only ever worked with one manager in his 15 years as owner, and he’s gotta know that any new manager is just going to beget another new manager, and so on—and probably every three years, not every two decades. Whether Scioscia will accept the team’s inevitable offer is anyone’s guess. I could see the team doing well and Scioscia deciding to leave on a high note, doing poorly and him deciding to stick it out for one more shot at glory, or anything in between. My vote would be for him to stay in Anaheim, but then again I also couldn’t imagine staying in the same job for 20 years, so I wouldn’t begrudge him if he wants out.

Vincent: Two things I’m really excited to watch this year: the six-man rotation and Mike Trout. With Ohtani and the Angels history with injuries to their starters, I think the six-man rotation is going to be phenomenal for them. With Trout, he was having his best season ever before his injury last year. And now, he has what is probably the most talented team he’s ever had around him. I really believe he’s going to have his best year ever, and take home his third MVP Award along with his first postseason series win. 

It feels like it’s about time for an Angels run, doesn’t it?  We’ll see how the season develops but likely nothing they’ll do will top what’s coming in 2019 for Cardinals fans, when Pujols returns to Busch Stadium for the first time.  I bet 2018 has its own highlights, though!

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