Playing Pepper 2019: Los Angeles Angels

Every year since 2009, I’ve spent some time before the season starts trying to find out what fanbases are thinking about their team.  It’s so easy to get myopic, especially with Twitter, so it’s a good chance for us (and by us, I mean me) to take a step back and remember there are 29 other Major League Baseball teams.  We’ve got current bloggers, former bloggers that indulge me still, and this year a few media folks chiming in as well.  Get out the bat, ball, and glove: it’s time once again to play some pepper.

Los Angeles Angels
80-82, fourth in the AL West
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

For Cardinal fans, putting the Angels and 2019 into the same sentence means only one thing: Albert Pujols is returning to Busch Stadium.  However, there’s much more to the Angels than just a (sadly) aging superstar.  The AL West is a tough division and there’s no doubt that, one of these days, Mike Trout really should play in the postseason.  Will that be 2019?  We’ve got some writers and Pepper veterans here to fill us in about LA’s AL team.

Writer Site Twitter
Vincent Page Halos Hangout VincentPage74
Kristen Bentley Call to the Pen kris10bentley
Nate Aderhold nate_ader

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? What was good, what was bad, what else should they have done?

Vincent: I was a huge fan of the offseason for Billy Eppler and Co. A lot of fans were hoping for a long term deal for a star, and obviously a Mike Trout extension would have been nice. However, the one-year deals were a great strategy. This team has the potential to make the playoffs, and filling out the holes in the lineup and bullpen is going to pay dividends. The additions of Matt Harvey and Trevor Cahill to the rotation could both prove to be super valuable, especially if Harvey continues the improvement we saw in Cincinnati last year. 

Kristen: I think the Angels needed to get GOOD pitching, not mediocre pitching. They need an ace and don’t have one. They also have way too many people who can play second to be a lights-out double-play partner with Simmons. That didn’t happen either. The Lucroy signing was probably the best thing, but he doesn’t make the team a playoff team. 

Nate: Like the vast majority of baseball fans, I found the 2019 offseason incredibly underwhelming. Was this free agent class over-hyped? Probably. Does that explain the complete inaction by most teams? Not at all.

The Angels were among the mass of big-market teams to mostly sit out the winter, spending roughly $35 million total on five MLB free agents, all for one-year deals. The largest of those deals went to Matt Harvey ($11m), Trevor Cahill ($9m), and Cody Allen ($8.5m), replenishing a pitching staff depleted by injury (Shohei Ohtani, J.C. Ramirez, Keynan Middleton, Blake Wood) and free agency/designation (Garrett Richards, Matt Shoemaker, Blake Parker). Leaning on sustained bouncebacks from oft-injured veteran starters like Harvey and Cahill in an attempt to bolster a 2018 rotation that ultimately watched three arms undergo Tommy John surgery and another three come back from it is certainly one way to go about roster-building, though I’m not sure it would be my first choice.

As of this writing, Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez are still available if anyone wants to pay them. Both pitchers have displayed exponentially better health over the course of their careers than either Harvey or Cahill, but for whatever reason the Angels and everyone else has decided they are spoiled goods. Never mind, apparently, that the Angels’ payroll still sits nearly $40 million under the new CBT threshold, gotta stick to that arbitrary budget. It’s an unfortunate circumstance, especially considering ~$25 million more could have netted them Yasmani Grandal ($16m), Keuchel, and Gonzalez instead of Jonathan Lucroy ($3.35m), Harvey, and Cahill.

C70: Albert Pujols comes to Busch Stadium for the first time since 2011 this season, so obviously Cardinal fans are focused on that. Will he be healthy for that series and what kind of season do you think he’ll have?

Vincent: Albert Pujols, according to the team, is on pace for Opening Day. Obviously there’s no telling how long he can stay healthy given his age, but I think there’s reason to have optimism for Pujols in 2019. The team brought in Justin Bour to play first, so Pujols will be the everyday DH until Shohei Ohtani returns. After that a platoon is likely for Bour and Pujols at first. One thing worth noting is Brad Ausmus said production will be what keeps players in the lineup. If Pujols takes another step back this year, he could find himself as a reserve before that trip to St. Louis. 

Kristen: I just watched Pujols hit an infield single at a spring training game on Sunday in Tempe. He looked fit and ready to play. Cards fans will be so happy to see him. It’s so hard to predict injuries, but if he can stay injury-free, he should have a typical season. 

Nate: I hope that Albert is healthy enough to play first base when the Angels visit St. Louis in late June, and that he gets a long standing ovation from the crowd each night. As for his season as a whole, well… if he’s healthy enough to play first base when the Angels visit the Cardinals and he does get a long standing ovation, I see that being the high point. Unfortunately, there’s really no place to go but down for a 39-year-old coming off of elbow and knee surgeries who has already hit all the Hall of Fame milestones within his grasp.

I imagine he’ll get the bulk of starts at 1B or DH until Shohei Ohtani returns to the lineup. Once Ohtani returns, I imagine Pujols will begin splitting time with Justin Bour, taking all the starts against LHPs and some against RHPs. As for whether he’ll be content in a part-time role for his final three seasons under contract, I can see two scenarios playing out: one in which he accepts the role and transitions into a sort of player/coach like Ichiro or Jason Giambi did, and one in which he hangs up his cleats before his career batting average dips under .300. With his average now hovering at .302 and dropping by roughly 4 points per season, that decision looms.

Who knows, maybe it’ll time out perfectly with the Angels’ visit to St. Louis.

C70: Mike Trout’s contract ends at the end of next season. Is that an issue for Angels fans?

Vincent: Everything the team does, one of the initial thoughts for me is how it might affect Trout’s possible extension. I wouldn’t necessarily call it an issue, it’s not comparable to Anthony Davis’ situation and unless Trout comes out and demands a trade, he will finish the 2020 season as an Angels player. There is also cautious optimism that he and the Angels reach an agreement for a long term extension. 

Kristen: Yes. It’s going to be a struggle to watch his offensive and defensive performance paired with their lack of pitching. No one wants to lose Trout, but the Best Player on the Planet needs to be in the playoffs and the Angels team isn’t getting him there. 

Nate: Mike Trout’s contract ending after the 2020 season is the Angels’ personal Sword of Damocles. So long as Mike Trout is on the roster, the Angels operate from a position of power that no other team in baseball can rival—Trout gives the Halos a bigger head start toward a postseason berth than any player since Barry Bonds. However, the longer the team fails to capitalize on Trout’s excellence, the more perilous holding onto that advantage becomes.

The specter of that sword finally dropping gets more terrifying by the day. Bryce Harper has officially been a member of the Philadelphia Phillies for less than a week and he’s already making not-so-veiled ovations to Trout. Coupled with the aforementioned milquetoast offseason, repeated in-season mediocrity, and the rumor of the Angels “considering” an (embarrassingly low) extension offer of 10 years and $350 million, circumstances serve only to heighten this impending sense of doom.

Following an unsettling trend among MLB owners, Arte Moreno now seems less interested in investing what’s necessary to put together a winning team on the field than in revenue-generating activities that are only tangentially related to baseball. Whether he’s negotiating stadium possibilities with Long Beach, entertainment centers in Anaheim, or network purchases with Fox Sports, the end goal is the same: profit. This is to be expected, of course—it is a business after all, the argument goes—but at what point are we, as fans and consumers, allowed to draw a line? Can an owner who suggested lowering the luxury tax threshold (lmao) during the last Collective Bargaining negotiations despite record league revenues really be trusted to spend off-the-field money on the on-the-field product when there’s no direct incentive to do so? What responsibility is there for owners to put their best possible team on the field? (see also: Vlad Jr.)

A legitimate, record-shattering offer to Trout—i.e. the offer he deserves—would go a long way toward re-building trust that Moreno still has any interest in what every fan ultimately wants from their lifetime investment in any sports franchise: a winning team. Until that happens, I’m going to continue having nightmares about the 2021 Long Beach Angels starting Mallex Smith in center field.

C70: What is your general outlook for 2019? Where will they finish in the division?

Vincent: 2019 could go a variety of ways, but I think the Angels are a legitimate threat for the Wild Card in the American League. Houston is still the odds on favorite for the AL West, but for the Wild Card the Angels have hope. The two spots will likely come down to the Angels, Athletics, Twins, and Rays, as the second place team in the AL East is sure to host the game. With the Rangers a non-factor, Seattle beginning a rebuild, and Oakland taking a step back, there is an opening for the Angels to finish second in the West. 

Kristen: They won’t top the Astros – they’re still a complete team that actually got better with Michael Brantley and Wade Miley. But, they could finish second or third. The Rangers and Mariners shouldn’t be much of an issue. But, the A’s are never easy to predict. 

Nate: Sadly, the Angels yet again appear to be set up for a season of mediocrity. PECOTA projects the team to finish 80–82 for the third consecutive season, while ZiPS projects a relatively bullish 82–80. I think they’ll split the difference and finish exactly 81–81, behind the Astros and A’s.

C70: What’s the biggest question for this team going into the season and what’s the answer to it?

Vincent: The biggest question for this team is whether or not the rotation will be enough to get them over the hump. Andrew Heaney and Tyler Skaggs are the two leaders, and they both need to prove they can be one of the better lefty duos in the MLB. 

Kristen: What will the pitching do? There’s no doubt that there is plenty of offense and defense, but the pitching. Oy vey!

Nate: The biggest question (outside of Mike Trout’s potential contract extension and Shohei Ohtani’s health) is what a season without Mike Scioscia at the helm will bring. The Angels didn’t stray too far from home in hiring a young former light-hitting catcher to manage the team, but it’s still a big change that will take some time to get used to.

Will Brad Ausmus breathe new life into the team and/or be given credit for such when they exceed expectations? Will he fall into the same predictable in-game patterns that plagued him throughout his tenure with the Tigers, earning the ire of fans who called for Scioscia’s head a decade ago? The early returns are a bit weird so far, but seem to at least somewhat belie the “old school’ and “orthodox” labels he was branded with in Detroit. If the Angels are still “in it” at the All-Star break, I can see Ausmus earning himself some grace with fans. If they stumble hard out of the gate, though, watch out.

C70: What do you expect will give you the most joy watching this team on a regular basis this season?

Vincent: I think what’ll give me the most joy is the young guys. For year the Angels have had an awful farm system, but Billy Eppler has made that a focus of improvement, and this will be the year it starts paying dividends to the big league roster.

Kristen: There’s nothing quite like watching Mike Trout make defensive plays – especially when he throws runners out from the farthest reaches of center field. I also love watching Justin Upton at the plate – he clearly has fun. Of course, Albert Pujols is a gift from the baseball gods, too.

Nate: Without question, watching Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani hit back-to-back in the lineup. For my money, they are the two most exciting players in baseball. No matter how the rest of the team is doing, it’s always a joy to watch those two play.

I appreciate everyone taking a little time to fill us in about the Angels.  There’s a lot of different storylines around this team, which at least keeps them interesting!

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