Playing Pepper 2023: Los Angeles Angels

If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition.  (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.)  Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper!  This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams.  Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper!  If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!

Los Angeles Angels
73-89, third in the AL West
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Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by fWAR: Shohei Ohtani (5.6)
Top hitter by fWAR: Mike Trout (6.0)

For a team that has problems contending in a while, there are going to be a lot of eyes on the Angels this year.  With the ownership situation fluctuating (though currently Arte Moreno seems to be staying put) and Shohei Ohtani closing in on free agency, there are plenty of storylines to choose from.  What does this season hold for the club?  Let’s see what the fans say!

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Jon Frisch Locked On Angels LockedOnAngels
Nick Wright Halfway Around The Halo LAAngelsUK

C70: The track of the Angels seemed to shift late in January with the announcement that Arne Moreno was going to keep the team. What are your thoughts about how the winter went overall and where the club stands as 2023 opens?

Jon: Man, Perry Minasian has quickly become my favorite GM since Bill Stoneman. While Arte Moreno recently revealed in an interview with Tom Verducci that he approached Perry about signing Trea Turner, Miniasian might have been the first GM to help Arte understand that one splashy free-agent signing is not going to address the needs of the team. What Perry ended up doing was addressing a serious lack of depth with the Angels, a problem that was all too obvious in 2022. When you lose someone like Anthony Rendon to injury and your replacement is Jose Rojas from AAA (who? haha), you immediately go from Tier A to Tier D. That won’t be the case this year. Perry Minasian has stocked this team with capable Major-League talent in the likes of Brandon Drury, Hunter Renfroe, and Gio Urshela. Tyler Anderson helps solidify a rotation led by our ace, Shohei Ohtani, and young arms like Patrick Sandoval and Reid Detmers who took major steps forward last year. The bullpen might be the biggest question mark, but the arms they do have, have added, and those waiting in the wings in the minors give the Angels plenty of options this season. 

Nick: I think you have to separate the saga of the potential sale of the club, with how the offseason went overall. In terms of the ownership it was a bitter disappointment for a lot of Angels fans that Arte Moreno announced that he was no longer intending to sell the team. After failing to put a winning product on the field for many years, a minor league and development system that has consistently been ranked towards the very bottom of the major leagues for some time and the stadium and infrastructure in real need of urgent upgrades, it’s no surprise that many Angels fans have felt frustrated at the direction of the team. High-priced free agent signings haven’t worked out and a reluctance to go over the luxury tax has left the team feeling as if it was always a few good players short. There was plenty of excitement at the prospect of new owners so it remains to be seen how patient fans will be this year if things do not get off to a good start.

However, what we’ve seen this offseason is a complete reworking of the depth of the club and things are certainly looking promising. Moreno said in an interview last week that he asked about making a splash for Trea Turner but instead the Angels GM Perry Minasian convinced him to spread the budget more evenly. With this approach we have seen moves for Hunter Renfroe, Gio Urshela, Brandon Drury, Tyler Anderson, Carlos Estevez and Matt Moore amongst others. Renfroe brings more legitimate power to the lineup, Urshela and Drury boost the infield depth, while Anderson coming off a career year is a boost to a rotation to pair with Shohei Ohtani, Patrick Sandoval and Reid Detmers. It’s a roster filled with talent and guys like Taylor Ward and Luis Rengifo have the potential to further break out this year. We were optimistic going into last season and got burnt by it, but this is certainly the strongest the roster has looked in years going into a season and I am very happy with the moves that Minasian has made over the winter. As ever though, this team is reliant on the health of Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani.

C70: With his free agency looming, the attention on Shohei Ohtani isn’t going to be limited to his on-the-field heroics. What does this year hold for the superstar?

Jon: Angel fans are going to have to block out a lot of nonsense and speculation on Shohei Ohtani’s future, especially from the media and fans of other teams this year. It’s fine to speculate, but the truth of the matter is that Shohei has not indicated anything in terms of his future decision, whether that’s to keep playing in Anaheim or seek a contract from another team. No matter what, Ohtani is going to get PAID, and the Angels will certainly do everything they can to keep him. As far as Ohtani’s 2023, I believe that this will be his best season yet. in his MVP 2021 season, he was a hitting machine, and in 2022, he had his best season on the mound. Will he put both of those together in 2023? I think so. His goal in 2023 is to make the argument for MVP undisputable; there won’t be any doubt that he is the one to earn it this year. As far as his own thoughts on 2023, Shohei has made it clear that he wants to win with the Angels, and he has his sights set on what’s right in front of him: the 2023 season.

Nick: Understandably the issue of Ohtani’s free agency has been ramping up over the past year, from the trade deadline and the Angels decision not to sell, not going into his contract year and seemingly set to test the market. He’s going to get the biggest contract in baseball history when all is said and done, but where that contract comes from is yet to be seen. I will tell you now though, I will be absolutely shocked if Shohei Ohtani doesn’t claim his second MVP award this year. A superstar, in his contract year, coming off the back of a year in which he will feel aggrieved not to have won any major awards, with a burning desire for success. I think he’s going to put in a CY Young calibre season on the mound, and bounce back with 40 Homeruns. It’s going to be the greatest season we’ve ever seen.

C70: Anthony Rendon hasn’t been able to stay healthy since coming to the Angels, playing in only 157 games the last three years combined. Is there any expectation that 2023 will be better and, if he’s on the field, what do you expect to get from him?

Jon: Ah, Tony Two-Bags, Tony Two-Hips, Tony Two-Wrists… the man has had his share of injuries over the last two years that have severely held him back. What’s truly a shame is that he was top ten in AL MVP voting in 2020, albeit in a shortened pandemic season. Now that the Angels have the depth they need to handle injury issues, I imagine they can be a little more cautious with Rendon this year, meaning, Brandon Drury and Gio Urshela can step in at 3rd base when he needs a day off. The truth is, when he’s good, the Angels are good, and the stats back it up. Rendon may not have had the flashy stat line in 2022, but he delivered when it mattered, hitting .500 in 18 at-bats with 2 outs and runners in scoring position, including a 1.167 OPS in those situations. With Rendon batting cleanup behind Taylor Ward, Mike Trout, and Shohei Ohtani, you can expect a lot of RBIs, extra-base hits, and patient approaches at the plate when needed. The key is health. Can he stay on the field this year? Angel fans hope so. Rendon hopes so. While being interviewed in Spring Training, he was asked what his goal was this year. His answer? “To not need another surgery.” That’s our wish too! 

Nick: Yeah, the Rendon health situation has been a major frustration for the franchise but also Anthony himself. It is hard to have too many expectations considering what we’ve seen since he came over to Anaheim with that massive contract, but he has looked good in spring and more importantly, healthy. If we are to be optimistic and assume that he will be healthy then Rendon is going to play a major part in any success that this team has this year. He brings so much to the lineup batting behind Trout and Ohtani and has the potential to make this one of the best hitting lineups in the majors. His defense could also be valuable as third base has been a revolving door for the Halos the last few years and we need some stability and consistent performance from the position.

C70: What rookie (or player with limited MLB experience) will have the largest impact on this season for the Angels?

Jon: At the trade deadline last year, the Angels surprised their fans by moving Brandon Marsh to the Phillies. While he enjoyed a trip to the postseason, the Angels had another October at home. However, the return for Brandon Marsh? Catcher Logan O’Hoppe. O’Hoppe immediately became the number-one prospect in the Angels’ system, and he had a cup of coffee in the Majors at the end of last year. In 2023, all signs are pointing to him receiving the starting catcher spot out of camp, sharing time with veteran Max Stassi, who took a step backward both offensively and defensively last year. In fact, while Stassi has often been paired with Shohei Ohtani on almost a personal catcher level, O’Hoppe caught many of Shohei’s bullpens in Spring, indicating that the Angels’ front office would like to see O’Hoppe in games where Shohei is starting on the mound. This is a strong indication that the Halos have big plans for O’Hoppe, who’s got the power to drive the ball into the gap all the way to the wall. There are lots of extra-base hits expected from O’Hoppe, who’s still very young and has the ability to add more power over his career. His defense behind the dish is solid too, with his blocking ability and lateral movement being particularly strong. The Angels might have a new Buster Posey on their hands.

Nick: I think Angels top prospect Logan O’Hoppe is the right answer here. He got a cup of coffee at the back end of last season and he didn’t look out of place, after coming over from the Phillies in the Brandon Marsh trade at the deadline. This spring he’s had a chance to work with all of the Angels pitchers and will be given every opportunity to establish himself as both the Angels catcher of the future but also the present. The combination he has of hit tool and some power means he could be a valuable asset for many years to come, alongside his ability behind the plate. I am very excited to see him playing every day, and while he may start the season in a timeshare with Max Stassi, I’m certain he will soon work his way into an every day role.

C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?

Jon: The best-case scenario for this Angels team is a healthy season from their superstars: Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon, and, of course, Shohei Ohtani. This is a 90+ win team on paper, but games aren’t played on paper. That being said, the additions of depth pieces will no longer necessitate the Angels reaching for stale, cold french fries at the bottom of the waiver wire bag. Instead, they’ll have capable players keeping them in games and playoff chases should any of their superstars succumb to injury. Hunter Renfroe will have a 6th consecutive season of nearly 30 home runs as the number-five hitter in the lineup. Taylor Ward will move to left field and not have any walls to run into that hamper his swing at the plate. Jared Walsh, no longer dealing with injury, will return to 2021 form and be hitting in the 7th spot rather than the 5th spot as in years past. The narrative that “the Angels need pitching!!” will be put to rest when other teams’ fanbases realize that they’ve run into stud pitchers like Patrick Sandoval and Reid Detmers.

The worst case for the Angels this year? Falling out of the playoff chase. Not only is this team built to make the playoffs, but they need to stay in the hunt all season long, especially at the Trade Deadline. I’d venture to say that even if they are .500 at the deadline, they need to go all in with Shohei Ohtani still on this roster. What’s the threshold for “absolutely no chance at the Playoffs?” Well, let’s just say I’m glad I’m not the one who has to draw that line in the sand, because if that line is drawn, we will likely see a Shohei Ohtani trade. The worst-possible scenario for the Angels is to fall apart and miss the playoffs once again, especially with more Wildcard spots open.

The most likely scenario for these Halos? They can nab one of the 3 American League Wildcard spots. The Astros are still the top of this division, and while the Angels are more competitive than they’ve been in years, Houston is a big hurdle. Am I sweating the Mariners? No, not when we went 10-9 against them last year with a stars and scrubs lineup and the fact that 4-5 of those games came with no Mike Trout due to injury. Did the Rangers get better? Absolutely, yes. But their rotation, despite its experience, has its health issues, and the offense could use more improvement. The truth is, the Angels went 27-17 to start the season with a lineup containing Matt Duffy hitting cleanup and Tyler Wade playing SS/2nd base. Both of those guys are on minor-league deals this year with other teams. Andrew Velazquez played 124 games at shortstop in 2022 and sat under the Mendoza line. There’s a chance he might not make the Major League club out of Spring Training despite his solid defensive glove; there’s just not enough room for him with the depth they’ve added. David Fletcher, who’s been an everyday starter in the past, figures to be the 3rd or 4th option at shortstop this year. Luis Rengifo, who took a major step forward last year hitting .264 with 17 home runs will be the 9-hole hitter.

This is a very different Angels team than the last few years. I know everyone likes to buy into the Angels and then gets disappointed year after year, but don’t let the lack of big, splashy, Trey Turner-esque free-agent signings fool you; this is a team that is built to withstand injury, added Major-League depth, and has a solid rotation that many people won’t see coming. The urgency is there, the enthusiasm is there. Now, it’s time to go play some ball and show everyone who the Angels are.

Nick: The best case is that we have a healthy season with full years of Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon, and with the additions mentioned earlier this leads the Angels into the post season. Realistically it’s going to be very tough to challenge the Astros who are in a league of their own in the American League right now but there is certainly no reason why a healthy Angels roster can’t challenge the Mariners for second place in the division and a wild card spot. And once we are in who knows…I think this is a team designed for post season success with a true ace and some very good young pitching behind Shohei.

Worst case is we continue to lose games, another year of struggles with the injury bug hitting hard and the Angels failing to make any progress in closing the gap in the division. A losing season surely means Shohei Ohtani will be playing somewhere else next year

A likely scenario I think is that this team is better than it has been the last few years but just misses out on the post-season due to the strong division we are likely to see this year in the West.

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