After landing infielders Ian Kinsler and Zack Cozart over the past two days, the Los Angeles Angels look as if they are headed to the postseason in 2018. Given the avalanche of acquisitions the Halos have made since the season ended, that makes their general manager, Billy Eppler, the early favorite for American League Executive of the Year. It will be a resurgent year in Orange County …
If Shohei Ohtani is healthy and lives up to his billing. Landing Ohtani was a watershed moment in the history of the Angels and there isn’t a team in the majors that wouldn’t have celebrated the signing of the super-talented 23-year-old two-way star. But Ohtani has to prove his raw talent translates to the big leagues, and he has to prove that his elbow is sound enough to head up a rotation in need of an ace.
If stick-a-fork-in-him Albert Pujols doesn’t leak even more value from being required to play first base more often to make room at DH for Ohtani.
If Andrelton Simmons can retain some of the offensive gains made in 2017, when his .752 OPS was 65 points better than his career average.
If Cozart’s defensive value holds up at third base, which seems like a pretty good bet because you always like a shortstop’s chances to hold down other infield positions, and Cozart has consistently put up positive defensive metrics through his career. Still, he’ll be 32 and playing for a franchise other than Cincinnati for the first time. Plus, his debut at third base for the Angels next season will be his first appearance at the hot corner in the majors or minors. L.A. needs Cozart’s defensive value to hold up because his OPS during last year’s career season at the plate (.933) was 217 points better than his big league norm. He might not give all of that back but, then again, Cozart is a post-peak player entering a harsher offensive environment than the one he enjoyed at Great American Ballpark.
If the lineup isn’t too right-handed. Right fielder Kole Calhoun could be the only lefty-hitting everyday player, depending on how often Ohtani is in the lineup and how often last year’s primary third baseman, Luis Valbuena, gets to play.
If the rotation enjoys a semblance of health. Asking manager Mike Scioscia to pull off the same kind of juggling act he did last season is tough. Ohtani is already an injury question mark. Matt Shoemaker threw just 77⅔ innings last season. Garrett Richards has made a total of 12 starts over the past two years. Tyler Skaggs missed all of the 2015 season, started 10 games in 2016 and spent much of 2017 battling an oblique injury. JC Ramirez had stem cell treatment after the season for a damaged ligament in his pitching elbow. You get the idea.
If Parker Bridwell doesn’t turn into a pumpkin. Because his peripherals suggest that he might.
If the back end of the bullpen holds up. And it might, thanks to breakout 2017 performer Blake Parker, hopes for a healthier Cam Bedrosian and the signing of former Brave Jim Johnson, who had a long-ball problem last season for Atlanta.
If Kinsler isn’t ready to fall off a cliff. After all, this is a middle infielder who turns 36 in June and lost 106 points of OPS in 2017. It might have just been an BABIP issue — he dipped to .244. Still, you have to worry at his age that his spike in walk rate suggests a slowing bat as it sometimes does. On the bright side, Kinsler’s defense still graded out well above average, even if his defensive runs saved total dipped into single digits.
If the outfield defense holds up. Even though Kinsler is slowing and Cozart isn’t quite as impactful at a new position, a healthy Angels team should have one of the best infield defenses in baseball. Los Angeles is also well situated in right, where Calhoun is consistently better than average and a reliable source of highlight reel fodder. Justin Upton has been a consistent performer on both outfield corners. But in center field … we must float a sacrilegious possibility. What if Mike Trout really is more like the minus-6 DRS defender he was last season than the plus-6 he was the season before that? His downturn was backed up by Statcast, where he rated as four plays below average. Just sayin’.
If Upton doesn’t wilt under pressure from his newly extended contract. Simmons, Cozart and Upton all enjoyed career seasons at the plate in 2017. Upton seems less likely to regress based on his career numbers, even though his OPS did jump from .775 to .901. But his career mark is .828. However, that .775 mark in 2016 was the lowest Upton has had since his rookie season and it came on the heels of the six-year deal he signed in January of that year. That deal is the one the Angels extended this winter.
If there isn’t too much age in the lineup. The Angels’ average lineup age, weighted for playing time, will be roughly 30.3 years old, which projects to be one of the two or three oldest lineups it the American League. With age comes injuries, defensive issues, offensive declines and such that aren’t always something you can forecast.
Yeah, that’s a lot of ifs.
To list all of these possible problems might seem unfairly Pollyannaish. For one thing, you could list the expected regulars for just about any team and paint a similar picture by hunting for what-ifs. The Angels don’t need to sidestep all the items on this to-do to contend for the postseason. And if they answer all the above concerns in a positive fashion, it could be a great summer for them.
However, there’s a reason I went this route when critiquing the Angels’ maneuvering. In general, when you’re plugging the holes with a cluster of free agents, you are acquiring enviable track records, but also the likelihood that you are bringing in players who have already done their best work. The current best example of this in the majors might be Pujols. The end result is a fair amount of embedded downside.
Fans and many analysts get very excited when GMs construct a lineup full of familiar names, players we know and can envision doing the great things that we’ve seen them do in seasons past. Yet teams built in this way tend to end up not being as good as we think they’re going to be. There’s a reason why free agency has fallen out of favor among many team architects. So whatever number I eventually land on for the Angels’ preseason wins forecast, if I were a betting person, I’d bet the under.
The wild card in all of this is Ohtani, who doesn’t fit the profile of the type of acquisition to which I refer. If he really does burst onto the major league scene as an ace starter, and if he really does add significant value with his bat, then that in itself might alleviate enough of the above concerns to allow the Angels to hit their forecast. And that forecast, while it’s still a rough approximation, anoints L.A. as the clear front-runner for the AL’s second wild-card slot, although the Angels remain a tier below the AL’s power quartet of the Yankees, Indians, Astros and Red Sox.
Eppler has done a lot of good work since he started running things for the Angels and this offseason has been no different. Any team with Trout on it, three years away from free agency, better be trying to win now. Since Eppler took over an organization that had a huge financial albatross in Pujols and a farm system that was rated at the bottom of the big leagues, these are the kinds of moves he has to make.
So far, Eppler’s track record gives him the benefit of the doubt. I’ll be excited to watch the 2018 Angels. First, you always love to watch Trout and, second, like everyone my curiosity about Ohtani is off the charts. Still, my expectations of the Angels outlook might be a little more temperate than most. But don’t let that get you down. At the very least, the Angels are exponentially more interesting than they were at the beginning of the offseason.