Thanks to the feats of the Astros and AL Wild Card winners, we get to a legitimately non-horrible team fairly early in this series of elegies. That’s due in large part, of course, to the fact it’s almost impossible for a club to be very bad when Mike Trout occupies a spot on their roster — even if that team occasionally tries. But math is math and the Angels headed to the numerical woodshed at a fairly early date.
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The overarching theme of the Angels over the last seven years has been the team’s inability to build a winner around the greatest player in franchise history, a player who has already become an inner-circle Hall of Famer based on peak performance. Trout’s already passed the bus test, and if he happened to take a bus to Hudson Bay and never returned — I’m tired of theoreticals in which we kill great players with mass-transit accidents — he’d be inducted into Cooperstown via the Addie Joss Exception.
The Angels can, without straining credulity, blame some of their misfortunes on bad luck — especially to the annual rash of injuries that inevitably infect their rotation. But to steal a phrase from Branch Rickey, luck is the residue of design, and given the uncertainty about some of the pitchers who have populated the club’s 40-man roster in recent years, the organization ought probably to have overprovisioned that part of the team, something they really haven’t done.
Los Angeheim’s farm system hasn’t generally been strong enough to add starting pitching of value to the team, which leaves money as the primary method of adding someone who can hopefully provide serviceable innings. The last starting pitcher signed in MLB free agency by the club was C.J. Wilson.
The team was more aggressive about addressing their holes this offseason, extending Justin Upton, signing Zack Cozart and Shohei Ohtani, and trading for Jim Johnson and Ian Kinsler. This was a set of moves I really liked, though they didn’t all pay off, but I really had been hoping the Angels would go after one of the few interesting starting pitchers available in free agency. Most of the winter, I had spent writing fan fiction about the Angels bringing in Jake Arrieta, a worm-burning pitcher who I thought would fare very well in an infield with three Gold Glove-esque defenders in Kinsler, Cozart, and the ever-amazing-and-actually-quite-underrated Andrelton Simmons. My “shipping” fantasies of that relationship did not, unfortunately, come to pass.
Another difficult situation entering the season (and others before it) was what to do with Albert Pujols. Still being paid an enormous salary, Pujols was one of the least-valuable players in baseball in 2017, but as a future Hall-of-Famer and nearing milestones, the Angels did little to try to upgrade what was a gaping hole in the lineup, taking the path of least resistance and just hoping the offense around Pujols was good enough to keep him from dragging it down.
That last paragraph would have sounded odd a decade ago!
ZiPS was optimistic about the team’s offseason improvements and the possibility of a reasonably healthy rotation, pegging the Angels at 85 wins with a 45% chance of making the playoffs, generally via the Wild Card rather than a division win. (The Astros won the division 84% of the time in the preseason simulations.) Even if the job wasn’t as thoroughly or as cruelly done as might have been warranted, the Angels had legitimately imagined playoff aspirations.
The season started as well as the team could reasonably expect. They started off 13-3 and grabbed a 2.5-game lead in the AL West. This was kind of the scenario the team needed; with the Astros projected as the superior club in terms of talent, building a nice cushion would have been highly useful for the Angels. But rather than build on the lead, they proceeded merely to tread water after their fast start, never putting up a single month with a record better than .600 or worse than .400. The Angels played like a .500 team and are ending up a .500 team, but that wasn’t enough ever to be interesting in the division after losing the lead in mid-May.
One thing I didn’t see coming was the adequacy of the starting pitching depth. Tyler Skaggs stayed healthy for at least most of the season, and while he doesn’t have a high ceiling, Andrew Heaney’s recovery from elbow injuries went as well as could be expected, and he once again looked like the No. 2 or 3 pitcher he appeared to be back in 2015. The team still lost Garrett Richards and Nick Tropeano, but the pitching generally remained solid if not spectacular.
Trout stayed healthy and stayed Mike Trout, which the Angels still needed to happen. Kole Calhoun had a horrid first half, protected from the full attack squadron of lollercopters only by the presence of Chris Davis, who was worse. Calhoun’s .754 second-half OPS isn’t amazing or anything but at least established he can still play baseball. But Calhoun’s struggles wouldn’t have been enough to make the Angels a playoff team if things had been reversed.
As a whole, the Angels had a bucket of awesome in Trout, Ohtani, and Simmons, but too much meh-too-OK surrounding their core talents.
What Comes Next
The fundamental issues surrounding the Angels were not resolved, so they still loom large in the looking glass. It would be a shame if the Angels went through Trout’s entire prime without winning a single playoff game or even making a second playoff appearance. The farm system has improved considerably — Jo Adell, in particular, smells like a future star — but the team can’t just wait and see what bears fruit. Adding talent in free agency is expensive, but the team has a definite reason to be exploring the top of this year’s free-agent market. Not everyone can sign Manny Machado or Bryce Harper, even with the willingness to do so, but if this winter ends with the Angels failing to sign a Keuchel-or-better free agent, I suspect it’ll be hard to give the offseason high grades.
And yes, it’s time to move on from Albert Pujols. It’s been time for a while now, but with 600 homers and 3,000 hits behind him and the increasing implausibility of a 700th homer — let alone a 715th, 756th, or 763rd — there’s really no semi-legitimate excuse for a competitive team to using him as a Plan A. The Angels aren’t so dominant that they can afford to pooh-pooh the two or three wins that a good, non-superstar first baseman can bring over Pujols. If he wants to stick around as a role player and the Angels have the roster flexibility, sure, but the team has bent over backwards to send him out like a champ. It’s getting to the point now, however, where it’s looking like Pujols is at fantasy camp.
Way-Too-Early ZiPS Projection — Shohei Ohtani
The reason I didn’t mention him above at any length is that I wanted to greedily save the plaudits for this section! Ohtani was everything that could have been expected of him as a pitcher, displaying otherworldly stuff and making fools out of a lot of top-tier hitters from day one. The only disappointing thing is that we only get 10 starts from Ohtani due to injuries, the most devastating a Tommy John surgery that will leave him a plain ol’ batter until the 2020 season.
What’s surprising has been his offensive contributions. ZiPS expected Ohtani to be a decent hitter for an outfielder — which makes him some kind of god-emperor-king since he can pitch — but he proved to be an instant star with the bat, as well, hitting .280/.361/.564 with 21 homers in 347 PA, for 2.6 WAR and a 152 wRC+. That’s about 4.5 WAR over a full season of AB, making Ohtani a star even if he had never pitched a game in his life or even if he were an Orioles free-agent starting pitcher signing!
It doesn’t repair the sadness in our souls from losing Ohtani as a pitcher for a while, but it sure mitigates it. Imagine if your car blew its transmission and broke down on the highway. You wouldn’t be happy, but you’d definitely feel somewhat better if you found out its fairy godmechanic granted its wish to be able to magically create tacos on demand. Now, you still have to get to work, but, yeah, tacos.
Since I always have to find that gray lining, I’m actually slightly worried on one level about Ohtani being too good a hitter. Let’s say he’s a .950 OPS hitter on a projection basis. At what point do the Angels say “Hey, he’s a star hitter, let’s just be happy with that?” I want a pitcher who is one part Roger Clemens and one part J.D. Martinez.
For the pitching projection, I told ZiPS ahead of time that Ohtani is missing the 2019 season. For the “official” projections, I don’t usually tell ZiPS about “future” injuries, but as its creator, I’ve reserved the rights to be both benevolent and arbitrary.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.