Justin Upton and the Angels’ Narrow Path to Success by Jeff Sullivan November 2, 2017 On Wednesday night, a team from the AL West won the World Series. That team possesses more long-term value than any other organization in baseball. On Thursday, a rival team from the AL West agreed to contract terms with Justin Upton. It’s hard to see how the Angels might knock the Astros off of their perch, but, I guess, of course it would be hard, given what the Astros just did this past month. The Angels didn’t want to give up. They don’t want to concede the future, which you couldn’t in good conscience do, as long as you’re paying Mike Trout. This is newsworthy only for the answer it provides. It was unclear whether Upton was going to opt out from his remaining four years, worth $88.5 million. It was known there was a chance he could stick around. Now stick around, he will, with the Angels adding on another year, and another $17.5 million. It’s not quite that simple — the Angels have also made the five years slightly backloaded. But the sides have agreed to turn a possible four-year commitment into a five-year commitment. That was all Upton needed to get in order to forego another round of free agency. The terms are agreeable. This is neither wildly good, nor horribly bad. So then. Why did the Angels want to keep Upton in place? Because he can do this to the occasional baseball. Upton isn’t Aaron Judge, and he isn’t Giancarlo Stanton, but he is still freakishly strong, and he has been for years. His strength is that he has power and discipline. On the downside, he’s not a great defender, and he torques his way into strikeouts. But Upton is one of those home-run hitters who was a home-run hitter even before the home run showed up everywhere. He’s not some product of a livelier baseball. He’s a guy who mashes dingers, staying in a lineup that needs support beyond its center fielder. We should think about Upton and the Angels, now that they’re officially staying together. It would be easy to focus on Upton’s WAR jumping from 1.3 to 5.0. Because of that performance, and because of the trade, the 2017 Angels wound up with three of the top-30 WAR finishers, blending both pitchers and hitters. That would give the Angels an enviably strong core, that only a few teams could match. One year doesn’t always reflect true talent, though. Based on expected wOBA, Upton the hitter has actually been pretty consistent. It’s hard to know if Andrelton Simmons is actually a good hitter now. We should probably just stick with the safe conclusions — Trout is great. Upton is good. Simmons is differently good. Kole Calhoun is pretty good, himself. But the Angels have issues. You don’t need me to tell you the Angels have issues. They’re still largely perceived as a one-man ballclub, and it’s been crippling to have Albert Pujols so dismally reduced. Keeping Upton is important; he makes the lineup seem that much more legitimate. But as I examine the roster, I don’t think it’s the lineup that’s going to be the key to any shorter- or medium-term Angels success. Yeah, they’re going to need to score runs, but the uncertainty is all in the rotation. If the Angels want to be something as soon as 2018, they need to pitch. Their rotation just finished fifth-worst in baseball by WAR. It’s very easy to see how this rotation could become something good. It’s maybe even easier to see how the Angels could continue to be disappointed. On paper, the Angels have assembled a decent amount of cost-controlled talent. They have four more years of control over Andrew Heaney, JC Ramirez, and Nick Tropeano. They have three more years of control over Matt Shoemaker and Tyler Skaggs. They have just this one more year of Garrett Richards, but they also have all six years of Parker Bridwell. I’m intentionally ignoring Alex Meyer, who’s going to miss the whole upcoming season. He doesn’t factor in, at least not immediately. Those are seven major-league starting pitchers. Six of them are controlled beyond 2018. Every single team would love to hoard cost-controlled starters, but, of course, just about every single Angel has some sort of red flag. Shoemaker is coming back from forearm surgery. Tropeano is coming back from Tommy John surgery. Heaney is only recently back from Tommy John surgery. Skaggs is somewhat less recently back from Tommy John surgery. Richards opted against Tommy John surgery, which we still don’t know a whole lot about. Ramirez followed the Richards path, after sustaining damage to his own elbow ligament. Bridwell is healthy, but his ERA also just told a big lie. A major-league starter will need to miss bats. So you kind of see the Angels’ tricky position. They have no shortage of starters sufficiently talented to get hitters out. If the pitchers were at 100%, I have all the confidence in the world they could be at least moderately successful. Yet here we encounter the limits of our own knowledge. We’re pretty good at being able to know who is and who isn’t good enough. We’re not so good at all at being able to know who is and who isn’t going to remain able to consistently pitch. Sometimes, pitchers make it easy. Rich Harden kept getting hurt, so one figured he’d just keep getting hurt. But then, say, Charlie Morton was injury-prone until he wasn’t. We can’t know. Even the Angels can’t know. Even the Angels look at Ramirez and Richards and throw up their hands. They’d love to get 50 or 60 starts from them next summer. Maybe they’ll get 20. Maybe they’ll get four. It’s not that you should ever just dismiss lingering injury concerns. Certainly, you should never do that, and neither should a team. Injuries are real, and they’re important, and they’re an underrated reason behind why pitching staffs decline or get tired. Yet you might also prefer the operating philosophy of: bet on talent. Bet on talent, and hope for luck. Who’s to say who’ll be good for 180 innings? Sometimes, injured pitchers get all the way better. Sometimes they’re simply too fragile. The instant you think you have some kind of idea, Masahiro Tanaka skips elbow surgery and makes almost all of his starts. Some teams just don’t have the talent to be competitive. The Tigers, for example, don’t have the talent to be competitive, not in 2018. The Angels? The Angels have the talent, if more for a wild-card berth than for taking their own division. You can look at this roster and squint, and you can see 85 or even 90 wins. Look at the picture differently, though, and you might see another season derailed by trips to the disabled list. In that event, you could say the Angels should’ve seen it all coming. Whether that’s actually true, well, I haven’t the foggiest. Neither do they. You can never be sure of the odds.